Ed O'Keefe

The Washington Post

Ed O’Keefe is a political correspondent for CBS News. At the time of this interview, O’Keefe covered congressional and presidential politics for The Washington Post.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 25, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let’s start in the summer of 2016 [on July 7] when [candidate] Trump comes to town [to meet with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill]….

Trump comes to town in the middle of the week when Democrats and Republicans have their own lunches in the Capitol, just off the Senate floor in separate dining rooms, separate meeting rooms. At this point, we know that a hot topic of conversation for Republicans all the time is, “Can you believe what’s happening out on the campaign trail?” Well, we’ve reached the point where Trump is essentially about to be the nominee. He needs to come and meet these people. They need to get on the same page.

He shows up for lunch, and it is essentially a Q&A. He’s pretty well-received. Again, most Republican senators at this point can appreciate the fact that he has won. There was a very clearly laid-out level playing field for all Republican candidates for the most part. He revolutionized the way a Republican runs for president, and he was going to win.

But let’s remember almost exactly a year before, he’d been in Iowa and was asked about [Sen.] John McCain (R-Ariz.) and said: “I’m not a big fan of people who get captured. I’m a fan of people who win.” Well, within minutes, of course, the Republican Party started repudiating everything Trump had just said and said he should apologize, he should reconsider this, and everyone ran to McCain’s defense. This is a guy who spent several years as a prisoner of war and yet has been a stalwart defender of everything Republican for so long. Yet all of that aside, Trump still prevails.

I think for a lot of these guys, they’re in conflict, and they’re coming to realize that this is the way it’s going to be from now on. What happened with congressional races where you saw Tea Party-backed candidates beat out long-established incumbents is now happening at the presidential level, whether they like it or not.

At some point, [Sen.] Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) stands up, and Trump says: “Ah, yeah. I know who you are. You haven’t been very nice to me.” [Flake] says: “That’s right. I am the other senator from Arizona, the one that didn’t get captured, and I want to talk to you about comments like that.” And the two of them proceed, basically, to have at it. At that point, Trump is coming, once again, face-to-face with the counterweight to his version of Republican politics … And it’s game on at that point. They are immediately cast as bitter rivals, and Flake makes clear in that meeting: “I am not in the Never Trump camp. I want to like you; I want to work with you; I want to find a way. But I have real issues with the way you comport yourself, and if you keep that up, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Pretty intense.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, those meetings are usually a bunch of boiled broccoli and fish, a bunch of septuagenarians sitting around listening to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tell them about what they’re supposed to do in the next week. This is something totally different. This is not what normally happens in a Senate lunch.

… As the campaign rolls on, August, September, October—let’s say Oct. 7, Access Hollywood—the Republicans, many of the Republicans are pulling back as he does one thing after another. He insults a judge, he assails somebody’s gender, all the things he did. Describe the state of their connection to their candidate, their presidential candidate, as we head for Access Hollywood. … They seem to be sort of—well, what do they seem to be doing?

Most of them are holding him at arm’s length. … They realize that he is their nominee; they have no choice. They’re hearing it from voters back home that they love the guy. A few of them, however, are running for re-election in states where he’s radioactive and where associating with him could spell your doom.

The one that sticks out in my mind is [Sen.] Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire. She was the only Republican from New England who had essentially bucked the attempts at curbing gun rights in previous years and so already was a marked candidate, given that she had basically gone against [what] so many in her state believed should happen. But New Hampshire is a [state] with a large gun rights culture and an appreciation for it, so she understood that.

Then comes along Trump who wins the Republican primary in New Hampshire, and that essentially sets him off on his glide path. But [he] has said and done so many things ever since that run counter to her brand of Republican politics and to the sensibilities of most New Hampshire voters, … and she lost.

There were examples of that all across the party. But there were others, [then-Sen.] Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), of course, most of all, [Sen.] Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who took to him, defended him, basically told anyone who didn’t want to fall in line that they were missing the train, and were among those who basically channeled that anyone who wasn’t going to get on board was missing the point and probably was going to suffer consequences later.

… So that on election night, …what do you imagine the thought process of McConnell and [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) is by 11:00 on election night?

It’s a series of four-letter words probably, because they’re elated that they have held, and in some cases padded, their majority. But they know it’s going to be just as difficult, if not more so, to work with Trump than it would have been with Hillary Clinton. And let’s also remember something important. Ryan and McConnell had been around under Republican presidents, but most of the House and a good chunk of the Senate had never served under unified Republican control. Taking total ownership of Washington is an entirely different beast than being the opposition that can say no and scream from the balcony at everything Democrats are doing.

