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What Joe Walsh thinks about immigration, climate change and Trump

In the days since Joe Walsh announced his challenge to President Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, the former congressman and radio host has been on an apology tour for his own past controversial comments. 

“If you go thru my 40,000 tweets, I did a pretty bad or horrible job of offending a lot of people,” Walsh told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff. “I felt a big part of my job [as a radio host] was to provoke and get people thinking about a number of issues. Oftentimes, I went over the line.” 

Walsh, an Illinois Republican who was elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has previously fanned the false conspiracy that then-President Obama was a Muslim. He once defended his right to say “blacks are lazy.” Pressed for his views today, Walsh backed away from both comments but advocated for his right to free speech. 

“Those aren’t my views. That’s just the way I unfortunately pushed the envelope too often,” Walsh said.

The one-term representative voted for Trump in 2016 and tweeted in the leadup to Election Day that he would grab his musket if Trump lost. He says now that vote was primarily a vote against Hillary Clinton. 

“I didn’t love him. I didn’t like him,” Walsh said of Trump. “I thought he was sort of a goof.” 

Walsh said his anti-Trump views really solidified “a year or so” later, and he now believes Trump is “unfit” to be president and “lies virtually every time he opens his mouth.” 

Other highlights from the interview: 

Wash faces an uphill battle to win the GOP nomination. Nine out of 10 Republicans approve of Trump’s performance as president, according to a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.  Walsh nonetheless tried to differentiate himself from Trump on a number of issues central to the 2020 campaign. 

  • On immigration: “The situation at our border now is a bigger mess than when [Trump] got elected,” Walsh said, adding he would end the Trump administration policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border.  While Walsh said he would be “tougher” on people that try to enter the United States illegally, he would also devote more resources to adjudicate asylum cases because those are legal border crossings. “It’s our responsibility to hear those claims,” he said.
  • On climate change: President Trump skipped a meeting at this week’s G7 meeting in France where other world leaders discussed climate change solutions, while Walsh says he recognizes climate change is impacted by human activities. “The Republican Party has to acknowledge it’s a problem. This president won’t,” Walsh said.
  • On LGBT rights: The Trump administration has rolled back protections for LGBT Americans, including imposing a ban on transgendger troops serving in the military. Walsh would reverse that ban. “Anybody who can qualify to serve in the military — gay, straight or transgender — should be able to serve,” Walsh said.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    From Trump supporter to Trump challenger, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh recently announced that he will take on the incumbent president in the 2020 Republican presidential primary. He joins former Massachusetts Governor William Weld in challenging President Trump.

    Walsh gained national attention in 2010, when he was elected to the House of Representatives as a member of the Tea Party. He served one term, lost his reelection bid and, until yesterday, hosted a conservative radio talk show.

    And Joe Walsh joins us now.

    Thank you for being on the "NewsHour."

  • Joe Walsh:

    Good to be with you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, why are you running for president?

  • Joe Walsh:

    It's a difficult thing to say, but I think we have a president, I believe we have a president who's just unfit to be president.

    I have been hoping all year that a Republican would step up. I think it's important for the Republican Party. More importantly, I think it's important for the country. When I say something like that, Judy, it's a pretty serious charge.

    I think we have somebody in the White House who's unfit, somebody who lies virtually every time he opens his mouth, somebody who's so erratic right now, he's almost tweeting the country into a recession. I think it's a fairly urgent situation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were, though, in 2016, an enthusiastic supporter of his. What drew you to him in the first place?

  • Joe Walsh:

    The people who voted for Donald Trump were the same people who voted for me, and they're the same people, Judy, who listened to me on the radio.

    They were upset and angry about what's going on down at the border about people in this country illegally. And the Republican Party generally was out of touch with that issue. Now, Trump touched that issue. He tapped that issue. That was a big issue to me and a lot of my listeners.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what was it? Was that the main reason? It was immigration?

