A Conversation With Senator Jeff Flake

A Conversation With Senator Jeff Flake

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U.S. Foreign Policy

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U.S. Congress

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake discusses the future of bipartisanship in Congress and the steps needed to advance the foreign policy agenda of the United States.


LIASSON: Good morning, everybody. I’m Mara Liasson. I’m the national political correspondent for National Public Radio, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Jeff Flake. I’m going to be presiding over the discussion, and I will introduce Senator Flake, who will make some remarks, and then we’ll have some questions.

As you probably all know, Jeff Flake is the junior senator from Arizona. He’s a fifth-generation Arizonian who was raised on a cattle ranch in Snowflake, a town named in part for his great-great grandfather. There was also a Mr. Snow, who got the other part, I have now learned. (Laughter.) He served in the U.S.—that’s a true story.

He served in the U.S. House from 2001 to 2013. He and his wife Cheryl, who I have learned cuts his hair—and does an excellent job—live in Mesa, and have five children.

He is the man of the hour, in many ways. He’s a favorite target of President Trump’s. He’s written a book called “Conscience of a Conservative.” This is not a book talk, I just want to make very clear. If that sounds familiar, that title sounds familiar, he actually holds Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat. He also ran the Goldwater Institute think tank in Phoenix for seven years. So he is a real conservative who believes in ideas.

And we will have—as I said, we’ll have time for questions afterwards. But without further delay, here is Senator Flake. (Applause.)

FLAKE: Well, thank you, Mara. I—a couple of years ago I came out of the closet as an NPR listener. (Laughter.) It was a kind of a tough thing for some of my supporters.

LIASSON: You’re forgiven.

FLAKE: In fact, I did the “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” tour when they came to Arizona. (Laughter.) And in the green room, I actually got Carl Kassel to put his voicemail on—or his voice on my voicemail. And so for a year I had Carl Kassel’s voice, and not one person who called me knew who that was. (Laughter.) And I had to remove it. But be that as it may, it’s—but it is an honor to be here. I spoke here last, I believe, September of 2014, and a lot has happened since that time. But I thought that I would make a few remarks about the importance of American leadership abroad, and the indispensable nature of bipartisanship from the United States Congress to give effect to that leadership.

Thirty years ago now, my wife Cheryl and I made our way in a beat-up 10-year-old car, in a kind of reverse Mormon trek from the state of Utah, where we were going to school, across the plains here to Washington, D.C., where an unpaid internship in the office of Dennis DeConcini awaited me. During that time, Mara mentioned I came from Snowflake. I grew up—my family, I have 10 brothers and sisters. I have 69 first cousins on my father’s side alone. That’s how I get elected, usually. (Laughter.)

But I grew up in—I grew up in Snowflake not knowing that flake was a pejorative term. Nobody made fun of us there. And but when I came out here to do that internship, I was at a reception early on. We didn’t have name tags, and it came up in conversation with somebody that I was from Snowflake, but this guy didn’t know my name was Flake. And it turned out, I don’t know how, he knew somebody from Snowflake, but he couldn’t remember who it was. And so he struggled for 10 minutes trying to recall the name, and finally I thought I’ll narrow it down. I said, was this guy a Flake? And—it’s a pretty good guess. And he said, nah, he seemed pretty normal to me. (Laughter.) It was then I knew I was in for a long life, and I finally sought refuge in the—about the only place where there are a lot of flakes: Congress seemed to be a pretty good option.

But I was a lifelong Republican; Senator DeConcini, a lifelong Democrat. But as sign to my naiveté, or an affirmation of a simpler time, I didn’t think much of it, a Republican working in a Democratic office. For me, the fact that Senator DeConcini was active on foreign policy, that was good enough. After all, didn’t party labels dissolve at the water’s edge?

Now, the legislative assistant working in the office of Senator DeConcini was Tim Roemer, who ultimately was elected to Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District, and went on to serve later as ambassador to India. I had the privilege of serving with Tim later in Congress as well.

But the truth is, foreign policy has never been devoid of partisan wrangling. But compared to domestic policy, our country’s use of diplomacy and military force and both soft and hard power has traditionally benefited from a good dose of bipartisanship. That is less common today, I have to say, to our detriment.

Let me just give two examples that I have witnessed during my time in and around politics of the indispensable role that the United States has played in promoting democratic values around the world and the central role of bipartisanship in these efforts.

A few years after arriving in Washington for my internship—this was in 1987—I returned to southern Africa. I had previously served a Mormon mission in the countries of Zimbabwe and South Africa. But at this time I—you know, I had obviously fallen in love with the region and the continent, but in 1989 I found myself back in the country of Namibia, the year that Namibia was gaining its independence from South Africa. And I recall in February of 1990, at the very moment that much of the world enslaved by totalitarianism was throwing off its shackles, and the free world that the United States had led since World War II was growing exponentially, the Soviet Union was in a glorious freefall. It was shedding republics by the day. Eastern Europe was squinting out into the light of liberation for the first time in 40 years. Free markets and free minds were ascendant around the world.

