ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One of the Republicans we've checked in with here to see how he's handling the nominal leadership of Donald Trump over the party is Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Senator Flake has not endorsed Mr. Trump. He cited Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration as one obstacle. The last time he was on this program, he said of Trump's candidacy, I am still in the first stage of grief - denial. Well, the second stage of grief is anger. And when I spoke with him earlier today, I asked if that's where he currently is.
JEFF FLAKE: (Laughter) I hope I'm past that one, but...
SIEGEL: ...Well, it ends in acceptance. Are you there?
FLAKE: I'm not at acceptance. No, I'm not.
SIEGEL: What about his remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel?
FLAKE: You know, I can't say it was a surprise, but this seems to take it to a new level. And I think the reaction shows that.
SIEGEL: Senator Lindsey Graham said this about that - he said, this is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy. If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There'll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary. Has this time come for you?
FLAKE: Well, I'm not going to vote for Hillary Clinton, but I can't see myself voting for Donald Trump, certainly. I have not endorsed him. I don't plan to. You know, I think we were all hoping that we would see Trump 2.0 when, you know, he was a presumptive nominee. But, you know, we've got the new Trump - same as the old Trump. And I can't see supporting him.
SIEGEL: A number of leading Republicans have criticized Trump's remarks about Judge Curiel. Paul Ryan said today that it fit the textbook definition of a racist comment, actually. But they've continued to support him. I mean, do you think that leaders of the Republican Party - your colleagues in the Senate - should at least make their support conditional, even if they've already announced it, upon what Trump says and does?
FLAKE: I don't want to speak for anyone else, but I think there will come a time where you simply can't support him anymore. That time came for me a while ago. There's always hope that he could change, but that hope is diminishing. So I do think this is a perfect opportunity, the off-ramp that Lindsey Graham talked about. I don't know how many will take it. It's not a comfortable position, I can tell you, to be in, to not support your party's nominee. That's just not a position I want to be in or anybody else. But as a Republican, to countenance these kind of statements - I just can't.
SIEGEL: You remarked on how you had hoped - and when we last spoke, you had hoped that there would be perhaps some different tone coming out of the Trump campaign. It would seem that when challenged, the candidate just doubles down. That is, Mr. Trump just doubles down and repeats what he's been criticized for saying. Is it pointless to wait for Donald Trump 2.0 at this stage?
FLAKE: It might be. We've got a long time, though, between now and November. And, you know, he has doubled down. That's kind of been his shtick. And the polls have been OK during a Republican primary. But there is a big difference between winning a contested primary and winning a general election. And I think you can also expect renewed and different scrutiny now that he's a presumptive nominee.
SIEGEL: His campaign seems to react by saying that the scrutiny is unfair. You think he should expect more of the same from now through November?
FLAKE: And more. And more. Welcome to the big leagues. You know, running for president - you know, that's a whole new level of scrutiny. But I can tell you as a candidate - I ran in 2012 for the Senate when there were candidates on the ballot, other senators around the country - Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin with statements with regard to legitimate rape and whatnot. And I can tell you what a tough thing that was for other Republican candidates. And these folks weren't at the top of the ticket. And so it really does present a challenge for other Republicans.
SIEGEL: Senator Flake, as recently as yesterday you were quoted - at least on MSNBC - as saying, I hope to be able to support the nominee, but I certainly can't right now. You sound a lot more negative than that today - than you did yesterday.
FLAKE: Well, I would've thought that given the outcry, that Trump would've walked these statements back. He has not. And it leads me to think that it's probably not going to happen, so I'm decidedly less optimistic than I was just days ago.
SIEGEL: Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican of Arizona, thanks for talking with us once again.
FLAKE: You bet. Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And since I spoke with Senator Flake earlier today, Donald Trump did issue a statement that read in part, I do not feel that one's heritage makes them incapable of being impartial. But based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.