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642: The Impossible Dream

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. So one of our producers, Zoe Chace, had this whole plan to follow this senator for a year as he ran for re-election. And it was an interesting story because the senator is a Republican who does not like the president. And he talks about that all the time, and the president seems to despise him.

So would he be able to convince Republicans to vote for him? Republicans still overwhelmingly support the president. Zoe wanted to see him make the pitch. And then something happened that threw a wrench in her plans. Zoe?

Zoe Chace

Yeah, he resigned. He stopped running for office.

Ira Glass

Yeah, so that kind of put the kibosh on that story.

Zoe Chace

There wasn't a story anymore.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Explain who this is.

Zoe Chace

Jeff Flake, senator from Arizona-- he resigned from the Senate on October 24. And that day, he gave this big resignation speech on the floor of the Senate kind of slamming the president. In this political moment, it got a lot of attention.

Jeff Flake

It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals-- the personal attacks, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.

Zoe Chace

And this attitude, you might say, is the reason he had to resign. He'd been very outspoken about the president. He wrote a whole book calling the president basically unfit for office and a menace to our democracy. And that's why he couldn't win an election in Arizona.

There were polls that showed he only had a 22% approval rating among Trump voters in Arizona. So how could he win a Republican primary? So the story is dead.

Ira Glass

But then in December, something happens that changes everything.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, this thing happens where a Democrat gets elected to Senate in Alabama, which is weird. Doug Jones becomes the senator of Alabama against accused child molester Roy Moore. And that changes things because John McCain is out for medical leave.

The Republican majority in the Senate is now down to one vote-- 49 Democrats, 50 Republicans. Any one Republican senator can theoretically stop a bill by voting with the other side. And suddenly, this one renegade Senator, Jeff Flake, not beholden to the president, has a lot of power.

Jeff Flake

Zoe.

Zoe Chace

Hi. Hi, Senator.

Jeff Flake

Long time no talk.

Zoe Chace

So how does it feel to be the most powerful senator in Congress right now?

Jeff Flake

[CHUCKLES]

Zoe Chace

Seriously.

Jeff Flake

Where'd you get that?

Zoe Chace

A lot of people.

Jeff Flake

[CHUCKLES] You're running in strange circles, then.

Zoe Chace

It does give you more leverage though, right? I mean, are you feeling that?

Jeff Flake

Well, I don't feel it yet because it hasn't happened yet. But when the new senator is seated, then perhaps.

Zoe Chace

This is as much as you'll get Jeff Flake to admit he's excited about something. He is an understated guy. I can tell he is pleased. Flake's essential for Republicans to get to 50 votes. For all the things, they need 60 votes for in the Senate. He has new leverage there as well.

Ira Glass

And so Zoe asks Jeff Flake, could she watch him try to execute this new-found leverage? And he said sure, and she's been following him since then. Because Flake is in this interesting position.

Any Republican who is up for re-election this year, there are all kinds of things they cannot say or do because Donald Trump and his voters will punish them. They can't cross the president. They can't cozy up to Democrats. But because Flake isn't running, it's like he's bulletproof. It's like he has this superpower.

He can do anything he wants, say anything he wants, take risks to get things done. And he decides to do something with that new-found power and leverage. And what he decides to do is pass what could be his very last bill. And the thing he goes for in this bill is DACA-- legal status for kids who were brought to the United States by their parents, and then grew up here in the United States.

It's 800,000 people who have signed up officially as DACA kids. Super popular issue-- 80% of the country supports giving the Dreamers legal status. The president said he wanted it. The majority of the Senate wants it. If anything should be able to pass, it should be DACA.

So Zoe followed him trying to pass DACA for four months. She talked to him when he would come off the Senate floor, when he was heading to the White House. She hung out with him in his office when he was stressed out late at night.

And of course, you probably know Flake, he does not succeed, right? DACA does not pass. The president tweeted, in fact just last weekend in all caps, no more DACA deal. DACA is dead. And so today on our show, what you're going to hear is you're going to hear Jeff Flake fail.

And just to say it, of course, it is not a big surprise to anybody that Congress is dysfunctional. And it's hard to get anything done in Congress. But watching somebody actually trying to do something, to pass a bill, you see how the nature of Congress' dysfunction has changed in ways that are very specific to Donald Trump.

And OK, yes, we take for granted right now how messed up Congress is. We don't even think twice about that. But for this hour, I would just ask you to open your mind and heart to the idea that there is another way this could have gone with DACA.

And arguably, it should have gone if our democracy was working like we read about in high school, that when a vast majority in a democracy want something, it happens. For Jeff Flake, after those four months were done-- after playing the game the way everybody else does, which you'll hear him do at the beginning of the story-- politicking and horsetrading votes.

After all that, even he comes to see differently how Congress should operate. So that's our show today. It'll be in four acts which correspond roughly to the four at bats Senator Flake gets to push DACA forward. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: The Bluff

Ira Glass

So if you remember, back in September, President Trump ended President Obama's DACA program, leaving Dreamers in limbo with the threat of eventual deportation. And he gave Congress six months to pass a bill, six months to fix things for the Dreamers.

The deadline was March 5. The clock started ticking. That's how long Jeff Flake has to get this done. And let's just jump right in with Act One-- Act One, The Bluff. And we're going to start at the first place that Jeff Flake can try to exercise his leverage and his new-found bulletproof superpower.

And that is December. It's late December, when Congress is all about trying to pass their tax cuts. You might remember this. They wanted to give the president a big victory before the end of the year. They wanted to prove that a Republican House and Senate and White House could work together to actually get things done.

The date is December 19. Zoe Chace takes it from here.

Zoe Chace

We zoom in on Flake's Senate office in the Russell Building. Because the Republicans are so desperate for a win and because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs every vote he can get, no Democrats will vote for the tax cuts.

This is Flake's moment that he was counting on. It's an opportunity to use the leverage he has to move DACA ahead. He and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, cook up a plan. He proposes a trade to Mitch McConnell-- my vote for the tax bill in exchange for a promise to get a DACA bill on the floor by the end of January. And now they are just about to vote.

Zoe Chace

You're the last holdout on this tax bill.

Jeff Flake

Am I?

Zoe Chace

Are you undecided on how you're going to vote on that?

Jeff Flake

I mean, if you're negotiating for something outside of the bill, you never indicate where you'll be for certain. Never say what you're going to do. [CHUCKLES].

Zoe Chace

This is a bluff. Flake loves the tax bill. He loves tax cuts. He knows he's going to vote for the bill even if he doesn't get what he wants. Eventually, he tells me that. But he doesn't tell anybody else.

We hop onto the Senate subway. And another reporter tries to get it out of him.

Reporter

Have you made up your mind on the--

Jeff Flake

I'm still working.

