Jeff Flake Defends Free Trade, DREAM Act, and His Political Future

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake returned home to Arizona Wednesday, following an official three-day junket to Mexico City, to confront questions concerning his political viability when he faces re-election in 2018.

During a press conference at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport just after his arrival, Flake had to address a Thanksgiving attack ad from a liberal PAC, as well as a recent poll showing his support among Arizona GOPers reaching all-time lows.

The ad, created by the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), takes Flake to task for not condemning President-elect Donald Trump's choice for chief strategist: Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the right-wing news site, who has been accused of being a white nationalist and an anti-Semite, charges Bannon denies.

The PCCC spot, which according to the group ran Thursday on MSNBC and CNN in Phoenix, Tucson, and D.C., features clips of conservative talk-radio personality Glenn Beck denouncing Bannon and footage of attendees at a white-nationalist conference in D.C. flipping a Hitler salute with cries of "Hail Trump!"

Though Flake was a frequent critic of Trump during the campaign, drawing the ire of fellow Republicans, the liberal ad portrays the senator as acquiescing to Bannon's role in the new administration, using a segment of a recent appearance on CBS This Morning.

"I'm of the mind to always give the president a lot of deference when he's putting together his team," Flake says in the clip.

The ad then urges viewers to call Flake's Phoenix office and tell the senator to demand that Trump remove Bannon. In a press release issued Wednesday, the PCCC also trumpeted a full-page ad that it said ran in Tuesday's Arizona Republic, paid for by an affiliated feminist group called Ultra Violet Action. That ad pictures Bannon and Flake side by side and labels the former a "white supremacist, anti-Semite, and domestic abuser," alleging that Flake had done "nothing" to stop Trump's appointment of Bannon. Ultra Violet Action reportedly is running similar newspaper ads against U.S. senators Debra Fischer of Nebraska and Dean Heller of Nevada, both Republicans.

Asked at the press conference about the left's call for him to denounce Bannon, Flake offered a measured response.

"My feelings during this election campaign were well known," he told reporters. "I did not support candidate Trump. But every president, no matter who it is, has a right to put together his cabinet and his White House ... I supported for example [U.S. Attorney General] Loretta Lynch, much to the consternation of some of my colleagues, but I felt that President Obama deserved to put together his cabinet. I feel the same way here."

He added, "Everyone knows ... Breitbart has not been a fan of mine, for a long time. But I give the president deference to put together his team, and you’ve got to stand on principle here, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat."

Flake, a moderate Republican who famously has played basketball at the White House with President Obama, acknowledged that his vocal criticism of Trump has cost him political support with a Republican base that already looked upon the gentlemanly Flake with a jaundiced eye.

He pointed to a recent poll by the Remington Research Group of 1,122 likely 2018 Republican primary voters in Arizona, which shows Trump with an 82 percent favorability rating. By contrast, only 30 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Flake, with 49 percent of respondents regarding him unfavorably.

"For those of us who opposed [Trump's] candidacy, you can expect your numbers to be down pretty far," he said of the poll. "But that’s why you run campaigns ... I’m glad I took the position that I did, and we'll go forward."

Throughout the presidential contest, Flake expressed revulsion at Trump's rhetoric toward women, minorities, immigrants, and the handicapped, warning that such language opened the door to a possible upset by Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton in Arizona, a traditionally red state.

Despite efforts by Clinton and her surrogates in Arizona during the waning days of the campaign, Trump won the state by nearly four percentage points — down from Republican Mitt Romney's nine-point victory in Arizona's 2012 general election, but a win nonetheless.

Trump fired back at Flake's criticism, at one point calling the senator "weak and ineffective." And according to several sources, Flake faces widespread dissatisfaction among Republicans, even among major donors, for breaking with GOP ranks during a presidential campaign.

The Remington survey found Flake trailing by nine percentage points in a hypothetical match-up with Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, an early Trump supporter who worked as chief operating officer of the Trump campaign. Flake also broke even with wingnut fave Kelli Ward, who was crushed by U.S. Senator John McCain in this year's GOP primary. Ward has since said that she plans to challenge Flake in the 2018 primary.

