Charlie Dent is a seven-term Republican member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. In September 2017, citing increased political polarization in the country, Dent announced that he would not run for re-election.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 10, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me, just before we get started, a little bit about your trajectory, your story. How did you get to the House? Where did you find yourself in the beginning and what really are your politics as we get up to the year 2016?
I first was elected to the House in 2004. I had spent 14 years in my General Assembly in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania General Assembly; eight years in the state House, six years in the state Senate. And from the state Senate, I arrived to the House. My trajectory had been kind of always more of a centrist than most of my Republican colleagues, center right. I came here, starting out on Homeland Security Committee and the Transportation [and] Infrastructure Committee, oversight committee. Then six years in, I’m the majority, and 2010—sworn in in 2011—went to the Appropriations Committee. I’d also been serving on the Ethics Committee, too, in 2008 until this term, and ultimately served as chairman of that committee.
As appropriator, though, I’m a senior appropriator, “cardinal” status. That is chair of a subcommittee; [I] oversee the subcommittee on military construction in the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs]. Also, I serve on the subcommittee dealing with State Department foreign operations as well as Transportation, HUD [Housing and Urban Development], also Labor, Health and Human Services, Education. So I’ve been dealing with all kind of issues.
I sit in a weekly cross-section meeting with the speaker where he brings in about eight of us, roughly, from I’ll say the more centrist members like the Tuesday Group, the Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee. So we have those weekly discussions about policy process, tactics, agenda, that sort of thing.
So when Trump is running, now it’s the summer of ’16, what’s the state of play inside the GOP of Washington? How bifurcated? How different? Is there a civil war actually occurring as we read about, or what is the state of play?
Pre-convention or post-?
Pre-convention? Well, prior to the convention, I had been a strong supporter of Gov. [John] Kasich of Ohio and had been one of his surrogates, talked for him quite a bit on various programs. So before that, I think many of us, at least for me, I never endorsed Donald Trump; I never endorsed him. Kind of like [Sen.] Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) never did it. And I think many of us were hoping that something potentially could happen at the convention that maybe the delegates would try to move in a different direction. That, of course, never materialized, and we had a convention that I think most people would say was not particularly successful. It was kind of dark and really was not a very uplifting event.
But then I think people more or less resigned themselves to the fact that Donald Trump was going to be the nominee. That was my assessment at that moment. And then immediately it broke out into the [Gold Star mother] Ghazala Khan battle, if you want to call it that, and it just seemed to kind of go downhill from there, the campaign.
So by election night, what are you thinking? What are you watching? Where are you watching the returns? Just narrate for me that evening for you.
Sure. Election night, on November 2016, I had my own election night party in Allentown, Pa., at the Renaissance Hotel. It was a celebratory event for us because we had won by a very comfortable margin, 20-point margin, and we were watching the presidential returns come in. And when I was making my announcement that I had won, and that might have been around 10:00, 10:15, and I think at that moment maybe Florida had come in, and [I] said, “Oh, this could be interesting.” The presidential race at that moment was unsettled, but it looked much closer than anybody would have thought.
And then, of course, as the night wore on, we saw Ohio went to Donald Trump, and we saw Florida and Ohio. Then people said, “Wow, this is a real contest.” And then as the night wore on, you started seeing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all turning, and then you kind of realized this game was over for President Trump. I think my immediate reaction was, on the one hand, I was very pleased that Hillary Clinton would not be my president, but I was also very concerned that Donald Trump would be.
Well, because he had made during the campaign, you know, he had made so many incendiary and inflammatory comments. We can go back, starting with the comments about Mexicans being rapists and criminals. There was the comment about—derogatory comments about Muslims, the comments about John … the John McCain comments, the Mexican comments, [comments about] Muslims, various comments about women, and I’m probably forgetting a few—the Indiana judge, then the Khan family battle, or fight with them, over his service. And it was for all of these reasons that I just was never particularly comfortable. And there are also policy reasons, too. I wasn’t pleased with some of the comments he’d made about NATO at that point, about withdrawing from NATO; the overly accommodating, conciliatory approach toward [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, who’s a bad actor, and really didn’t deserve that kind of kid-glove treatment, I felt, given his own record. So these were some issues that I was concerned about that the president was—that Donald Trump really was not conducting himself like somebody who should be the president of the United States.
Fair to say that your concerns were similar to those of [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)?
Yeah. Then after the—I had publicly declared in early August, shortly after the Republican Convention, I had declared that I would not be supporting Donald Trump for president. It was right about the time of the Khan family dispute, where he got into the battle with the family. About that time, I said I would not be supporting him going forward. Then we go through the campaign season, and the whole campaign was really about Donald Trump. I mean, it really was an issue-free campaign.
And then came the so-called Access Hollywood video. I happened to be up at State College, Penn State, visiting my children—actually, my son; he’s an engineering student up there—and went to the football game. It was a Saturday when the whole thing broke, as I recall. And basically I just couldn’t enjoy the time with my daughter—my son and the football game. It was a rainy day, as I recall. Just being called by media constantly about these comments, and I told people: “Look, I hadn’t endorsed him, and this just further reinforces why I hadn’t done that.” This is obviously a video that was troubling, to be sure.
But that’s not what got me to the point. I mean, I was already there in terms of not being supportive, so that went on, and then we had the aftermath. So that was an issue, too.
… So then he gets elected, now the waiting game begins. Is he going to pivot? Is he going to act presidential? What’s it going to be like? What is a Donald Trump presidency going to be like?