Now freedom was breaking out in the Southern Hemisphere as well, in the country where I was sitting. It that morning itself was only days old. In November of 1989, the same week that the Berlin Wall came down, Namibia held its first election as an independent nation—freed from the apartheid administration of South Africa. And this had come in pass—come to pass in no small part because of leadership from the United States through the United Nations. Just days earlier from where I sat, a document had been drafted, the new democracy’s founding Constitution, the inspiration for which had been the marvel of free people everywhere: the United States Constitution. The United States, starting with the Carter administration, later with the Reagan administration and then the first Bush administration, worked through the United Nation(s) to secure Namibia’s independence, and a bipartisan majority in Congress worked with these administrations to make sure that this was implemented.

Now, in my role at the Foundation for Democracy in Namibia, I evangelized for democracy and democratic values, the benefits of which I had enjoyed my entire life. of which I had enjoyed my entire life. But as I sat there in a brand-new African democracy, I remember in November of 1990—or, I’m sorry—or February of 1990 reading Vaclav Havel’s speech before the United States Congress. He had just delivered that days before, and he had spent the previous decade in a Communist dungeon, the last arrest, as a dissident, was just a mere four months before. He was astonished to find himself president of anything, let alone the country of his oppressors. But as I sat there and read Havel’s speech, which was an encomium to democracy, a love letter to America, it was literary and inspiring.

I was overcome by his words. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of having a man who had been stripped of everything but his dignity reflecting the ideals of your own country back at you. It was done in such a way that I clearly saw it, more than I’d ever seen it before. I can only imagine, having now served in Congress, the surreality that Havel must have felt as he stood before the entire Congress, the president’s Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all assembled before him in the House chamber, and the vice president and the speaker of the House behind him, all standing in a sustained ovation, a deep show of respect from the oldest democracy on Earth to the newest, who leader had been a political prisoner just a season before.

Now, Havel, soberly poured out his gratitude to the United States for the sacrifices our country had made in liberating Europe once again from the oppression of the Soviet Union. He said: It was the country that rightly gave people nightmares. It’s no exaggeration that Havel’s disquisition on democracy before Congress that day in 1990 was turning point in my life, and certainly in my civic education. It took a new president from Czechoslovakia to enlighten a kid from Arizona sitting in southern Africa about the indispensable nature of American leadership. That feeling has never left me.

I should note that my son Tanner sits in Namibia right now as a Mormon missionary. So I guess the circle of life goes on. But when I first arrived in Congress in 2001—we’ll fast forward a bit—one of the foreign policy positions that the leadership in my party took simply made no sense to me. That was the Cuba travel ban. I’d always said, only half-jokingly, that if we really wanted to get rid of the Castro brothers, we should just subject them to spring break once or twice. (Laughter.) That would—that would serve them right. They’d probably wave the white flag of surrender right there.

But I also thought that if somebody’s going to limit my travel, it should be a communist, not my own government. It didn’t seem right that we would limit our own citizens’ travel. So I formed, along with my good friend Democrat Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, a Cuba working group which, at its peak, boasted a membership of 32 members, equally divided for Republicans and Democrats. We saw a number of successes in the early years—being able to pass legislation to prohibit enforcement of the travel ban, we just couldn’t get the president at that time to sign it. Later on, when President Obama came in, he would have signed it, but we couldn’t pass it. (Laughs.)

And so—but he had taken certain actions—rather significant actions—to allow unfettered Cuban-American travel, and almost unlimited remittances. That came at the same time that the Cuban government realized they couldn’t employ every Cuban, even at 20 bucks a month, and were allowing them to start businesses in a growing private sector in Cuba. I should not that now, five or six years later, 25 percent of the Cuban workforce is now in the private sector. But under President Obama, he could only go so far with regard to normalizing relations because the Cuban government had held an American, Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who had been caught and then tried and convicted as a spy in Cuba. He sat in a Cuban prison for five years.

In November of 2014, I, along with Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico, visited him, and tried to argue for his release with the Cuban government. He was in a bad way at that time. A few weeks later, I was at home and went to the White House to argue that they ought to be negotiating for his release. Two weeks later I got a call from the White House asking if I would undertake a sensitive mission. I said: That’s why I came to the Senate. (Laughs.) But they said, but you can’t tell your wife or your staff or anybody where you’re going yet. So two days later I found myself at Andrews Air Force Base, along with Senator Pat Leahy, who we had been working together on this issue.