  • Joe Walsh:

    No, I think that was the biggest issue that got Donald Trump elected. It was one of the biggest issues that I was concerned about, and that most of my listeners and voters were concerned about.

    But there was this sense, Judy, that the system was broken. And I agree. That's why I went to Congress in 2010. Both political parties kind of were broken. The whole political system had broke down. And people sent Trump to Washington to shake it up and drain the swamp and all of that.

    The problem is, all he's done is disrupt. And he hasn't done anything to fix.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you stayed with him after he was elected president. You supported him for a number of months.

    What was it that you didn't see in the beginning that was there to you later?

  • Joe Walsh:

    Judy, this may sound odd, and, if it is, I apologize.

    When I voted for Trump, I didn't love him. I didn't like him. He wasn't Hillary. I figured — I thought he was sort of a goof. I figured he'd hire a few good people, and maybe a few good things would happen.

    When — then, when he first became president, I did the whole good Trump/bad Trump thing. When he did something that I thought was pretty good, I would praise him. I would criticize him when he didn't.

    It became apparent to me, Judy, that first year, again, that almost everything he said, he would lie to the American people all the time. That really bothered me, no matter who your politics are.

    And then, finally, at Helsinki last year, in July of 2013…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When he met with Vladimir Putin.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Judy, when he stood in front of the world, and said, I believe that guy Putin, and not my own people, I got ahead of myself with a tweet.

    To me, that was an act of disloyalty. And that's — that was the final straw for me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what would change? If Joe Walsh were elected president, what policy would be different under your presidency from the way it is under President Trump? Because you just said you agree with him on a number of…

  • Joe Walsh:

    On a number of issues.

    It's interesting. So let's go back to the issue that got him elected, one of the issues I care most about, the border.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Joe Walsh:

    He ran on that issue.

    As you know, because you report on it, the situation at our border now is a bigger mess than it was when he got elected. Why is that? Because all he talked about, Judy, was this wall, wall, wall, wall, and Mexico's going to pay for it.

    He hasn't done anything at the border. We have a humane crisis right now at our border, people coming to claim asylum. That has nothing to do with a wall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you have said you would close the border. You would be — would you be even tougher on people coming into this country than the president has been?

  • Joe Walsh:

    Certainly, anybody trying to come into the country illegally, I would be tougher.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Would you separate children from their parents at the border, as this administration has done?

  • Joe Walsh:

    No.

    And then so that's the second piece. People coming into the country illegally, there's got to be no exception. But people coming here to claim asylum, which is a legal thing to do, totally different group of people.

    And those people right now — and that's our biggest crisis at the border right now — those people have to be dealt with humanely, and as quickly as we can deal with their asylum claims.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as you know, the president wants to crack down on asylum claims. He wants many fewer — he wants those people to go back to the countries they came from while their asylum claims are pending.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Again, anybody around the world has the right to come here and claim asylum, OK? It's our responsibility — this is a fundamental difference, Judy, with me and the president.

    It's our responsibility to hear those claims. Now, we do a lousy job now of doing that. We have got to devote the resources to do — deal with those a lot quicker.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Climate change, where are you on climate change? Do you believe that humans have a role in it and that humans should be taking urgent action now to do something?

  • Joe Walsh:

    Yes to the former.

    On the urgent action, I don't know. Certainly, on action, I — the first big step, Judy, is my party, the Republican Party, has to acknowledge it's an issue, it's a problem. This president won't.

    And, in fact, I don't even think he understands the issue. So it would be an issue, I think, the Republican Party needs to get on board with and lead on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But would you — for example, would you take steps that would make business very upset because it might cost jobs?

  • Joe Walsh:

    I would be — I would be very careful.

    And I'm not trying to be vague, Judy. The first step is for a Republican president to acknowledge it's a problem, man is contributing to the problem. And then let's bring all the important people together, including business and businesses, and figure out things that need to be done.

