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NPR

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., accompanied by his wife Cheryl, leaves the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday after announcing he won’t seek re-election in 2018. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

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Andrew Harnik/AP

Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who announced his retirement in a withering speech aimed at President Trump, tells NPR that he is “deeply saddened” to leave the Senate, but that lawmakers must take a stand now against the administration’s behavior or “lose that chance.”

Addressing his Senate colleagues on Tuesday, Flake — who has sparred with the president for months — called out the Trump administration for what he described as its “casual undermining of our democratic ideals” as well as “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior. Speaking to Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, the Arizona Republican said it “was a tough speech to give.”

“I love this institution. I’m not leaving because I’m sour on the Senate or Congress,” he says. “I’m deeply saddened to leave it.”

Flake, who served four terms in the House before being elected to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate in 2013, said he would retire in early January 2019 rather than seek a second term in the Senate.

The expectation that Trump would grow into the presidency has not materialized, he says: “[The] pivot we all hoped for isn’t coming.”

“Before this becomes the new normal, I think we have to stand up and say this is not normal behavior,” Flake tells NPR. “And if we don’t stand up now, we’re going to lose that chance.”

The senator’s harsh words come on the heels of increasingly vocal criticism of President Trump from a handful of influential Senate Republicans.

Just over a week ago, Sen. John McCain, Flake’s Arizona colleague, warned about the rise of “half-baked, spurious nationalism.” And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has openly questioned the president’s competence and referred to the chaotic White House as “an adult day care center.” Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced last month that he would not seek re-election next year, all but acknowledging that the White House has made it impossible to do his job.

Flake, who has consistently enjoyed high marks from conservative groups, says that in the current political climate, that isn’t enough to get elected.

“Now you have to behave differently and be more angry and take positions and act in ways that I don’t think are becoming of conservatives,” he says, adding that he believes “this fever will go down at some point.”

“The spell will break. Resentment is not a governing philosophy,” he tells NPR.

“You need to legislate and in order to legislate you need to work with your friends across the aisle. You can’t refer to them as clowns or losers, as the president has done,” he says.

Flake, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, says he is worried about America’s foreign policy, which he says is “chaotic” under the Trump administration.

“There is something to the old ‘Madman Theory,’ to keep your adversary off base, not knowing what you’ll do,” he says, referring to the unofficial foreign policy first associated with the Nixon White House to convince potential enemies that the president could be unpredictable under pressure.

“There has to be some underlying strategy. I’m not sure that we have that,” Flake tells NPR. “It’s not a good sign and doesn’t bode well for peace and security long term.”

Asked by Steve whether he thinks “something needs to be done” about President Trump, the Arizona senator replies: “If you are asking if I think the president has committed high crimes or misdemeanors, I don’t think so.”

“And I don’t think there is any Article 25 remedy,” he says, referring to a clause in the U.S. Constitution that provides for removing a president who “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

“I just think we just ought to stand up and require something better in terms of behavior and treatment of members of Congress and others, Gold Star families, you name it,” Flake says. “But that doesn’t have to involve any remedy like the 25th Amendment or impeachment proceedings.”