We were to fly to Cuba to pick up Alan Gross. It was a classic Cold War era spy swap. If you’ve seen “Bridge of Spies,” not too dissimilar. Another plane took off just after we did from Andrews Air Force Base. Its job was to pick up a Cuban national who had been an intelligence asset for us, who had spent 20 years in a Cuban prison. Another plane took off from Miami with three Cubans who had spent years in U.S. prisons, convicted as spies. The three planes, we landed in airfields around Havana. And after our landings, Senator Leahy and myself and Judy Gross, Alan’s wife, went in the room to greet him.

It was an incredible experience. After a brief meeting with the foreign minister, we went out to the tarmac and, after getting the signal, exactly 31 minutes after we arrived we departed. And I’ll never forget, about 30 minutes into the flight our pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that we had entered U.S. airspace. Alan Gross stood up and put his fist in the air in celebration and then breathed in and out very deeply several times and said: Now I know I’m free. It was an experience that I’ll never forget.

Just hours later, after we landed, President Obama announced that we would now resume, after a half-century pause, diplomatic relations with Cuba. A few months later I flew to Havana with Secretary Kerry. On our plane, we had three former Marines, now over 80 years old, who had been the same Marines who had lowered the flag in 1961. They wanted to be on hand to put it back up where it belonged. And now while the Cuban government still exerts dictatorial control over the island, more Cubans enjoy more freedoms, economic and otherwise, than they did before.

Now, turning to foreign policy today, there is one area that is screaming for bipartisan involvement. For the past several years, Senator Tim Kaine and I have tried to advance legislation to update the 2001 authorization for use of military force that served as the underpinning for the U.S. war against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces. There are many differences between where a lot of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party stand with regard to replacing the AUMF, and it’s a tough needle to thread. But we believe that we have struck a balance now that can attract Democrats and Republicans alike in support.

There was an amendment yesterday to the NDAA to basically cancel the AUMF after six months. I felt, and a number of my colleagues felt, that we ought to have one in place before we take down the old one. And Senator Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has committed to bring that to the floor. We have already had a hearing and we’ll have a markup in the Foreign Relations Committee. I think the only thing worse than letting the old statute remain would be a partisan vote on a new AUMF. This is something that needs to be bipartisan.

We’ve had another hurdle placed in front of us. The Trump administration indicated that it is not seeking any update to the 16-year-old law. They argue that five years is an arbitrary number for a sunset provision. We have placed a sunset because we believe that Congress needs to revisit it. Consider these numbers: More than 300 members of the House of Representatives who voted on the 2001 AUMF are no longer serving. Sixteen years later, 300 members who voted on it are now gone. Only 23 senators who voted on the original AUMF are still in the Senate today—23. So approximately 70 percent of the Congress have not cast a vote on whether U.S. servicemembers ought to be in harm’s way.

That is not right. With no skin in the game, members of Congress are free to be as critical as they want of an administration as it wages war on terrorism.

I would think that any administration should be eager to have members of Congress vote to update the 2001 AUMF. But it’s clear that no administration is likely to give support to the effort that would take away broad authority that Congress has already given. This is all the more reason that Congress ought to assert itself in a bipartisan manner to make sure that we are involved in this constitutional exercise of declaring, at least, or authorizing the use of force.

I’ve always believed that if there is a genuine threat, members of Congress will do the right thing. When we passed the 2001 AUMF, there was only one dissenting vote in all of Congress. And the threat of terrorism hitting our shores and damaging interests abroad remains very real. And I believe that most members will vote to sustain our efforts overseas.

We cannot continue to abdicate our authority to the executive branch in this manner, and we should not let partisan differences get in the way of taking back some of the authority that Congress should have.

Let me say that in certain areas it’s been pleasing to see bipartisanship break out. With regard to Africa, I chair the Africa Subcommittee. I’ve worked on bipartisan measures that have received broad support, like the Electrify Africa Act, a bill to authorize public-private initiative to bring power to parts of Africa that need it.

One bill that I’m especially proud of is the Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act. This is a bill to coordinate a more targeted U.S. approach to help countries affected by wildlife trafficking and poaching. It was signed into law last October and serves as a great example of bipartisan foreign policy.

With regard to North Korea, it’s been heartening to see the Congress come together and support measures by the administration through the United Nations to increase the sanctions and increase the pressure on North Korea. The success of that? We’ll still have to wait and see.

But in this and many other areas, the United States needs to—I’m sorry—the United States Congress continues to need to assert itself, particularly the Senate, with the responsibilities that we have with regard to treaties, with regard to staffing and personnel. We have six-year terms.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has always been the body, the institution, that is supposed to see beyond the next hill or beyond this administration. I hope that we can resume the role that we have had in the past. And I’m very pleased with the leadership of Senators Corker and Cardin in bringing that role back.

But let me just say in closing what an honor it is to be in the Congress at this time and to look around the world and see that American leadership is desperately needed and wanted. And I hope that it can continue.

