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He’s a young Democratic congressman who has made a name for himself voicing outrage at the president, this week on ‘Firing Line.’
Still in his 30s, Eric Swalwell is a media-ready legislator from California, known for talking…
Well, I saw collusion, you know, from the very beginning.
He is acting, at every step, like somebody who wanted to work with the Russians.
…work with the Russians.
…about the Russia investigation.
He’s working on behalf of the Russians, yeah.
With frequent trips to Iowa, Swalwell has made no secret of his presidential ambitions.
But is there more to his politics than speaking out against the president?
What does Eric Swalwell say now?
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by… and by…
Representative Swalwell, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you for having me on, Margaret.
You are a fourth-term member of the House of Representatives, and your party has just taken back the House of Representatives, which makes you chair of the CIA Subcommittee and the House Intelligence Committee, and you’re also on the Judiciary Committee.
And you’ve been traveling to Iowa a little bit lately and you’ve even mentioned that you’re considering a run for the presidency in 2020.
Well, Iowa —
Representative Swalwell, would you like to make news on ‘Firing Line’ and tell us whether you’re gonna run for president?
I intend to make news soon, but, right now, I’m considering —
But right now.
You could do it on public television.
Yeah, I’d better call my wife.
[ Both laugh ] What’s your decision tree?
Well, one, I think I could make a difference.
I don’t think anyone should run if you don’t believe you can make a difference.
I think I have a vision of going big on the issues, being bold on the solutions, and doing good, governing not by transactions, but by values.
Two, I think I could win.
Now, it’s not an easy path.
It is an uphill climb, I think, for every candidate.
But I do believe having national-security experience, especially while our country’s been under attack by a foreign adversary.
And, also, just I think coming from a part of the world where innovation really bring solutions to our everyday problems of healthcare and believing that if government was as innovative as the people, we could really lift up people’s lives.
You are from Northern California, near the Silicon Valley, where the tech industry is.
And, so, certainly, you talk about big ideas and how you’re gonna be part of those big ideas, but it defies conventional wisdom, on the Democratic side, that a young, white man is gonna be the person who’s gonna bring the Obama coalition back together in order to beat Donald Trump.
And why are you uniquely qualified to be president?
Well, I think if I was a young, white man that only saw other, you know, white men, that would be a problem.
I see all people.
I understand all people.
I’m the son of two Republicans.
My dad was a cop.
My mom worked a number of odd jobs to raise four boys.
And they believed that if they worked hard, they would do better for themselves and dream bigger for us kids.
So, now I’m a father of two kids under 2.
My wife still works.
We’ve got just under $100,000 in student-loan debt.
So we know that American struggle.
We live that struggle.
And we want to make sure that, you know, if you work hard, it pays off.
And, today, too many people, I think, just work to get by, and they don’t believe that they can ever get ahead.
Has politics gotten to the place in this country where, in order to elevate your position within and stature within your party and your caucus, you have to run for president?
Yeah. Well, that’s not what I’m doing.
And, so, going back to I would only run if I thought I could win, because there’s a lot of other ways I think you could serve.
This shouldn’t be a vanity project for anyone.
I would do it because I thought I could win.
Does the fact that Trump won and nobody expected that he won make it seem like a lower threshold?
It may lower the bar as far as who has been president, but I don’t think it should lower the bar on who should be president.
I don’t believe I’m the only person, ‘A,’ that could beat him or the only person that could do the job.
We have a lot of talented people.
But I think, you know, I have just gone through this hell, you know, in the last two years and the Russia investigation and I’ve seen what’s at stake.
And I’ve come to realize, Margaret, that Russia did not attack us to put someone in, transactionally, who would help them.
They attacked us to go at that idea of America that my family chased, which is that, if you work hard, you could become anything.
And if you can beat it in the United States, you can make sure it doesn’t reach Russia or any other place that has an oligarch-like system.
You’ve said you’ve gone through hell in the last two years.
You know, we felt so powerless for two years as we watched our democracy on the ropes.
And we didn’t really have the ability to do anything in Congress.
Republicans took out the shovels to bury the evidence to protect the president.
Now we’re not powerless anymore, and I think we’re finding our confidence as to how we can protect our country.
One of the things that’s helped you distinguish yourself is your — the facility with which you’re able to go on television and articulate a point of view.
You put yourself out there both on social media and on cable television.
We did a compilation of your social-media interactions.
In the last seven days, 42 of your 81 tweets have been about President Trump.
