As It Happens

Jeff Flake calls Trump's tweets about congresswomen 'vile' — but he won't call them racist

A former Republican senator says calling Donald Trump racist or demanding he be impeached would just play into the president's hand.

'To stoop to the president's level never works very well,' says the former U.S. Republican senator

Jeff Flake, a former senator from Arizona, is one of the few Republicans who have called out U.S. President Donald Trump for his comments about four Democratic congresswomen. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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A former Republican senator says U.S. President Donald Trump's comments about four Democratic congresswomen are "offensive and vile" — but that insulting him in return would just play into the president's hands.

Trump has doubled down on his tweets telling "Democrat Congresswomen" to quit complaining about America and "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

He appeared to be speaking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.

Jeff Flake, a retired Republican senator from Arizona, spoke to As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about the comments. Here is part of their conversation. 

Mr. Flake, how would you characterize the president's comments?

I'd say it's offensive and vile. That phrase, "Go back where you came from," you know, is just an awful phrase. And to be said about four Americans who are members of Congress, three of whom were born in the United States, is just wrong.

"Offensive and vile." What about racist?

No, I'll let others use that term. I don't think it's particularly useful to go into that. Certainly, an inappropriate thing to say for anyone, let alone the president of the United States.

Well, why wouldn't you say it's racist?

Because it's a loaded term that means different things to different people, and I just feel it's better not to use it.

But these women are all women of colour. I mean, he wouldn't be saying this, do you think, if they were white women?

He seems to single out those who are of colour for comments like this, yes. But I'll let others use that term.

Clockwise from left: U.S. Democratic congresswomen Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar and, centre, U.S. President Donald Trump. (Getty Images)

What does it tell you that there's been radio silence from most Republicans in Congress on these comments?

Many are up for re-election and don't want to get on the wrong side of the president. The leadership doesn't want to speak out because then that will cause, you know, reporters to talk to those who are in vulnerable races. And the leadership, I'm sure, would like to see it just pass over.

Believe me, I understand the inclination to just, you know, be so tired of responding to the president's comments. And I usually give my colleagues a pass. But there are times when the president says something so, so offensive that it harkens back to perhaps when he referred to the press as the "enemy of the people."

There was far too little backlash there that he continued to use it, and then it becomes normalized and it's kind of led to, for lack of a better term, the Trumpification of politics here — and that's a dangerous place to be.

But if he's allowed to get away with that, and people such as yourself won't call him out on being racist, how will he ever stop?

I'm just not using certain terms. I've called him out, believe me.

The reason I didn't run for re-election is I could not stand on the campaign stage with Donald Trump while he denigrated some of my colleagues, while people shouted, "Lock her up" and you'd have to stand there and be OK with it.

What we need to do is make sure he's defeated in the next election. And I say that as a Republican.

But the best way to do that is to run a good campaign on the other side, and not try to disqualify each other between elections, but to actually defeat each other in elections. That's been our tradition and it's worked well and should in the future.

U.S. President Donald Trump renewed his attacks against four liberal congresswomen of colour after a series of weekend tweets targeting them. 1:54

Have you looked at the response to your tweet where you say that Republican-elected officials can't be expected to respond to every comment by the president, but there are times when the president's comments are so vile and offensive that it's incumbent on Republicans to respond and condemn, and this is one of those times. Have you looked at the response to that tweet?

I can guess the response. There'll be some who say, "Hey, you should come out. That's weak sauce. You ought to call him a racist" or, "You ought to go further," or, "You ought to call for impeachment."

I've never been a supporter of Donald Trump. I didn't support him in the last election. I couldn't support him in this one. And I couldn't even campaign with him for my own re-election.

But I'm not with those who say we ought to somehow disqualify him.

That's the kind of Trumpification of politics that we're entered into.

That's exactly what I was getting at by looking at some of the responses to your tweets, Mr. Flake. A lot of people say actually it was weak sauce, and that you should have called him out, and you should be asking for stronger measures instead of just using words like "vile" and "condemn." So what would you say to those people who feel that way?

The remedy here is to make sure he is defeated in the next election. I don't think it does any good and probably plays in the president's favour to talk about impeachment and trying to disqualify him.

Let's make sure he's defeated in the next election. That's been our tradition. That's what we ought to do. And I think when you go beyond the mark, it plays in his favour.

Then people say: "Well, look, the other side, they call him this, they call him that. Therefore, we need to stand up for the president." When nobody should defend this kind of statement from the president.

Maybe I come from a more gentle time in politics. But I think trying to fight fire with fire doesn't play well, and to stoop to the president's level never works very well.

I mean, [by] calling something racist, one could argue that you're fighting fire with truth.

Yeah, they could argue that. And I wouldn't argue against it.

I'm just saying, for me, I choose not to use a language that's incendiary, that the focus becomes what you called somebody and not, you know, what they said.

Everybody knows this is inappropriate. It's offensive. It's vile. If somebody wants to use another word, that's fine — but I choose not to.

How much of this name calling and tweeting is just an attempt to turn our attention from what's happening in detention centres for migrants at the border?

I don't know. I mean, often I think the president does use some tweet or something to draw attention. I'm not sure if this one was meant to do that, but it could well be.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Katie Geleff. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.