At this time last year I traveled with a number of my colleagues to Europe to visit some of the countries that we obviously are working with in this war on terrorism. And when I was returning, I thought, as I almost always do when I come back from Europe, of the poem written by Henry van Dyke in the 1800s. He himself was an immigrant from Europe.

And he wrote—after one of his visits back to the Old World, he said, “’Tis fine to see the Old World and travel up and down among the shiny palaces and cities of renown, to admire the crumbly castles and the statues of their kings—but now I think I’ve had enough of antiquated things.” (Laughs.) “So it’s home again, and home again, America, for me! My heart is turning home again. That’s where I long to be, in the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars, where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars. It’s home again, and home again, America, for me! I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea to the blessed land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars, where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.”

We have enormous challenges in this country, but we have opportunities. And we have a responsibility to lead, as we have before, and to be a beacon for the rest of the world with regard to promoting the values of democracy.

But thank you for having me here. I look forward to the discussion that follows. (Applause.)

LIASSON: Not everyone can recite a poem. (Laughter.) Thanks for those remarks.

We’ll keep this part of the program short so we can get to members’ questions.

Do you think that Donald Trump has made America stronger or weaker in the world?

FLAKE: I have been concerned about the message that is sent, particularly to our allies. I think a conservative—I’m a conservative. I believe that conservative foreign policy should be policy that is consistent and sober and predictable. And there can be value in the old Nixonesque madman theory where your adversaries might question where you are. But I don’t think there’s any value in your allies questioning where you might be.

And the experience with regard to NATO and our commitment to Article 5—we finally came out in the end in the right place, but there was no value in taking a couple of months to get there. And so I have been concerned about American leadership abroad.

With regard to North Korea, though, the work with the United Nations, recognizing those institutions that we have, that help as a force multiplier, certainly, for our own self-interest, I hope that we continue to use those and lead, as we have, I think, with regard to North Korea.

LIASSON: Let me ask you about North Korea. They either have or will soon have an ICBM that can hit the U.S. Is it time for deterrence and containment, something to stop them from using what they’ve got and not get any more? Or do you still think that the Korean Peninsula can be denuclearized?

FLAKE: I don’t know. I think that obviously they are further along than we thought that they were. And it’s looking more and more like there is perhaps more rationality to the position that their leader has taken, that he will sprint. And it will be difficult to stop that sprint, no matter how tough the sanctions, to a point where they can claim some nuclear capability and then sit down at the table. And that may be what happens next. But I think that we ought to continue as we are.

I have no criticism of what the administration has done. I’ve supported it, most recently to bring to bear what pressure we can diplomatically. Obviously, you know, it becomes cliché to say we have no good options there, but it is really true, given the proximity of, you know, Seoul. Anybody who’s been there realize the challenges that we have, and if North Korea should decide to retaliate, what that would cost.

LIASSON: So you’re supportive of the administration in some areas, but worry about the message that’s being sent in others.

FLAKE: I do.

LIASSON: I’m wondering, who speaks for the U.S. in foreign policy? Is it the president or the kind of what’s known as the committee to save America—Mattis, McMaster, Kelly? (Laughter.) That is actually—the secretary of defense has actually referred to himself as the secretary of reassurance. And you have been on the CODELs where you go to Europe and do everything but blink in Morse code to tell them listen to us, not necessarily the tweet of the day.

What does it mean that for many of the things that the U.S. president says has to be reinterpreted by his national-security team?

FLAKE: Well, no president, or very few, come to the office with a lot of foreign-policy experience. We usually like governors, who haven’t even been in the Congress. And even if you’re in the Congress, you lack a lot of what you need. So nobody comes there with everything that you need. And we have to recognize that.

And so it’s incumbent on any new president to put together a strong national security and foreign policy team. And I think at the top the president has certainly done that. I commend him for it. I think we all feel a lot better because General Mattis is there and Tillerson and Dunford. I mean, it’s a good team, and they do reassure. I hope that—and I hope the president is growing into this role and allows them to lead where they need to but they don’t have to reassure as much.

Foreign policy should not be conducted by tweet. It just—that’s not the nature. We don’t benefit from that, so—and particularly when we’re sending messages to our allies. So I’ve been concerned but certainly reassured by the team that the president has put around him.

LIASSON: OK, just one last question before we open this up. For somebody who clearly believes in America as an idea, that America stands for something more than just its economic and national security interest, we’re in a position where the explicit policy of the U.S. government now is to downgrade those democratic values and institutions. Do you think that America is still an idea, that it stands for democratic values and institutions in the world? Are we taking a little break from that? Or where are we as the leader of the free world.

FLAKE: Well, I think anybody who has traveled recently has to be concerned with what they hear about the perception of where the United States is. And—but I do think that it is still very much an idea and should and can be very much the beacon that it has always been.

