ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Well, the White House is trying to dismiss the scathing criticism coming from the Republican senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, saying in a nutshell, good riddance. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us from the White House to talk some more about this. And Mara, how would you characterize the White House response to the kind of criticism they've heard today?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I think don't let the door hit you on the way out is pretty good summary of their response. Sarah Sanders talked, as you heard her in Scott's piece, about the lack of support from the people of Arizona. So this was probably a good move on the part of Flake's. She clearly suggested the reason both men aren't running is because they'd lost support at home because of their attacks on the president, which actually has some truth to it.
Both of them, Corker and Flake, would have faced tough primary challenges. In the case of Flake, he was already running behind one of his potential primary challengers in the polls. And even if he won the primary, he would have had a hard time turning out Trump supporters to vote for him in a general election.
SIEGEL: So that's the, as you would say, the arguable case that the White House has made. On the other hand, one could say, well, they're trying to minimize what's a pretty significant divide in the Republican Party that's been very much in evidence this week.
LIASSON: It certainly has. I think this is significant. We've seen a lot of these moments of Republicans standing up and talking about the president's danger to democracy, to the Republican Party. You heard John McCain, George W. Bush speaking out about their concerns about the president. Of course Bob Corker has been sounding a lot of these same kinds of criticisms.
But I think what Flake did today was different. It was a real have-you-no-decency speech directed at his Senate colleagues. He asked them to speak up for principle, not to be worried about, quote, "alienating the base" or, he said, provoking a primary challenge. And you know, Flake occupies Barry Goldwater's seat in the Senate. He used to run the Goldwater Institute. He wrote his book. He called it "Conscience Of A Conservative." And Goldwater was the senator who went to Richard Nixon and said it was time to go.
I'm not saying that same thing will happen now, but Flake was calling on his fellow senators to be a check and balance. And he was asking them explicitly, he said, to counteract the same behaviors that they would find unacceptable if they were committed by a Democratic president.
SIEGEL: And implicitly by saying that he would not be complicit in political behavior that he found unacceptable. Indirectly, that was saying to his colleagues, what about you?
LIASSON: Right. It was definitely a challenge to his colleagues.
SIEGEL: This isn't the first sign of difference between Flake and Donald Trump. You could say, well, he was out on a ledge, opposing the leader of his own party - not a big deal.
LIASSON: That's true. We already - in some ways, he'd already sealed his fate. He wrote the book about the Faustian bargain that Republicans have made with Trump. But now he joins the small group of outspoken senators - Bob Corker, John McCain, Ben Sasse. These are Trump critics in the Senate who are not restrained from speaking out.
And this is not ideological. This is saying to other senators - talking to a democratic institution, an equal branch of government, he's telling them, say in public what so many of us are saying in private about our concerns about the president. He says, it's time for our complicity and acceptance of the unacceptable to end.
And he's not talking about policy. He's talking about character and behavior. You know, he said when reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior, when it comes from the top of our government - is dangerous to a democracy. And we should never accept as normal the casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. So that's a pretty strong speech from the Senate floor.
SIEGEL: But since, as you say, it isn't about political issues, does it have any likely impact on the White House agenda?
LIASSON: I don't think so right now. Jeff Flake is not a John McCain or a Rand Paul. He's not a maverick. He's a reliable conservative vote. And I don't think you can find a single vote where he or even Bob Corker have voted in opposition to the Trump agenda yet.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.