Reporter

--tax vote.

Jeff Flake

I'm still working on the DACA issue.

Zoe Chace

The funny thing is the tax bill can pass without him. They think they have the 50 votes they need already. If you're some kind of Congress nerd and you're counting, Doug Jones hasn't been seated yet. John McCain is out on medical.

But who knows? They just got the 50. Bob Corker, Republican from Tennessee, he recently came around for no apparent reason. With things in flux like this, maybe someone could flip. And then Flake would have a lot more leverage.

And Flake's been working on a DACA bill with other Republicans and Democrats, a bipartisan bill. And he wants that bill to get a vote.

Jeff Flake

Bring it to the floor. Agree to bring it to the floor. Use me as an excuse. Say we've got to get Flake. So we had to agree to DACA. That's done a lot. I mean, you've--

Zoe Chace

How do I describe Jeff Flake? Suit and tie, clasped hands, earnestly looking at me on his office couch. I mean, he's a senator. He's deeply earnest to the point where he's kind of dorky.

He's a Mormon. He's super disciplined. He often goes to the gym twice a day. He has this way of being more hopeful than it seems like he should. When it comes to Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate, Flake often seems like Charlie Brown running to kick the football to McConnell's Lucy.

But right now, he feels like the power dynamic has changed. Jeff Flake is suited up. He feels like he has some moves. About immigration, when Flake talks about it, he often talks about economics. We're an aging country. We need workers. He has a libertarian mindset about it.

The economics are personal to him, though. He grew up on a cattle ranch in northern Arizona. His dad hired undocumented immigrants. And he got to know them. And he liked them. He writes about one of them in his book, this guy he grew up with, Manuel.

It's in that kind of tokenizing style that politicians can use when they write about real life people caught up in national policy. But I've spent enough time with him to know that his feelings on immigration-- they are sincere, they are deeply held, and they are different from a lot of his colleagues. So Manuel.

Jeff Flake

Manuel came when I was just very young. And he was young himself. He was 16. And we thought he was old and wise. And he worked in the shop mostly on the farm and would fix just anything that broke. And baling wire, duct tape-- some of it wasn't pretty. He was never much of a welder. But he--

Zoe Chace

Flake worked all summer on the ranch, too. He says he was always breaking the equipment. So he ended up hanging out a lot with Manuel, talking about his girlfriend.

Jeff Flake

One conversation that we still laugh about-- he's asking if I was dating anybody else. I said, no, no, just Cheryl. And he said-- his English by this time was pretty good. But some of the phrases were a little off.

He said, Jeff, you know the saying. He said, when the cat is gone, the mouse, he can run around. [LAUGHS] And--

Zoe Chace

Flake was on Manuel's side. When the border patrol would come and do these roundups, Flake would pull his hat down low over his head and ride his horse in the opposite direction of where the workers were, trying to lure the Cessnas away.

He just saw Manuel at his dad's funeral last year. Manuel's got a green card now, seven kids. One's adopted. A merit-based system, he says, like the president has called for-- it wouldn't account for all these guys I've known who made their lives here, made the country better. That's how he sees it.

Flake's worked on immigration bills practically every year-- 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006. He was part of the Gang of Eight that tried to do comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. DACA is the bare minimum of what he would do if he could. He'd love to make it much easier for more people to work and live here. But there's no place in his party for that idea anymore.

DACA, though, DACA is different. Most people like DACA. As we rush Aaron Sorkin-style through the Dirksen Building, he explains how he gets even more leverage if another Republican peels off. That's what he's waiting for. And the most likely person that could be right now hours before the tax vote is Senator Susan Collins.

Jeff Flake

And she called me this morning. And she has some issues.

Zoe Chace

Collins has her own deal also unrelated to the tax bill, that she's trying to use her tax bill vote to get leverage on. She wants some stuff to patch up Obamacare. And she's been threatening to vote against the tax bill if that isn't addressed. Yesterday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went on the Senate floor and promised to address her issues. But Flake says Collins' situation is still a little shaky.

Jeff Flake

She had a long meeting with the vice president today. So she's close. But it's still working on a few things.

Zoe Chace

That's good for you, huh?

Jeff Flake

But--

Zoe Chace

But she's not going to necessarily pull what you're pulling. She's pulling for something else.

Jeff Flake

Right. She pulling for something else. But we both-- it works out.

Zoe Chace

He ducks into a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Meanwhile, calls are flooding into his office. You're a Republican. Support the president's tax bill. Have a spine. Vote against the president's tax bill.

When I catch up with Flake that night, he still hasn't heard from McConnell. To be clear, what Flake is trying to get is modest. He's not trying to get an actual DACA deal done or a formal announcement. He just wants a sort of pinky swear from the Majority Leader.

The Majority Leader will not make any public promises about DACA right now. Flake believes that's because he's scared. It'll make Republicans in the House flip out and endanger the tax cut bill. OK, fair enough. He can work with that.

But notice just how hard it is to get this simple thing done. Flake heads off to talk to McConnell to try to get his firm commitment. And he leaves me behind in his office where I suffer two off-the-record hours with his Chief of Staff Chandler Morse, one office over from Flake's. We talk a lot.

Chandler Morse

What did you think was going to happen?

Zoe Chace

Chandler is a character I wish I could tell you more about. I'm allowed to reveal the following things from those hours. Between calls and emails, he ate a seven-day-old, seven-layer bean and salsa dip. Then he ate a Popsicle. He texts and emails like his life depends on it.

At 10 o'clock that night, Flake shows back up with news.

Now what?

We hustle into his office. And he runs me through the story of the two hours that just happened.

So right-- so you left here, you went to go talk to the Majority Leader.

Jeff Flake

Well, he was over in the Mansfield Room. We're all eating dinner, and I sat down. And he said, you OK on this? I said, no, no. I said, I need to know if we have a commitment to bring this bill up in January because that was what we were talking about before.

Zoe Chace

To bring up the DACA bill.

Jeff Flake

And he said, I can't. I can't commit. I don't want to commit to something that I can't deliver on. And the spending bill is now kicked into January. And I just can't.

Zoe Chace

Oh, no.

Jeff Flake

And so I said, well, you couldn't do it in December. And I understood that. But January, even if there's a spending bill, we have to do on the 17th, that still leaves quite a bit, a month. No, I can't do it. Can't commit. And so I just walked away.

Then later he came back over a bit and just said, I hope you understand. I just can't commit. I never commit to bring bills up.

Zoe Chace

McConnell doesn't like immigration. Flake thinks he thinks it's generally a losing issue for their party. Plus McConnell has the votes without Flake. And anyway, I'm guessing he sees through the bluff and knows Flake is going to vote for the tax bill no matter what.