I am very concerned on trade issues. It was a big mistake to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one that will haunt us economically for a while, let alone geopolitically in terms of the alignment of these countries or whose trade orb that they reside in. So I do have some major concerns there, and I hope that we see a change, a movement in—where the president’s positions are. And we well may. We’re seeing that in some of the domestic areas. I hope we see that with regard to foreign policy as well.

LIASSON: So kind of bottom line, “I am concerned.” Said that about 20 times. (Laughter.)

FLAKE: Yes. I am.

LIASSON: Do you think, though, that Congress is reasserting itself—the vote on Russia sanctions, which was overwhelming; even the vote on Charlottesville, which isn’t—which isn’t foreign policy—but that Congress is moving to either rein in or push back against the president?

FLAKE: Yes. Yeah, I do see that, and I applaud that. And a lot of it has been with this administration and previous administration we have ceded a lot of authority and, you know, nothing more clear than the AUMF. For Congress to simply say a 16-year-old couple-of-sentence AUMF is sufficient is an abdication of authority. And I think we’ve got to reassert ourselves there and in a number of areas.

LIASSON: And today is the anniversary, right? I think it was—

FLAKE: The 14th, yes.

LIASSON:—actually it was voted on today. So questions from members. Here’s the rules. This is on the record. Wait for the microphone. Speak directly into the microphone. Stand up. State your name and affiliation. And please, one question per member so everybody gets a chance.

And I guess Marisa is going to—OK. Sir. Oh, here’s the mics everywhere.

Q: Thank you. Steve Charnovitz from George Washington University Law School. Thanks again for returning to the Council after a few years. I was here when you spoke a few years ago about the Cuban sanctions in a very eloquent and thoughtful set of comments. And I would hope to see you back here in 2019 as the junior senator from Arizona.

FLAKE: Right.

Q: My question is about authorization for the use of military force. You talked about it with respect to terrorism, but you didn’t say anything about military force with respect to aggression by North Korea. What are your thoughts about trying to empower the president with a congressional resolution on the use of force for his dealings with North Korea?

FLAKE: Well, with regard to more conventional, you know, acting against aggression, the War Powers Act certainly allows the president—or in the Constitution, Article I—or Article II authority allows the president to, you know, face any imminent threat. And if—I think the Congress understands that if North Korea—or if the situation presented itself where the president needed to act, that he would do so and then come to Congress and get the long-term authority. That’s really how it’s been. You don’t—I don’t see a situation where we should have to give him some kind of preemptive authority, because we’ll have time.

The real trouble is when we’re dealing with non-state actors, and that’s most of the conflicts that we’ve—you know, that 2001 is, I think, loosely authorizing. And the AUMF that Tim Kaine and I have put together is more of a template to deal with those situations for non-state actors, associated forces, to involve the Congress where it should be involved.

But I don’t share the same concerns about, you know, conventional conflict that we would have with a North Korea, a nation state, because the president can always act and then come to Congress, and we will give the authority. I don’t think that will be lacking.


Q: Hi. I’m Hattie Babbitt with WRI.

And I have a question about Congress’ ability to or willingness to step up to our having withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. You mentioned some circumstances in which Congress is stepping up, but I haven’t seen quite the activity that I would have hoped for in terms of filling in. Governors are doing a lot. Mayors are doing a lot. But on the national level, what are you guys doing?

FLAKE: Well, with regard to the Paris Accord, that was a voluntary agreement. I think given just the nature of natural gas replacing coal has meant that, shoot, we’re going to hit the targets that were set there anyway. So I think Congress’ attitude has been—you have some who must think it was unfortunate to step down from another international agreement that we were part of, but not enough to go back and try to override the president.

Q: Thank you, Senator, for your discussion this morning. My name is Esther Brimmer from NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. I appreciate your comment particularly on spring break. Indeed, the movement of students to Cuba—(laughter)—would be quite a powerful force.

But I wanted to talk a bit about how the United States is seen in terms of how we welcome two groups of people. One is, there are probably 800,000 DREAMers who would probably like to stand with you and recite the poem, and I appreciate your leadership on this issue and wonder how you think Congress will act in this area; and secondly, on refugees. This administration proposed to even further reduce the number of refugees we accept. We are parties, founders of the refugee convention. That’s also part of our international responsibilities. Thank you.

FLAKE: Right. Well, thank you. With regard to DACA, I’ve always been supportive of the DREAM Act—right now on the DREAM Act, the BRIDGE Act, the SAFE Act—any way that we can protect these kids. And I do think, given the events of the past couple of days and even last night, that that’s going to happen. So I do believe that what the last president did was beyond his constitutional authority. I think he recognized that as well, that this is Congress’ prerogative, so Congress needs to act and do this on a permanent basis. And I fully expect that we will.

With regard to refugees, that’s one of the areas that I’m concerned about. Obviously, refugees need to be vetted—extremely vetted, but I would argue that they have been, and I think that America at its best is accepting of refugees. We ask our allies to do so, and we do a small part of that, and we should continue to.

