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Cheney Ouster Results From GOP Not Reckoning With The Truth, Flake Says


Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake wasn't surprised when Liz Cheney was voted out as House GOP committee chair this week. He himself has been a vocal critic of President Trump. And Flake also knows what it's like to be shunned by your own party as a result. He chose not to run for reelection in his home state of Arizona in 2018. Steve Inskeep spoke with the former senator, who says Cheney's ouster happened because some still refused to reckon with the truth.

JEFF FLAKE: Well, it was expected. And you know nobody knows or really cares who the, you know, conference chair of the Republican caucus in the House is. But what is important is this is a manifestation of a party that is unwilling to accept the truth and that matters. And that matters. And that matters in a big way in future elections.


Let's try to figure out what exactly you feel the Republican Party is denying here because there are different theories. One of them is that Republicans understand that Joe Biden won the election, but they don't want to cross Donald Trump. Do you think that's all there is?

FLAKE: That's the biggest part of it. Elected officials - you'd be hard pressed to find one or two Republicans on Capitol Hill that actually believe that Donald Trump won. But out there across the country, a lot of Republican voters do believe that because they've been told that by their leaders, who are afraid to cross Donald Trump. So it still matters. The big lie still matters. Here in Arizona, we're going through another audit of the Maricopa County votes, where they're looking for traces of bamboo in the ballots because of conspiracy theories that some of these ballots miraculously arrived from Asia the night of the election. So this is crazy stuff. We have a problem when a party is like that.

INSKEEP: Is there something even darker in the minds of some of your fellow Republicans, a loss of faith in democracy, that what they're doing by discrediting this election is continuing a longer trend of wanting to win by means that are not democratic?

FLAKE: Most definitely. And, you know, obviously, this has horrible ramifications for the party, you know, in future elections, but the worst part of it is that it sows mistrust in future elections. And it has an impact on democracy as a whole. And that's what's really devastating. If people don't have faith in elections moving ahead, then we're no better than the countries that we condemn, you know, valuing our elections and cherishing the right to vote and knowing that that matters. And if that's gone, then we're in trouble as a country.

INSKEEP: Why would Republicans - some of them - in your view, turn against democracy?

FLAKE: Well, I mean, I think it's - you know, they're concerned about their own reelection. They all have to get through a Republican primary. And many of them believe that they can't

INSKEEP: Believe that they can't because...

FLAKE: Yeah, they believe that unless they, you know, satisfy the man in Mar-a-Lago, he might just go after them. And not many Republicans can survive Donald Trump going after them in a Republican primary. That's still the case. It won't always be the case. It's - it'll become less of a case moving ahead. But that's the case right now.

INSKEEP: What did you mean when you wrote the other day, Senator, that you felt that you understood how alone Liz Cheney must feel at this moment?

FLAKE: Well, I've been there. I knew that I couldn't support the former president's election, let alone his reelection. And it became apparent that I was out of step with that subset of a subset of voters that would determine my fate in a Republican primary. So I stood, and I wrote a book, and I gave a number of speeches and cast some votes that I knew the president wouldn't like and some people in my party wouldn't like. And I had hoped that more people would follow, but not many did. And so, yeah, you feel a bit alone. And I think Liz Cheney is feeling that. But I think she feels she didn't have a choice, just as I felt. I wasn't going to go along. I knew that I couldn't stand on a campaign stage with the president and sit there while he maligned my colleagues or spouted untruths. And I think she had the same realization. So she had no choice.

INSKEEP: Former Senator Jeff Flake, it's always a pleasure talking with you.

FLAKE: Great to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And that may be all that we have, unless you think I missed something important or got something wrong.

FLAKE: I think that it. Only one - one phenomenon that is really troubling in all of this that I thought quite a bit about lately is that Republicans - well, I mean elected officials in general - you know, we're changing what it means to be an elected official in a representative government in that I mean that many of my colleagues will say they are simply - in going along with these conspiracy theories or buying into the big lie, that they are just representing their constituents and that that's somehow noble of them when that really runs against what representative government is supposed to be. And that's just been a cop-out for people in my party. Too many on Capitol Hill will say they're representing their constituents when they ought to tell their constituents, you're wrong. There are many examples of that. And that's a big problem when you have too many party people willing to indulge their constituents if their constituents truly believe that, when in truth, they simply reinforce these beliefs.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should clarify they're not necessarily indulging the majority of their constituents. They're indulging the few who are most active and most likely to vote in a primary.

FLAKE: That's exactly right. And I think that, you know, that explains a lot of what Donald Trump was doing with the seminal lie of his candidacy that Barack Obama wasn't born in the country. I don't believe that he believed that at all, but he knew that some people did. And he was willing to use that and indulge his constituents. You know, we have, you know, not a pure democracy. We have a representative democracy. And if you're an elected official, you have a responsibility to stand for truth as you know it. And we have too few elected officials willing to do that.

MARTIN: That was former Senator Jeff Flake talking with Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLS IN AIRPORTS' "AFTENTUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.