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Thune: GOP trying stay focused on agenda despite ‘family feuds’

The public rift between President Trump and members of his own party is raising questions about the future of the GOP’s legislative agenda. Judy Woodruff speaks with Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to explore what this feud will mean for Republican efforts to pass tax reform legislation and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to our lead story, the very public rift between President Trump and members of his own party.

    It’s a feud that raises questions about the GOP legislative agenda.

    We explore the road ahead now with Senator John Thune of South Dakota. He is part of the Republican leadership team.

    Senator, welcome back to the NewsHour.

    Bear with me.

    I just want to read a little bit of what Senator Jeff Flake said in his statement on the Senate floor this afternoon.

    He said: “We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is dangerous to a democracy.”

    How do you respond to this?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-s.d.:

    Well, first off, I’m disappointed that Jeff’s going to be leaving.

    I have enjoyed serving with him as a member of the House and now the Senate. He’s a very principled guy. And he made a very strong speech today that I think certainly expressed the convictions that he has about where we are in our political process in this country.

    And he made a decision, which I respect, to move on and do other things. But, you know, those of us that are still here have got a lot of work to do, an agenda that we have to focus on.

    And, obviously, in order to accomplish that agenda, we have got to be able to work with the president. He was here today. We had a good and constructive meeting with him, and so that’s what we’re trying to do is to stay on those things, Judy, that unify us, rather than focusing on the things that divide us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you, Senator, but when you look at the words spoken by Senator Flake today, again, reckless, outrageous, undignified behavior, you add that to what Senator Corker is saying about the president not being stable, can you just turn away from that and ignore it?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Well, this president, I think, as we know, generates strong feelings.

    I think, in a lot of ways, what you’re seeing here reflects the politics in the country. And the country is very divided. And certainly the president is a figure who generates a lot of discussion.

    And, frankly, many of us have encouraged, and think it would be better if he would spend less time on Twitter.

    But, look, I mean, this is the — people of this country elected him as the president. And, obviously, we have members who disagree with him from time to time. In this case, with Senators Corker and Flake, people who disagree with him very vigorously.

    But, again, in terms of things that we need to accomplish for the American people, that does not go away. The agenda is still the agenda. And we still have work that we need to do here. And that means that we have got to be able to try and figure out where we can partner with the president, disagree with him where it’s necessary, but at least try and identify those areas, those zones of agreement, and try to work together to get some results for the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doesn’t this spell, though, Senator, a serious break inside the Republican Party? You spoke of the country being divided, but this is a divide within the GOP.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I think right now it seems to me, at least, Judy, that politics in the country on both sides of the aisle is pretty divided. I think the Democrats have a similar thing.

    You see it more in living color, of course, obviously, because we have the presidency, and so those things become more amplified or magnified. But I think that the politics on both sides among Republicans and Democrats right now reflect some divisions.

    And in terms of our party, yes, we have our intra-family fights from time to time. I would like to confine it to inside the family and have those discussions privately, rather than having it spill out into the public arena like it has here in the last few days and weeks, but that is what it is.

    But it doesn’t remove the challenge that we have to try and get tax reform done, to do something about health care, to do something about America’s place in the world, to make sure that we’re putting policies in place that will help grow the economy, create better-paying jobs, a better standard of living for people in this country.

    And so those are the things, like I said, that we’re trying to stay focused on, notwithstanding the distractions that happen pretty much on a daily basis, and in some of the family feuds that certainly exist.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and I do want to ask you about that, but it sounds to us, everybody listening, as if what Senator Flake was saying was not — he wasn’t making so much a political statement as a moral statement, when he said, our children are watching, when the next generation asks, why didn’t you do something, why didn’t you speak up, I mean, it’s clear he’s — he’s looking to others in his own party, you and your colleagues, to ask, why aren’t you calling the president out?

    At least it sounds that’s — like that’s what he’s asking.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Yes.

    Like I said, I think Jeff is a very principled individual. He spoke with a great deal of conviction and passion. And I do think he sees these things, in many cases, in moral terms. And, certainly, everything that we do around here has a certain moral element about it.

    But, again, I think in terms of the things that we have to accomplish for the American people, there are issues on which we are united. And we talked about some of those today at the lunch with the president. And those are the things that we’re going to try and continue to focus on and see if we can’t get some results, get some accomplishments, and obviously try and be a better example to the young people around this country who are following very carefully, I think, these days what’s happening in Washington.

    And, frankly, there are many things that happen here that shouldn’t make us proud and should remind us that we can do better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know the president himself has been critical of these two senators. The White House was critical of them today, saying it’s good that they’re not running for reelection.

    We looked up Senator Flake’s conservative — lifetime conservative rating. It’s 93 percent. I think — I looked yours up. It’s even a few points high than yours.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, if it’s not conservatism, what is it that is making — that determines what is the right Republican message right now? Because Steve Bannon is out there saying a number of your colleagues are just not good enough, and they need to be unseated.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Right.

    And I don’t — I can’t explain the efforts that are being made by these outside groups to attack some of our senators, many of whom are very conservative and, as you pointed out, have very conservative voting records.

    I always think that the Republican Party is, at its essence, a party of limited government, of more personal freedom coupled with individual responsibility. We’re a party that believes in peace through strength. We’re a party that believes in economic freedom, free markets, free enterprise, those sorts of things.

    And so I think what we have to try and figure out is, how do we, again, stay focused on those things that unite us? There are folks out there who make a living these days kind of attacking, I guess you could say the — quote — “establishment,” but it’s the folks who get elected and are here that are able to make policy.

    And what we want to do is elect more right-of-center conservatives, so that we can have a majority that gets right-of-center conservative results for the American people.

    And so I can’t explain why outside groups do what they do, but it’s a reality that we live with in the modern political marketplace.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you — I want to ask you this. Are you confident that tax reform can pass now, with this going on in your party?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I feel, at least right now, Judy — and I have been in — I mean, I spend more time in meetings every week now on tax reform as a member of the Finance Committee and as the leadership than any other subject.

    And I think there is a coming together that I see happening among Republicans. And, clearly, it’s going to be very challenging to try and get 50 votes for this. I hope that, if we can get 50 Republican votes, we will also attract some Democrats.

    But, at the end of the day, it’s something that needs to be done. If we’re going to make America competitive in the global marketplace and get the economy growing at a faster rate and creating those better-paying jobs and raising wages for people in this country, reforming the tax code is absolutely essential.

    So, I hope our members get — get that. I think they do. And my sense is, in the last few days and weeks, that there is sort of a rallying around this issue, realizing how important it is, not only for the country, but obviously for us as a majority to deliver for the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     Just quickly, finally, Senator, are you saying — sending any messages to the White House about what the president should be saying in the days to come?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Well, I think that many of us try as best we can to sort of influence what happens at the White House.

    He’s got people around him, obviously, who he listens to who are his advisers. But in terms of getting things done on Capitol Hill, there is a way that works and a way that doesn’t work so well. And I think the way that works is to try and find those things you agree on, and don’t start attacking members of your own party who ultimately are going to need to vote for your agenda.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator John Thune, thank you very much.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Thanks, Judy.

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