So I think the president—when the president announced what was then called the “Muslim ban” in December of ’16, I went to a mosque that weekend to speak to reassure those in Arizona at least that not every Republican felt that way. It morphed into the travel ban, which I think the court will likely uphold most of as constitutional. I just don’t think it’s wise, because I don’t think that there was any national security rationale to that list. In fact, I know there wasn’t. I know how that list came about. It wasn’t an Obama list. It was a list that simply morphed, you know, through Congress during a strange time.

And I mentioned I wouldn’t go into the book, but I do talk about the refugee ban and this idea that we ought to have a travel ban of some type. I mention that my father-in-law last year, last November had a heart attack or a ruptured aorta, and his life was saved after 11 hours of surgery by a doctor with the last name of Khoury, a Palestinian. And a new doctor had to come in later to perform additional surgery, he was an Afghan.

And I point out that had we at that time that they came worried that much about majority Muslim countries and immigrants from majority Muslim countries or countries compromised by terrorism, they wouldn’t have been here. And I think that we’ve got to continue to be what we’ve been, and that is a country welcoming of refugees.


Q: Thank you, Senator. I’m Mark Lagon with Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, TB and Malaria.

You spoke about a number of issues where there’s robust bipartisanship, even in particularly nasty and turbulent times of tribalism in our political system.

MR.     : Here. Mic’s coming.

Q: What’s that? Here?

MR.     : There you go.

Q: Anyway, I—you spoke about issues where there’s been robust bipartisanship. Is one of the ways we get back to Congress playing a key role and bipartisanship flowering to take some issues—I’ve worked on a couple, global AIDS, human trafficking—is that one way to get to a more broad, general bipartisanship on foreign policy, to have some issues where there’s really strong bipartisanship? How do we get to the vision that you have of a more assertive Congress and in a bipartisan mode?

FLAKE: Well, Congress has had difficulty doing about anything, let alone these big issues. And if there is a big issue, maybe that’s what it will take to get Congress to get together.

I mentioned a speech on the wildlife trafficking issue. And speaking of that, I took a trip with Chris Coons and a few others who I had worked on this legislation with to Southern Africa, when was it, a year-and-a-half ago. And we were in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia. And we happened to, when we went to Zimbabwe, out of protocol, you always request a meeting with the president. Sometimes you hope he doesn’t grant it, and this was one of those. (Laughter.) But he did. And so we ended up waiting for a couple of hours and then meeting for a couple of hours with Robert Mugabe, who I had written my master’s thesis on 30 years before, trying to explain his hold onto power at the end of the ‘80s, and there he was still there.

But it was interesting, the discussion we had with him. He went into his normal diatribe against every president and prime minister that had wronged Zimbabwe over the past 40 years. And he went through the litany, he finally got to George W. Bush, and I had had enough by that time. And I said, hey, wait a second, there was a program called PEPFAR that Zimbabwe benefited quite handsomely from. In fact, it really, really may have saved this country and many others in Southern Africa. And he stopped for a minute, and I said George W. Bush was the main driver behind that. He stopped for a minute, he said I’ll give you that. (Laughter.) I thought, wow, what a stark admission.

But we have had those areas where, you know, it has been bipartisan, and certainly PEPFAR not only alleviated, most importantly, a lot of human suffering, but it has led to relationships with countries all over Africa that we wouldn’t have and has led to security arrangements and intelligence sharing and other activities that benefit us significantly as well, so I hope that we will continue with those kind of programs.


Q: Louis Caldera, George Washington University.

Senator, I appreciate your principled independence and your call for bipartisanship. Could you talk about a couple of the mechanics of democracy that impede bipartisanship? So, one, gerrymandering, in this case before the Supreme Court, some Republicans have said the court should find gerrymanderings unconstitutional. And then second of all, things like the leadership rule in the House of the majority of a majority that don’t allow the Senate to come together to support things where there is bipartisan support.

FLAKE: Right. Well, thank you. I am concerned about, well, gerrymandering. There are just so few competitive districts around the country, and it has driven us to the extremes. And the ability with technology and mapping to basically have politicians choose their constituents rather than constituents choosing their politicians, that’s about what we’ve come to. So that does concern me and that has driven it, as has the 24-hour news cycle and social media. All the incentives are politicians who yell the loudest and not necessarily—or who look for ways to deflect blame for not getting something done rather than getting something done. So the incentives have changed significantly for members of Congress.

And with regard to the rule, the so-called Hastert rule I think it used to be called, where you only bring something to the floor that, you know, has a majority of the majority’s support, it’s been a theory for a while that we have broken with that, gratefully, on a number of issues when you simply have to.

