On Wednesday, January 17, 2018, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who had served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2013 and as a Senator since 2013, gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he deplored President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press. Flake is the author of Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, which New York Times columnist David Brooks has described as “A thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it.”
Senator Flake had announced in another memorable speech in the Senate on October 24, 2017 that he did not intend to seek re-election to the Senate. In that speech he had spoken with regret of “the state of our disunion. . . the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics . . . the indecency of our discourse” and “the coarseness of our leadership” and had refused to affirm that these developments were “normal.” He further observed that “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”
Flake’s January speech focused more specifically on the importance of truth and on what Flake considered to be President Trump’s attack on it. Citing the priority that the Declaration of Independence had given to truth, Flake observed, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” In Flake’s judgment, “2017 was a year which saw the truth –objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government.”
In arguably the most controversial part of his speech, Flake observed that the president’s characterization of the press as “The enemy of the people” echoed the words of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Flake further identified “despotism” as “the enemy of the people,” and “the free press” as “the despot’s enemy.”
With a further view toward the President, Flake declared that a president who called anything he didn’t like as “fake news . . . should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”
Flake observed that internationally, 80 journalists were killed in 2017and a record 262, including 21 accused of “fake news,” were imprisoned. He further opined that “No politicians will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not,” and “that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.” Flake also criticized the President’s plans to hand out awards for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media.
Flake identified several examples of presidential untruths. These included Trump’s questioning of the place of President Obama’s birth, “fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud,” efforts “to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the free press,” attack on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and the President’s denial of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Flake further showed the parallels between the president’s attacks on the press and those of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and comments from officials in Myanmar and Singapore. He associated these attacks with the “predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true,” which he believed to be “a recipe for disaster” and incompatible with America’s role as “a mature democracy.”
On the same day as Flake’s second speech, fellow Arizona Senator John McCain, published an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he described Trump’s attitude to the press as “inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst.” Like Flake, McCain associated Trump’s criticism of the press with that of foreign despots.
For speeches, see:
“Full Transcript: Jeff Flake’s Speech on the Senate Floor.” The New York Times, October 24, 2017.
“Read Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech criticizing Trump.” CNN. January 17, 2018.