On Senate Floor, Flake Calls Trump’s Anti-Press Rhetoric ‘Disgraceful’

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11:  Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) speaks to reporters following a vote on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
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Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Wednesday delivered a forceful criticism of President Donald Trump and a defense of press freedom.

“Near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’” Flake said from the Senate floor, beginning a 15-minute address that he’d previewed in excerpts shared with media outlets and in interviews in recent days.

From the very beginning, our freedom has been predicated on truth.”

The senator reliably votes with the President but has taken exception to his attacks on the media. Flake on Wednesday took square aim at Trump, who he said had made the truth “more battered and abused than at any time in the history of our country.”

2017, he said, “was a year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free speech was launched by [the White House], an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted.”

Trump’s use of the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe the media, the senator asserted, echoed “words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies” and which were later forbidden by Nikita Khrushchev because they’d been used by Stalin for “‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”

“This alone should be the source of great shame for us in this body,” Flake said.

Arizona’s junior senator, who made a similarly grand floor speech upon the announcement of his retirement from that body in October, said that when a powerful figure calls critical coverage “fake news,” “it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”

He counted the world leaders who’ve borrowed Trump’s phrase, including in Syria, the Philippines, Venezuela, Myanmar and Singapore.

“This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President,” Flake said. “Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has now in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. That is reprehensible.”

Notably, Flake’s speech coincided with the White House’s (repeatedly revised) date for the Most Corrupt and Dishonest Media Awards, first announced by the President in a tweet and since breathlessly anticipated by its potential recipients.

“It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle,” he said. “But here we are.”

“Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may be for historians for determine,” Flake said near his conclusion. “But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.”

“We are a mature democracy. It is past time to stop excusing or ignoring, or worse, endorsing, these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.”