Jeff Flake isn't a sulker, exactly. But it's hard to imagine what else he could have been doing over dinner while Chandler was upstairs, chewing on a popsicle stick and texting him. He was out of moves. But then, after McConnell left, the vice president called him, Mike Pence. And Flake gets back a sliver of leverage.

Jeff Flake

For Pence, they don't want any Republican voting against this bill.

Zoe Chace

They just want it to look pretty.

Jeff Flake

I mean, obviously.

Zoe Chace

The White House wants every Republican on board for the tax vote. It'll look good that way, a united front. Pence and Flake go way back. They were famously tight when they were both in the house. They've been strained lately.

This has caused Flake a little anguish. They don't agree on the president. There's always a pretty intense wistfulness mixed with defensiveness when Flake talks about Pence. And he talks about him a lot actually because that's his only big connection to the White House.

Their long friendship was forged when they both stood up to President Bush over No Child Left Behind and then again over his prescription drug plan. They both love tax cuts. They both hate spending. Anyway, he's a bit tortured that he and Pence are on different sides now.

Jeff Flake

And Pence, he and I are close. We talk about tax cuts. And we've been working on this stuff for a long time. This has been-- best friends in the House. I think it's been a personal kind of thing for him. And I understand that.

We always stuck together back then. We like to stick together when we can. And I think he saw it as his personal mission kind of, too. So he gave me all kinds of good reasons. Frankly, to vote for the bill, I didn't need to hear them. But Mike, you know, he's a good friend. But I've made no commitment after that call.

Zoe Chace

Remember, he is actually voting for the bill but not letting on to his buddy Mike. This bill that, under different circumstances, they would be celebrating together. Also there's a good chance Pence knows Flake's bluffing. So they're kind of playacting with each other.

Zoe Chace

I mean, did it feel bad?

Jeff Flake

Yeah, well, and I mean, yeah. Mike said, well, we're going to get this done. The president's committed. I'm committed. Paul's committed in the House.

Zoe Chace

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House-- Pence is saying they'll do it, DACA. Everybody wants to do DACA. But they're not going to publicly commit to doing it right now.

Jeff Flake

The Senate, they know they've got to get it done. It will get done. Your name is going to be all over it, whatever else. I said, if they'll get it done, I'll step back, take my name off of all of it, and just vote for it. Just get it done. I just want to get this done.

And he said, no, I know. I know. Just know that we're going to get it done with no commitment.

Zoe Chace

As Flake's recounting all this to me late night in his office, we're interrupted by a phone call.

Zoe Chace

Weren't there just points today where you were like, I should just say, yes.

[PHONE RINGING]

Oh, go ahead.

Jeff Flake

Hello.

Zoe Chace

It's Lindsey Graham. Lindsey Graham is Flake's Republican partner in crime on the DACA bill. He's kind of the Ernie to Flake's Bert, wisecracking where Flake is earnest and shy. It turns out there was a final dramatic scene that happened just before Flake came back to talk to me, that he was about to tell me before Lindsey Graham called. But now I get to hear him tell it to Graham on the phone.

Jeff Flake

Hey, you know what happened?

Zoe Chace

So after dinner, in the Mansfield room, in the long call with Mike Pence--

Jeff Flake

Mitch called me.

Lindsey Graham

What did he say?

Jeff Flake

He gave a commitment. Firm.

Lindsey Graham

Did he?

Jeff Flake

Yeah. You got that right.

Zoe Chace

In a surprising twist, not long after Flake hung up with Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell called his phone and abruptly reversed himself. "I don't usually do this," McConnell said to Flake, "But--" And he went on to give Flake what he wanted. He committed to bring DACA to the Senate floor in January for a vote.

The bluff worked. Even if McConnell saw through it to begin with, he decided he had to be sure of him. Flake got his DACA vote promise. And it happens, Flake learned, because of what happened with Susan Collins.

Jeff Flake

She called me while I was on the phone with Mitch.

Zoe Chace

Flake was on the phone with Mitch McConnell when Susan Collins beeped in. He put Mitch on hold, clicked over, said hi to Susan, told her to hang on a second.

Jeff Flake

I just put her on hold while I finished the call with Mitch.

Zoe Chace

He clicked back over to McConnell. He wanted to make sure he got his commitment. He got it. Then he hung up with McConnell and got back on with Collins.

Jeff Flake

And then learned that the deal with her had gone south.

Zoe Chace

She was calling Flake to let him know her deal with McConnell had changed and see where he was at. And where he was at was psyched because he, just moments ago, gotten what he wanted.

"This is good news," I can hear Graham crowing on the other end of the phone.

Jeff Flake

But anyway, we got the commitment. By the end of January, they're going to bring up our bill. We've just got to finish. We've just got to finish it.

Zoe Chace

"That made my night!" Graham yells.

Jeff Flake

OK.

Zoe Chace

They hang up.

Jeff Flake

Bye.

Zoe Chace

And then almost immediately, his phone rings again.

[PHONE RINGING]

It's Vice President Mike Pence. Flake tells me to stop recording.

Zoe Chace

OK.

I later piece together how this all went down and learn just how convoluted the backstage maneuvering was that night that finally got Jeff Flake what he wanted. Leverage wasn't enough. He also got lucky.

Mike Pence seems to be the reason that Susan Collins' deal and Flake's deal both changed at the last minute. And their deals changed because of another issue I didn't see coming, abortion. Susan Collins wanted that Obamacare fix.

At the eleventh hour, these antiabortion activists met up with Mike Pence because they heard about Susan Collins' Obamacare fix. They thought it would result in federal dollars going towards abortions. They did not like that.

Mike Pence is passionately, vigorously against abortion. That is his big issue. Pence then met with Collins. As best I can tell, this meeting changed things for Collins' deal. And she was unhappy about it. And in fact, the provision she wanted did get kicked down the road.

After all that, McConnell's office wanted to be absolutely certain of every Republican vote because they'd been burned by a defection just three weeks before. So McConnell made a game-time decision to call Flake and give him what he wanted with DACA.

Male Speaker

The Sergeant at Arms will restore order in the gallery.

Zoe Chace

And later that night, when the tax bill comes to the floor--

Female Speaker

Senators voting in the affirmative-- Alexander, Barrasso, Blunt--

Zoe Chace

Collins votes for it.

Female Speaker

--Collins, Corker--

Zoe Chace

She votes for it even though she apparently got shivved at the last second.

Female Speaker

--Daines, Enzi, Ernst, Fischer, Flake, Gardner, Graham, Grassley, Hatch, Heller, Hoeven, Inhofe, Isakson, Johnson--

Act Two: Flakes Second At Bat — Now With the President

Zoe Chace

Act Two, Flake's Second at Bat-- Now with the President. It's weird to be inside a senator's office, listening to him gossip with other lawmakers like a kid on the phone and then see that gossip become news and then government business.