Not only did they realize they had a president who was ideologically all over the map, but they had colleagues who didn’t know how to comport themselves in a majority government, so it was a double-edged challenge for them, in many ways, especially in the House. You’d seen over the course of several years people elected to Congress who, frankly, don’t have any legislative experience, don’t know how to write a bill and get it through a committee, get it to final passage, maybe negotiate with Democrats on some aspects of it and get it passed into law.

They’d been issuing legislation for years that they knew wasn’t going to get anywhere just in an attempt to get headlines. Well, now those pieces of legislation actually had to become law if Republicans were going to prove their worth. That was part of it for them, because I think everyone in this town, with few exceptions, was convinced that Clinton would win, [and] there would be immediate calls for investigations. There would be very little love lost between her and Republican leadership, despite her attempts, perhaps, to reach some kind of consensus with them on various issues. They were ready for that, and they’d seen that play out over the last eight years. They were not ready, and they had done very little planning, for Trump becoming president, so they had to scramble.

… Ryan and, of course, the Republicans … face [a problem] in the very beginning when Ryan somehow has to have a conversation with Trump that says: “We’re not going to start with infrastructure or tax cuts. We’re going to start with Obamacare.”

Right. “And we’ll have it done in a month.”

So take me there. What’s that conversation all about?

This was the biggest mistake they made, and I think they would tell you that now. They understood that the tension, the desire, and they thought the ease of achieving that goal made the most sense, that they would get a big win right out of the gate and that by Easter, no later, they would have this done. But they didn’t.

Trump several times channeled what I think a lot of observers were thinking. Remember he said: “They convened in early January before I was even inaugurated. I was always under the presumption, and I had been told, that by the day I showed up in the Oval Office, there would be a bill waiting for me. Well, what the heck happened?” And I think frankly, a lot of Democrats, a lot of us who had watched for the last seven years as Republicans railed against it and submitted all these proposals to undo or change the law, filed them and passed them in the House: “Yeah, what happened? What took you so long? Why couldn’t you do this?”

It was an example of that issue of most members of Congress not knowing how to operate in Republican-controlled Washington and not knowing how to control the levers of government.

Meanwhile, Trump is sitting there tapping his watch saying, “Come on, you guys.”

He’s justifiably impatient, because he’s been told by Ryan and McConnell, “We’ll get this done fast, and we’ll move on to taxes, and eventually we’ll do infrastructure.” And he had to wait until August, only to watch it collapse in the middle of the night when his old foe John McCain showed up and voted no. But look, time after time after time, what it did early on was exposed all these disagreements, because you had the president saying one thing, you had a certain bloc of Republicans saying something else, and you had especially in the Senate a bunch of moderates who come from swing states saying, “You cannot undo this.”

Meanwhile, month after month after month, there’s new evidence that Americans actually have kind of adjusted and come to grips with and now like what their health care looks like, so you’re starting to undo what has become a popular law, or at least something that most people have come to accept.

… As the bill moves along, it is [Rep. Mark] Meadows (R-N.C.) and the Freedom Caucus that say: “Wait a minute. What about us? Wait a minute, Paul. Wait a minute, Mr. Speaker. You figured something out. What about us? We’re the power of no, and we’re going to exercise it right now.” Trump, by the same token, believes Meadows, says he talks to Meadows all the time, … and suddenly Trump is saying: “Wait a minute. My pals in the Freedom Caucus are stepping in here and slowing down this thing. I want to get on a freight train.”

Welcome to the NFL, Mr. President.

Welcome to the NFL, and welcome to working with Congress, which for the last 15-plus years has really been unable to move anything despite public support and despite general agreement that certain things should be done. And again, it just speaks to the lack of legislative experience that so many of these people have, and frankly, I think [it shows] the timidity to do something big. That was part of the problem. These guys had spent seven years saying no. They didn’t know how to get to yes and get something passed and deal with the consequences of it. They’re seeing polling even in deeply Republican states that says, well, this law would potentially raise your rates because it’s going to end the individual mandate; it might jeopardize your pre-existing condition coverage; it might mean that your 25-year-old son can’t stay on your plan, to which they said: “Wait a second. We like those parts.” So very quickly, they had to go and say, “OK, we’re going to make all these changes, but these things we’re going to leave alone.” And the president made very clear, leave them alone. The other thing that’s exposed is that he talks a lot to the Freedom Caucus. And the reason he talks to the Freedom Caucus is because they always liked him, they always supported him. They always stood by him. Ryan didn’t. Trump’s instinct is to always be with the guy who likes you and who has supported you and has had your back. The Freedom Caucus did; Ryan did not…

When Ryan on that Friday afternoon goes over to the White House and says to the president, “We’re going to have to pull the bill,” can you imagine what that was like for Ryan? What was Trump’s response, and where [did that leave] both the administration and the Congress by Friday evening?