    But before we do anything to impact the American economy, we have got — we have got to make sure we have got the accurate data.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about gay rights, same-sex marriage? I'm jumping around because these are important issues to many voters.

  • Joe Walsh:

    No, that's OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gay rights, same-sex marriage, this is an administration that has taken steps to, in many ways, crack down on and reduce benefits for people who are — or just allow some discrimination against people who happen to be gay.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where do you stand on that?

  • Joe Walsh:

    Same-sex marriage is the law of the land. That's the way it is. So we all accept it.

    When it comes to gay rights — and this administration has been very tough on transgenders and gays serving in the media — excuse me — in the military.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the military.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Absolutely, anybody who can qualify to serve in the military, gay, straight or transgender, should be able to serve.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Abortion, where do you stand?

  • Joe Walsh:

    I'm pro-life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you have said in the past no exceptions, even when the life of the mother is at stake.

  • Joe Walsh:

    I'm pro-life without exception.

    That decision right there is between the mother and the doctor. I do believe that the whole Roe v. Wade issue may have to be dealt with, but I'm pro-life without exception.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joe Walsh, you have made, as we — as it's been reported, a number of controversial, even incendiary statements over the years, a radio talk show host, somebody who's been outspoken.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have apologized for a number of them in the last recent days and weeks.

    But when did you start to think some of these statements were wrong? And I just want to ask you about…

  • Joe Walsh:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For example, you said President Obama is a Muslim. You have said that he was born outside the United States.

  • Joe Walsh:

    No, I never — I never didn't say that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you were — you sounded sympathetic to the birther false statements that were out there.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Absolutely.

    And, Judy, that's an important distinction. I never was part of the so-called birther movement.

    But you're right. On a number of occasions, I said Barack Obama is a Muslim. I wrote in an — an op-ed in The New York Times about two weeks ago…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Joe Walsh:

    … saying that President Trump is unfit, somebody should challenge him. And I apologized for the role I played in what I believe is helping to put an unfit con man in the White House.

    Judy, I went to Washington in 2010 to raise hell. I was part of that Tea Party class. And oftentimes in that fight, I let the policy fight become a personal fight. And I got involved in this whole — the demonization of my political opponents.

    I believe that that helped lead to this president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when did you decide that was wrong?

  • Joe Walsh:

    A year or so after President Trump got elected. I'm only hesitating because, after President Trump got elected, and day by day, week by week, month by month went by, I looked at him and I listened to him, and I thought, oh, my God, is that what I sounded like back in the day? Is that what I sound like on the radio?

    In many ways, Judy, his election has been my road to Damascus moment. And I decided a year, a year-and-a-half ago that I wasn't going to engage in the personal destruction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have also said that you have the right to say that blacks are lazy.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Yes, not — not that I believe blacks are lazy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why would you even say that?

  • Joe Walsh:

    Well, a big issue that I'm so passionate about is free speech, people being able to say what they want to say.

    Now, again…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But my question is, why would you even say that a group of Americans, based on their race, is…

  • Joe Walsh:

    I could have said white people are lazy. I could have said whatever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you didn't. That's not what you said.

  • Joe Walsh:

    No, I know.

    But if you — Judy, if you go through my 40,000 tweets, I did a pretty bad or horrible job of offending a lot of people.

    Look, I was a radio talk show host. I felt a big part of my job was to provoke and get people thinking about a number of issues. And, again, oftentimes, I went over the line.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe that any minority in this country is lazy…

  • Joe Walsh:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … or should be discriminated against?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, you're saying all your views have changed…

  • Joe Walsh:

    No, no, no, no, my views haven't changed. And I have never believed that.

    Certainly, some things that I have said have been pretty — pretty aggressive, but, no, I mean, those aren't — those aren't my views. That's just the way I, unfortunately, pushed the envelope too often.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joe Walsh, running for president, running for the Republican nomination, thank you.

  • Joe Walsh:

    Judy, thank you.

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