A commitment on a cell phone between two guys seeps out through the halls of the Capitol and onto cable TV.

Anchorwoman

The lawmakers are negotiating a bill impacting undocumented immigrants.

Anchorwoman 2

Immigration, specifically DACA.

Anchorman

Really, DACA is at the center of everything.

Anchorman

And keep in mind, Senator Jeff Flake is expecting a DACA bill signed in the new year.

Zoe Chace

McConnell gives a press conference on December 22, a few days after the tax bill passes.

Mitch Mcconnell

We have a commitment on a bipartisan basis to address the DACA issue. And there's a working group. And I've said to them, if they can come up with an agreement that the administration is comfortable with, will devote floor time to that in January as well.

Zoe Chace

Pay attention to that phrase.

Mitch Mcconnell

--an agreement that the administration is comfortable with--

Zoe Chace

Sounds as monotonous as the rest, totally standard. Just keep it in mind because that is not the deal Flake thinks he got. Anyway, now that Flake has dealt with McConnell, he has to get the White House on board.

Up till now, it's been relatively normal political horse trading. Now all that's going to change. It's not an easy thing for Flake to do to ask Trump to work with him. Trump and Flake do not get along in a very loud and public way.

Like recently, Trump went to Arizona and trash talked both Republican senators, first John McCain and then--

Donald Trump

And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who's weak on borders, weak on crime. So I won't talk about him.

[BOOING]

Donald Trump

Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is.

Zoe Chace

Here's a question. Have you talked to the president? Has he called you or anything?

Jeff Flake

I was at the White House on the NAFTA issue.

Zoe Chace

I saw you on TV sitting next to him.

Jeff Flake

That hostage looking photo, I guess. That's--

Zoe Chace

You didn't look relaxed.

In this photo, his lips are pressed together. He looks like he's sitting as far apart from the president as he can get. One of the NAFTA renegotiation meetings-- Flake's a NAFTA fan. Trump calls it the worst trade deal ever made.

Jeff Flake

As soon as I walked in that room, I thought, I'm going to be next to him, aren't I? Yep. But he did pull me aside and said that he had spoken to Mike Pence and others and that he expressed again his desire to move ahead on DACA. He said, we're going to get this done.

Zoe Chace

This conversation weeks ago remains a North Star for Flake. The president said, we're going to get this done. So we're going to get it done. He believes that. He understands that what the White House wants for DACA is the wall.

And for a while the main question is what's a wall. How expensive? How many miles? In December, the White House finally gets specific. It's going to be $2 billion worth of wall this next year along with other border security stuff. Flake is like, great. We're moving forward.

And then just after the New Year, the loop de loop begins. The White House is like, surprise, and drops this list on them. It's the hardest of hard-line immigration policy dream wish list.

Jeff Flake

The White House threw the kitchen sink in and just all of it. Let's do a sign on policy, sanctuary cities. Let's do everything. Let's fund the wall, the whole thing. Let's put that in there.

Zoe Chace

This is not what Flake thought this bill was going to be. Honestly, it surprised me, too. Given what the White House had been saying, it was an abrupt right turn. To get any deal in the Senate, Flake knows it'll need Democrats and Republicans both. And now the Democrats are mad.

Anchorman

Democrats are slamming the administration's plan for a border wall including Senator Dick Durbin, who said--

Zoe Chace

Dick Durbin's like, you're piling all these draconian immigration enforcement measures on the backs of Dreamers. That's not what we've been negotiating. Trump's like, maybe the government needs a good shutdown if you're so mad. The Democrats are like, yeah, maybe it does.

That brings us to January 9, a big meeting between the White House and lawmakers. It's the first with Democrats. So it's a big deal. It's supposed to get everyone on the same page. Smooth out all the misunderstandings so they can make this happen.

But as is routine for this White House, there are some distractions. As you may remember, the Michael Wolff book, Fire and Fury, has just come out.

Anchorwoman

Richard, isn't it remarkable that we're talking about the president's mental state?

Zoe Chace

People are openly questioning the president's sanity on every TV in the Capitol.

Male Speaker

This is not mentally stable behavior.

Male Speaker

100% of the people closest to the president believe that there is something wrong here.

Zoe Chace

There's also news of potential military strikes against North Korea this morning. Reporters catch Flake in the Dirksen hallway.

Reporter

Senator Flake, on a separate foreign policy note, there's a report today that the administration is considering what they're calling nose--

Jeff Flake

A bloody nose?

Reporter

Bloody nose strategy in North Korea, where they would strategically strike several sites. Have you seen those reports?

Jeff Flake

No, I have not. I have not. I have to look at it first.

Reyna

Hi, Senator Flake. I'm Reyna. I'm a Dreamer. We've met.

Jeff Flake

Oh, hi.

Zoe Chace

That voice-- that's a woman who comes up to Flake, a DACA recipient named Reyna. This is starting to happen a lot. Everywhere we go in the Capitol, we run into DACA kids. Sometimes it's in big groups in matching orange shirts and orange beanies, yelling, "Dream Act Now."

Reyna came here with a small group. She drove 48 hours from Arizona. And she's different from other Dreamers I meet at the Capitol. She's more like a Politico reporter than an advocate. She knows there's a bipartisan bill in the works. She knows that Flake is working on it. She knows there's a meeting today at the White House.

She says, we're just kind of worried to see if you would see something happening in terms of the deal coming closer.

Reyna

I'm just really kind of worried to see if you would say something happening in terms of the deal that's coming closer.

Jeff Flake

We're going to the White House right now for a bipartisan meeting. And it involves 27 people.

Reyna

That's so many people.

Zoe Chace

A bipartisan meeting with 27 people. Reyna and Flake worry together that's too many.

Jeff Flake

Too many. It's not going to be that much negotiation. But we're-- all I can say is we're doing all we can.

Reyna

Well, thank you so much for your leadership. And we just want to be able to be helpful.

Jeff Flake

All right. Thank you. Nice to meet you.

Reyna

Nice to meet you.

Jeff Flake

All right.

Zoe Chace

When Reyna talks to senators, she talks strategy. She doesn't tell her story. To be honest, that's the way to talk to Flake, I think. He can seem a little cold when it comes to constituents.

I rarely hear him talk about what Dreamers want. He talks about what Schumer wants, what McConnell doesn't. Reyna and the other Dreamers are in the weirdest legislative cul-de-sac imaginable. Their issue is immensely popular, which you'd think would be an asset. But in fact, it's a curse.

Reyna comes to learn that. Flake's seen it already over his many years' negotiating immigration deals.