And you also are eager to highlight the president’s weaknesses, with respect to Russia.
I wanted to show you a clip of some of your recent appearances.
This evening, the question has shifted from whether the president is working with the Russians to, ‘What evidence exists that the president is not working with the Russians?’
You’re a member of the Judiciary.
Do you believe the president, right now, has been an agent of the Russians?
Yes. I think there’s more evidence —
What’s dumb is that the Republican Congress is not standing up to a president who went over to Helsinki, had a private meeting, agreed to turn over a U.S. ambassador to an enemy, and sided with them over our own intelligence committee.
At what point do you draw a line and say, ‘That’s not a U.S.
That’s just the prime minister of Russia defending the president of Russia.’
No, I’m gonna ask you that question.
At what point do you draw the line and not accuse the president of the United States without any evidence of being an agent of Russia?
Yeah. He’s betrayed our country, and I don’t say that lightly.
I worked as a prosecutor for seven years, and I —
But betraying the country — By the way, we want evidence before you say that, but you said an agent of Russia.
He works on their behalf.
Since he met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July, where he took the interpreter’s notes or hasn’t told any U.S. official what they discussed, he has taken us out of Syria, which is a top priority of Russia.
He sought to diminish or pull out the U.S. from NATO.
And he’s easing sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s friends, who are under investigation —
But he did pass sanctions against Russia.
He has armed the Ukraine.
He has killed 200 Russians in Syria.
I mean, those aren’t the actions of an agent of Russia, either.
He signed, I think, you know, begrudgingly, sanctions against Russia after Congress and people expressed concern and he got backed into it.
But as soon as he could, he has pulled those away.
What makes him an agent of Russia, though?
During the campaign, the Russians were offering — And we saw this in our investigation, and free-press reporting showed this.
They were offering their assistance to help him.
They were reaching out, you know, whether it was the Trump Tower meeting, whether it was, you know, the number of subject-line e-mails we saw that said, you know, ‘Russia, Putin, Trump — let’s connect them,’ whether it was trying to build a Trump Tower, and Felix Sater, a Russian-American who worked for President Trump saying, ‘If we connect Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, we can engineer this and make our boy president.’
He never turned down those offers.
In fact, after it was revealed that the Russians were attacking our democracy, he went to a press conference and said, ‘Russia, keep doing it,’ essentially.
We’re familiar with that sequence of events.
And that’s evidence.
No, but as a prosecutor, that wouldn’t be evidence in court.
I mean, as a prosecutor, you know the difference between hard evidence and circumstantial evidence.
I think an admission by a defendant is the most powerful evidence, and saying — asking somebody to continue to commit a crime, after they’ve already committed a crime — I mean, that is eagerness to collude.
I don’t know what else to call it.
And then I think you have consciousness of guilt by all of these follow-up cover-up actions.
Again, people only tell someone else to lie, people only lie themselves, people only obstruct justice if they’re afraid of what the underlying truth would reveal.
I’m still not hearing the evidence that he’s an agent of Russia.
Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear.
It’s almost hiding in plain sight.
You saw somebody standing next to Vladimir Putin, at that press conference in Helsinki, parroting what Putin would say and saying, ‘Well, Putin said that he didn’t attack us, so we’re gonna believe him.’
But are there things that you know, because of your position on the Intelligence Committee, that you can’t say publicly that lead you to make such a broad and serious statement?
I’m gonna just rely on what is already out in plain sight, and I think the Mueller investigation will present, you know, additional evidence.
And I hate to say that, but I believe our president is — He puts Russia’s priorities, because they’re his own priorities, ahead of the United States.
I think with respect to calling the U.S. president an agent of a foreign government, there are many of your critics who will think that you have gotten ahead of yourself.
Does that kind of a hyperbolic language elevate your position within the party?
Within cable news, it gives you stature, but is it responsible?
I think the best job I’ve ever had, no matter what I do, was working as a prosecutor, because you had to follow the evidence.
You had to make a case.
At the end of the day, you got closure when a jury deliberated and reached a verdict.
And here, I feel so passionate about the country that I love, that gave me so many opportunities, and I see somebody who I believe is just working against our interests and I see so entangled with Russia that I’m gonna make the case, and I don’t really care if it’s popular or not, because I think it’s the right thing to do, just like every verdict I ever got.
I sought those verdicts because I thought they were the right ones.
All right, you now have the power to subpoena.
Who’s gonna be subpoenaed next?
I believe you’re gonna see a new investigation into money laundering.