They realized that they had lost months of valuable time. The one thing the Trump White House understood, just as every other new White House understands, you have maximum leverage and maximum ability to get something done in those first few months. But come summertime, you start to lose that leverage. FDR, of course, with the 100 days. The Obama administration with the stimulus package, Dodd-Frank and their own stunted attempts to do health care was all happening at the same time. Clinton stumbled out of the gate as well, remember. He was trying to do certain things and got held up by others. So there are examples of people who did it well and people who struggled, and they realized they had just lost incredibly valuable time.

They were also seeing polling that showed that they were already deeply unpopular and that the numbers weren’t holding up, so it was panic time, and I think, justifiably, folks at the White House were probably really upset with congressional leaders. We wanted to do infrastructure first, you know? It would have been a bipartisan win. Democrats desperately wanted to do it as well. We would have had them by the neck because they would have had no choice but to work with us on it. It would have stimulated the economy, and you’ve just spent the last several months screwing this up.

This is why they celebrate in the Rose Garden on the passage of [the House health care bill before it goes to the Senate]…

That Rose Garden scene was the biggest gift they could give to Democrats ahead of this year’s elections. It wrote itself. Here were a bunch of Republicans, also here were a bunch of mostly white men in a country that is increasingly diverse, undoing a program that benefits a lot of people who were not reflected on that stage, celebrating something that ultimately failed. I remember talking to Democratic aides and operatives who said, “You’re going to see a lot of that footage in attack ads by the summer of 2018. …”

… That roar from the American town hall was not lost on congresspeople and senators we’ve interview about this film who said, “When I went back to North Carolina or when I went back to so-and-so, … suddenly there were crowds, and it was all—it was 2009 in August all over again except about what I was doing.” It freaked them out.

Yeah. And remember, this is a guy who takes most of his cues on what the American public is up to through television. So he’s seeing news coverage of these town halls and can see that it’s unpopular because he’s seeing the voters chastise incumbents. This is somebody who is very concerned about upsetting that roughly 35 percent of the country who likes him, because he knows if they go, he’s got nobody. So he figures: “Well, OK, they’re a little bit upset about this. Let me keep on their side and try to move the Senate closer to something that’s a little more happy than mean, I guess.” …

When McCain walks up and drops the thumb late at night, he’s talked to Trump right before he walks back out on the floor. … Was any of it, from your point of view, payback for the 2015 comment, or is it more procedural than that?

I’m particularly proud of this moment, because I had not been covering this debate as closely as some of my colleagues, but I had volunteered to be the overnight watchman at the Capitol, knowing that Friday was going to be the day when this probably passed and they were going to need to save their energy for that. I had to go somewhere that Friday, so I said I’m just going to—“Look, guys, I’ll come in like 10:00; I’ll stay until 7:00 a.m. It’s fine.”

About 11:00, McCain says to some reporters, “Stay tuned,” when they ask, “Are you going to vote?” I see that, and I go, “This is McCain being McCain.”… And immediately, you could tell from his body language he’s going to be a no…

At some point, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski show up, and they’re standing over him, literally seeking protection from other Republican leaders who are trying to find them to try to convince them to vote yes when they want to vote no. They didn’t move the whole night. At some point, Mitch McConnell and Jeff Flake and the vice president are down in the well of the chamber. They send Flake over to sit with them, try to get Flake to goad them, give it one last shot. Doesn’t work.

[Vice President Mike] Pence goes up, leans over McCain’s desk, tries to charm Murkowski and Collins. None of them are budging. Finally Pence asked him to go out and take the call from the president, and we knew—I said, “That’s the call from the president.” Was it payback? Nobody said it wasn’t. But remember, he had just come back a few days before and excoriated the whole process and said, “This is not the way the Senate is supposed to operate. …”

Maybe he knows that part of the reason it’s unraveling is because of the president and all that he has done and said since he started running. There’s got to be some sweet vindication for McCain, though, that he did what he did, because he stopped it cold. And yes, he gave the thumbs down. People don’t realize a lot of senators have a way of signaling their vote. This is how he’s always done it. This is not new. The fact that he stood in the well and did it, knowing that 99 colleagues were watching, that was dramatic. …

It was the most dramatic night on the Senate floor I had seen in all my years up there. And what confirmed is that when you talk to Democrats and Republicans who serve in the Senate, they agreed. It is ironic that Flake was trying to convince McCain to come along. Flake, who at that time, was still expected to run for re-election, understood that this was popular in Arizona and needed to be done because the state was struggling with its health care system. McCain had been in far closer contact with the governor and they had been conferring about the whole situation. But McCain was also quite disturbed by what was unfolding.

And he, like many other senators, had been there in 2010 when Democrats rammed it through on their own. Yes, they held committee hearings, yes they allowed some Republican amendments to be considered. But mostly, it was a one-party affair and he had seen over the last eight years how unpopular it had become and what it had done to the economy and to Americans. And he didn’t want his party to undo it on their own and cause similar pain for the party and for health care consumers.

And I think, again, part of it was his fate was flashing before his eyes and he knew that this was his one last chance to really take a stand, capture the nation’s imagination in the process, but also remind his party that they have to do things differently. The end result is that they took cues from him and tax reform was handled in a far more equitable, if still partisan, fashion. And that’s why he supported it. And he made clear, you listened to me, you did it the way I said it should be done. Regular order, far more public, transparent, you allowed Democrats to come along, they decided not to, and we did it.

The president is not happy with McCain’s display and the result. …You’ve set the scene nicely for the anger of the president of the United States who was promised something by Easter, and now it’s July 27. His arch nemesis, McCain, has played a role. Now we’re deeply into Shakespeare, and he decides to lash out, as is his wont. … What happened? …

Trump is in pretty frequent contact with Ryan and McConnell. They do it out of necessity. They need to keep him as close to them as they can. They also know that he likes to be updated and be kept in the loop and not be surprised. I think they realize, still, that they are still building a relationship with him, so the more that they talk to him on the phone, which is his preferred method of conversation with people like that, the better.

But this was a particularly nasty call. Mitch McConnell is a man who measures his words, at least in public, quite carefully. Never been known to say anything terribly cross. A partisan warrior for sure, who would gladly extract blood from Democrats, but not one known to use profanity that often, so the fact that he gets into a profane phone conversation with the president a, shows you how angry the president can get at certain people, and b, shows you that in this case, at least, McConnell was willing to give it back to him and say, you know, “This is on you as well, sir.” Everyone was at fault here. The president hadn’t fully engaged and hadn’t made full use of his powers of persuasion, certainly, to try to win public support and then was going around undercutting the whole process.

McConnell was expressing that frustration. They still talk—they have to—and I also think because certainly White House officials get that side of the president a lot, he’s learned that sometimes that’s going to happen and then the president comes around again. Just like anybody else, he gets angry at friends, family and colleagues, and the next day can be back to normal. …

Look, McConnell, like Ryan, is somebody the president can’t entirely trust. I think the president and McConnell came to an understanding, and McConnell certainly understood that Trump could ultimately help shore up some of the Republican senators, and in some cases, especially out in Missouri and Wisconsin, probably helped Republican challengers and incumbents win by drawing out more supporters than Republicans had anticipated. He realizes he’s good for business in the Senate, at least for Republicans. But it just once again exposed that there was a real lack of trust and incredible friction between the White House and Congress.

… [Trump is] in Bedminster, [N.J., at the Trump National Golf Club]. Charlottesville happens. What is his response, and what are the implications of the way that he reacts?

Well, he gives that incredible press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower that nobody was really anticipating. He was there mostly to talk about, I think, it was infrastructure issues and was expected to just say a few words and go back up the elevator. … [Secretary of Transportation] Elaine Chao is flanking him on the left, and she’s holding up charts, and somebody asks about it, and he says that there are good people on both sides. Immediately people went: “Wait a second. He just did it again. He equated white supremacists, the KKK, with civil rights marchers on the other side.” He essentially said that what transpired in Charlottesville was unfortunate but fine. It terrified a lot of people, certainly caused great chaos here in Washington, because here again, he was playing to those parts of society that many thought he had no business legitimizing or even talking about. …

… The adult daycare comment from Corker. Here’s another United States senator, the bulwark of the opposition, apparently, who wasn’t there at the beginning, and now suddenly for reasons that you’ll explain gets in a shooting match with the president of the United States.