Well, first, I would say I think most of us were very surprised that Donald Trump won the presidency. I was very surprised that he won the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Just based on the numbers in the Philadelphia region, I didn’t think he could prevail upstate to the extent he did, and he did. So I think there was that element of surprise. I think most people got it wrong. They got it wrong. I did, too, and I’ll be very honest about that. And based on the book, the Michael Wolff book [Fire and Fury], it seems like most of the people around him didn’t think they were going to prevail either.
So the morning after, you know, I looked at it this way. My position on the president before the election was the same as it was after the election. My goal was to work with the president of the United States when he was on the right track. If he is moving in a bad direction, then I feel an obligation to check him. If he goes off the rails, then we have to call him out. That was always my view.
So to the extent that we could find areas of commonality with the White House, terrific, and we’ll work with him whether it’s on a matter, say, of infrastructure, as an example. Great, we can all work together and try to advance a package or a program, or maybe on tax reform or perhaps on regulatory reform, I think there will be some areas of agreement. I knew there would be areas where there would be disagreement, and this is where I think Paul Ryan and others were still to this day probably a bit confounded on issues like trade and immigration, where a person like Paul Ryan is not an immigration restrictionist or a protectionist in terms of trade.
I think particularly on trade, Donald Trump did not have a conventional Republican position, and I think there would be some friction between, I’ll say, the congressional GOP and Donald Trump. And I’ve always said this. With a Donald Trump presidency, what’s very interesting about this is that he exposed something that I don’t think has been fully appreciated by a lot of my colleagues, in that we all—the narrative about Republican primary voters, base primary voters, is they’re very ideologically doctrinaire, very conservative on virtually everything.
And the fact that Donald Trump was able to win the primary when, in fact, Republican primary voters knew that he was not particularly ideological, and neither were they—I’ve always said many Republican primary voters were—they are somewhat conservative. They’re conservative on some issues and maybe a little less so on others, and that more or less spoke to Donald Trump to a certain extent.
I don’t think we fully appreciated that yet, that Donald Trump is very pragmatic—some might say pragmatic to a fault—and we have congressional Republicans who can be pretty ideological. So, before Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, we used to have litmus tests, and the litmus tests were really about, are you ideologically doctrinaire enough? Are you pure enough? Do you deviate? So the battle was between the purists and the pragmatists, and we always had these self-designated chiefs of the purity police who would rate you and grade you.
Now, those people are confounded, because now here comes Donald Trump, again, who’s non-ideological, very pragmatic, pragmatic to a fault, and now the litmus test has changed. The litmus test now is loyalty to the president, or to the man. And that’s not about any particular set of policies or ideals; it’s about loyalty to the president, so that is the big change.
And you didn’t know that at the beginning, so what did you think?
No, the inaugural speech was dark. It was dark, inward-looking, although it also, to be fair, reflected some ofthe themes of the campaign. That was my view on the inaugural speech. And then came the Women’s March the next day. Then one week later came the travel ban, which was a catastrophe, in terms of the implementation of it anyway. It was horrible implementation. In fact, I arose to that problem. I represent a district with probably the largest Syrian population of any member of Congress in the country, and I woke up on a Saturday morning with a text message from my son up at Penn State saying, “Dad, I need to talk to you this morning.” And you’re a father. Early on a Saturday morning hearing from your son from college, this cannot be good. This cannot be good.
So I called him immediately, and he said: “Oh, Joey Assali called, and his family’s down at the Philadelphia airport, and they can’t get into the country. I don’t understand what’s going on.” So I turn the TV on, and I see all this mayhem at the airports. I call Mrs. Assali. I said, “What’s going on with my six family members?”—immigrant visa holders, 13 years in process. “Oh, by the way, they’re Christian; they’re from Syria. They’re Christian. We have a house; they’re moving in tonight. But we can’t talk to them. They’re at the Philadelphia airport.”
So I had to intervene, and I learned very quickly that this policy, this travel order, was not thought out well and was being terribly implemented. It was clear to me that the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Justice were not consulted on this. So that day, I called for the immediate suspension of enforcement of this order until a more thoughtful policy could be developed.
That was like, literally end of week one. This was just after the crowd size, the great crowd-size debate, and then came this. So that did not start well.
What were you thinking at that moment?
Well, I thought this was a [Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon special, the travel order, and I found out later it was a [senior policy adviser] Steve Miller special. I guess they’re one [and] the same in this particular matter. So I became a bit more outspoken against the administration than I intended to that early. I just said I couldn’t abide by this, so I worked the next 10 days to get the family back into the country. We did. They were sent back to Syria within three hours of arrival, and then we were able to work with them to get them back in, and there’s a happy ending to the story. Ten days later, they came to Kennedy Airport, and they had their Green Cards. As soon as they got their immigrant visa stamped, they were Green Card holders, which was the plan. But they’re one of—this family were one of 200 or 300 people who were literally revoked in midair, revoked while on [a] plane. I mean, they had boarded a plane lawfully with immigrant visas in hand. When they landed, they were revoked.
So that was just an issue that was alarming to me, because there was not the type of vetting or interagency review that should have accompanied this type of a major policy announcement. It struck me that somebody in this case, perhaps Mr. Miller, wrote up an executive order, presented it to the president, he signed it, and a press release was issued.
… So there’s chaos, there’s questions, I’m sure, by all of you, “Where’re we going here?,” not only just in terms of how we’re acting, but civility and decency are in operation, but what are the policies going to be as we head forward into the first few months? He gives the speech to the joint session, and it seems like a different Donald Trump at that moment. Where are you? Do you go? Are you sitting in the chamber, and what do you think?