We weren’t able to pursue that over the last two years.
Every time we connected the dots, by the Trump family’s own words, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump saying that, ‘We’re seeing a lot of money from Russia flow into our organization,’ the fact that their bank, Deutsche Bank, was sanctioned for money laundering with the Russians.
We think that’s at least, as you would say in the law, probable cause to look further.
And we weren’t able to look further.
And we don’t believe that the Mueller investigation is doing that, because of its narrow mandate, but we think it’s important enough —
Wait. Most people don’t think the Mueller investigation has a narrow mandate.
They think it has a broad mandate.
At least, certainly, that’s the criticism from the Right.
Yeah. So, the president said, if you remember — He said that if Mueller was to investigate his finances, he would see that as a redline.
We don’t see any evidence that they are pursuing money laundering within the Trump Organization.
And you have said that you will get President Trump’s tax returns.
Yeah. That’s a priority of our caucus, yes.
It’s not me who can do it, but the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee can get that.
And Speaker Pelosi has said that we’re gonna see those tax returns.
How are you gonna get them?
So, by law, if the chairperson of the Ways and Means Committee requests it, it’s supposed to be turned over.
I’m not naive.
I expect a fight that will be tied up in the courts.
And we saw it even when we were able to get subpoenas of The White House in the minority on the Intelligence Committee, the administration fought us.
They either stood on executive privilege or made up privileges to stop us from getting what we need.
So we’re gonna have to depend on the courts.
Do you think you’ll find, in the president’s tax returns, evidence of money laundering?
I think if there is money laundering, that will be an important stream of information to use.
Again, I just see reason to look.
That’s, you know, the prosecutor in me.
You know, that’s enough to go forward.
Well, again, the fact that his own sons said, ‘We’re getting money from Russia.’
In my experience on the Intelligence Committee is that the Russians don’t just invest in people out of the goodness of their heart.
And Donald Trump Jr., when he went over to Russia in 2013, had said, ‘We’re seeing a lot of money flowing in from Russia.’
Into their properties, in terms of the ownership of their properties around the world that happen to be Russian-owned.
And the Russians — just as a tool, they use financial distress as a way to kind of make an in.
If they’re seeking to recruit somebody, they will prey on financial distress.
And Donald Trump, certainly, we all know, with multiple bankruptcies, has been in financial distress and is someone — And that’s how they get someone to become an agent is — you feel like you owe them something, so you have to act on their behalf.
And I think we should answer that question, ‘Is he financially compromised by them?’
If you had an ability to really deliver a State of the Union and really reflect on the state of the union, with respect to foreign policy, how do you find the state of our union?
Yeah, not good.
You think we’re weak?
We’re losing our friends, yeah.
We’re losing our friends, and it’s gonna cost us more, actually, at home.
Do you think that Russia is our number-one geopolitical foe?
Yes. Right now, I think they’re the most determined foe to work against us, ’cause they actually did attack us in the last election.
And now China, of course, is a looming economic threat and militarily, but I think as far as, you know, which one has punched us in the face recently, Russia did.
And they’re gonna continue to punch.
You’ve become this outspoken voice on foreign policy, specifically with Russia, because of your Intel Committee assignment, but if you ask all of the heads of all of the intelligence agencies, anything that they agree on, besides agreeing that Russia interfered in our 2016 election, the thing they most agree on is that China actually presents the most severe and significant long-term economic and national-security threat to this country.
Why, if that’s the case and you believe that, do you spend the overwhelming majority of your time on Russia?
Yeah, I don’t spend the overwhelming majority of my time on Russia, but on the —
Certainly on talking about it, certainly on television, certainly in your tweets, and certainly, also, on your legislation.
I mean, the largest bulk of legislation that you’ve written has been in response to the president and also with respect to Russia.
I would say it reflects the times that we’re in and the threat that we face.
I don’t think we can weather another presidential election where an outside adversary interferes and we do nothing about it.
I don’t think our democracy can sustain that, whether it’s Russia.
Whether they help the Democrats or the Republicans, or whether it’s China, we’re not going to allow outside interference.
And that should be something we unite around.
China represents a severe and military threat that is probably just as strong, if not stronger, more dangerous, and more severe in the long term than anything Russia presents.
So there is so much focus on Russia now, and you wonder if foreign policy becomes this zero-sum game where we end up not thinking about our long-term challenges because we’re so concerned about what’s in front of our nose.
