ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is a day that put in stark relief the gaping Republican divide between President Trump and the establishment of the party as well as where the party has been and where it's going. For much of the day, an escalating feud between Trump and Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker played out with the two trading insults online. But then another Trump critic went to the Senate floor and stunned his colleagues.
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JEFF FLAKE: I'm announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.
SIEGEL: That is Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake. He went on to criticize Trump without mentioning his name. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is with us now. And Domenico, how much of a surprise was this announcement by Flake today?
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: It's a very big surprise. You know, he was facing a primary threat in his state. But he made this broader and said that he wasn't willing to do what was necessary to win by his conscience. And he said that, you know, President Trump is essentially a threat to democracy. So when it comes from the top, it is a major problem.
SIEGEL: Let's take a listen to a little bit more of what Senator Jeff Flake said today on the Senate floor.
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FLAKE: I am aware that there is a segment of my party that believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect. If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States. If I have been critical, it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so and as a matter and duty of conscience.
SIEGEL: Senator Flake's voice there was shaking, Domenico - obviously a very emotional moment, a very emotional day for him.
MONTANARO: Absolutely. But you know, conservatives who are aligned with Steve Bannon and aligned with President Trump, Steve Bannon being the former chief strategist to President Trump in the White House, are celebrating today. You know, this is something that they were hoping for. They were going after Jeff Flake. They're going after other senators, including Bob Corker, by the way, that senator from Tennessee who's been feuding with President Trump. He's also retiring. So both of these men - even though they're speaking out against President Trump and what they see as threats to democracy, they're getting off the stage.
SIEGEL: Well, Jeff Flake told the Arizona Republic today - and I'm quoting now - "there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican party." Is he right?
MONTANARO: Well, what we're seeing frankly is a crackup in American politics. You know, I've been saying for a little while that I think that there are kind of four strains of political ideology in this country. You've got your sort of center-left and center-right political establishment, the kind of - on the right, you've got these - you know, the George W. Bushes, the John McCains, Bob Corkers, Jeff Flakes. And they're all coming out and criticizing President Trump, all feel like they're in the wilderness. But none of them really is in charge of the Republican Party at this point. This is President Trump's party. And Pew came out with a poll today saying there might even be eight strains of different types of people in this country, and none of them can understand any of the other.
SIEGEL: So Jeff Flake says he will not seek re-election, and unlike some other people at odds - publicly at odds with Donald Trump and the Republican Party, he's relatively young man who presumably had a future ahead of him. There was the Twitter feud between Senator Corker, who's retiring - senator - Republican senator from Tennessee - also speeches criticizing President Trump, if not explicitly by name, from former President George W. Bush, John McCain this week.
MONTANARO: Absolutely. But you know, you've got President Trump, who over the last eight, nine months - you know, he ran on the idea of draining the swamp. And there might be a lot of people who think that Jeff Flake, John McCain, George W. Bush aren't the swamp, but people from Trump's perspective do. They think that they are the swamp. So you're seeing the remaking of Washington, whether it's federal officials who have stepped aside or now these senators who've decided to get off the stage really, in President Trump's view, now here draining the swamp.
SIEGEL: And the difference here - the divide is both tonal. But also you could identify a set of issues or a political outlook that puts Flake, Bush, McCain, Corker on one side and Trump on the other.
MONTANARO: You know, it may come down to something of civility, but there's also globalism, the idea of free trade and less of this protectionism that really President Trump and this nationalism that's pushed for as opposed to something, you know, not wanting to push, you know, a disunification, especially when it comes to things like grievance, in particular white grievance.
SIEGEL: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro, thanks.
MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.