News Brief: Sen. Flake Won't Seek Re-Election, Court Rules For Unauthorized Immigrant's Abortion
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The word debase - debase has been trending on Merriam-Webster's website.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So this word means to lower in status or character. And two Republican senators used it yesterday talking about what they see as the debasing of the country under President Trump. Here's some of what else they said. Senator Bob Corker gave an interview to CNN.
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BOB CORKER: The president has great difficulty with the truth.
GREENE: And then there was Corker's colleague, Jeff Flake, giving this emotional speech on the floor of the Senate.
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JEFF FLAKE: Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
GREENE: And Senator Flake expanded on those thoughts in an interview with NPR.
FLAKE: I think we know by, you know, nine months into the administration that the pivot that we all hope for is not coming. And before this becomes the new normal, I think we have to stand up and say this is not normal. And if we don't stand up now, I think we're going to lose that chance.
GREENE: Now, it is not exactly news that Flake is critical of President Trump. He has been that way since well before the election. But here's the other part of this story. Even as Flake said it was time to stand up, he said he is retiring from the Senate. He's not going to seek re-election in 2018. So where does this leave the Republican Party?
INSKEEP: Let's put that question to NPR's Ron Elving and NPR's Tamara Keith who cover Washington - both have for years.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Ron, you've seen a lot. Have you ever seen a speech quite like Flake's?
ELVING: Can't say that I have or at least not in a long time. I think we'd have to go back to the very last year of the Watergate crisis - that would be 1973 - to find a time when Republicans were using terms of this kind to question the fundamental integrity of a member of their own party in the White House.
INSKEEP: Fundamental integrity - are you telling me that this is about character rather than issues?
ELVING: It is about character, Steve. It's not about policy. It's not about politics. It's not a dispute about money. We've heard Republicans have plenty of quarrels between themselves, among themselves, over those kinds of issues before. It's just the era of Trump has completely discombobulated what had always been the party of unity and the party that we expected to fall in line.
INSKEEP: Discombobulated - always happy when we get that into our coverage here. Tam, what does Jeff Flake get out of retirement? Why not stay if he feels so strongly about the direction of the country and the president?
KEITH: Well, two things - staying may not have been an option for him. His re-election chances - he was definitely in peril in terms of re-election. Here's the other thing - if you look at his colleague from Arizona, John McCain - Senator John McCain - he was always a maverick until about a year before re-election, and then he'd sort of calibrate. Well, now, Jeff Flake doesn't have to calibrate for re-election. He can say what he wants to say and do what he wants to do.
INSKEEP: And we'll find out as legislation comes forward in the coming months how he uses that opportunity. But let me ask you about something else because Jeff Flake said he did not want to be complicit - did not want his colleagues to be complicit. So when we had our interview with him, we asked about two friends of Jeff Flake who are not going to retire. Let's listen to a little bit of that conversation.
INSKEEP: Is your longtime friend and past collaborator Vice President Mike Pence part of the problem?
FLAKE: Oh, I'm a good friend of Mike Pence, and I think the world of him. He's in a tough situation where he is. And I think if the buck stops with the president...
INSKEEP: But I think you're talking about members of Congress who are enabling the president in effect. Isn't the vice president doing the same thing, if that's what it is?
FLAKE: Well, I have to hope that in their private moments he's trying to prevail on the president to change his behavior as it relates to members of Congress or Gold Star families or others.
INSKEEP: Is Speaker Ryan part of the problem?
FLAKE: Paul is a good man with a tough job, and I think that, you know, certainly during the campaign on a number of occasions and a few times since, he's stood up. I think that we obviously need to do more.
INSKEEP: Ron Elving, what do you hear there?
ELVING: He has a tough answer to give on the Mike Pence question in particular, as all Republicans do. It is completely expected that the vice president will be utterly loyal no matter what his private thoughts may be. And certainly, Mike Pence has upheld that, most recently yesterday by coming out and casting yet another tie-breaking vote in the Senate to kill a rule that would've restrained Wall Street a little bit, a rule that came out of the 2008 mortgage crisis - something that would have protected the rights in court of people who had beefs with their financial institutions. He will have to be on the Trump line on every occasion. And Mike Pence, even as president, would probably look a lot like Donald Trump in terms of policy.
INSKEEP: In terms of policy.
