STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If he really goes through with it, President Trump presents what he calls Fake News Awards today, naming news stories or reporters he dislikes. Fake news is a phrase the president and his supporters have used often. It first gained currency as a description of propaganda promoting the president. But this was one of many cases in which his critics accused the president of doing something so the president accused them of doing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They have been fake news for a long time.
That was fake news.
We don't want fake news.
And by the way, not everybody is fake news.
INSKEEP: OK. We do not know if the president of the United States will really go through with his promise to present awards today. His spokesperson called it a potential event. But Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake took the opportunity to offer a differing view. He spoke this morning from the floor of the U.S. Senate on the role of the news media in safeguarding democracy. And he criticized President Trump's attacks on the media. A little bit earlier, Senator Flake got on the line with us.
Senator, good morning.
JEFF FLAKE: Hey. Thanks for having me on.
INSKEEP: What makes this an issue on which to speak out, Senator?
FLAKE: Well, I think it's important when there's talk about fake news, it has real consequences when you look around the world at the number of authoritarians using that phrase now and justifying crackdowns on opposition because they call something fake news, borrowing that language from the president. And that has real consequences to our standing in the world and in terms of what happens to the opposition in countries where they need to speak up.
INSKEEP: Have some media organizations earned the title from time to time going after the president a little too enthusiastically, perhaps?
FLAKE: Sure. Sure. I mean, that's always the case. The media is never unbiased. And as conservatives, we always feel that the media goes after us. That's probably the case. But it is what it is. And the worst thing to do is to simply label things fake news that aren't. And then I mean, you know, if you don't have shared facts as a country, you have nothing. And so that's a real problem.
INSKEEP: Senator, did you decide not to seek re-election in Arizona - as some people will know, you've announced - because in part, some big part of your state's electorate was just not going to be in touch with reality as you saw it?
FLAKE: Well, I am certainly out of step with many in my party. That is true. This has become very much the president's party, and for someone who stands up and does not agree with the president on many things...
INSKEEP: But I'm not talking about disagreement. I just mean simply do you feel a large part of the electorate is out of touch with reality, so to speak, with facts because they're following the president where he leads them?
FLAKE: I'm not going to say that. I'm just saying it's our responsibility as elected officials to speak the truth, and I haven't seen that much.
INSKEEP: Senator, some people will know also that you criticized President Trump's remarks the other day about African countries in a private meeting. And, we should be clear, the president has denied using this or that word, but nobody's really denied that the president said he preferred Norwegian immigrants, who he described apparently as hardworking and industrious to Africans or Haitians. And that has led some people to a bottom line question, is the president a racist?
FLAKE: That's for others to determine. All I can say was those words, they are hurtful. I happen to chair of the Africa subcommittee. We deal with 54 countries in Africa. We have to have agreements, security arrangements, intelligence sharing. This makes it doubly difficult to do so. I've spent a good deal of my life in Africa, as well, and I just don't agree with those characterizations. Those immigrants who come from Africa and elsewhere are coming for a better life and usually contribute to a better future here.
INSKEEP: Senator, can I get you to address a common, I guess, social media complaint people will make about you? They'll say, well, Senator Flake criticizes the president a lot - and that is certainly true - but votes with him. And I looked it up. You have voted against the president. You voted for Russia sanctions, which the president opposed, for example. But on health care, on taxes, you have sided with the president.
FLAKE: Right. If things like NAFTA come up for a vote, I'll support it. The president won't. The travel ban, I don't support it. The president does. But on some things that have come to the Congress, frankly, we've voted on, like repealing and replacing Obamacare. I voted to do that 30 or 40 times before the president came along. Should I change my vote just because I disagree with certain matters with the president? I don't think so. I don't want to do it out of spite. I'm a conservative, and I vote conservative.
INSKEEP: James Fallows of The Atlantic wrote the other day that it would just take two Senate Republicans - this is his thought - it would just take two Senate Republicans to side with Democrats, and they would make a majority in the Senate, and you could seriously confront the president, vote to censure him, for example, or call for his tax returns or conduct a more serious ethics investigation. If Democrats approached you to do that effectively, to take over the Senate, would you vote with them?
FLAKE: (Laughter). Obviously it depends on an issue. If there's something that I feel the president has not stood up for his constitutional obligations, I'll vote, I think, with a number of my Republican colleagues to do so. But I'm not going to vote out of spite against things like tax reform or health care reform just because I disagree with the president.
INSKEEP: Well, let's just say voting to demand the president's tax returns. Would you cast that vote with Democrats?
FLAKE: Well, we'll see if it comes up. But I don't think that that should be an obligation. I think that the president should, but I don't think that's something the Congress ought to demand.
INSKEEP: Senator Flake, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.
FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.
INSKEEP: Jeff Flake is a Republican senator from the state of Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.