And I’ve talked about this before. As a problem, we Republicans, I think, during the period 2001 to 2006 when we had a majority in the House and the Senate and the White House, sort of like today, during that time, more often than not, the leadership in the House, if you could pass something with broad bipartisan support or with a narrow majority, we would instinctively opt for the latter if you could use that then as a cajole to beat your opponents with in the next election. And so that was kind of the incentive. That was, I argue, like I say in the book and elsewhere, that that was really kind of the downfall of our majority at that time where we just used the levers of power rather than the powers of persuasion to get something done.

With regard to bipartisanship, one institution that is under a bit of attack right now is the Senate and our long-held precedent and rules with regard to the filibuster. I am very much in favor of changes in behavior, not changes to the rules. And I think any good legislation that endures is bipartisan legislation. And so I’m very much in favor of keeping the legislative filibuster.

It's frustrating when you’re in the majority, when it takes a while to move legislation or the inability to move legislation that you want to, but we need it. And we need to have bipartisan majorities passing the legislation, so I hope that we keep the 60-vote hurdle.

Now, there are reforms that can be made and should be made to it. We shouldn’t have motions to proceed on an appropriation bill to have something on the front end and the back end. It’s fine enough to have the filibuster on the back end with a 60-vote requirement. But boy, these calls now to ditch the filibuster so we can ram legislation through are calls that the Senate should and I think will reject.

LIASSON: What about Mitch McConnell’s latest move to get rid of the home-state-senator hold on nominations?

FLAKE: Well, what he—nobody has talked about the so-called blue slip process for district court judges. What’s in question is whether that extends to circuit court judges, and that’s always been a lot muddier. And so I, myself, think that it ought to stay for district court judges, but not as much for circuit court judges. And that’s more hewing to precedent than anything.


Q: Thank you, Senator. My name is Bob Fu, I’m from China Aid.

And my question is a little philosophical, of course. It’s about China, of course the big elephant in the room. Back to about 20-some-plus years ago, you know, Congress has a big heated debate on the PNTR, then the WTO. The prevailing argument was, you know, more trade with China, more business means more democracy, human rights, freedom. And now, you know, we all acknowledge, you know, China is one of the worst—world’s worst human rights violators, and really recognized by all the human rights organizations and across the government sectors and, you know, killed Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and now China jails more kind of journalists and more human rights defenders maybe than the rest of the world combined. And, you know, next to kind of a trade war or, you know, stop the trade, China is the second largest economy. And how—what’s the kind of best argument now to improve the—you know, China’s human rights or to a democratic process, the ideal that you hold very dearly?

FLAKE: Well, I’m not one who argues that economic development and free market economics or our style of—or our advocacy for a free market economy always leads to more democratic reforms. It just almost always does. And it’s—it will nudge countries closer to democracy, certainly more often than not. So I don’t think there’s any one formula that works with every country out there.

There are big problems with regard to human rights in China. I’m not sure that those problems would be lessened had we not opened up and had we not—had China not joined some of the international institutions that at least circumscribe some behavior. So I think that we ought to use these organizations that we’re involved with and direct diplomacy to try to better the situation. But sparking a full-out trade war or trying to—or hoping that China, you know, excuses itself from agreements, trade agreements and other conventions that they’ve agreed to, I’m not sure that that would better the situation.

It’s just like with Cuba. I mentioned the Cuban government still exercises dictatorial control. They want to control as much as they can; they just can’t control as much as they want to. And so I—you know, I would think that moving forward in China, entering the community of nations with regard to trade and other institutions has been helpful rather than hurtful—although they still have a long way to go.


Q: Senator, you just mentioned Cuba. Sorry, my name is Hazel Denton, Georgetown University.

You spoke of the fact that 25 percent of the labor force is now in the private sector in Cuba.

FLAKE: Right.

Q: And this is thanks to the opening up that was under the previous administration. Are you working toward trying to encourage more opening to Cuba, which has been constrained under this administration?

FLAKE: Yes, you bet. I was disheartened to see, you know, that President Trump moved to restrict a bit, at least, some of the travel. But I’ve been working with Marco Rubio and with Senator Corker and with the regulators, Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury, to make sure that the regulations that give effect to the policy changes that the president wanted aren’t restrictive of the type of activity that we want to see in Cuba. And what I believe we will see out of the regulations coming up are that we will see a change in the categories of travel. But I don’t believe it will be diminishing any of the travel that is currently occurring.

There are—most Americans, when they go to Cuba, now either stay at private homes, Airbnb, or eat at private restaurants, or ride in private taxi cabs, or patronize private art. And under the new regulations, what I think you will see is that any of those activities qualify as support for the Cuban people, and would therefore continue to allow Americans to travel under general license to Cuba. And I think that we are seeing a growing acceptance even of those who haven’t favored the opening to Cuba that ordinary Cubans are benefiting quite a bit, those who have entered the private sector either full-time or part-time, that they have increased freedom economically, certainly, but also politically.