We have to have the agility to not only stop Russian interference but also make sure that we understand the threat China poses, and also not just militarily, but economically.
And I think when you try and go one-on-one with China, economically, as the president is doing and you’ve alienated your friends and you’re just trying to do it on your own, you’re gonna lose.
Let’s go to the economy.
Complete this sentence.
The state of America’s economy is…
Insecure. It’s not working.
So, right now, about 78% of Americans, according to CareerBuilder, are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
It is hard to argue with 3.9% unemployment, highest wage growth in this last year, in 2018, than any of the past years in the past decade.
I mean, many of the fundamentals and the confidence of the economy are far better since Trump took office than they were under the previous eight years of President Obama’s presidency.
And I wonder if it’s just too difficult for Democrats to give the president a win.
No, I think if you look at this like a building, if you work on the top floor of the building, you’re doing really well, and those fundamentals matter.
The stock market matters ’cause you’re invested in it.
If you’re working on a lot of the floors below, where —
Yeah, but wages are up.
Today, over half of Americans couldn’t weather a $400 emergency.
And wages going up — they’re not matching the cost of healthcare.
They’re not matching the cost of transportation and housing.
But, overall, it’s difficult to argue that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act didn’t help the economy.
There’s no evidence that it’s helped the economy.
Well, do you think that the economy is just on fire —
At the top, at the top floor, yes.
C.E.O.s — they’re doing great, spending a lot of money, popping champagne.
But it’s not that the top floor is represented — if unemployment is 3.9%?
Yeah, but, again, if you’re working and you’re just running in place and not getting ahead.
That’s not the promise of America.
You just seem completely unwilling to say anything positive about this economy in relation to the leadership over the last two years.
Are you allergic to saying anything positive about Donald Trump?
No. I think his approach on North Korea was the right one at the beginning, and I praised that at the time.
At the beginning.
Yeah. Well, I think he’s lost focus and now, to him, is a political reason to distract from other issues.
But I praised him at the time for taking a different approach.
I’m not afraid to say when he does something right.
Let me ask you one other thing.
One of the criticisms that Democrats have about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is that it is likely to contribute to the national debt.
Do you care about the deficit?
I think some debt is good, if the return on investment is good.
Most businesses take on debt.
But that debt — 80% of the benefits went to the wealthiest Americans.
Trust me — I have no love for Conservatives who have said that they care about this issue and did exactly what Democrats criticize them — But I have a hard time understanding or believing that a Democratic Party, with a Progressive wing that is ascendant, is going to be the party that is going to do the responsible thing, to take the most predictable crisis coming down the pike at us, and take it by the horns and fix it.
Do you feel personal responsibility to tackle the 100% debt-to-GDP and our American sovereign debt levels?
Yes. I feel the responsibility.
How? What are you gonna do?
Well, I think if you look at some of the drivers of debt, which, of course, is healthcare and Social Security and also defense, you have to address those.
So, yes, I take it seriously.
I was a city-council member before I went to Congress.
We had to — We were forced to balance our budget.
I’m gonna hold you to it, because it is eminently very important to our national security.
When you think about the state our union, in the context of our political culture, how is the state of our union?
Well, you know, I see it in my own family.
A son of two Republicans.
I married a girl from Southern Indiana, who grew up with the Pences, and, you know, her family is pretty conservative.
And, you know, I can tell that something happened in 2016.
Our country is — You know, it’s always been, you know, fractured, but I think there have been moments, around big ideas, where we’ve come together.
And we haven’t seen that in a long time.
Do you fault the president, though, for this polarization?
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
No, I do.
I think he spoke to grievances and told us that we should fear each other before we love each other, and that’s hurt.
How do you feel about his Twitter habits?
You know, I’m not gonna say I’m innocent.
I’ve sent tweets where I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I really wish I didn’t send that.’
What are some of the tweets you regret?
You know, during the Kavanaugh hearing, Senator Collins was complaining of all the calls that her staff were getting, you know, about her position, and she said that, you know, they didn’t feel safe.
And I said something to the effect of, ‘Well, big deal.
You know, the poor victim had to move out of her house.’
And I really regret that.
And I didn’t mean to give equivalence to that.
And I respect Senator Collins in many ways.
And I think the emotions got the best of me.
And I tweeted that it wasn’t what I meant.
You say you don’t have perfect tweets, but you’ve called the president — You’ve referred to the president as a mobster presidency.
You’ve said the president’s team were liars and tamperers and obstructors.
