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GOP a ‘grotesque caricature’ of what it was before, says former Sen. John Danforth

John Danforth, a former Republican senator, garnered attention last month when he denounced Sen. Josh Hawley's role in the Capitol attacks and expressed regret over his previous support for the Missouri lawmaker. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his views on the modern-day Republican Party, former President Trump's impeachment, and the impact of questioning the legitimacy of the election.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to talk more about where the Republican Party is right now, I'm joined by former Republican Senator John Danforth of Missouri.

    Senator Danforth, thank you so much for joining us.

    You garnered a good deal of attention last month when, after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, you were quoted as saying that your support for your home state Senator Josh Hawley a couple of years earlier was — quote — "the worst mistake you have made in your life." You said he was instrumental by his actions in creating perhaps the darkest day in American history.

    What did all that say about the Republican Party?

  • John Danforth:

    Well, it says that the Republican Party today is not just different from what it had been. It's the opposite, in many ways, of what it had been.

    America needs a strong, responsible conservative party. That has been the Republican Party. It is neither strong, nor responsible, nor conservative today.

    It's losing, I think, its grip on the country as a whole. It's becoming increasingly a regional party. With almost no exceptions, the Northeast now is gone as far as the U.S. Senate is concerned. The West Coast is completely gone.

    So we're in decline. And in the last two presidential elections, President Trump lost in 2016 by three million votes. He lost in 2020 by seven million votes. We're going in the wrong direction.

    But the worst thing is that we have become really kind of a grotesque caricature of what the Republican Party has traditionally been. We were founded as the party of the union, of holding the country together. And now we have got on this populist tack, which is very much us against them.

    There are conspiracies out there involving liberals and corporations and big tech. They're picking on you, the American people. You should resent this. You should feel your grievances. We feel them for you. And we're going to continue to create wedges to drive Americans apart.

    So, it really is, as I say, kind of a grotesque departure from the tradition of the Republican Party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, when Senator Hawley and others say they don't see anything wrong with challenging the election results — and, in fact, Senator Hawley himself said what he had done was not an effort to overturn the election — what is the danger? What are the consequences in challenging a legal election outcome?

  • John Danforth:

    Well, the consequences are what you saw on January the 6th.

    It was there, then, an attack on the Capitol Building. It's a fracturing of the country. Previously, the certification of the Electoral College votes was a mere formality. I never attended one. I mean, they may have lasted an hour or so.

    But what Hawley did was to create an event. He announced that he was going to object, that he was going to make this into a big deal, and then he repeatedly said that the election was in doubt, that January 6 was going to be the decisive day, this wasn't over yet.

    And then he appeared in front of the Capitol Building in that famous photograph encouraging what was going on. So, yes, I mean, it's not the democratic process. He claimed that all he was trying to do was to use the opportunity to speak. He didn't speak.

    I mean, when Pennsylvania came up on the floor of the Senate, he remained in his chair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let…

  • John Danforth:

    So, it was really an effort to create an event, and there was trouble that was created in that event.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other things.

    I want to ask you. We know what Senator Hawley said, did, what Senator Cruz did, but it's also others in the Senate, the leader, then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, your other home state senator, Roy Blunt.

    They were saying as late as December that President Trump had — there's no evidence that President Biden had won, even though, as you just said, he had won by seven million votes. Should they be held accountable, too?

  • John Danforth:

    Well, I think, really, the question is what Republican elected officials are hearing from their constituents and what they're hearing from the Trump types and from Trump, because what they're hearing is, if they don't toe the line, they're going to lose their jobs.

    And most people, understandably, are motivated by self-preservation. They don't want to lose their jobs. So, all the pressure now has come from the — what I would call the populist wing of the party, or the Trump wing of the party. And the rest of us have been just pushed and pushed and pushed.

    And it's really time now for us to start pushing back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Should President — former President Trump be convicted in this upcoming trial in the Senate?

  • John Danforth:

    Yes, absolutely, he should.

    If this — if what he did doesn't warrant conviction, what does? Now, some people say, well, is this constitutional to do this after he's left office? Most legal scholars would say yes.

    But I think that debating that is kind of a subtlety right now. And the real question is, what is the position of the Republican Party with regard to President Trump and how he behaved in office and what he did to our country?

    And I think anything other than a strong vote of conviction by Republicans is going to be viewed, rightly so, as condoning Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Senator Danforth, as you know, most Republicans are saying that they don't believe he should be convicted. At least they have said they don't think the process is not constitutional.

    How do you explain that?

  • John Danforth:

    Well, I think that they're looking for some reason to duck the vote. And I think that they're looking for a reason not to, in effect, condemn Trump for what Trump did.

    And — but I don't think we can afford to do that anymore. I mean, is this guy going to be in control of the Republican Party, or is he not? Is he going to define the Republican Party going forward, or is he not?

    So, it now is time for a clear expression on the part of Republicans that this whole populist strategy that we have been following is just plain wrong, and we're going to return to the Republican Party that is a responsible party, that is a conservative party, and that is a party of — that is capable of being a national party again, which it is not now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Quickly, finally, do you still consider yourself a Republican?

  • John Danforth:

    Yes, I have always been a Republican. I'm a Republican.

    And I believe in the Republican Party, as it has been. I believe in the party of Lincoln. I believe in the party that tries to hold our country together. I believe in a party that stands for the Constitution, and not as one — not one that tries to undermine the legitimacy of an election or the legitimacy of a presidency.

    That, to me, is what conservatism is. It's what the Republican Party is. It's what it always has been. But we have recently been on a side track from that, and it's time to get back on track.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, thank you very much.

  • John Danforth:

    Thank you.

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