Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake came to the Senate floor Wednesday with a simple message for Donald Trump: Stop attacking the media.
The speech, which Flake had previewed over the weekend, was the first of what the Arizona Republican has promised will be a series of addresses over 2018 aimed at noting the abnormalities of the Trump presidency.
Critics have cast Flake as something of a sore loser – a Republican whose strong anti-Trump stance lost him the confidence of voters in his state. (Flake announced he would retire at the end of this year after a series of polls suggested he would have a very difficult time winning a second term.)
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that Flake’s speech was the result of his “poll numbers,” adding that the Arizona senator served as a “mouthpiece” for Cuba’s regime by recently making a trip to that country.
Um, ok. But, Flake’s speech Wednesday – regardless of his motives – was a powerful rejection of the “fake news/”alternative facts” era that Trump’s candidacy – and presidency – has ushered in. You can read the whole thing here but I read through it and plucked out 20 of the most damning lines directed at Trump.
1. “For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.”
Flake, right from the start of the speech, is talking about BIG stuff – like the future of democracy. And, he’s right: Without an agreed-upon set of truths – and a group of people trusted to fairly judge whether people adhere to those truths or not – democracy starts to fall apart.
2. “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.”
As of last week, President Trump had said more than 2,000 things that were either totally false or misleading, according to a count kept by the Washington Post. That’s more than 5.5 factually inaccurate or incorrect statements a day. Every day.
3. “It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted.”
It’s important to harp on this point from Flake. All White Houses – and all politicians – don’t love the way the media covers them. They want the coverage to focus much more on what they’ve done as opposed to what they’ve failed to do. But, what Trump has done is well beyond that sort of territory. He has embarked on a comprehensive and purposeful attempt to vilify and discredit the media for his own political purposes.
4. “It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies.”
This is the line that has drawn the most attention – and controversy – from Flake’s speech. “Sen. Flake, turn on the news,” tweeted Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. “It’s wall-to-wall with biased coverage against @POTUS. He has every right to push back. Comparing the leader of the free world to murderous dictators is absurd. You’ve gone too far.”
5. “The president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.”
This is a Republican senator – albeit one who is retiring – basically calling the Republican President of the United States a “despot.” Stunning. Even in an age in which that word has lost almost all meaning.
6. “When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”
CORRECT. And, an important point: Trump uses the phrase “fake news” to describe stories he doesn’t like. That, of course, doesn’t make them fake.
7. “Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the President’s time in office.”
If Trump’s presidency ended today, there is NO doubt that his lasting legacy on the office, our politics and our country would be his disdain for facts and his attempts to vilify the media for trying to do its job. The idea – forwarded by Trump – that objective truth simply doesn’t exist and everything is a matter of opinion and perspective is hugely corrosive for democracy.
8. “Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently”
One of my favorite quotes about journalism comes via Finley Peter Dunne: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
9. “No matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.”
Trump is putting this argument to the test. He may not have dominion over objective reality but he is working very hard to make the case that objective reality doesn’t even really exist.
10. “A major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.”
This is especially true with Trump. While the media has made errors in the Trump era, those mistakes have been addressed and there have been consequences for them. Trump has said more than 2,000 things that are misleading or false and hasn’t once apologized for doing so or stopped saying the thing that isn’t true.
11. “No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions.”
While much of Flake’s speech is meant for Trump, this line is clearly targeted at Flake’s Senate colleagues – many of whom throw up their hands and say nothing every time Trump lies or commits some new outrage. That reaction isn’t enough in the face of such an existential threat, according to Flake.
12. “An American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame – is charting a very dangerous path.”
Trump’s thin-skinnedness is somewhat remarkable given that he has spent almost his entire adult life in the public eye.
13. “2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it.”
Flake is actively calling for a revolt against Trump by his own party – in an election year no less!
14. “Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth – and not partners in its destruction.”
I am going to make a prediction here: The Senate won’t be throwing aside party loyalty any time soon.
15. “To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a ‘hoax’ – as the President has many times – is a falsehood.”
16. “Every word that a president utters projects American values around the world.”
This is both a) objectively true and b) something that Trump appears to either not grasp or not care to grasp.
17. “Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler.”
My favorite line of the speech – by far.
18. “Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language.”
We tend to focus on the impact Trump’s words have on American society and our politics. But, as Flake catalogs in his speech, it’s quite clear that Trump’s norm-busting is being watched by authoritarians the world over as they seek to diminish the idea of objective truth and put their own political goals into the vacuum created.
19. “In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action.”
This is spot-on. What has amazed me in the first year of Trump’s presidency is not his willingness to fib about big things but the little white lies he tells about stuff that’s laughably easy to check – and in so doing prove him wrong.
20. “If we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.”
Partisanship and politics has become not only the over-arching concern for lots of politicians but the only concern. The reaction by the White House to Trump’s “shithole” comments – this will play well with our base! – was the epitome of this politics-over-everything view.