I attend every State of the Union, and I listened to his State of the Union address, and it struck me as very measured, balanced. Sure, he talked about some things in the campaign, but it was presented in a way that I thought was more reassuring. And my immediate reaction to the State of the Union speech was this speech was completely uneventful, but in a very good way. … We were anticipating all kinds of commotion and disruption, and we had a speech that was, I thought, well delivered, and it was reasonably measured.
Why do you figure he did that?
Well, again, I think the president—there were two instances since the election. The night he won the election, he made a speech that night that was, I think, rather conciliatory. And then again at the State of the Union address, where he also, I believe, talked in a more measured way. And I was encouraged by both of those speeches.
Of course—intervening, of course, we had the inaugural address, which was dark and inward-looking. So I don’t know. I guess my own view—again, I don’t work in the White House, but I always had the sense there were different power centers in the White House. You had the Bannon-Miller wing—I’ll say the alt-right wing, the nativist wing, the isolationism, protectionism, nativism, that wing, and, with Bannon at times, nihilism. OK, so you had that wing.
You have, I’ll say, the pragmatic wing: Jared [Kushner], Ivanka [Trump], [economic adviser Gary] Cohn, [Secretary of the Treasury Steve] Mnuchin. Then you also had what I might dub the Heritage wing, the more ideologically doctrinaire wing—maybe the Pence wing, you might want to call them. And you have these various power centers competing for the president’s attention. So I always thought [it] depends who’s writing the speech. The inaugural speech, that looked like a Bannon special, Bannon-Miller special. The inaugural address looked like it could have been an Ivanka-Cohn-Mnuchin address. We’ve seen this from time to time. I think that’s what happens. It depends who, at that moment, has the president’s attention, might be able to direct him in a way that they would prefer.
The first policy legislative events are around the repeal and replacement, or whatever, of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. … The president doesn’t seem to care or understand about the details. That’s not his, apparently—that’s what he’s giving off anyway. It’s not his interest. What is his interest? And am I right in assessing him as a guy who wasn’t particularly—?
Yeah, I think you’re correct that on the health care debate, the president was not particularly engaged in the policy details. That was pretty apparent … The president seemed to defer to Congress largely, and basically “Whatever you guys pass, I’ll sign” was more or less the message that I think we had received.
But hurry up and pass it.
But hurry up and pass it.
He had a watch on.
Well, and I also—but, look, congressional Republicans made a number of errors, obviously, in the repeal-replace debate. Too many of my colleagues, I felt, were looking at health care reform as a speed bump on the road to tax reform. They were talking about lowering the baseline. We had to do this Obamacare repeal immediately to get the baseline lower so that would set us up better for tax reform. Again, outside of the Capitol, nobody really understood that. I understood what it meant, why there are benefits to tax reform. But wait a minute; we’re talking about people here and their health care, and we can’t be this cavalier about it.
I guess the other issue here—so that was an error on the part of congressional Republicans. But the president has to accept responsibility, too. If he wants to change the health care system for the entire country, then it’s incumbent upon the president to lay out his plans, his principles, his ideas, and then sell them. That really never happens. Just saying “Put a bill on my desk, and I’ll sign it” is not the type of leadership I would expect or executive leadership on a major policy change that would impact such a large segment of our population and the economy.
It’s almost like he didn’t expect to win, so he didn’t have a plan. He just had, as you say, a slogan.
That’s what it struck me as, a slogan. And I was involved in two meetings at the White House on health care where—one that went well. I met with the president along with about 13 other members from our Tuesday Group, the center-right group, of Republicans, and we had a good conversation with the president. He was gracious, and he listened intently about some of the concerns that we had. Some of our members were for the bill, some were against, and I expressed concerns about the Medicaid expansion being too—that rolling back the Medicaid expansion was going to be too difficult of a plan for states like mine, Pennsylvania, that had expanded Medicaid. And I had presented to the president a proposal, I think it was an eight- or nine-page proposal, from governors Kasich, [Rick] Snyder (R-Mich.), [Brian] Sandoval (R-Nev.) and [Asa] Hutchinson (R-Ark.), four Republican governors, whose states had expanded Medicaid, and they had some concerns. I presented that to the president and also conveyed concerns, too, that these people who would be cycling off of Medicaid into the exchanges would probably go uncovered in many cases, because the maximum tax credit at that time was $4,000, and you’re probably not going to be able to buy health care for $4,000, so they would go bare naked and uninsured. And I’d also expressed concerns about the Planned Parenthood provision that regardless of one’s feeling about Planned Parenthood, whether you love them or not, it shouldn’t be part of this bill. It really had nothing to do with Obamacare, and why go down that road?
So those are some of the concerns I raised. The president listened respectfully, and the meeting broke up.
Do you think he read it?
I don’t know. But there are others in there, the vice president and staff, so I think they were aware of it, and I’m sure they reviewed it. Then two days later, I was invited back with about another 17 members, largely from our center-right group, and I realized I was about the only one in the room there who was opposed to the bill, and the president went around the room and asked everybody how they were voting. And I was the second one. I told him I was opposed to the bill in its current form. He said, “Why?,” and I said, “Well, for the same reasons I told you on Tuesday,” and this was Thursday. He didn’t take that particularly well.
What do you mean?
What do you mean he didn’t take it well? What did he do?
Well, he said I was going to destroy the Republican Party and that I was going to take down health care reform; it would ruin tax reform; his administration would be over; it would be my fault; he’d blame me and all that sort of thing.
Wow. What was that like?