He had stood on stage with Trump when he campaigned for president. And he had been briefly considered a potential vice presidential candidate and Secretary of State. The two of them, remember, actually have a lot in common. They both come out of commercial real estate and construction. So they bonded over that, and Trump immediately takes to somebody like that because he understands that you’re coming from where I’m coming from.

But Corker is a different animal. …

What do you mean by that?

Well, look, this is a guy who is surrounded by people named Rex and Matt and Mad Dog and, you know, the daughter of a televangelist, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and a vice president who, you know, is as clean cut, very well maintained kind of guy.

So he’s casting a reality show.

He is casting a reality show. This whole thing has been casted. I mean, you’ve heard the reports that he likes guys named Rex and he likes that Mattis’s nickname is Mad Dog and he likes that Mnuchin spent time in Hollywood. He was obsessed with the appearance of Sean Spicer, thinking that he had ill-fitting suits and needed to put on some powder. And loves the way Sarah Huckabee Sanders handles the press because she does it with such ease and it just so happens that her father was quite good at television as well.

So, of course, he’s casting. And he looks at Corker and he thinks, “Well, we have a lot in common, but doesn’t look the part.”

Too short.

Too short, too southern, and certainly not from his brand of Republican politics. The tweet storm is doubly notable. A, it’s yet another Republican going after the president over the same concerns about comportment and that words matter. What’s doubly interesting, or perhaps concerning to some, is Corker is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has several foreign leaders or foreign ministers on speed dial and they watch what he says and does. And he’s a gauge to the rest of the world of how the rest of the country is engaging with and accepting a Trump presidency. So for him to say what he said is incredibly notable. And rattles certain corners of the world. …

This scare Trump? Does it affect Trump in any way that’s obvious?

I think it juiced him, because … here’s another chance to go after yet another Republican in a red state that we should be able to win.

So he’s sending messages to his own party through a lot of this, these are demonstration–

Yeah. Saying you’re going to do this kind of thing, I’m going to find a way to destroy you. And look what happens. And we know, also, that Trump had been talking to Corker about staying in the Senate, trying to convince him to stay. And then he figured Corker might leave anyway. Trump didn’t do anything to help the situation, and he opted to go.

… By [the end of 2017] we all see the photo from the back of the White House with all the Republicans lined up on the stairs right before Christmas, and Orrin Hatch is [thanking President Trump for his leadership]. Does that signal… one, it’s now Trump’s party, and b, they’ve either wallpapered over or healed the breech in the civil war inside the Republican Party? …

Ask anybody on the street what does it mean to be Republican, and the answer is you don’t like and you want to lower your taxes. So here for the first time in 30 years, Republicans have done that. They had achieved the ultimate Republican goal, [to] reduce the tax burden on Americans. They didn’t reduce it on everybody, and they had to concede that, but they got pretty far. And I remember throughout the presidential campaign, throughout the first year, you’d hear it from aides and from lawmakers privately: “As long as we can do taxes, this guy can do whatever he wants to do … as long as we get that done, because unified Republican control means we can do it.” It may be messy, but it’s the ultimate goal; it’s the holy grail. The fact that he helped them do it and signed it, great.

They’ll be able to go home and campaign in 2018 on fulfilling a pledge: “I have lowered your taxes. I have made it easier for you and your company to do business.” That is a fundamental Republican promise, and they fulfilled it. If it meant standing with the president who has equated white supremacists with civil rights marchers, questioned the integrity and the background of federal judges, gone after members of his own party, that’s the price to pay.

The last thing I would ask, then, is you’ve given us lots and lots on Flake. But can you just give us the overview of who this guy is, why he’s like this, just sort of the beginning?

Sure. Jeff Flake is born and raised in Arizona, better looking than most members of Congress, fair to say. Devoted Mormon, comes from a large family, and was first known in Washington as a real critic of earmarks, had fought against them for a long time, still believes that they’re not worth the time or their political price. Gets elected to the Senate and very quickly becomes part of the bipartisan immigration group that in 2013 tried and failed to enact immigration legislation. Many Republicans saw him as a great actor in that debate because he was somebody from a state that is quickly changing, who is justifiably and undeniably conservative. But on this issue understands reality and that it needs to change.

And he comes out of the Mitt Romney-George Bush wing of the party and [Flake] sees what happens during the Trump campaign and says, “This is exactly what I am not.” And I think over and over again, has felt compelled for all of those fellow Republicans who don’t right now have a seat at the table, and for his own personal history, to speak up at this time and make clear he didn’t agree with it. And it frustrates him to no end that more of his colleagues won’t do it as well but ultimately he’s doing what he needs to do for himself and he’s OK with it.