Jeff Flake

We've always had the DREAM Act, or DACA solution, before it was called DACA, that we realized that we could have taken to the floor in either the House and Senate and passed relatively easily because there's so much public support out there. But it was always put as part of the broader package because we needed the other things as well.

Zoe Chace

Because the Dreamers are so popular, they're often used as a spoonful of sugar to make tougher immigration measures easier to swallow-- stuff like border security, restricting visas, or on the Democrat side, legalizing even more immigrants.

That's the curse of DACA. The most valuable thing about it, on Capitol Hill anyway, is the possibility that it could be used to pass other stuff. So even though we're a democracy, even though 80% of the country wants DACA, the country doesn't get what it wants because there's no incentive for Congress to just put it to a straight up or down vote.

And everybody here takes this for granted. So when President Trump canceled DACA in September, DACA become this sort of brass ring again, everyone grabbing at Dreamers for their own agendas. That's why Flake thinks nothing will happen in this White House meeting-- too many people, too many agendas.

Jeff Flake

There are people there today who I'm convinced don't want to deal at all. And so anyway, that's what my concern is.

Zoe Chace

OK, all right. I'll see you when you get back.

I wasn't allowed into the White House meeting. So I was expecting to just get Flake to tell me later. That proved to be unnecessary.

Donald Trump

I'm thrilled to be with a distinguished group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both the House and the Senate. We have something in common. We'd like to see this get done.

It's DACA. We've been talking about DACA for a long--

Zoe Chace

There are TVs all over the Senate building tuned to CNN. Chandler, Flake's chief of staff, and I are getting coffee. And notice the cameras aren't leaving the room. All of Washington ends up watching almost the whole meeting on cable TV. This is a pretty infamous meeting talked about a lot since.

It's one of the starkest moments of reality TV of the Trump presidency. The part at the beginning where everyone's getting along. The president calls a potential deal a "bill of love."

Donald Trump

Truly, it should be a bill of love. And we can--

Zoe Chace

His agenda seems to be prove to everyone he's not crazy. Prove his own tweet that he's a very stable genius. Maybe because of that, he says yes to things he's never wanted before or since.

At one point, Senator Feinstein offers a straight-up DACA bill, no wall attached.

Dianne Feinstein

Would you be agreeable to that?

Donald Trump

Yeah, I would like to. I think a lot of people would like to see that. But I think we have to do DACA.

Kevin Mccarthy

But Mr. President, wait.

Zoe Chace

Kevin McCarthy, House Republican, is like, no, dude. No. Trump moves on to another guy.

Donald Trump

Jeff?

Zoe Chace

Jeff-- I crane my head at the TV to see Flake at the end of the table.

Jeff Flake

For those of us who have been through comprehensive reform, that was six, seven months of every night negotiating.

Zoe Chace

He says, doing all the stuff that you're listing that you want, Mr. President, by March 5, that's too hard.

Jeff Flake

That's why we'd make it a phase two. We do a phase one, which is DACA and security. And we do phase two, which is comprehensive immigration. And I think we should go right to it. I really do. We do one. And we then do the other. But we go right to it, yes.

Zoe Chace

Flake got him to say just what he wanted-- phase one and phase two, DACA and wall first, maybe one or two other things. The bigger, more major changes the White House wants, they'll come later on a separate bill, phase two.

After demanding the kitchen sink just a short while ago, Trump's now throwing the kitchen sink out. Everyone in Washington knows that phase two will never happen. Well, Trump doesn't. But Congress knows that Congress cannot pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

But whatever. This will work. It's whiplash but whiplash that Flake thinks breaks his way. I'm not able to meet up with him right after the meeting because he's busy giving TV interviews. When we finally catch up in the Capitol building that afternoon, he's in a completely different mood.

The news cycle's mood has shifted, too, from alarm over the president's mental state to thrilling over Trump the deal maker. The president's "act like a sane person" strategy seems to be working.

Jeff Flake

Have we talked since the meeting or no?

Zoe Chace

Nope. No, that was all the other reporters.

Jeff Flake

Sorry you weren't there. You weren't there. Where you been?

Zoe Chace

I couldn't get to the White House, man. Luckily, the whole meeting was recorded.

Jeff Flake

Aw, man. Woo!

Zoe Chace

What'd you make of it?

Jeff Flake

Frankly, I had pretty low expectations going into it. But there were some useful things that came out of it. Yeah, he expressed more flexibility than some in the room were comfortable with, I think.

And then when the cameras left, he kept referring to phase one and phase two. And that's what we've been wanting.

Zoe Chace

When I heard that, I thought that was the thing that you've been asking for.

Jeff Flake

Yeah, it was. Yeah, we talked during the private meeting. That's when I kept trying to come back to him. Thank you for recognizing that we can't do it all in the next month, that we've got to stick to certain items. And then we can come back to the other things.

Zoe Chace

Flake's doing a thing here that I saw a few times. He's such an accentuate-the-positive kind of guy, it's almost like he only heard the parts he wanted to hear. At the meeting, Trump also talked about not letting in killers and ending chain migration. That that was urgent. But Flake's focused on this one point.

Jeff Flake

He made it clear a number of times that he's not going to be doctrinaire on this, more in transient, that he will sign whatever gets to him. That he trusts us to put something together, and that he'll sign it.

Zoe Chace

I mean, you sound kind of excited. You seem like--

Jeff Flake

Yeah, a little better.

Zoe Chace

During my months with Jeff Flake, one thing I didn't understand for a long time was his ability to stay optimistic after years of disappointment over this issue. It was confounding. I knew that part of his optimism is political strategy. He's using that attitude with reporters, with the administration, with his colleagues.

But he came to realize at the same time this is his nature. He can't be different. A few months ago, I asked him about The Book of Mormon. I saw it on his desk. I saw him reading from it on his phone and listening to the audio book through wireless headphones.

He's devout. He doesn't drink coffee. He goes to church every Sunday. Doesn't drink or swear. And he told me one of his favorite parts of The Book of Mormon is in the last several passages of Alma, which tells the story of people who, Mormons believe, lived in the Americas long before Columbus arrived. There's a character called Moroni, a military captain.

Jeff Flake

And he grew pretty angry at the government at that time led by a guy named Pahoran, who was a good guy. But Moroni who was also a really good guy, assumed that the government was holding out, not giving them their war supplies and whatever else.

Zoe Chace

He writes a threatening letter to Pahoran, saying, why are you ignoring me? Long story short, it's a misunderstanding. Pahoran was under siege by the enemy and just couldn't help Moroni. But Moroni had no way of knowing that.

Finally, Pahoran got a chance to tell him. And he didn't get mad at Moroni or anything.

Jeff Flake

He said, no, you're a good man. And you just don't have all the information. They were both fine after that. They reconciled. Something like that tells you to bridle your passions, not assume the worst. Assume the best. Look for the good. Things usually work out.