It was an interesting experience getting the riot act read to you by the president of the United States. Then I interrupted him at one point, and I said, “Mr. President, can I ask you a question?,” while he’s kind of lecturing me, jawboning me. I said, “Can I ask you a question?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “Are you suggesting to me that if we don’t pass this health care reform bill in this form, we won’t be able to do tax reform because the baseline’s not low enough?” He said: “Well, that’s exactly right. When you lose, you lose.” And he went after me again.
So basically [he] went around the whole room, and everybody kind of told him how they felt. I was the only one who said I was opposed to the bill, and after it was all over, he came back at me again and said, “You still a hard no?” I said, “I’m still a no, Mr. President.” And he started going after me again. Then I interrupted him, and then he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
What did that tell you, Congressman?
Well, it just told me that he wasn’t particularly interested in my concerns about the bill and that I didn’t get the sense that he was particularly engaged on the details of the policy. That was my assessment. And I didn’t think that that approach to—I’m a member of Congress. My job is to work with the president of the United States, not to work for the president of the United States. I’m not an employee of the president of the United States. I’m a separate but equal branch of the government, and I just thought that’s not the right way to talk to members of Congress who you’re trying to persuade to vote for a major policy. I voted against the bill. I was opposed to it before that incident, and I remained opposed. In fact, that helped harden my position.
The other thing he didn’t seem to understand was I think he thought he had the Freedom Caucus kind of in his pocket, that they shared the base together and everything else. Maybe he didn’t—people we’ve talked to said he didn’t really seem to get the idea that a ‘no’ from the Freedom Caucus was coming as well. …
Well, what’s interesting about that, when we had that incident, when I had this second meeting with the president where he lectured me, the following day was the day that the bill was pulled from consideration off the House floor. And at that moment, I think there was a lot of blame that went toward the Freedom Caucus for the failure of the bill, not our center-right group, because our group was split and I think engaged at least constructively on the issue. And I think the president, at least what I’m told, was unhappy with the way the Freedom Caucus had behaved on the health care issue at that point.
Obviously he didn’t like my position, but I’m told he wasn’t happy with the Freedom Caucus either. Then we broke, and then around Easter, there were some negotiations that were going on that I thought moved the bill into a direction that was even worse than where it had been in many ways. And then the bill was ultimately passed by the House, and I had said at the time there was absolutely no way that the United States Senate would ever pass this bill with the Medicaid changes that had been advanced in it. There’s no way. And I said, “Of course, the Senate had nowhere close to the votes to pass what the House had sent them.”
… So before you’ve had your Tuesday and Thursday meetings, there’s an ultimatum from him that says, “You guys are going to pass this, and you’re going to pass it now.”
Well, I guess I’m not sure. I do vaguely remember that ultimatum, but I thought it was a bit naive that, oh yes, we’re talking about the health care system in this country, one-sixth of the economy and millions of people affected, and we’re just going to snap our fingers, and we’re going to have a solution. But again, at that moment, I had said to my colleagues in the House—actually it was the Wednesday; Tuesday was the first meeting with the president. Wednesday I had one with the speaker that night, because I declared my opposition to the bill publicly, publicly, that Wednesday night that I was going to oppose the bill.
And I just remember at that time explaining to many members of leadership that Wednesday evening, in a meeting with them, that the challenge here is—the failure of this is largely going to be on the president’s doorstep because, again, he never presented a plan or his principles or policies, and he never sold them, so he’s going to blame Congress for failing. Congress should accept some responsibility, but so should he. But I don’t know that a lot of my colleagues necessarily agreed with me on that point, but I felt very strongly that I’ve worked with governors and presidents in the past; and I’ve noticed when they want to change something, they present a plan in bill form, usually, and as a function of leadership they give it to Congress. Congress chops on it, and then we get a product.
But that’s a function of executive leadership. That never happened in the health care debate. And to simply say, “Hey, pass the bill by Friday or by Monday,” well, I don’t think that’s particularly helpful.
It must have been unbelievably hard for Ryan to go over to the White House that Friday, walk into the Oval Office and say to the president of the United States: “We’re going to pull the bill. I don’t have the votes.”
I’m sure it was. I’m sure it was. But I also knew at that time that there was virtually no way that the United States Senate could ever pass that bill, ever. And they couldn’t. The first iteration that was pulled and then the second iteration that ultimately was passed by the House, it had zero chance of getting through the Senate just because of the Medicaid changes, and I knew that. And I said, look, a lot of political capital is expended in the House on the first launch of a bill. We’ll try to make the bill as conservative as possible to placate the base, sending it over to the Senate knowing that it will be further refined and moved not further right, but further toward the center. And then there will ultimately be some kind of a letdown that people are—I’ve always said there’s this urge in the House always to raise an expectation unrealistically, and when those expectations aren’t realized, people are angry; they’re disappointed; their hopes have been dashed. And that’s what they were doing on health care. I could see it. I could simply see it.
So that Rose Garden ceremony where the president surrounds himself with members of the House, you weren’t there.
Well, I voted against the bill. I believe they only wanted people there who voted for the bill. But I thought it was absurd to have that kind of a demonstration for passage of a bill out of the House. I mean, it’s not law. I just thought that was not a smart thing to do.
What was it besides not a smart thing to do?
I don’t think it was helpful. I always felt that on health care, my view on the health care proposal was that we needed to work this issue from the center out; that the Democrats made a mistake when they passed Obamacare. What they did is that they jammed this thing through on a partisan basis, and we’ve been fighting about this law ever since; that in order to enact a durable, sustainable reform on health care or virtually anything else, it’s important that we try to get some kind of a bipartisan coalition to embrace it. That was the mistake of Obamacare. They really never developed that bipartisan coalition, and as Republicans, we were about to make the same mistake on health care, that we were going to try [a] Republican-only solution that in my view probably would not have been durable and sustainable, and we’d be fighting about this ad nauseam.