ELVING: At least if not in terms of manner.
INSKEEP: Well, that gets to the next thing because the president still does have an agenda. He wants tax reform to pass. What does all this mean, Tamara Keith, for the president's agenda?
KEITH: I don't think that we necessarily know. I think that there are a lot of people on the Republican side who want tax changes, who are concerned about the feuding about the, you know, the flurry of tweets that came from the president against Bob Corker yesterday after Corker said some stuff on cable that the president apparently saw. But it's not clear whether, you know, Jeff Flake would ultimately be a no vote on any of these policy matters that the president and, frankly, people in his party want.
INSKEEP: Well, what does all this mean for the future shape of the Republican Party that Jeff Flake would step down and Bob Corker also by the way stepping down?
KEITH: I - you know, I think it's hard to know exactly, but I think that we are seeing the transformation of the Republican Party. This is becoming the party of Trump. This is not your grandmother's Republican Party where they want free trade, and they care about the deficit. Things are changing.
INSKEEP: A reminder that we could be seeing the implosion of the Republican Party, but we could actually also be seeing simply a change in what the Republican Party is and what it stands for. And...
KEITH: An evolution, not an implosion.
INSKEEP: An evolution. There you go. NPR's Tamara Keith and NPR's Ron Elving, thanks to you both.
KEITH: You're welcome.
ELVING: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: OK. Let's hear about a legal case in Texas that involves two hot-button issues at once.
GREENE: Yeah. It's really the intersection, Steve, of immigration and abortion. At the center of all of this is a 17-year-old. She is in this country illegally. She's in a detention facility. She is also pregnant, and she wants an abortion. A Trump administration rule prevented her from getting one, but now an appeals court has cleared the way for the teenager to go through with this procedure.
INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon has been following this story. Good morning, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Remind us what is known about the young woman.
MCCAMMON: Well, in court papers, she's known as Jane Doe. We're told she's about 15 weeks pregnant - at least as of late last week. She's been in the U.S. since early September according to her lawyers, and they say she came into the country from Central America without her parents. So because of that, she's an unaccompanied minor under the control of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Now, she's being held in a private facility in Brownsville, Texas, that contracts with the federal government. What happened was late last month she requested and received permission from a state judge in Texas to get an abortion, and that's required under the state's parental consent law. But the federal government has been blocking her from leaving the facility where she's being held to get that abortion.
INSKEEP: And is the Trump administration effectively saying we're standing in for your parents, and we say no? Is that their legal argument?
MCCAMMON: Essentially right. They say that they're acting in her best interests, and they don't believe getting an abortion is in her best interest. They also have been making this argument that they don't want to, quote, "facilitate the procedure." It should be noted, Steve, that the girl is not asking the federal government to pay for the abortion. That's prohibited in most cases under federal law. Her attorneys say it would be paid for privately, that volunteers would take her to the clinic, but the federal government has not wanted to approve her leaving to do this.
In the court hearing I attended late last week in Washington, attorneys for the federal government said that their goal is to, quote, "promote childbirth and protect fetal life." So there has been quite a legal tug of war, a lot of back and forth here. And at this point, a federal appeals court in D.C. has said the Trump administration cannot block this young woman from getting the abortion - stay with me here - that reversed a ruling from late last week where a three-judge panel had said the government should find her a sponsor. The idea there being someone who could take responsibility for her so the government wouldn't have to be involved in any way in an abortion. Now the full appeals court reversed that and said that's not so easy to do.
INSKEEP: I need a little help here, Sarah McCammon, with some of the language that was used. You said the government said it was - its interest was not protecting the life of the unborn, which I would completely understand, that's been part of the political discussion for a long time, but to promote childbirth. Was the government saying that it had the right to do family planning for this young woman?
MCCAMMON: The arguments I heard didn't weigh in on that. But basically the government attorney was making the argument that it's the government's responsibility to protect her. And they said fetal life, and they see her giving birth as the best outcome. And she strongly disagrees.
INSKEEP: And is she now clear because the court ruling to do what she would like to do?
MCCAMMON: It looks that way unless there's an appeal from the federal government. So we'll have to wait and see.
INSKEEP: OK. Sarah, thanks very much for your work as always.
MCCAMMON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon on a court ruling at the end - possibly the end of a court case involving a 17-year-old who entered the United States illegally.
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