Zoe Chace

Assume the best. Look for the good. It's his motto. He talks about it a lot. It was written out on an index card on his parent's fridge growing up. He says, you'll find it in every one of his 10 brothers and sisters houses, too. It's his attitude towards everyone, even Trump, who Flake can't stand.

Throughout this whole negotiation, Flake continues to say, Trump wants a DACA deal. He has better instincts on this than his advisors, he says. It's the Moroni in him.

When I come in the next morning, January 10, I find out Flake's been up most of the night.

Zoe Chace

Good morning.

Jeff Flake

Good morning. Where have you been?

Zoe Chace

Since the president has said he'll sign whatever he gets, different factions of lawmakers start writing their own bills with their own priorities. It's a race to get a bill to the president and prejudice him in favor of the first one he sees.

Jeff Flake

You missed a good DACA meeting last night.

Zoe Chace

I did?

Jeff Flake

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

Well, what happened?

Jeff Flake

It was just called kind of on the fly. But we met, the six of us. And it's what the group has become.

Zoe Chace

The Gang of Six, all immigration bill veterans, half Democrats, half Republicans. Flake's staff spends the day finishing the draft of the bill. Flake's feeling good about it. Really good. At one point, a bunch of students come by.

Student

--that you will not be running for re-election. So with that, what do you want your legacy to be as senator?

Jeff Flake

[CHUCKLES] Get DACA done. That's it. That's for Zoe's benefit right here.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, no, I appreciate it. I took a note.

He's a little tired of me asking about his legacy all the time. So I did appreciate it. By that night, in his office, he's dreaming big. He's imagining the president selling the deal at the State of the Union in 2 and 1/2 weeks.

Jeff Flake

And for the State of the Union address coming up at the end of the month, the president-- it sure would be nice for him to stand up and say, we've got this bipartisan deal done. I'm sure the president wants to do that. I would if I were him.

I mean, the president's only going to endorse a bipartisan deal. We just hope he'll get behind this one. And we can move it through quickly.

Zoe Chace

And you think the President will only endorse a bipartisan deal? It's hard to know what he's going to do, right?

Jeff Flake

I do think that he's there.

Zoe Chace

OK, so you guys, you have your deal.

Jeff Flake

Right.

Zoe Chace

Is it written down on a piece of paper?

Jeff Flake

I have three sheets that-- I have three sheets here which talk about what we've agreed to.

Zoe Chace

Just then, Senator Bob Corker shows up. Like it's the "attack the president and quit the Senate" club meeting.

Bob Corker

Hey, guys.

Zoe Chace

Senator.

Bob Corker

How are you?

Jeff Flake

Hey.

Zoe Chace

Chief of Staff Chandler basically hooks my collar and literally throws me out of the room.

Zoe Chace

Whoa, what?

Chandler Morse

I grabbed you out of there.

Zoe Chace

Why? Because Corker was like, why don't you stay? I was like, I have some place to go.

Chandler Morse

That's not what happened.

Zoe Chace

Rude.

I sit next to the coat rack behind a scheduler and wait. I'm holding the immigration deal outline in my hand. For one sweet Washington moment, I am the only reporter who has it, I think. I fight the urge to tweet it out. It's an urge I never thought I'd have. But being down here, it becomes a thing.

I read the bill and realize there's so much in here for each side to hate. DACA kids get citizenship but only after 12 years. They aren't allowed to sponsor their parents for citizenship. But the parents do get work permits.

Republicans get an end to the visa lottery program. And Democrats keep those visas for other immigrants. And there's money for the wall. In other words, it's a compromise. Corker leaves. I'm back in. Flake's leaned way back in his chair, his feet up on the desk, on the phone with Dick Durbin. They're cracking each other up.

Jeff Flake

[LAUGHS]

Zoe Chace

For this one moment, it really seems like this is going to work, like Washington is going to work. They're going to do something.

Jeff Flake

[LAUGHS] Oh, that's great.

Zoe Chace

At the end of the night, we get on the Senate subway back to the Capitol Building.

Zoe Chace

Let me put it this way. You've been through this before. So what's going to blow this up?

Jeff Flake

What's going to blow this up?

Zoe Chace

Mm-hmm.

Jeff Flake

If the president hears from the base. Some people get in the White House and see him and say, you can't do this.

Zoe Chace

Which is exactly what happened.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace. Coming up, Flake's prophecy fulfilled plus a trip to the South Pacific. That's in a minute. Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: When the Cat’s Away, the Mouse, He Can Run Around

Zoe Chace

I wake up the next morning to mass confusion. Somehow or other, the strategy has gone off the rails. I'm on the House side doing another interview, but it's easy to track Flake. He seems to be going from reporter to reporter, saying they have a deal. I'm reading this on Twitter. Eventually he shows up on TV.

Anchorwoman

The fact that there is a deal came from Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Jeff Flake

An agreement that we're-- the bipartisan group I'm talking about, the six of us working, that we're shopping among our colleagues now.

Zoe Chace

This was not the plan. Flake knows his name on the deal could kill the deal for the president. He often flies to Arizona as soon as he can on Thursdays. He's incredibly close to his wife, Cheryl. The youngest of his five kids is a senior in high school.

I'm basically running with him to get to the airport.

Zoe Chace

So you're running around the capitol saying you've got a deal.

Jeff Flake

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

Why are you doing that?

As we rush out to the car waiting to take him to the airport, Flake's press officer runs after us, pulls him back, and literally whispers into his ear. It's weird. I've never seen them do that before. We get in the car. I don't know if it's vanity or strategy that's making Flake talk out of school.

Zoe Chace

Drive slow. What were you doing today?

Jeff Flake

Oh, man.

Zoe Chace

Why did you do that?

Jeff Flake

Why did I do what?

Zoe Chace

Why did you tell everyone you had a deal?

Jeff Flake

Because we have an agreement. We do. We do. The six of us-- between us. We had the agreement.

Zoe Chace

I know. I just thought that you were going to wait for the president to talk about it before you talked about it.

Jeff Flake

All I said is we pretty much have an agreement when I was asked about it. That's not going rogue I wouldn't think. I've gone rogue. This wasn't rogue.

Zoe Chace

It was a little vanity and a little strategy. Flake had been watching Fox News the night before to get a read on how the president's base was taking the immigration developments-- badly, it turns out. After one day of praising his presidential-ness and deal making chops, they were now furious at him for selling out to "Flake Jeff Flake" and the Chuck Schumers of the world.

Flake figured the deal might die then if it was getting brutalized on Fox. So he wanted to make the deal public to keep it alive at least among other members of Congress. As he's explaining all this, he gets a call.

Jeff Flake

OK. But for the record, I never even said that. I never used the word. [LAUGHS]. OK. All right. Sounds good. Bye.