… So when he finally talks to the Senate about this, the president who’s had the Rose Garden party, he says, “This bill is—the House bill is mean,” he calls it. What was the impact of that statement?
(Laughs.) Well, for me, I had objected to the bill for a whole host of reasons, and I’d stated my objections. It just validated my opposition. I said, “Look, I opposed the bill, and the president says it’s mean?” [What] confounded me a little bit is the president gave me quite a lecture about supporting this bill, which he now called mean. So I guess he sort of agreed with me. I never called the bill mean; I just didn’t say it was good policy, and I thought it was going to hurt too many people, OK?
But for the folks who voted for the bill, I believe that was very painful to them, very painful, because the president had urged them all to support it, and after it passes, he calls it mean. Essentially, those ads just write themselves. So if you’re a member of Congress, a member of the House, you voted for that health care bill, you don’t have to be too creative to figure out what the ad is. They could say the bill was bad, it hurts people, and oh yeah, the president called it mean. So that’s an ad that is very devastating. But I think for the members who voted for the bill, I think they felt betrayed and, frankly, very angry.
Give me a sense—after [Sen.] John McCain (R-Ariz.) puts the thumbs down on the skinny bill, or whatever they call it, what’s the state of the Republican Party House and Senate then at that moment? The president hasn’t had a success; it’s more than six months into his presidency. The tweet storm is about to begin from him about McConnell and everything else. But where is the party at that moment?
Well, I think the party was in a tough spot. But I said, look, let’s try to make some lemonade from lemons here. Everybody knows that the health care law, Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, has enormous challenges. I mean, this law needs to be at the very least repaired. I’ve always said the challenge we had as Republicans, we kept talking repeal and replace. I stopped using that language after 2012 because once President Obama was re-elected, this law was going to have another four years to bake in. The tree is growing; it will be very hard to uproot the tree.
… So now we’re into the time period after that. You’re in the summer, the president is [at the Trump National Golf Club] in Bedminster, [N.J.]. He’s writing pretty nasty tweets to Mitch McConnell and has a terrible phone call with him, just an unbelievable expletive-filled back-and-forth. …When you watch this happening between the president of the United States, members of the same party, and Sen. McConnell, what are you thinking, Congressman?
My thinking was—I thought it was a completely counterproductive altercation for the president to have with Mitch McConnell. The president needed an understanding of the needs Mitch McConnell [had] to enact his agenda, whatever it is. He will need Mitch McConnell. And in fact, at that point, Mitch McConnell had very skillfully guided Justice [Neil] Gorsuch through the confirmation process for the Supreme Court, and that was a rather big deal, and I thought Sen. McConnell is a very skillful individual, a great tactician, as we all know. And I thought that to be getting into a public fight with the head of the United States Senate, the head Republican, was not going to help the president advance his agenda. So the whole fight struck me as unnecessary and certainly counterproductive.
Why was he doing it?
You almost have to ask the president that question: Why have that fight with the Senate leader? I suspect a lot of his staff didn’t think this was a good idea. I can’t imagine any of them thought this was a good idea, because they know how much they will need Mitch McConnell to advance an agenda, and fighting with him really serves no purpose and can only undermine the president’s own legislative agenda.
Charlottesville happens, and he again tweets and otherwise takes a position that really lights it up for a lot of establishment, moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, a lot of senators, a lot of congressmen. Where are you on that? When you hear about what he’s saying and what he’s writing, where are you, Congressman?
Well, I had criticized the president’s comments at the time. We saw what had happened, the riot, for all practical purposes; we saw the people marching out with the batons and the shields and the white nationalists and the counterdemonstrators. They’re all there. And I think when the president sort of tried to create an equivalency that all the demonstrators are kind of the same, and we realize in this case—I’m not here to make any kind statements about Antifa, but I’ll tell you in the case of Charlottesville, it was pretty clear who started it all. It was the nationalists, these white nationalists … they were largely responsible for the violence. They were the responsible party. We understood that.Then the president tried to say there are bad people on both sides. Well, that didn’t go over very well, because it was clear one side seemed to initiate this altercation.
And then, of course, we had issues in the following days where the president—one of the members of the president’s manufacturing council [Council on Entrepreneurship] stepped down at that moment, Ken Fraser, who’s the—he went to Penn State a few years ahead of me. Actually, he was head of Merck, African American, a fine guy, and he stepped down from the manufacturing council in the aftermath, and the whole manufacturing council fell apart. But I think the challenge was the president just didn’t speak clearly about these white nationalists who were neo-Nazi types. They needed to be very forcefully condemned, and he just didn’t do it. Initially, he equivocated and tried to create a moral equivalency, which was a mistake.
When I talked to Sen. Flake yesterday, he said the thing that bothered him the most was that this stain threatened to be on the party itself, threatened to live beyond whatever the president was saying; that there were lots of concerns among other senators that this could have a lasting effect in the post-“autopsy” period for the Republican Party.
One of the challenges of Charlottesville was if Charlottesville had just happened in isolation, if we hadn’t experienced the comments about the Mexicans, Muslims, and you remember the president got in this issue with [former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and white nationalist politician] David Duke where he failed to condemn David Duke, it’s not hard—
And the birther stuff.
Yeah, and the birther stuff. So he had that history that I believe compounded the Charlottesville situation. You know, he might have been given a little bit more leeway on Charlottesville had there not been all these other issues, but because of past statements and actions and then his inability to clearly define the issue in Charlottesville and immediately denounce the [white] nationalists and neo-Nazis and others, I think that’s what created the problem.