I think that helps contribute to a hyperpartisan cycle that polarizes the country.
We’re living in quite extraordinary times, and so I want people to see, ‘That guy stood up to him.
He was a voice.
He mobilized other people to stand up to him.’
And if that’s not what happens, then I failed.
But I believe that’s what what we —
So, in a way, what you’re saying is — Donald Trump is such a threat that he has to be the sole focus of sort of your public platform.
I think everything —
You don’t have faith in our institutions to help the process of check and balances, that it has to be constantly tearing down the person who’s in the presidency in order to to save our democracy?
Our institutions don’t run on autopilot.
They take — They need the energy and activism of the people.
You say that this polarization is because of Donald Trump, but there is pretty good research from many of our public research foundations — the Pew Research Center, for example — that has documented polarization over time and notes that, you can see in this graph, from 1994 to 2004 to 2014, that the Left and the Right having increasingly gotten further and further apart.
So it’s not fair, I think, to argue that Trump has started this or is responsible for this.
He used the phrase ‘American carnage’ in his inaugural address.
Yeah, I found that horrific and personally offensive, and, yet, he didn’t create that gap.
That rift, as you said, was there when he was president, but I don’t think people will say that Barack Obama, you know, took a match and gasoline, you know, to the polarization.
I think he’s not a perfect president, but I don’t think, you know, people say that he made things worse, as far as our polarization.
The polarization absolutely increased under President Obama over, you know, many of his legislative efforts.
Maybe they weren’t as hyperbolic and maybe they weren’t about his Twitter feed, but the polarization has continued to increase and it has continued to increase not because of the person in the presidency, but because of these other forces.
You say you go on Fox News because your parents see you there.
Let me show you a clip of a recent interaction you had with Tucker Carlson.
So, you’ve talked a lot about Russia, but you’ve also become known for your position on guns.
Why shouldn’t my wife have the same firearm at home that your bodyguards use to protect you?
Is that fair or is that unfair?
Why is it unfair?
That’s a ridiculous argument.
Why can’t we have a real conversation about —
This is a real conversation.
Before I get you to react to that, in 1976, William F. Buckley Jr. had the Washington bureau chief of on this program, Tom Wicker.
And he was on to discuss politics and the press.
And they had a different kind of conversation.
You’ll notice a very different and very decidedly different tone and tenor to their conversation.
Let’s take a look.
Can you relate to what Buckley said there at the top, which is that, often, you see one side being made to appear unreasonable by the use of rhetoric, rather than by the use of reason?
Hasn’t that come to be the hallmark of the public square?
Yes. And I try and go back, again, to my training, which is relying on evidence.
I always want to make sure I have the evidence to back up the rhetoric.
Now, with Tucker Carlson, I like going on that show because I get to defend what I believe, and I know I’m gonna have the screws put to me.
And I respect the Fox audience who listens, because they matter, and I want to make sure that my perspective is getting through not just to my parents and my in-laws, but to them.
And I don’t mind having to defend my, you know, beliefs.
And I think my respect for the free press is shown in that I’ll go into that forum to do that.
I understand going everywhere, not just staying in an echo chamber that’s comfortable and going to places that are uncomfortable, but how does it feel when you get caught up in that spin cycle?
Well, I don’t want —
Where, clearly, reason and logic is not winning the day.
Well, I understand, you know, part of this is entertainment, and maybe that’s why some people keep the channel on.
But I don’t want the evidence, you know, to be lost.
And, you know, in 1-to-2-minute sound bites, it’s hard to put all of the evidence through and give annotations and —
No. It’s impossible.
It’s not that it gets lost.
It’s that it’s impossible.
I mean, those segments aren’t set up to elevate understanding of a particular issue.
They’re set up to elevate the emotions around a certain issue.
I was at the Minneapolis airport, just bellied up at the bar, waiting for a delayed flight, and a guy sat down next to me.
He served in the military, from San Antonio.
And he said, ‘I don’t agree with anything that you ever say when you’re on Fox, but I like that you go on there.’
And so maybe that — If anything, it just shows a respect for the audience that, you know, I still believe that they matter.
I’m not gonna discount them and only talk to people who agree with me.
But does it ever just feel ridiculous?
Yeah, there are times where all of this feels ridiculous.
But, again, people’s lives are on the line, and I want to be an advocate for them.
And I’ll go to the places where I have to do that.
If I can break through and make a difference, even just a small amount, then that matters.
Representative Swalwell, thank you very much.
Yeah. Thank you.
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