Zoe Chace

You OK? What's happening?

Jeff Flake

Nothing we can talk about on tape.

Zoe Chace

The whisper, this call-- something weird is going on. There's something Flake's not telling me.

Zoe Chace

All right. I don't ever like to go off the record with you because I don't want to set a precedent-- but I just want to know if there's anything I should be prepared for.

I put the mic down. The president said something unflattering to the president, Flake says to me. Like, the president said something that would make him look really bad if it got out. And with that, he walks over to the airport.

My mind raced through what this president could possibly have said that would be that bad. And I will not share those thoughts with you. Because anyway, 139 minutes later, we all found out.

Male Speaker

They all are s-hole people who live in s-hole places. S-hole--

Female Speaker

[BEEP]-hole countries.

Male Speaker

All countries in Africa are [BEEP]-holes.

Male Speaker

Why do we want these people from, quote, "All these [BEEP]-hole countries here."

Zoe Chace

There was no coming back from that. The deal was dead. Flake didn't mess it up by blabbing about it. In fact, it went down exactly like Flake predicted the night before.

Jeff Flake

Some people get in the White House and see him, and say, you can't do this.

Zoe Chace

We even know exactly when it must have happened-- between 10:00 and noon that morning. Because at 10, when Dick Durbin called the president, Donald Trump seemed psyched to hear from him. He wanted to hear what they came up with.

So Durbin and Lindsey Graham went over to the White House. There's been a ton of good reporting on this. So you may know the story. By noon, when they arrived, the president was a different guy. Graham and Durbin walk in.

And there are hardliners in the room-- Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, and from the White House, the chief of staff, the Head of Homeland Security, and Stephen Miller, the anti-immigration obsessed mastermind, the president's domestic policy advisor.

The president was in a bad mood. Everyone was. "Why do we have all these people coming from [BEEP]-hole countries in Africa," he said, "And not from places like Norway?" And now Trump hates the proposal.

In the space of two days, he's gone from wanting the kitchen sink in exchange for DACA to wanting a bill of love, DACA and the wall and a few other things. Now he was back to wanting the kitchen sink.

This is not how this is supposed to go. Usually the president signals to the Congress what he wants to do. The Congress signals to the president what they might pass. When it's the same party, those priorities line up. And they march along like a three-legged race, pushing and pulling a little bit but headed towards a common goal, like say Obama on Obamacare.

This is a Republican Congress that can't move in sync with this White House because looking for signals from this White House, it's like a flaming, screaming siren of noise. As demonstrated this week, every new person who walks into the Oval Office can flip the president to their side.

Let alone what he sees on TV every morning and every night, you can't get a clear signal from someone who turns on a dime like that. So politics has turned into this game of red light, green light. When the president turns on the green light, everyone runs toward him, trying to make a deal. When he turns on the red light, everyone has to stop.

You can't build up momentum towards anything. You can't find a compromise that'll please him. In that environment, what's a senator to do?

Act Four: It’s Our Prerogative

Zoe Chace

Act Four, It's Our Prerogative. In the weeks after [BEEP]-hole, I started to hear Flake using a word I find shocking coming out of his mouth.

Jeff Flake

[CHUCKLES] It's just frustrating.

Zoe Chace

The more Flake has lived with this red light, green light thing, the more he's decided that's not what the Senate exists to do. The regular process of waiting to hear what the president wants and respond to it-- in normal times, that might make sense.

But Flake's like, this guy is nutty and changes every five minutes. And we don't have to do that. We have the power to force this president into committing to something.

Jeff Flake

Well, we're an equal branch of government here. And we've been acting like we're not. But I do think that if we-- we'll actually pass something here. And I believe it will be the bipartisan bill, the one in the middle. Then the president will find a way to like it.

But we just can't wait and can't just give away our prerogative here. And that's what we've been doing. And it's just not right.

Zoe Chace

Flake's vision is this-- if the Senate passes something with 60 votes, especially something like DACA, it'll force the president to like it. This is what happened with the Russia sanctions bill. The president didn't want to impose sanctions, at least the way Congress was demanding.

Then the Senate and the House voted overwhelmingly to do it. And he signed it reluctantly. He signed it, quote, for the sake of national unity. And once the president says yes, Jeff Flake thinks, even if a bill seems too liberal for the House, the House will just go along with the president because that's what they do.

Jeff Flake

The key is in the end, what Trump could call an apple and an orange, and the House would buy it, I think. I would say that. So it just depends on him.

Zoe Chace

This is not Mitch McConnell's idea of how things should work. Remember that innocent phrase he uttered back in December?

Mitch Mcconnell

An agreement that the administration is comfortable with.

Zoe Chace

He'll only bring a bill to the floor that the White House supports. Blake said that was never part of the deal. But he says that's generally been McConnell's approach with this president. Only bring stuff to a vote that the president wants to sign.

January 19-- it's been one month since McConnell's commitment to bring DACA to the floor in January. And he shows no intention of bringing up DACA. In fact, he's made it clear he will not. And the entire US government is about to come to a standstill over this disagreement.

The Democrats have watched Flake get burned by McConnell. And now they step forward with their own moves to try to force DACA to the floor. Chuck Schumer goes to the White House and, over cheeseburgers, tries to cut a quick last minute deal with the president-- $25 billion for the wall in exchange for DACA. A huge sum, more than the White House has ever publicly asked for. Trump rejects it.

So Democrats set their sights on McConnell. They tell them to bring DACA to the floor or they'll shut the government down. They won't vote for the spending bill that comes before the Senate that night. McConnell doesn't budge.

You know how this ends. The government shuts down. But watching them try to avoid it at the last minute that night was kind of wild. I watched from the Senate press gallery. All the congressional reporters were pressed together on this balcony above the Senate floor.

They were telling me this is rare. You barely ever see this, watching them negotiate in public in front of you. You're so close, you feel like you should be able to hear them. But you can't, so you watch closely. The senators head to the floor for a vote around 10:15 that night. And they stay out there till after 1:00 AM.

The drama all revolves around McConnell and Schumer, who are refusing to talk to each other. These two grown men, who have worked together for years, who are in charge of the Senate, sitting on opposite sides of the room not looking at each other, with all these other grown adults running around them just trying to get them to speak.

If it were a ballet, Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham were the principals, whirling and spinning all over the room between the Democrats and the Republicans, seemingly trying to cut a deal. All the Democrat lady senators, at one point, were gabbing in the corner until Graham bursts in.

Rubio, Cruz, a couple of the other guys, sat in a row in the back like kids smoking cigarettes on the bleachers too cool to engage, cracking each other up. At some point, for no obvious reason, House Republican Dana Rohrabacher wandered onto the floor and veered around, looking bedraggled. But through all this, the two people with the power to stop a shutdown, McConnell and Schumer, they barely budged from their chairs.