And, of course, it does—I said, too, look, I’m a Republican. I’m in the party of Abraham Lincoln. We’re the party of emancipation. We were the party that objected to slavery, and we were the party of individual rights and individual liberty. We were very strong on that. And I felt that this is the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, and I think one thing they all had in common is they want to advance the human condition, and they believed strongly in individual rights. That’s the heritage of the party.
And I thought that this reaction, the way that Charlottesville was handled, obviously did not speak well of the party of Abraham Lincoln. And people are like, “What kind of Republican are you?” I like to say, “I’m an Abraham Lincoln Republican.” That’s what I like to say, and we should try to honor our founder from time to time.
One of the things the president does is he flies to Arizona and basically, without saying any names, makes some pretty harsh comments about Flake and McCain, obviously making, I guess, a demonstration of them in his power as president to primary people or do whatever it is he’s doing. It really does feel at this moment like it’s a struggle for the heart and soul of the party as much as it’s about demonstrating to others what he can do to Flake and, in some ways, McCain.
Well, you think of John McCain. He spent five years in a prison camp; he’s 80 years old; he’s got a very serious health condition. This man’s been through a lot. So the fact that the president’s going to threaten him politically? I think John McCain is a pretty tough guy. He’s been through a lot worse, and I don’t think this really impacts him. In my view, he’s a very tough guy, and he’s seen a lot worse. No one’s going to bully John McCain. Jeff Flake—I know Jeff very well; he’s a good friend. He’s a very principled person; he’s a very decent person. And I’ve known Jeff, and I’ve watched Jeff in the House. I get amused when people like to say that Jeff Flake is a tool of the establishment. I served with Jeff in the House. Like I said, he’s one of my best friends in the House. But if you were to ask our leadership, I think they would be quite candid with you and tell you that when he was in the House, he was a real pain in the backside. He was a real pain in the backside, and they would tell you that.
They would tell you that because I would watch Jeff Flake go to the House floor, and he would object to everyone’s earmarks, and he’d do it as a happy warrior, and he would lose on all these votes. He’d be beaten like a rented mule, and he did it cheerfully. He always did this cheerfully, but that’s the kind of guy Jeff was. He would drive the leadership crazy. But Jeff, when he felt strongly about an issue, he would fight very hard. But he was always very friendly about it and never bitter or angry; there was never animosity. So nobody, even the people who Flake drove crazy, they all respected him and actually liked him. They actually like him.
So I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact on a Jeff Flake. I mean, what do you do? You threaten Jeff Flake; he writes a book. He writes a book, and he—
Yeah, but he also quits.
He quits; he does. But Jeff is, like I said, he’s a very principled person. I mean, if I had—he’s very libertarian in many of his views, but he’s not the person who’s going to be told what he needs to do. He didn’t do that in the House, ever. I watched him for years in the House, and, as I say, he would drive the leadership crazy.
Walks on the floor and delivers an 18-minute speech. What do you remember about that speech?
I wasn’t surprised that Jeff announced—Sen. Flake was not going to seek re-election. What happened there, I think, was that Jeff, as a strong conservative, he never had a lot of Democratic support. When he made the statements about the president, he obviously hurt himself among the base, so he was kind of on an island, and I think that hurt him, and I think he understood the political situation he was in. But when Jeff made the speech about his reasons and his call for decency and better politics, I wasn’t surprised, because Jeff’s a very decent person. As I say, I’ve gotten to know him and his wife, and he has a—he’s a good Mormon, and I’ve always felt that he has a strict code, a strict moral code. He doesn’t impose it on others, but he’s just the person who I think tries to live a very good life, and he lives a good life, and he knows what he believes in, and he’s not going to be told what to do by others.
Can you imagine a Republican Party where there’s not room for Jeff Flake?
I think the party would be a lot worse off without the Jeff Flakes of the world.
… So what does it say that there’s not room for him, because there isn’t?
Well, there has to be a—I’ve always said politics is an exercise, in getting elected anyway; is an exercise in inclusion, not exclusion; addition, not subtraction. The idea is to get more and more people into the tent, expand your base. In other words, you have a base, but you want to expand upon it. We’re not talking about a club here [where] we’re trying to keep people out; we’re trying to get people in. So that’s what politics and getting elected is about: inclusion, not exclusion; addition, not subtraction.
So for too many, I’ve heard too many people over the years—like I said earlier, we always had these self-designated chiefs and the purity police. If you’re not pure enough, they really didn’t want you. I said, well, this is just foolish; that nobody can meet this standard. We’re basically telling people that if they’re not 100 percent on the agenda, there’s really no place for them. Well, that’s very limiting politically.
And once upon a time that made sense, because there were certain—there was an ideology that you signed up for or not, or you argued about or whatever. The thing about the Trump presidency, as we continue to interview people, it becomes obvious to us that there really isn’t an ideology here; there’s a guy, and there’s his positions on things that you sign up for or you don’t. And if you disagree, you, Flake, [Sen. Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.), others, even Bannon in some ways, you’re outta here, right? And I’ll put it in the form of a question. Somebody said to us that Flake walking away meant that it was now Trump’s party, that that was the signal that it’s not the Republican Party; it’s not McConnell’s party; it’s not Ryan’s party. It’s Trump’s Republican Party.
Well, I believe there’s a certain truth to that, yeah. As I said moments ago, the litmus test prior to Donald Trump was ideological purity: How doctrinaire are you? That was the litmus test. And now here we are, and Donald Trump, of course, is not very ideological, and he is not very doctrinaire, and the issue now is loyalty to the president. And that is unsettling to me, because I think our party’s supposed to be about something larger than that, about a person. It’s about a set of ideas and values. And again, we go back to Abraham Lincoln, the party that freed the slaves, emancipation, limited government, strong national security. These are the kinds of things—I also thought, too, that we were the party, too, that had a sober view about the Soviet Union and the Russians, and that’s kind of been turned on its head.
On trade, we were the party that historically had embraced the notion of expanding export opportunities and opening markets for American producers, and Donald Trump is in a different place there, talking more like a Democrat, frankly, or more traditional Democrat. So I guess that’s what’s concerning. The party has to sort this out. It seems to me that there is a political realignment occurring in our country right now, and the ground is shifting under our feet, and no one is quite sure how this will settle itself. And this realignment will affect both political parties, not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party as well.
Look at the Democrats. I mean, their party was literally taken over by a man, [Sen.] Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s not even a Democrat. Even though he didn’t win the nomination, he more or less is shaping the agenda for the Democrats. On the Republican side, the party was taken over by Donald Trump, who is nominally a Republican. So there you have it. Both parties are not in a good place.
I think we have to look at this in a much broader context. Look at what’s happening around the world. In France, the two major political parties collapsed, and Emmanuel Macron came up the middle, and he’s the president. Changed the whole French political system as we understand it, at least the dynamics.
In Germany, the two major political parties, Christian Democrats center right, social Democrats center left, between the two of them, they barely received a majority of the vote in the September election, 53 percent. And Angela Merkel, at this moment, still can’t form a coalition government. A very popular chancellor.
Something’s happening. The U.K. went through Brexit, and that—all the turmoil that that has created. So there’s something occurring. And we see authoritarian movements in Poland and Hungary and certainly Turkey. Of course, we’ve had one in Russia. So there’s a broader phenomena occurring. And I think as Americans, we tend to look at this in isolation. We’re looking at this from an American perspective and not necessarily looking or exploring what’s happening elsewhere. But I think there are similarities, and maybe what happened in France and Germany might actually be something that could speak to our future.
What’s your take-home from the Judge Roy Moore loss [in the Alabama special senatorial election], even with Trump’s endorsement and even with the RNC in there? There were a lot of people who said that was the signal that the party under Trump was really having cardiac arrest or something. This is before the tax bill.
There was a moment where I thought that many people who were ordinarily sensible had taken leave of their senses. I said, “Oh, my.” The Roy Moore candidacy, even before the very serious allegations of sexual misconduct, even before that, this is a man who’s been removed by the Supreme Court twice. This is a man who didn’t understand constitutional limits. This was a fringe candidate, what we might call a wackadoodle and that I would call a wackadoodle. I obviously never supported him before the allegations.
But I just was appalled that this would be the candidate, and I would also call this a Bannon special. I mean, this is the kind of candidate that Steve Bannon thought was going to be a good standard-bearer for the Republican Party. Nobody thought that. I mean, it was horrible. So they took a Senate seat and literally gave it away, gave it away because of this, nominating such a fringe candidate. But we’ve seen this before. Now, this was the worst of the worst, but I saw it in 2010 in Delaware where a woman, [Christine O’Donnell], who was nominated, who was alleged to have been a witch—I mean, she was in a coven, OK? Do you remember that case?
We also had the one person that was nominated in Nevada who could lose to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was nominated, Sharron Angle, who was a fringe candidate. There was another race, the one in that cycle—there was Nevada; there was Delaware; and there was yet another race in that—oh, yeah, I think that was the Missouri race, the Todd Akin situation, where, again, we had a candidate who had made incendiary comments about rape. I think he used the term “legitimate rape,” and then the lid blew off the Capitol.
… So why does the president of the United States get in there? Why does the RNC follow in?
Well, because the RNC really serves largely—the RNC chair serves at the pleasure of the president.
And why does he go in?
Why does the president support it?
You’d have to ask him. It never made any sense to me. Why would anybody go down there? I got the fact that he endorsed Luther Strange, and I think this speaks to the whole Bannon-Trump relationship. When Steve Bannon was going after Mitch McConnell so aggressively, I kept saying: “Well, wait a minute. This is the president’s guy, Bannon. Does the president endorse this? This can’t be good.” And I just thought it was terrible that that was happening.
And of course now we’ve had more issues with Bannon since then, with the book and now that he’s been cast aside. Maybe that’s a good thing and a good riddance. But [he] might move to a more conventional relationship between Congress and the president, I hope, at least on the Republican side. I mean, I think there’s just a lot of—still a lot of head-scratching going on about that whole Roy Moore situation. I mean, everybody knew, everybody knew, that this man was unfit to serve in the United States Senate before the allegations, and they still got behind him. And the fact he was nominated, you know, was, again, very troubling to me as a Republican. How can—and frankly, the Alabama electorate has to accept some responsibility for this. I mean, there was Luther Strange, and there were multiple candidates there, and—I mean, I understand there was a political situation with Strange and the governor, and he was the attorney general and while that unfolded, and some people didn’t like the optics of that.
But say what you will, Luther Strange was a decent, honorable man who operated within reasonable guidelines and norms and was articulate and was completely acceptable. But instead, primary voters in Alabama opted for this absolutely horrendous candidate who had been literally removed from court twice before.
The photo of the back of the White House with all of the members of Congress kind of on the steps and the one sound bite after another as people stand up and glorify the president standing in the middle of all that, what does that tell you, Congressman?
Was that after what, the tax reform?
Couple of weeks ago.
Again, I voted for the tax bill, the tax reform bill. I felt that there was a lot of good policy in there. There are some challenges with it, too. On balance, it was maybe beneficial to the country, would drive investment, and I believe we put up a pressure on wages, and there are a lot of necessary changes in that law. Again, I didn’t particularly like that ceremony. It didn’t strike me as very—as dignified as it should have been. I mean, if you want to celebrate a bill, celebrate the bill; celebrate the policy. I wouldn’t necessarily celebrate an individual.
Truthfully, I think the administration did a much better job on tax reform than they did on health care. I think they were more engaged in the policy specifics there, so I think to a certain extent, they certainly did a better job. But the tax reform bill was largely driven by Congress, in my view. So it’s nice that they wanted to say good things about the president, but the truth is, I felt the product was driven more by Congress than by the administration. If you want to celebrate anything, celebrate the policy, why the bill was good and how it’s going to help Americans, not necessarily just patting the president on the back. I think that kind of missed the point of the whole effort.
… What’s your assessment when you look at your crystal ball of what the challenges are ahead for the Republican Party in the fall?
Yeah, well the 2018 midterm election will be a referendum on the Republican Party, and specifically the president of the United States and his conduct in office. That’s what this election will be about. It will be a referendum on the president. No one should be surprised by that. I mean, history tells us that the party of the president usually experiences losses in a midterm, particularly when one party controls all three layers of government. This 2018 will be analogous to 1994, 2006, 2010, where in each case one party had total control; the Democrats in 1994 and 2010, and Republicans had total control in 2006, and each had a real tough time.
So we are going to be running into a tough headwind independent of the president just based on history, but the president, obviously, brings another dimension to this whole midterm. So, like I said, [the midterm election will be] a referendum on the incumbent party but specifically on the president of the United States and his conduct in office. We can delude ourselves and say this election will be about something else, but I think we have to be very clear. I’m sober about this. And of course we will experience, we Republicans, will experience losses in the midterm.
The question is how many. Will this election be a hurricane-force wind or just a gentle breeze in our face? I would bet closer toward the hurricane-force wind if I had to bet today. But hey, things could happen between now and the election. But as of now, I tell my colleagues you prepare for the worst. You can hope for the best, but you have to prepare for the worst.
… So my last question on this, on the division inside the party, where does Trump fit into it, first as candidate coming in and then as he arrives? Does he understand what’s going on? How does he fit into that story?
It’s interesting. Like I said earlier, Donald Trump, I mean, the silver lining of the Donald Trump candidacy was I think he exposed that Republican primary voters are not as ideologically doctrinaire as many people had thought and that Donald Trump—and primary voters knew Donald wasn’t doctrinaire, they weren’t either, and they’re OK with that. So now here we are. You get Donald Trump as president, and I think many of us were hoping that a President Trump would be one who wasn’t as ideologically doctrinaire and would try to find agreement on, say, border security and the Dreamers, put together a package. And he actually did that in early September, suggested it.
Same thing with a continuing resolution in debt ceiling where he said, “We can put this together.” And he was correct, and I praised him for both of those things at the time. I said those are the right things to do. They were the smart things to do, and frankly, they were the only things that could have been done at the time.
But he recognized it, and he should have been given credit for that. So I think Donald Trump is still trying to get his sea legs under him on some of these issues. Again, it gets back to this issue, who’s pulling him in the White House? Was it the Bannon-Miller wing? Was it, I’ll say the Heritage—maybe the Pence wing, the more ideologically conservative doctrinaire folks, or the more pragmatic wing, back to Jared, Ivanka and Cohn, Mnuchin? So that’s the issue.
So what kind of president will Donald Trump be? Some have said that he’s just taken on more conventional Republican policy position; some have said that. Others are saying he’s kind of gone full Bannon. Others are suggesting that there’s a pragmatic streak. Nobody’s really quite—again, I don’t think anybody really quite has the answers just yet.
… I just have one [question]. I guess the simple question is, why are you quitting? You said in the past that it’s almost impossible to get anything done in Washington. You’ve been frustrated since 2013 with the government closing down. Why are you quitting, and what lessons should other people learn from that?
Well, I’ve served in Congress; I’m in my seventh term. Prior to this, I was in my state General Assembly for 14 years. I’ve run for office 13 times. I’m 13-0. I’m not spoiling the perfect record. I had no serious threat from the left; I had no credible threat from the right. I really wasn’t worried about re-election. I felt pretty good about it. But I felt it was the right time for me, 28 years. So on a personal level, OK, I thought it was the right time.
But it’s also true that there is a polarization in Congress that leads to a paralysis, and I think that’s really the issue that we have to address sooner or later as a country. In some respects, I think that the Congress is more polarized at times than the public. I have found this, when I would stand up and say we shouldn’t shut the government down, we should take our responsibility seriously about governing and not pandering to the fringes, down here that gets you some ire from some of these outside groups. But I’d go home to the grocery store and people— high praise. They say: “Hey, thank you for being sane. Thank you for not being nuts.” … I mean, and I’ll tell you, there are a lot of people who are not over here or over here on the fringes. There are a lot of people who are in between there, and they don’t like what they see.
I’ve said to my colleagues: “Come out of your foxhole once in a while. You’re not going to get your head shot off. Actually, people are going to be, I think, be more appreciative than you realize.” But it did seem like it was the right time for me personally, politically. And there’s frustration, too, to be sure. Look, in the 2016 election, I spent virtually all of my time in the campaign talking about the presidential race and Donald Trump, the tweet of the moment or whatever the comment at the moment was. And I’ll tell you, in 2018, the whole campaign again is going to be about the president of the United States and his conduct in office, and do you want to spend the next several months just talking about that?