Somebody interviewed a woman who runs a private restaurant in Cuba, where her employees make an average—the waiters of—and waitresses of I think about $50 a day on the average, where 20 bucks a month on the average if you work at a state restaurant. And they asked one woman who was working there what’s the biggest change, and they thought she would say, well, I could now afford to travel to see my kids in Miami, or elsewhere. And that was important to her, but it was more political freedoms as well. She said, when the Cuban government tells me to attend a rally or a protest, I say forget it. What do you have on me?

And anyway, so it has led to increased not just economic but political freedom as well, and I think that that will continue. I—you know, if it were up to me, we would have a vote tomorrow on the, you know, Cuba Travel Act, which myself and Pat Leahy have, which we have 54 co-sponsors in the Senate. If it comes to a vote, when it comes to a vote, we’ll have close to 70 votes in favor of it in the Senate. So we ought to just get rid of the fiction of trying to direct, you know, what Americans do and what purposeful travel is. Leave that up to Americans, not, you know, do what Cubans do or what communists do, trying to control everything.

LIASSON: Barbara.

Q: Good morning, Senator. I’m Barbara Cochran from the Missouri School of Journalism.

And I want to ask you that the—you talked about the United States as a beacon of democracy internationally, and one of those areas is in free press and free speech. How concerned are you about the president’s attacks on the media, and do you think that that is having an impact internationally, especially in countries like Mexico, Turkey, and Russia, where journalists are in grave danger?

FLAKE: Yeah, I’m not qualified to, you know, say what it’s doing internationally. I haven’t looked into that well enough, but I have been disturbed by some of the statements. You know, there was early talk about changing libel rules and whatnot, and that certainly wouldn’t go over well in Congress. And I’ve been concerned about the attacks on the media, and have spoken out against them, but I don’t think that that’s proper.

And I’m really—what really is concerning is this—you know, the whole fake news kind of arguments, that it used to be that we had some common shared facts that—you know, that—you know, who won the popular vote, you know? I mean, I saw something a while ago that said a significant number of Republicans believe that Donald Trump won the popular vote. He won the election. He won the electoral vote. He’s our president. But he didn’t win the popular vote. That’s something pretty empirical. (Laughter.) But when a significant number of people believe otherwise, it is pretty troubling.

And, you know, I think we had all hoped that the proliferation of media, particularly social media, would lead to people looking at more points of view rather than, you know, choosing a la carte what they are exposed to. And in the speeches I give to schools and young people, it’s—you can’t say change the channel, which I tell people my age, you know, whatever you’re watching, just change the channel every once in a while at least. But with kids it’s get out of your newsfeed and expose yourself to different opinions. And even if you don’t agree with them, recognize that some people don’t agree with you. And it’s been a troubling trend. But—and I’m obviously concerned about what’s going on around the world in countries that are, you know, restricting free press in those countries. I don’t know to what extent they’ve been affected by what’s going on here.

LIASSON: We have one more.


Q: Senator Flake, my name is Chris Preble. I’m from the Cato Institute.

I want to go back to the question on the AUMF. How confident are you, sir, that either your or some other AUMF will pass out of the committee and be debated on the floor of the Senate? A number of people who came out in favor of Senator Paul’s amendment yesterday, including Senator Kaine, saw it as a forcing mechanism to convince the Senate to do what it had not done. And the sense I got from the debate was a number of your fellow senators don’t agree with you that we should even be debating this when there are troops in the field. How would you respond to that, sir?

FLAKE: I’ve obviously been pushing it for a while. I didn’t support the Paul amendment because I’m trying to be a stickler for regular order. And when we have an opportunity to actually move something through in regular order, that’s what I’d like to do. And it is proper for this bill—we have had a hearing on it already—the next move would be a markup to actually amend it and get a—it will be a bipartisan bill that will move. I spoke to Chairman Corker—obviously have been talking to him a lot—but most recently just yesterday, and got a commitment that this bill is going to move. So I’m confident that it will. Had I not been confident, then I would have voted for the forcing mechanism.

I mean, like I said, so few members of Congress have even weighed in. Now, many of them, while they won’t admit it, kind of enjoy the ability to criticize the administration, Republican or Democrat, without having a vote on their own record, and that’s why it just baffles me that an administration—I understand, you know, the legal team wants what’s there as long as the courts have ruled that this is sufficient. There are ancillary issues with indefinite detention and other issues that are a little thorny. But the advantage of having the Congress speak along with the administration and the power that gives you internationally, our adversaries and our allies and our troops need to hear that it’s not just the administration but it’s the Congress that is behind them, and that we speak with one voice. So in answer to your question, yes, I’m confident if only that it’s been this long and it’s time. And we have a growing number of people agitating for it.


That’s it. I’m sorry. Thank you very much for being here.

Thank you, Senator Flake. That was really great. (Applause.)