Chuck Schumer

Very sadly, we are on the precipice of a government shutdown.

Zoe Chace

Occasionally, they got up and scolded the other one without looking his way.

Mitch Mcconnell

I think our friends on the other side took some bad advice. Really bad advice. I'd hate to have to be trying to explain this, myself. They held all this hostage, over the completely unrelated issue of illegal immigration.

Zoe Chace

And it ends there.

Man

The Senate stands adjourned until 12:00 noon today.

[GAVEL BANGING]

Zoe Chace

We meet back in Flake's office at 2:00 AM. His staff is lying on the floor in the dark, watching movies. Flake's hair is spiked up on his head from running his hands through it for hours. See you tomorrow, Flake yells as I leave. He sleeps in his office.

Oh, man, the government is shut down, I say to Flake's scheduler on the way out. What a time to be alive, she says back. In the outside world, people are wondering what the shutdown means. Who is going to be furloughed? What's this going to cost?

Anchorman

Fox News alert, Uncle Sam turns out the lights. Now the blame game is in full swing as the government shuts down.

Anchorman

Tension on Capitol Hill following the government shutdown.

Man

This is utter madness!

Zoe Chace

Meanwhile, inside Congress, it's a really different vibe. It's like a fun sleepover. I pop in on Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. And he's hanging around in his socks. Senators are posting sunset pictures from the Capitol to Twitter. Reporters are tweeting out which Chinese place lunch is from.

Graham and Flake out to get fajitas. A bipartisan group of senators comes together to end the shutdown. They meet in Susan Collins' office. For the first time in forever, it's like true bipartisan deal making over bagels and coffee. It's exciting. Susan Collins institutes this beaded talking stick. You can't talk in their meetings unless you're holding it.

Jeff Flake

I got it first to talk about what I was proposing the group accept. And then they handed it around till Lamar Alexander got it.

Zoe Chace

22 people in there, nine Republicans, 13 Democrats, everyone in a circle. Alexander's talking about Senate process.

Jeff Flake

And Mark Warner across the room interrupted him and then interrupted him again. And Lamar, mild mannered Lamar, takes the stick like a javelin, and threw it at--

Zoe Chace

[GASPS]

Jeff Flake

--at Mark Warner.

Zoe Chace

Oh my God.

Jeff Flake

Lamar ducked. It hit the wall. You could've heard a pin drop. It was the quietest-- just complete and utter shock. Anyway so, and then the meeting went on for the rest of time. Then today--

Zoe Chace

Lamar Alexander, channeling the frustration of the entire country over his own powerlessness in that moment.

In the middle of the shutdown,

Flake goes to the floor of the Senate and makes a speech trying to rally other senators around his cause, pitching his dream that they don't have to cater to the president. They can pass their own bill and nail the White House down that way.

Jeff Flake

The best way out of this is for the Senate to be the Senate again. We are an equal branch of government. And to say that we won't move on a particular topic until we have agreement from the president when we've waited for weeks and weeks and weeks for that kind of agreement or that kind of nod or signal, we can't wait anymore.

Let's more jealously guard our prerogative here as legislators. And let's bring an immigration bill to the floor.

Zoe Chace

No one seems to be signing up. That's Flake's issue in general. He seems to talk to an invisible group of Republicans that no one else can see, Republicans who agree with him.

As you know, the shutdown ends. The final deal is this-- three more weeks of government funding and an agreed upon time for a DACA deal to come to the floor. That's exactly where they were a month ago. McConnell took it away. McConnell gave it back.

As you also know, DACA has not passed. There is no DACA deal. The one Flake supported, the bipartisan talking stick deal, the Trump administration issued an apocalyptic statement tearing it to shreds. None of the proposals got enough votes to pass.

It's widely acknowledged they'll pass no more bills this year. No more major ones, at least. Jeff Flake failed. For the last few years, Jeff Flake has done this weird, very nonpolitical thing. He goes to a remote Pacific island and lives there for a week to see if he can survive on his own.

He grew up obsessed with survival stories-- his favorite guilty pleasure, he says-- Shackleton, Robinson Crusoe, anyone who was basically in a sailboat, capsized, ended up on a life raft, and got to an island. He wanted to know, if I were marooned on an island, could I survive?

He first tried it back in 2009. He went somewhere near the Marshall Islands for a week, lived on spearfishing and coconuts. He got lonely. So he wrote numbers with a Sharpie on the hermit crab shells so he could keep track of them. See which ones were friendly. He liked it so much he went to another island a few years later with two of his kids and then the next year with a Democratic senator to make a point about bipartisanship.

The Discovery Channel filmed it. Called it Rival Survival.

Narrator

The barrel full of life-saving water lies nearby. But unless they can build a fire to purify the contaminated water, they're at risk of acute dehydration.

Jeff Flake

He's a proud Democrat. I'm a proud Republican. But I'd gladly vote for any of Martin's bills if he could just start a fire.

[SQUEAKING]

Aw, come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Flame, flame. Come on.

Zoe Chace

Flake and Heinrich never make a fire on the island. They could have just brought matches with them. But they were caught in a reality TV show game where the rules were arbitrary and rigged against doing the obvious, simple thing. You see where I'm going with this.

It takes a very particular kind of person to put up with rules like that and maintain a go-get-em, can-do attitude, and come back again and again. And Jeff Flake is still at it. Last I saw him, he was bringing a new DACA proposal to the floor. He says he's going to keep bringing it up until it passes.

Zoe Chace

Do you think other senators think it's silly that you're out there still talking about DACA?

Jeff Flake

Some of them, yeah, probably. Move on, Flake. No, still got time. Still got to do it. I'm excited. This is going to do it. This speech is going to change minds. [LAUGHS]

Zoe Chace

I can't tell if you think that or not. I really don't know.

Jeff Flake

I see that it's working. No, I mean, what choice do you have? You move ahead.

Zoe Chace

Maybe he's acting, strategically playing the part of the optimist, pretending things will turn around next week. Maybe he has faith that things will truly turn around next week. After all this time, I still find it hard to tell. There's a little Don Quixote in him for sure.

But there's also a long game that he's playing. And I'm on to it now. He's trying to force his view of governance into being by constantly acting as if things are different from this political reality, that how it is now doesn't have to be the way it always is.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our program.

Our program is produced today by Ben Calhoun and our senior producer, Brian Reed. Our staff includes Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Alvin Melathe, Nadia Reiman, Lilly Sullivan. Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. I caught him two-timing me with another radio host, Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace.

I finally confronted Torey about it and he said no, no, no, they're just good friends.

Jeff Flake

He and I are close. We talk about tax cuts.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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