MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump is defending his racist tweets about four freshman congresswomen in which he asked, quote, "why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came?" The congresswoman are all women of color. They are all Americans. Today they spoke out against the president. Here is one of them, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
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AYANNA PRESSLEY: We are more than four people. We ran on a mandate to advocate for and to represent those ignored, left out and left behind. Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world, and that is the work that we want to get back to.
KELLY: So one question prompted by all this - is the president's language on race damaging his own party? I put that question today to one Republican who has criticized Trump, former Senator Jeff Flake. I also asked him what first went through his mind when he read the president's tweets.
JEFF FLAKE: Not this again, you know? Republicans can't be expected to respond to every tweet by the president, but sometimes, you know, it's so vile or so - just so bad you have to respond. And I thought that this was one of those.
KELLY: There have been a small number of Republicans throughout the day speaking up, Republican Will Hurd of Texas among them. He called the president's words racist and xenophobic. Why haven't more of your former colleagues spoken out?
FLAKE: Well, a lot of it is frankly fatigue. You get tired of answering questions whenever you go out of a hearing room or, you know, to a vote. You're asked about the latest thing the president has said. But right now, I think we're coming up on an election, and nobody wants to get on the wrong side of the president. And the leadership doesn't want to make any more comments that would cause maybe vulnerable Republicans running for office to have to respond to their response. And so it's - you know, it's easier just to keep quiet and hope that it passes by.
KELLY: You're pointing to two things there - one, fatigue and, second, looming election and members of Congress worrying about reelection.
KELLY: I mean, what does it say about the Republican Party, Senator Flake, that to get reelected, you have to stand with a president who tweets racist things?
FLAKE: No, it's awful, frankly. And that's why some of us are no longer in office. We decided that we simply couldn't. In my case, I could not stand on a campaign stage with the president when people are shouting lock her up or while he, you know, called my Democratic colleagues clowns or losers and, you know, to have to laugh along with that or be OK with that.
And so it puts, I think, the Republican Party in an untenable position moving ahead. You can win an election here or there ginning up the base, but over time, it wears. And I think the midterms should have been a much bigger wakeup call than they really were for Republicans.
KELLY: You're saying over time - so playing the medium- to long-term game, this kind of language won't fly, that Republicans...
FLAKE: Yes, it doesn't.
KELLY: ...To get elected, are going to need to reach a more diverse segment of America.
FLAKE: Yes, that was - you know, the autopsy we did in 2012 concluded that we had to do that. And then we immediately as a party kind of left it behind and ran after, you know, a populist. But over time, you offend enough groups. You simply don't have a coalition big enough to win national elections. And I think we're going to see that. Millennials in particular, suburban women have been walking away from the party for a while. I think now they're in a dead sprint.
KELLY: Justin Amash, congressman of Michigan, announced last week that he would leave the Republican Party and run as an independent. No other Republicans have followed his lead. Should they?
FLAKE: I think some will have to. If they have trouble standing on a campaign stage with the president, they're going to have to make a choice. I do hope that we have more independent-minded Republicans who will test those independent waters. You know, it's - we may not get there this election cycle, but I think we will be there soon. There are enough Republicans - traditional Republicans and independents who may simply say, I'll run as an independent.
KELLY: How about you? Is that something you have wrestled with?
FLAKE: Yes, certainly I've considered it. I - like I said, I don't think we're there yet in this cycle. We may be there coming up. And I - I'm concerned not about just having the president defeated. I hope he is defeated in the next election. But we also have to defeat Trumpism. And that is, you know, calling your opponents clowns and losers. And that has infected not just the Republican Party but the Democratic Party as well.
KELLY: Have you thought about what your red line would be to walk away from the party that you've spent your career serving?
FLAKE: I hope that the party - you know, nothing clarifies like a big election loss. And I hope when that happens, that we turn back to becoming a more decent party and to embrace the principles that have animated the party for generations. And I think we can get back there, so I've not given up on the party yet.
KELLY: That is former Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. Senator Flake, good to speak with you. Thanks for your time.
FLAKE: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.