"I've always had primaries," Flake observed of his potential Republican rivals. "I've typically always been down a couple of years out from a primary. That's just how polling typically works with an incumbent, particularly in times like these."

During much of the press conference, Flake offered a full-throated defense of free trade in opposition to the sort of protectionism and trade war threats that have been a staple of Trump's candidacy.

He said Trump's promise to rip up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) on day one in office was troubling both to him and to the Mexican officials he met with during his trip, as Mexico is one of the 12 countries that tentatively have signed on to the deal. Flake contends that the agreement would benefit both Mexico and the United States, opening up new markets in Southeast Asia for the U.S. auto industry. He says in the wake of Trump's promise to scrap TPP, China was rushing to fill the void with trade deals that will benefit that nation.

"TPP is important not just for economic reasons," said Flake. "It's important for strategic and geopolitical reasons. We want Southeast Asian countries in our trade orbit and not just China's."

Flake also said Mexican officials were less concerned with Trump's campaign promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump has backed away from, than with Trump's threats to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump has called the "worst trade deal in history" and has promised to walk away from if it cannot be improved.

Flake said that it was an encouraging sign that Trump did not mention NAFTA or the wall during a recent video address outlining his plans for his first 100 days. He expressed hope that a thorough review of NAFTA by the incoming Trump administration would find that NAFTA might need modernizing, but that otherwise the agreement, which was signed into law in 1993, had been of benefit to both countries, and particularly to Arizona. Mexico is Arizona's largest trading partner, Flake noted, with close to $17 billion in commerce between Arizona and Mexico taking place in 2015.

"If [NAFTA] were to be renegotiated, there is simply no way it could be renegotiated in a way that would benefit one party really over another," Flake said.

He warned that free trade is not a zero-sum game, and that protectionism would be costly for the U.S.

"Trade benefits all of us," Flake said. "Were are less than 5 percent of the world's population. We’re less than 20 percent of the world's economic output. If we don't trade, we don't catch up to globalization that has already occurred. It's not as if we can put the brakes on globalization. It's occurring. The question is: Do we enter into trade agreements that allow us to catch up?"

The Mexican government is also worried that the Trump administration might end President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was established by executive order and benefits the children of illegal-immigrant parents who brought them into this country when they were little.

On principle, Flake opposed the imposition of DACA as an executive order. But he has long been a champion of immigration reform and of the DREAM Act, which would legalize the same young men and women that are affected by DACA.

"There are some 500,000 Mexican citizens who are protected under DACA now," he said, "and over the next two years, in some cases three years, that protection will time out ... We'll see what a Trump administration does, I don't want to guess where they'll come down, but that is a concern."

He promised that he would continue to fight for DREAMers so they're "able to stay here and finish their educations and contribute to society."

Given Flake's stance on immigration and free trade, as well as his willingness to criticize Trump during the campaign at severe political risk to himself, it may seem odd that a left-wing group would take aim at the senator.

Both PCCC's TV ad and the newspaper ad from Ultra Violet are disingenuous. In fact, in the same CBS interview the PCCC uses to blast Flake, the senator makes it clear that he does not condone any of Breitbart's more scurrilous content.

"When you see things that are printed in Breitbart, and some of the headlines and whatnot, of course that's concerning," Flake told CBS, in a part of the interview not quoted by PCCC. "How much [Bannon] can be blamed for that, that's another question."

However, in a telephone interview with New Times, PCCC spokeswoman Kaitlin Sweeney revealed that the group's motive in attacking Flake had as much to do with his vulnerability in 2018 than with any blue-state, finger-wagging moralism.

"Trump's win in Arizona was much closer than what it was [for Mitt Romney] in 2012," Sweeney argued. "Jeff Flake won by a few percentage points [in 2012]. So there is definitely opportunity for a Democrat to do well in that state."

Sweeney conceded that Flake had been outspoken against Trump during the election but insisted that Flake should remain as critical of his party's president post-election. Sweeney, who said she lives in the liberal haven of Chicago, offered Glenn Beck's vilification of Bannon as an example Flake could follow.

To which, the obvious reply is: Beck is not a Republican politician running for re-election in a red state in 2018.
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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons