Fmr. Trump Campaign Manager
Corey Lewandowski is a Republican political strategist and Donald Trump’s former campaign manager. He remains a close confidante to the president.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 24, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Our story begins in the summer of 2016. It’s July. Donald Trump is now the presumptive candidate. He’s beaten everybody else in the primaries, all of them, the so-called best and brightest of the Republican Party, and he’s come to town for a victory lap. He’s going to the RNC in the morning, seeing [then-Republican National Committee Chair Reince] Priebus and others, and goes over to the Senate in the afternoon. Who is this man coming to town? How does he feel about coming here? This is the swamp, but it’s also people he’s going to have to work with. What’s he thinking? What’s the point of the visit?
Well, even if you go back before that, the first trips that Donald Trump made to Washington, D.C., as a candidate did not include trips to the RNC. They did not include trips to Capitol Hill. They included trips to his hotel, which is now called the Old Post Office, and we brought people in from around the town to meet Donald Trump for the first time, the reason being is he was going to come, and did come, to fundamentally change Washington.
We were not focused during the campaign, particularly the early stages, of seeking endorsements from elected officials, and that is a very different mantra than what other candidates in the race were looking to do. As a matter of fact, the first endorsement we received was from a congressman from New York by the name of Chris Collins, who only endorsed Donald Trump after we had finished second place in Iowa, first place in New Hampshire, first place in South Carolina, and first place in Nevada. He’d won three out of four of the first primaries, and then Chris Collins said, “Hey, by the way, I think I want to endorse you now.” That was the first endorsement we made that we received from a sitting elected official, and that wasn’t until the end of February of 2016.
So we had no interest in coming to see what was going on in Washington and to get the endorsements and to meet with these people, because they’re the ones who have had Washington broken for the last 30 years, and Trump was going to come and change it.
When he walks in, one of the first things that happens is he bumps into [Sen.] Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and they have a back-and-forth. [Flake says,] “I was the one that wasn’t captured.” What’s up with that, and how surprised would Trump have been to bump into Flake and have Flake take him on that way?
You know what? I think what it was was candidate Trump, President Trump, is a man who, in his core, wants to get along with people. He does, and he has been a person throughout the history of his life that has gotten things done when others said he couldn’t, if you look at the New York real estate market, if you look at now what he’s done in politics. It was very surprising, I think, that right at the onset, Jeff Flake was very aggressive to someone who—I don’t think he’s ever met Donald Trump prior to this.
I think what Jeff was trying to do was to stake his ground to support then [Sen.] John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his position as someone who had been captured as an American war hero. But what Donald Trump did in that narrative of John McCain, which has been lost, was talk about the plight of veterans in Phoenix, Ariz., who were not being served by the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs]. And because Donald Trump raised that issue, the care and the community now in Phoenix specifically is much better for those veterans.
That’s one of the things that’s interesting about this. Trump had, during the campaign, during the primaries and obviously in the election, really done well in Arizona, very effective in Arizona. And Flake, who was at one time a kind of on the right guy is now more a moderate guy, and it’s like Trump sort of understood the anger and the frustration that was out there that Flake may have been worried, [but] he wasn’t responding to it.
I think that’s right, and we spent a lot of time campaigning in Arizona. We were down there early and often. We stopped there after some of the debates and did big rallies. We brought the airplane in. We had huge events down there. What people saw, many times, was the issue of illegal immigration, the notion that veterans weren’t being taken care of. You know, that was an issue that was very specific to the state of Arizona, and I think Jeff Flake, whether he knew it at the time or not, did not recognize what was actually taking place in his state. What we now know is Jeff is leaving because of his attacks on the president. He couldn’t win a re-election campaign in a primary.
That’s very interesting. So how does a guy like Trump take it when a guy like Flake comes at him in a moment like that?
Well, Donald Trump is the greatest counterpuncher we’ve ever seen, and he responded in kind. What he said to him—and I’m paraphrasing—that day was, “I’ll remember this when you’re up for re-election next time.” That’s what the president responded. And Flake said to him, “Well, I’m not up this time.” And he said, “But you will be soon,” basically.
The president, he’s much more gracious, actually, than people give him credit for, and he has an ability, which I don’t have, which is he forgives people all the time. You look at the fights that he’s had with [Sen.] Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and with [Sen.] Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and with [Secretary of Energy] Rick Perry, and these are now all either members of his Cabinet or individuals he works with on a regular basis.
Jeff Flake has been such an obstacle and so obstinate in his visceral reaction to the president that this president has now doubled down and said: “You know what, Jeff? If you want to come after me, then I’m going to use my microphone as now the president to make sure you’re going to have a difficult re-election.” And Jeff decided, because he’s politically astute, that he didn’t want to seek re-election.
It’s a very interesting moment you raise, or point, because here’s a roomful of people who are kind of making their mind up: Am I with this guy? Am I not with this guy? Who is he? Is he kind of nutty? Is he all right? Who is he going to—how do I get with him, or how am I going to fight him? And this may have been a small demonstration project of what their future would be if they stepped up against him.
I think that’s right. The president is the type of man who’s going to go in and campaign for you if you’re with him and support you any way he can with his social media activity. If you’re with the president and you’re on his agenda, he’s going to do everything possible. But if you’re against his agenda, which is the agenda that 60 million Americans voted for, and you are an obstinate obstacle and you personally attack him, he’s going to respond. We’ve seen that now with [Sen.] Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). His numbers in Nebraska are miserable. I don’t think Ben can get re-elected right now in that state. We’ve seen it with Jeff Flake. We almost saw it with [Sen.] Dean Heller (R-Nev.) on the health care issue, and Dean Heller saw the political reality. Even though Donald Trump didn’t win the general election in Nevada, it was very close, but he didn’t win. Hillary Clinton carried the state of Nevada.
In the primary, we dominated that state in the primary, and Dean Heller has come to realize that it’s better to be on the president’s team than against the president. And you have seen, other than what was a slight dustup, that he has now fallen right in line in supporting the president’s agenda because he has his own political interests in mind, and knowing that you’re with the president, which is where the American people are, is only going to help him.
At that day, there was a 50/50—maybe there were a lot of guys in the room who were saying, “I’m not really sure what’s going to happen; I’m not sure what’s going on here.” And as the fall runs along, they still aren’t jumping to the president’s side, or Trump’s side. And when Access Hollywood happens, [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) is gone. Ryan on that famous telephone call says, “I’m never going to support this guy,” and others, too, in their weekly phone calls, including Flake: “I’m not anywhere near this guy.” Describe that circumstance for me, will you? Where were those guys? Why were they acting that way? These are days they’ll rue, I would assume.
Well, there were a number of elected officials who called me right after that came out and said: “Hey, we have to unendorse the president, the candidate. We can’t be anywhere near this. We’re concerned about our own re-election efforts, our own legacy, our own standing, our own stature, our own donors.” The luxury that Donald Trump had is that he wasn’t beholden to donors, so he could do it any way he wanted to. What he said was he’s now unchained.
If you remember the tweet after that came out, he said: “Now I am unchained. I’m no longer beholden to the Republican establishment.” What I said to the individuals who called me—and I don’t want to tell you their names, but senior members of the U.S. Senate and members of the House—I said, “Let us get through the debate.” The debate was just the next day, two days, actually. The Billy Bush weekend, we call it, happened on a Friday night. That debate was Sunday in St. Louis, and I believe that that was such an inflection point on the campaign and that candidate Trump did so well at that St. Louis debate that he stopped that bleeding of individuals who wanted to unendorse him or leave him going into the end of this campaign cycle, because they saw in him a fighter, a man who is willing to stand up for what he believed in. Whether you agree or disagree with him fundamentally, he stands up for what he thinks is right and fights for it every day.
And what they saw on the stage that day in St. Louis is a person who took the fight directly to Hillary Clinton, a person who no other candidate would have had the accusers of Bill Clinton there, right? Nobody would have had the guts to do it, but Donald Trump had the tenacity to do that, and that got in Hillary’s head.
What happened was we know Donald Trump, I believe, won the election that night on the debate stage. He was prepared; he was ready; he was strong. We put a picture in our book, if you haven’t seen it, right, of us watching that debate in St. Louis with then-[Sen.] Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Mayor Rudy Giuliani, some of the team, George Gigicos, Hope Hicks, Dan Scavino, Johnny McEntee, all in that picture. And the reaction, because Donald Trump had been so prepped for that debate, [to] the success that he had that night really kept a lot of those members who were going to go off on their own, kept them with the candidate and said, “Donald Trump can now win.”
How much do you think it hurt Ryan to be on the wrong side of Donald Trump at that moment?
Well, I think Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have two fundamentally different philosophies of how to govern the country. Donald Trump has been someone who has been a staunch advocate of stopping illegal immigration, not granting amnesty, and Paul has a different philosophy on that. Paul Ryan’s priorities have been entitlement reform, and they’ve been that way for a very long time. That entitlement reform includes, probably, looking at how Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security are structured for people who rely on that, and the president said: “Look, we have to take care of people. We can’t take their benefits away from them, understanding what it’s doing to our economy.”
The president’s philosophy has been let’s grow the economy, and that’s what they’ve been doing; 3 1/2, maybe 4 percent growth rate. So I think Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have two very different ways of governing, and what we saw there was Paul Ryan and many others thought the campaign was over. They counted him out. And what they have learned about Donald Trump—if they didn’t know it then, they know it today—is you never count this guy out. He is a winner. He finds a way to win when nobody else thought he would, and that is the sheer tenacity of Donald Trump and what he is bringing to Congress.
Now, when he gets elected, when he wins, everybody says—unanimously, that we talked to—that speech that night at the Hilton Hotel, unbelievably different than what they thought he was going to be, not gloating, not bigger than life, just literally “Let’s all get along; let’s figure this out.” And it leaves them all, over through the transition and leading up to the inauguration address, wondering—and Ryan himself says: “Now I’ve got a unified government. Now we can do something.” But they’re wondering, is he going to pivot? Is he going to be the guy who’s going to be the pen for whatever they want? Is he going to lead them? Is he going to try to seize the party?
At that moment, that night, for you, was the Donald Trump that was standing on that stage that was delivering that thing, which Donald Trump was it going to be?
You know, that night was such a special night. Donald Trump unified the country that night after a very hard-fought election. What people don’t realize is the election wasn’t very close at all from the Electoral College perspective. This wasn’t as close as many people thought because of the victories in Wisconsin, which most of the mainstream media didn’t focus on or didn’t think was coming, and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Iowa and Florida and North Carolina. All the places where they said he had to run an inside straight, not only did he do that, and then some.
What Donald Trump did that night on election night at 2:00 in the morning was he said, “Look, it was a hard-fought campaign, but everyone’s going to come together,” because that’s the Donald Trump who’s magnanimous and knows that you’re not the leader of a fraction of the country; you’re a leader of everybody. What he did that night is tell people that.
Look, even his critics, even the critics—and I was there at CNN—Van Jones and the guy said, “That was an amazing speech.” They gave him a lot of credit for it because he deserved the credit for it. And the words that he spoke that night, I mean, that’s Donald Trump. He wants to be a leader for everybody. It’s going to be a different direction than the Obama administration. It’s a different set of rules and priorities of where we want to take our country, but he’s still the leader of everybody, and it’s still America First, and that’s the agenda we ran on.
[Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.), [Senate Majority] Leader McConnell, and Ryan as they watch him pick [Steve] Bannon and Priebus [as chief strategist and chief of staff, respectively], as they watch “American carnage” at the inaugural address, what are they worried about?
Look, I think Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell weren’t sure what the president’s priorities were going to be. They didn’t know, and this is not uncommon. Because they didn’t have a long relationship, and this president had never served in any type of elected office before, or in the government in any way, shape or form, they didn’t know what his government style would be like. Unlike George W. Bush, they could go back and look at his history in the state of Texas; unlike Barack Obama, who they had worked with in the U.S. Senate; unlike Bill Clinton, who had obviously been the governor of Arkansas. Donald Trump had run a business. He was a true business executive coming in and taking over the reins of the government.
I think Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan didn’t know if he was going to be subservient—and I mean that in the positive sense—in letting Congress run the agenda, because they didn’t have that type of relationship. Now we’re building that, as the campaign progressed and as the transition happened, but what [the Republican establishment] now know is Donald Trump is unequivocally the leader of the Republican Party. He is the one who sets the tone of what takes place in Washington. He is the leader of our country, both politically and from a legislative side of things, and I think they’ve learned that over the last year.
When he gave that address, that inaugural address, some people have talked to us and said there was a plan, there was a discussion among the writers, that he would turn—all the people were behind him that he was complaining about—that he would turn and look them in the eye. Do you remember that discussion and whether that was something that he wanted to do?
You know, I don’t know if that was specifically part of the plan, but that speech should have not have been a surprise to anybody. And again, he was widely criticized by the mainstream media, and particularly the left, that it wasn’t a speech that was magnanimous enough, that it should have been an opportunity to embrace everybody and bring people together, which they then give him credit for his first joint session to Congress, which is the speech that many people said, particularly the left liberals, said he should have delivered as the inauguration speech.
The difference is these are the same individuals and the same people who missed the Trump movement, who missed the frustration of Americans, [of the] people [who] waited in line eight hours in the snow. Lowell, Mass., town I grew up in, we brought Donald Trump there in the primary in January of 2016 in a blizzard. People waited eight hours to get inside the Paul Tsongas Arena—if that’s not apropos—to wait in line to see Donald Trump, to see a politician give a speech, and that was replicated around the country hundreds of times. And the mainstream media said, “Donald Trump gave a speech that didn’t represent the American people.” That’s because they didn’t know what the American people wanted. Donald Trump saw what they wanted. Those people want to be proud to be Americans again, to say it’s OK to put America first, to have a president who says, “We’re here first.”
Did McConnell and Ryan miss that, too?
Absolutely they missed it, right? Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan did not see what was taking place in this campaign. And for anybody who didn’t physically attend a Trump rally, the television did not do it justice. You could not get a feeling—and look, Jared Kushner, who was part of our campaign, speaks about this very clearly. We had been out campaigning—really we launched the campaign in June of 2015, but we had been doing rallies for many, many, many months before this. When Jared came to his first rally, he came to Michigan, and he saw 20,000 people in the stadium, not just what you saw on television, because they covered it all live, but what the crowd was like. The aura, the people, young and old, people who put their best suits on, right, who had no wealth of any nature, who were blue-collar workers who just wanted our country to be great again.
When Jared Kushner saw that, and I think it was in probably October or November of 2015, he said, “Wow.” And I saw it every time. There were groupies, people who would literally go to 20, 30, 40 rallies to see this. It was a movement, and it was much bigger than Donald Trump. And Mitch and Paul both missed that.
So he’s inaugurated. Ryan has an agenda, has a thing he wants to do. Presumably the president would have liked to do infrastructure right away. That’s his wheelhouse; that’s where he’d love to go. But for all kinds of reasons, Ryan goes first. Why did he let Ryan do that, or was it impossible for him not to let Ryan sort of go forward?
What happened was the cost of the infrastructure spending bill was going to be $1 trillion, right? It was going to be massive, which is basically one-fourth of our total income for a year, OK? We’re about $4 trillion. It’s about a trillion-dollar spending bill. The problem with that is you can’t get that through the House because there are no offsets, so the reason that they had to start with health care, which was, candidly, not in the president’s wheelhouse, OK, was because of the cost savings associated with the repeal-and-replace Obamacare. It then became a numbers game, and in order to actually get legislation done, you’ve got to get 218 votes in the House. You’ve got to get at least 51 votes in the Senate, maybe 60 on some cases, right? But you have to have the numbers game.
If you would have started with transportation, which I think is what the president’s personal priorities would have been first, to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, the cost was so prohibitive to the federal government and would have blown such a massive hole in our deficit that Paul Ryan’s argument to the president was: “Look, let us get health care done. We’ll do repeal and replace. We’ve done it 40 times over seven years. We know exactly what it takes to get this done. The cost savings associated with the repeal and replace is going to give us hundreds of millions of dollars of savings. Then we could actually go back and find that delta, and we can actually get transportation done in probably a bipartisan fashion.”
Unfortunately Congress failed, right? Paul Ryan came to the president and said: “Look, our goal, our plan, is we’ll get repeal and replace done by Easter. OK, easy-peasy lemon squeezy. We’ve done this 100 times, right? Then we’re going to move to the next bill, and we’ll get a tax cut done probably by Labor Day, and you’ll have your transportation bill done before the end of the year, the first of the year, and you’ll have the most successful presidency of a first-year president in the history of our country.”
And the president said: “OK, this is what you guys do every day. You’ve been up here for 20 years. You know how to count to 218. You know what your members are going to support. Let’s go with it.” And Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, who has a close working relationship with Speaker Ryan, got together, and they said, “Let’s move the health care bill, because we can get this done.” And you know what? Came back, they couldn’t get it done.
And Trump’s response while they’re not getting it done? I remember thinking he’s looking at his watch all the time, saying, “Hey, man, it’s May.”
Of course. Look, of course, because they made a promise to the president: “We’re going to deliver for you, because this is what we do.” And the president said: “OK, if this is what you guys do, I’m going to let you do what you do, because that’s what a leader does. We’re going to let you go and get your piece done, and I’m here to support you,” is what the president said. “I’ll make phone calls; I’ll bring people in. I’ll push, I’ll pull, I’ll help. I’ll do whatever you want. Let me know.” And he gave that opportunity to the Speaker to deliver on health care, and they failed the first time.
Well, they failed because, look, it’s easy to point the finger. Why wasn’t it the day Donald Trump won the election? Why wasn’t it in November of 2016? Nov. 9, Nov. 10, let’s give it two days, right? Why wasn’t the bill ready to go?
They’d had seven years to look at it.
They never thought he was going to win. They never thought he was going to win. They never thought that Donald Trump was going to win the election, so they weren’t prepared when they did. So OK, let’s fast-forward. Eight weeks later, 10 weeks later, he gets sworn in on Jan. 20. Why isn’t the bill ready to go? House wasn’t prepared. Then the House does the bill. After a couple tries, they finally pass it. What does the Senate do?
… One of the mistakes Ryan seems to make—and it seems like the president thinks [Rep. Mark] Meadows (R-N.C.) and the Freedom Caucus are his pals, are his natural affinity. They get it about the people; they get it about his base; they share some of that base, right? But Ryan’s bill pushes along and blows right by those guys who then raise their hand and say, “Hang on, wait a minute.” In that moment, the first time that I can see, that Trump really pays attention to what’s going on with the process, not cheerleading, not glad-handing, not arm twisting, but the process. And when he looks at it, what does he see?
Look, he sees a broken structure, right? He sees, on paper, Republicans control everything. This should be easy, fellas, right? Let’s get together. We don’t even need the Democrats. But the difference there is what … the Freedom Caucus think is acceptable is not in line with what Paul Ryan and his leadership think are acceptable. So now we’re fighting among ourselves, which is exactly what has happened in Washington for 30 years, and that’s why nothing gets done.
So Trump says: “What can I do to move this along? Mark, what do you need? What does your team need? Paul, what does your team need? Guys, fellas, ladies and gentlemen, we have to deliver for the American people.” That’s when Trump injects himself, right, and he starts leaning on the members of his team that have relationships on the Hill, the Mick Mulvaneys of the world, [the director of the Office of Management and Budget who served as a member of the House of Representatives for South Carolina prior to his appointment], who came out of the administration. Look, Tom Price, who was our first secretary of health and human services, came out of Congress, right? Understood the process, was supposed to be an expert on this, as were others who were in Congress.
What Trump realized very quickly was Congress was completely dysfunctional, and he worked to get the best bill done he could because that’s what Speaker Ryan told him was all they were going to get done.
And when Ryan comes over to the White House that Friday afternoon and says, “We’ve got to pull the bill,” how frustrated—you know Donald Trump very well. What’s the calculus in his mind? How frustrated was he? How did he react?
Look, [Donald Trump’s] a man who expects, demands and deserves action, and this notion of pulling a bill is unacceptable. “You told me we were going to get it done.” … He promised the American people, “We’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare.” So when he hears “We have to pull the bill because we don’t have the votes,” he’s beside himself, right? He has told the American people, “I’m going to go and get things done that nobody else will,” and now he’s beholden to 218 votes and not having his own team deliver for him. It’s a very frustrating thing.
So by the time it all gets sorted out—oh, by the way, do you know what he says to Ryan at that moment?
I’m not in the room, but he says: “Paul, go back and get it done, OK? We’re not taking a break. We’ve got to get this stuff done.” This is his message to the members of Congress. “We have to deliver for the American people because that’s what we said we’re going to do.” It’s a different mindset. People are so used to politicians making promises and not delivering on them, it’s almost second nature. The difference is Trump is saying, “I said we were going to go do it; go get it done.”
They do finally get it done, and there’s the Rose Garden ceremony. Lot of people make fun of this and say you’re spiking the ball on the 20-yard line. You’re not anywhere near the end zone yet. This proves Trump is too naive to be president of the complicated United States and the Congress. Your response, his response to that moment?
Look, it was a moment because—and it was a good moment. Was it maybe too early? Yeah. It reminds me back of the days when George W. Bush joined the USS [Abraham] Lincoln, I think, was out at sea and said, “You know, victory declared,” or whatever it was, a little early.
“Mission accomplished,” right, on the USS Lincoln. But here’s the thing: The president wanted to bring those people in, the members of Congress. They came to the Rose Garden, and he thanked them, turned around and was very congratulatory to them for getting something done. But it’s not enough, right? Getting half the bill done through one of the bodies is not enough. And I have been very critical during the first year of this administration about the lack of a political sophisticated operation in the White House, and I think if you would have looked at this with a political lens, those individuals would have said: “This is probably not the right thing to do right now. When we get the bill finalized and when you’re signing this bill, this is when we do a giant ceremony.”
But the lack of sophistication from the political side, I think, has been something that this White House really needs to improve on.
Didn’t serve him well in that moment.
It did not.
Yeah. Meanwhile, while they’re celebrating, out in the town halls, a replay of 2009 is happening, except it’s Democrats who are protesting, maybe organized protesting, and the Republicans are on their heels in the town meetings.
That’s exactly right. And the reason for that, again, is because I think of the lack of political sophistication on messaging, on what the response of the American people is going to be. Look, I don’t know who’s doing long-term strategic planning in the building, I don’t know. I hope somebody is, because it seems to be day-to-day. Things like this occur, and we look back and say, “Hey, maybe it could have been an avoidable mistake.” I think what you’ll see coming into the election cycle is the reality of some of those choices.
It’s also, a lot of people say, the chaos inside the White House. The tweets, the back and the forth, the overindulgence of the energy of the guy himself is just an impossible circumstance for people to corral and to organize in a direction that says—
I don’t buy that. You know why I don’t buy it? Because those are people who don’t know Donald Trump. I had the privilege of sitting next to him 18 hours a day, seven days a week for almost two years. He’s a man always in motion. He always wants things. But you know what you do, in my opinion? You execute on the things he asks you to get done, and that’s why we were successful during the campaign, because it was execution of ideas and follow-through.
Look, there are a lot of people in the White House and just across government. They don’t want to work 18 hours a day, right? They want to come in, they want to do their job, and they want to leave. That’s perfectly fine. This is a man who demands 18-hour days, because that’s what he puts—he doesn’t ask you to do more than he does. He gets up at 5:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. every day, and then he goes to bed at 11:00 or 12:00 every day. That’s what he does. That’s just the work ethic that he has. He doesn’t ask you to do more. He asks you to keep up with him. People aren’t used to that.
And he has such an ability to see things forward, and he’s asking you to execute all the time. People aren’t used to that. People aren’t used to a president who’s going directly to the American people with his Twitter feed, OK? And they think, hey, oh, we should stop it. I disagree 100 percent. I disagree 100 percent, because I want to know what the president’s thinking, and the people in the White House who think it’s their job to keep the president from the American people are doing a disservice to our country.
Some of those people, even the Freedom Caucus people, say yeah, but he didn’t know enough about the details. He should have rolled his sleeves up, read the law, sat with us, helped us do it. It would have been a lot more efficient in the spring, especially as it’s heading to the Senate. And actually, what he does is—so answer that question first. Should he have gotten down in the engine room and rolled his sleeves up?
Look, that’s absurd. You know, Barack Obama didn’t do that when he was the president. George W. Bush didn’t do that when he was the president. You know, you hire good people; that’s what a manager does. You hire individuals who know every single issue that they need to know about the bill, whether that’s Marc Short at the legislative affairs office or it’s Mick Mulvaney or it’s the secretary of HHS, or whoever it is. You can’t ask, and it is unfair to demand the president to know every detail of every piece of legislation.
Nobody’s ever done that, but he’s criticized for those things. You know what he is? He’s the consummate closer. He comes in, and he closes the deal. When you look back at his life history—New York real estate, books, television, whatever it is, right?—he’s had people who have helped negotiate, and he comes to the table and finishes the deal, and both sides walk away happy. That’s what a dealmaker does. You can’t expect him to read a 1,000-piece page of legislation, understand every nuance. That’s what you hire staff for.
You know, there are hundreds of people who work over there. This is what they’re supposed to be doing, and if not, what are they there for?
When he says to the Senate, “The House bill was a mean bill,” a lot of people in the House say: “Oh my God, he just cut my knees off. We worked our asses off for this, and this guy—who is this guy? How do I have loyalty for my Republican president who just shot me out of the saddle with ‘This is a mean bill’?” What do you make of him saying that?
Look, he wants to take care of people. I always say it, and people don’t recognize it, but he has a big heart. He doesn’t want to throw people out. He doesn’t want to throw women and children who need health care off and they have nothing. You don’t want to put people out in the streets; you want to take care of people. And that’s what he said. And what he’s saying is we’re not going to just cut services for people across the board because it’s not fair to them, so we’re going to take care of people.
… Skinny health care comes up for a vote. John McCain comes out and does the thumb down. How do you think the president felt about that?
Disappointed. You know, part of that should have been the whip operation from the Senate. We should have never had to wait until Sen. McCain showed up to make that decision. Somebody should have known. The fact that he voted no and nobody knew this was coming is a fundamental flaw of the team around the president. And look, that’s Mitch McConnell’s responsibility. You’ve only got to count to 51. It’s not that tough, right? You can do that.
It’s the team, and I know there were some discussions back and forth. But the fact that nobody knew that it was this close—this wasn’t even for the bill, this was just for the motion to proceed on the bill. We couldn’t even get 51 votes, and the president was surprised. He should never be surprised, right? They should—
He talked to McCain on the phone right before he voted.
He did, he did.
What did he say, do you know?
You know, I wasn’t part of the conversation. But all he asked for was to move the bill forward. Let’s have the discussion. Give us the opportunity to work on something that you want to be part of because that’s what we pledged to do, and John said no.
Because? I wonder how much of it was personal because of the Frank Luntz—
Look, maybe. I don’t know. But what John did that day was a disservice not to the president, but to the American people. I mean, we’ve seen health care premiums spike in the state of Arizona up 116 percent since Obamacare came in. You have to give people the opportunity to have affordable health care, and John McCain chose on that day to make a decision for whatever reason, whatever he thought it was. But to not be able to just say yes, we should move forward with the discussion on a piece of legislation, I think is a disservice to the American people.
This is the struggle that McCain and Flake and others are— this is a party discussion, too. I mean, they’re really in it. The president goes to—Priebus is then gone. …
Look, I think Reince is a good man put in a tough spot. You know, when Reince went into the White House, you have to remember the previous six years as the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he reported to a 162-person board, so he really reported to nobody. Very different. He walks in to an environment which was set up in the trifecta mode with Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus all having some authority, which means nobody has any authority, because there was no single entity, single person, that was the final decision maker other than the president.
But that’s Trump’s decision, right?
It was Trump’s decision. Looking back, I think this administration wasn’t ready to go on day one of staffing. They not only figuratively but literally took the transition book that Gov. [Chris] Christie (R-N.J.) had put together as the head of the transition and threw it into the trash and said, “We’re going to start over after the election,” which is a very difficult thing to do.
Then it did a disservice to the president, right? You didn’t have Senate confirmation appointments going through fast. There’s still 500-plus sitting there right now. You don’t have ambassadors there. You don’t have any of the people that you need to have a fully functioning government in place. I think the president’s frustration with Reince is things weren’t getting done, and Reince was ultimately accountable for it, and the president asked him to leave.
… The president is very angry at the end of the failure of Obama replace and repeal. The back-and-forth, the tweets and the terrible phone call with Leader McConnell tells us what?
It tells us he expects to get things done, and not getting things done is unacceptable. That’s why he’s frustrated. He’s frustrated because he wants to get things done.
But in a way you know that—a lot of people we talked to said they’d never seen such a thing, the phone call between Leader McConnell and the president. The unseemliness, the indecency of the language, everything, what does that tell us?
What it tells me is he’s frustrated, right? People get frustrated when you don’t get things done. When you make a promise as a businessman to go deliver something, people expect you to deliver it. When you make a promise as a politician, people don’t expect anything to come true. The difference here is Donald Trump said, “I promise to do this; we’re going to get it done,” and when things don’t get done, he gets frustrated, just like you would.
Look, it’s like my kids, right? And I don’t mean that in a negative sense to that relationship, but when I ask them to do something, and they tell me they’re going to do it and they don’t, I got to tell them five times to go brush your teeth, I say, “Go brush your teeth; just get it done,” right? That’s what he wants. He wants action, because once that’s done, once the health care bill is done, he can move to the next thing, because his agenda is vast. He’s got a lot of big things to do.
So that summer, July 27 of 2017, he’s that far in, and he doesn’t have a major accomplishment, and he knows it.
… OK. Then Charlottesville happens. Whew. Help me understand the president’s response.
Look, the president said in that particular instance that there were good and bad people on both sides of this, and the mainstream media wants to call him a racist; they want to call him misogynist; they want to call him all those incendiary things with no proof. You have to look back at his history of the people he’s employed and had around him. I call the president an equal opportunist, OK? He doesn’t care if you’re white or black, green or orange, male, female, straight, gay or anything in between. You don’t do your job, you’re gone, OK? That’s how he is. That’s not sexist; it’s not racist; it’s not anything.
… Why was it so hard for him to just back it up, leave it alone and move on?
Look, I think because when you get a person who fights for what they believe in all the time, whether you agree or disagree, he fights. He’s a fighter. And when he says something and is accused of being something that he isn’t—I always say he’s the greatest counterpuncher we’ve ever seen—he has to fight back. So when you accuse him of being a racist … he doesn’t want to back up. He wants to double down and prove to you that that’s not true. And that’s what the president is.
Anybody who knows him—not these self-aggrandizing fake media narratives, but the people that know him—nobody’s accused him of being a racist. No one’s ever said he hasn’t given women an opportunity in his business environment. No one’s ever accused him of anything other than [being] an equal opportunist. And when someone accuses you of something you’re not, you want to stand up for what you believe in, and that’s what he did.
… Charlottesville happens, and then this fits in nicely with what you’re saying. He decides to go to Arizona, to Phoenix, and speak. He doesn’t mention Flake’s name, he doesn’t mention McCain’s name, but he goes to that rally in Arizona. What is that about?
Look, it’s about going back to the base, right, to demonstrate how popular it is to be with the president, particularly in Jeff’s own state. When the president of the United States rolls in and you have a rally that has tens of thousands of people in it, Jeff pays attention, and Dean Heller pays attention, and candidates who want to—and senators who want to attack Donald Trump start paying attention. If he can do what he did to Jeff Flake in his own state, Jeff could have had a very long career in the U.S. Senate, and now his political career is essentially over because he made the wrong calculation. He thought attacking the president was going to endear him in his home state because he thought that there was a backlash out there against the president that was silent.
What he didn’t realize until Trump showed up there is there’s no backlash. People are more visceral than ever in their support of the president. The ones who were there with the president and his base have doubled down because he’s followed through on the promises, and that was the miscalculation that Jeff made.
So when Flake walks onto the Senate floor and speaks for 17 minutes, the president’s response is?
Look, it’s an empty chamber, and that’s Jeff grandstanding, right? That’s Jeff grandstanding, and he thought he was going to raise his profile to the point where he would have an opportunity to be something bigger than what he is. And what happened? He made a terrible calculation. He went against Donald Trump, who’s a proven winner, and now Jeff is a guy who also used to be a U.S. senator.
And the [Sen. Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.) back-and-forth, the “adult day care center” line? …
You know, I think Bob Corker’s a very good man; I really do. I think he has been a strong advocate for our Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the chairman. and he’s a very good man, OK? I think there is a level of frustration also between Sen. Corker and the president. This president is a man who speaks his mind, calls it like it is, and if you’re not on the team trying to get something done, if you’re an obstacle, he’s going to call you out to the American people. It’s never been done before. It’s never been done, and they don’t like it. They don’t like having their names called out in public to say that they’re not doing their job. He’s not asking you to do more; he’s asking you to do your job.
So when he puts you in the spotlight, right—we saw it on the campaign all the time. “Corey, please ask the president not to tweet about me.” “Yes, governor, congressman, senator, candidate, sure. We’ll keep you out of the Twitter fire, right?” But when Donald Trump goes after you and says, “Hey, Sen. X or Sen. Y isn’t doing their job,” guess what? The American people start saying, “Hey, how come you’re not doing your job, Sen. X or Sen. Y?” And guess what happens? Their phones light up like Christmas trees. They don’t like that.
… It’s now 2018. We know what’s going to happen in November. There’s going to be a midterm election. Traditionally goes the other way. … You’ve seen this all, this movie before. So where are we in the movie now as we head for the primaries? And this program will air in April, heading for the primaries, and then of course the midterm in the fall?
Look, I think part of it is the White House communications team has not done a good job. They’ve not done a good enough job to represent this president. And I understand he is his own tweet person, but what was the rollout after the tax plan? … There’s a lack of political sophistication from the White House. There was no thank-you tour in 10 or 12 states, right? We’ve seen now that all this money’s coming back overseas because of this great tax plan. There was no let’s go around the country like Obama did, like Bush did, like Clinton did, and tout this success. Where is the leaders of the Cabinet who should be out talking about this? There’s a lack of political and communication sophistication from the White House. Big part of the problem.
But he’s the president.
Look, I understand, but you have to have a team, right? The president just doesn’t get on Air Force One and say, “Hey, I’m going to put wheels down in Pensacola, Fla.” Somebody has to plan and execute and lay it out.
But he’s the CEO. He builds teams, right?
His team needs to get better if they’re going to be successful, because let me tell you where we’re going, OK? Historically, over the last 100 years, three presidents in their midterms have actually gained seats, George W. Bush being the most recent, but that was largely in part to 9/11. Massive terrorist attack, very different, OK? The average president in the midterm loses 40 seats. I think Barack Obama lost 67; I think Bill Clinton lost 54. The Democrats need to gain 25 seats to take back control of the House. Thirty-two—as we sit today, 32 members of the House Republicans are either retiring or running for a different office and not seeking re-election, OK? That is a devastating number. Now, you couple that with congressional districts which are already competitive in states where Donald Trump was winning and carried across some of those.
I particularly look at the California races, right? Some of those people in California were dragged across the finish line because of Donald Trump. That’s just true.
Now you look at other competitive seats. Wisconsin, Virginia is a great example. Members who are running for re-election in seats that Hillary Clinton won, OK? But Donald Trump helped them because the turnout was much higher. We’re in line right now for a very difficult midterm election. There is a possibility with 35 senators up, 25 of which are Democrats, 10 sitting in states that Donald Trump won, the Democrats could still take back the Senate. It’s an amazing thought to me right now. When you’ve got states like Montana and North Dakota and West Virginia and Missouri and Ohio and Florida, all the states that Trump won, we’re not even talking about pickups as the Republican Party right now.
I think it goes back to making sure the president and his team fully understand what the ramifications of a midterm election loss will be. Not only will it fundamentally end his ability to govern in the same manner, but I believe the Democrats would move immediately to begin impeachment proceedings. Even though he’ll never be removed under the impeachment guidelines, it will stymie his legislative agenda. And it’s not like Bill Clinton. When the Republicans took over the House in the Republican Revolution in ’94, Bill Clinton was a fairly moderate Democrat governor from a Southern state, and they moved him to the right.
[Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) moved him to the right, and you know what they did? They balanced the budget for the first time, which Bill Clinton was very much in favor of doing anyway. They just pushed him further to the right. And the Democrats, if they take over the House or the Senate or both, will move Donald Trump to the far left, and it’s not just the policies, but it also opens up their ability for subpoena powers and investigative powers and all the other things that will stop this administration from being successful.