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Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, A Trump Critic, Will Not Seek Re-Election

Updated at 7 p.m. ET

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor that he will not seek re-election in 2018, decrying the coarse tone of politics and "flagrant disregard for truth or decency" ushered in by the election of President Trump.

His decision is the latest development in the ongoing GOP civil war. Flake gave the party's anti-establishment wing, which had been targeting him for defeat in next year's Republican primary, at least a temporary victory by retiring.

But Flake has long made clear he cared more about speaking out against the president than any electoral consequences. And after he was fully unbridled with his decision on Tuesday, Flake seemed to hold nothing back in going after Trump and those who support him.

"We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals," Flake said in his address to the Senate chamber Tuesday. "We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency; the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

"None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal," Flake continued.

"This spell will eventually break. That is my belief," Flake added. "We will return to ourselves once more. And I say, the sooner the better. Because we have a healthy government, we must also have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith."

Flake has been a frequent critic of Trump since the 2016 campaign and, as a target of right-wing frustration himself, had been seen as especially vulnerable to a GOP primary challenge in 2018. He was a top target of former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon — who has vowed to purge the Republican Party of those lawmakers who don't fully support President Trump — for defeat in the GOP primary. Early public polls showed Flake trailing former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, something mirrored in internal GOP numbers too.

While many national Republicans have concerns about Ward's ability to win a general election, Flake's exit now could actually help a stronger Republican candidate than Ward win the Aug. 2 primary. According to Senate GOP sources, possible candidates could include Reps. Martha McSally, David Schweikert and Andy Biggs, as well as state Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

From the outset, Flake had refused to bend to those forces, refusing to back the president in last year's election. The senator even penned a book earlier this year that was a damning rebuke of Trump's populist and nationalist agenda, accusing the GOP of making a "Faustian bargain" when the party overlooked Trump's abandonment of longtime conservative principles like free trade and didn't denounce many of Trump's controversial statements and stances.

But Flake's speech on the Senate floor was an unprecedented indictment of a sitting president by a member of his own party. Flake said that he was speaking because "there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles" but that his comments nonetheless came "with no small measure of regret."

"Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our — all of our — complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end," Flake implored his fellow Republicans.

"In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order — that phrase being 'the new normal.' But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue — with the tone set at the top," Flake continued, with a clear shot at Trump.

Flake first informed the Arizona Republicof his decision, telling the newspaper "there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party."

And he acknowledged that his decision was motivated, in part, because he was worried about the concessions he would have to make if he wanted to run a winning campaign.

"Here's the bottom line: The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I'm not willing to take, and that I can't in good conscience take," Flake told the Republic. "It would require me to believe in positions I don't hold on such issues as trade and immigration and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone."

Flake's announcement came on the same day that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another retiring lawmaker, also unloaded on Trump amid their ongoing Twitter feud. Corker said that "the constant nontruth-telling, just the name-calling, I think the debasement of our nation" is what the president will be remembered by.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump's tweets against Corker, saying that the president is a fighter and when he is hit, he's going to hit back. As for Flake — whom Trump has derided as "toxic" and "weak" on border security — Sanders said it was "probably a good thing" he wasn't seeking re-election given his lack of support in Arizona.

Flake's seat is a target for Democrats hoping to pick up a seat in a year that looks very good for Republicans in the Senate, and Republicans believed that if he lost the primary, the seat would be much harder to hold. Now, his decision to retire throws the prospects for his seat even more up in the air.

Senate Democrats heralded Flake's decision as "another example of the divisiveness roiling Republican primaries."

"These dynamics will continue to hinder Republican efforts in Arizona and whatever candidate succeeds in claiming their nomination will fall short of [Rep.] Kyrsten Sinema and her proven record of results for Arizona's working families," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement.

Republicans, meanwhile, expressed optimism that the seat would stay in GOP hands.

"Jeff Flake is as decent and thoughtful of a man that's ever been in the U.S. Senate, and no one can question his willingness to put country over party," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement. "His enduring legacy will be his success of eliminating earmarks and fighting corruption to protect taxpayers, and standing for the conservative principles of individual liberty and economic freedom."

Other GOP leaders also were saddened that Flake decided to head for the exits. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement that "Jeff's retirement is a loss to the Senate and the greater cause of conservatism." And speaking just after Flake on the Senate floor, Arizona's senior Sen. John McCain said, "I have seen Jeff Flake stand up for what he believes in knowing full well that there would be a political price to pay."

Those opposing Flake took his decision as a clear victory. A Bannon ally told CNN's Kaitlan Collins that Trump's former campaign CEO had added "another scalp to his collection as another establishment domino falls."

Bannon's Breitbart News, where he returned as chairman after leaving the White House in August, was clearly celebrating too.

And Ward, who is being backed by Bannon, said in a statement that "Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake's decision to not seek re-election. They deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the 'America First' agenda."

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.