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Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake: We Can't 'Change President's Behavior, But We Can Change Our Own'

Jeff Flake
Jeff Flake
Jeff Flake.

MARK BRODIE: ... Saturday's shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and the recent wave of pipe bombs sent to critics of President Trump have given more urgency to ongoing conversations about political rhetoric and the political culture in this country. And yesterday Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake denounced a U.S.-funded international Spanish-language broadcast program, which used anti-Semitic language about philanthropist George Soros. The senator called for an investigation into how the program was produced and aired. And Sen. Flake joins us now to talk about all of this. Senator, good morning.

  JEFF FLAKE: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

  BRODIE: Well, thanks for being here. So tell us about your objections to this, to the broadcast, first off. And how was it brought to your attention?

  FLAKE: Well, I've been following that radio and TV Marti programs that we've had for the past 25 years, in order to try to bring democracy to Cuba. The problem is the content is just so bad. And TV Marti, for example, we spent about $25 million a year to broadcast a signal that doesn't even reach Cuba. Never has, never will. It's just a jobs program in Miami. So that's bad enough, just a waste of money. But then to learn as I did just a few weeks ago from a friend of mine who monitors this stuff, as the TV Marti broadcast piece that they produced about George Soros, that they then led into that calling him a "multimillionaire Jew" and claimed that he was responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown. And just a horribly anti-Semitic piece, and this is funded by the taxpayers and broadcast supposedly to Cuba — doesn't reach there, but it reaches elsewhere in Latin America. And so we've asked for an investigation. Anti-Semitism is bad enough in this country without the U.S. government funding it.

BRODIE: Have you gotten any indication as to how exactly this happened, like how that was produced and how it made it to air?

FLAKE: The new director of the broadcasting arm, for government broadcast programs was put in after that show aired. He later, but very later, pulled it off the digital platform and said that it failed to have balance. There is no balance that works when you put up an anti-Semitic piece. So that's what we're trying to investigate. Now, many of these programs including Cuba Broadcasting Service has had new employees basically put in from the new administration and some of them are drawn from organizations like Breitbart that have kind of a history of pushing kind of be alt-right into programs. So this is not surprising to me at all. But it's surprising that they would actually produce a piece and put it up there like this.

LAUREN GILGER: Senator, you've spent a lot of time talking about the rhetoric of this administration. This example with this Spanish-language service is obviously an example of a broader problem in this country. Do you think that, like you said, anti-Semitism, and this sort of hate speech is out there enough without taxpayer money funding it, but what do you think this says about the broader conversation in this country right now?

FLAKE: Well, we need a broader conversation. We're not in a good place right now. The target of this piece, George Soros, is often kind of the boogeyman for Republicans running for office. He does fund a lot of liberal causes, no doubt, but the way he is portrayed is really a thinly veiled dog whistle to those who might be anti-Semitic. And it just does not help the conversation at all. So we've got to be in a better place. And I just am very troubled that where we are particularly to find that the U.S. taxpayer is actually funding some of this right now.

BRODIE: Senator, we've heard over the last several days with all the pipe bombs being sent to various people and organizations, of course, on Saturday with the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue. It seems as though there's this effort to try to assign blame for what's going on and sort of the climate and the rhetoric and the culture in this country. And without doing that, because it seems to me that's kind of pointless, I'm wondering if there is something to be said for, you know, sort of leadership starting at the top. You know. President Trump has come out and condemned the violence but sometimes in the same speech. Done and said things that some people take to condone that kind of thing. Do you think that the president has been strong enough on trying to set a better tone and maybe even set a better example for people in this country?

FLAKE: Well yes, he should. And he has — he's the president of the United States, he has the biggest microphone not only in the country but in the world. And he's not used it well. His continuing to refer to the press as "enemy of the people," he needs to know, and I think he does know, and that's a problem, that that phrase does not have a noble pedigree. It was used by some of the worst dictators in history, and we shouldn't try to emulate them. And when we should note that there are a record number of journalists that are being jailed around the globe and a record number have been killed. And to have the president stand next to Duterte of the Philippines for example, and laugh while President Duterte referred to the press or the media as spies. That matters. Words matter. And the president can do far better than he's done. And, like you said, you're not going to assign blame to anyone. The perpetrators of pipe bombs, the man who did this is the one that's responsible. But there's a backdrop here that we got to be much more careful and the president being the man with the biggest microphone has a unique responsibility that he has not used well.

GILGER: Senator, I wonder then, what you think should change? I mean, I'm not sure we can get the president to change his rhetoric at all at this point or the political conversation. But you've spoken out a lot about his rhetoric, about the general sort of discord in our political process, and the rise of this sort of hate speech. What do you think should change and how could we go about doing that?

FLAKE: Well, you're right. I don't think the president is going to change. I think if we're waiting for him to pivot, that time has come and gone. But as elected officials, we can stand up and say, "Hey, this is out of bounds. This should not happen." And the elected officials who continue to appear with the president at rallies where "lock her up" chants are encouraged and routine and phrases like the president is using. I can't imagine, as an elected official, attending a rally like that and not stand up afterwards or beforehand and say, "Don't do this, don't do this. This is not right." So we may not be able to change the president's behavior, but we can change our own, and we shouldn't appear with the president when he's doing this kind of thing.

BRODIE: All right. That's Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. Sen. Flake, thanks a lot for your time. We appreciate it.

FLAKE: You got it. Thanks.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.