Jeff Flake and Mike Pence were the best of friends.
Both men ran conservative free-market think tanks before getting into politics, and both were elected to the House in the Republican class of 2000. Both were affable young lawmakers, happy warriors inspired by Ronald Reagan. Covering Congress, I came to know and admire both of them. Pence in 2012 went home to Indiana as governor. Flake won election to the Senate the same year.
“He was my closest friend during my time in the House, and I still see him whenever he comes to D.C.,” Flake told me this week. “I think a lot of Mike.”
But in recent weeks, the two friends made very different choices. Flake became, arguably, the most outspoken critic of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump among elected Republicans. And Pence agreed to be Trump’s running mate.
The two met in Phoenix on Tuesday night. Pence had come to speak at a rally and hold a fundraiser for the Republican ticket. Flake declined to attend either. The two men and their wives met privately, avoiding politics. “It was almost all family and memories,” Flake told me Wednesday.
It’s becoming clear that Flake made the better choice. The Trump campaign seems to be imploding – and is likely to take down Pence and other Republicans who saluted Trump. The attack on Gold Star parents. The botched statement about Ukraine. The refusal to support party leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain. Trump’s reported nonchalance about using nuclear weapons. His reckless remarks about the stock market and a “rigged” election.
The Republicans belatedly heading for the exits vindicate Flake’s long and lonely stand against Trump. The senator has no interest in gloating, but he welcomes the company.
“I would have thought that it would have occurred earlier,” he said. “It’s just the accumulation of it, and at some point people say ‘That’s enough.’ … In conversations with colleagues and then just seeing the speed and forcefulness of the statements that have come out, I sense there’s a bit of change.”
For all the ominous political developments, it’s worth pausing to remember that there are still good and courageous leaders – none more so in recent weeks than the self-effacing Mormon from Arizona. “Somebody’s got to push back, and that’s what I’m doing,” Flake said. “I’m not interested in being an apologist.”
Earlier this month, Flake met Trump at a Senate Republican caucus lunch. “You’ve been very critical of me,” Trump said.
“Yes, I have,” Flake replied, launching into fresh criticism of Trump’s statements.
Trump threatened to work against Flake in November. Flake informed Trump that he isn’t up for re-election until 2018.
Flake refused to attend the Republican convention, saying, “I’ve got to mow my lawn.” During the convention, he took to Twitter to object to the Republicans’ “lock her up” attack on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
When Trump proposed his ban on Muslims entering the country, Flake visited a mosque to highlight the contributions of Muslim Americans. Flake hailed McCain’s statement saying that Trump doesn’t have an “unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
Flake told me he gives a “pass” to McCain, Ryan and Pence for supporting Trump, but he acknowledged being surprised that more didn’t join him sooner. His outspokenness has hurt him with donors and constituents. “If you’re looking at re-election, there’s a clearer path not doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Flake’s answer to his critics: Trump can’t win, and he could cause Republicans to lose the Senate, thereby offering no resistance to liberal Supreme Court nominees. But Flake’s position is less a political one than a principled one. He said there’s “no excuse” for Trump calling an Indiana-born judge “Mexican,” and he said “it’s a stake in the heart” to see Republicans turn against immigration.
Flake thinks Republicans’ “overpromising” – for example, that they could repeal Obamacare – contributed to Trump’s rise, and he’s not optimistic that Trump’s defeat would fix things. “We’re inevitably going to have another autopsy,” he said, and after again resolving to be more tolerant, “some new populist will rise up, and there we are again.”
Pence, who has had pragmatic tendencies as governor, probably would have agreed with Flake, and perhaps he still does. Flake speculates that his friend thought “he could influence Trump” to take a more sensible course. “I’ve got to think that that was his calculation.”
But time is running out, and Pence’s imprint is yet to be seen. “There’s little evidence,” Flake said, “that he’s rubbed off on him.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.