Eric Cantor served as House Majority Leader from 2011 to 2014, and before that, House Minority Whip from 2009 to 2011. In 2014, the Virginia Republican suffered a stunning upset in his bid for re-election to Dave Brat. Cantor now works as a vice chairman and managing director for the New York investment firm Moelis & Company.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore conducted on Jan. 12, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with just before Trump is elected. What’s the state of the GOP? You had been through those years, really, from 2009 up. There was a split, of course, a split that sort of went after you at one point and was successful. What’s the state of the GOP just before Trump is elected president?
Well, first of all, if you go back and just sort of think about where the Republican Party has been since the election of Barack Obama and after that, the inability, if you will, for the party to actually see a way to work with President Obama, President Obama’s administration refusing to work with the Republicans, there was a real shock to the country, and people were really focused on the tough economic challenges that they were facing. And the party felt like it had some answers and some value it could add to the solutions that hopefully would come forward working with the Obama administration. That was not to take place.
So what we saw during the first two years of President Obama’s administration was the formation of what we know now as the Tea Party. It wasn’t necessarily a split with what was going on in Washington, because these were people who said: “Look, pay attention to me. We’ve got really tough economic challenges.” And when they saw bills like the stimulus bill being passed, or they saw one-fifth of the economy in this Obamacare bill really transform health care in this country, they said: “Wait a minute. What about us?”
That was the same kind of message that we in Washington were talking about as Republicans. Once we sort of benefited from all that and became the majority party in 2010, which meant that—when I say “benefited from,” people wanted to see a counter and a check and a balance to that one-way street from the Democratic dominance under Obama—then I think that there were folks on the outside, and not necessarily grassroots individuals but really professionals in the business, that wanted to take advantage of and claimed to say they wanted to lead the Tea Party.
From that period of time, you saw individuals rise and organizations say, “Hey, we are going to insist on ideological purity, because that’s really what the party should be about.” I think that that’s where the split really started to begin, and that was anybody that was in office was definitionally unacceptable because they weren’t pure enough. But I don’t think it was necessarily a split with people and voters; it was more of sort of a professional class in politics coming about trying to upend and replace the party leaders.
… I’ll take you through the chronology, because a big part of what I’m going to talk with you about is what happened with health care this year. But historically, and speaking about that time, the promises made—and you certainly have said in the past that you were involved in it, and getting people elected, it worked; it was very useful. But the promises made eventually led to an anger within the base, an anger that eventually led to somebody like a Trump?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Obamacare was solely responsible for that, but what I would say was that the anger began, and I’m not saying it just started, but let’s just say it manifested itself in real ways after the economic collapse in 2008. What we saw in 2009, in 2010, was a real outpouring of frustration on the part of so many Americans, and these were the Tea Partiers in the beginning. These were the moms, the dads, the grandmas, the grandpas who had never really been involved in politics before, and it really was an outside organization—not really an organization, but a sort of grouping of people that wasn’t belonging to one or the other parties. It was this movement that now has been subsumed, I think, within the Republican Party and has changed a great deal.
But it was that kind of anger that then, unfortunately, some in the professional class of making money in politics, they went around and said, “We’re going to lead the Tea Party because we know what you’re talking about, and we know that it’s this ideology that you want.” Well, in the end what we saw is that anger didn’t go in the direction of strict adherence to ideology, because if that were the case, if Republican base or Tea Party base was so ideological, we wouldn’t have seen the election of Donald Trump. It was really more about the anger; it was really more about the frustration that people said, “Pay attention to me.”
But the anger also was against the Republican Party, where the base started saying: “Wait a minute. You guys promised: Give us the House, we’ll kill Obamacare,” 2010, 2012, 2014. And the anger grew, and some people—I think [former Speaker of the House John] Boehner sort of said it eventually turned back on the party itself. Eventually turned back on you so that you lost your leadership role. I mean, how did that anger come about? Were you guys kind of responsible for it in a way, or misunderstanding how it could turn against you?
Listen, it was about the expectations. It was about the expectations in the conservative media and in others, in the professional class of folks who were trying to rile up folks, and it was really an attempt to say, “I don’t care what people in power are saying; they’re not doing what we want them to do.” People were so angry, and those who had designs on replacing current leadership said: “It’s their fault. If you don’t like Obamacare and health care under Obamacare, it is their fault, because they’re not doing anything about it.”
Now again, let’s not even—let’s remember, the reality was that there was a Democratically controlled Senate; there was obviously a Democratic president in the White House. So constitutionally, it wasn’t going to happen. But yet, it was an opportunity for some to continue to have an interest in riling up and claiming that they would be leading the Tea Party and leading this sentiment of opposition.
In the end, though, I think that they were wrong, because it wasn’t about ideology. It was about just frustration that turned into now what we have as President Trump.
… How does it end up that Donald Trump is able, basically, to take over the party?
Candidate Trump was in a different league in terms of being able to demonstrate anger. He was more angry than anybody by multiples, and so it was he who would say the things that most us would listen to and would be so horrified at.
But yet, I think a lot of folks … probably thought, “Hey, you know what? That guy will go to Washington, will take Washington by the lapels, shake it up, and then return it back to what we need it to be doing.”
So after he wins the nomination, basically before the convention, he comes to Washington, and he meets with leadership, and he has conversations. Washington doesn’t know Donald Trump too much, and Donald Trump certainly doesn’t know Washington. Do you know anything about those meetings or how Washington viewed this guy, or how would they have viewed him? …
Listen, I certainly had conversations about some of those meetings, and it was really—they were always looking at Donald Trump as somebody who’s an outsider, somebody who was not consistently aware of or even interested in the policy positions of the party; somebody who—and I think it’s been demonstrated since—is somebody who really is interested in the deal. One of the big things I think you could take away from the election was—and this goes back to my point about ideology and the fact that is the Republican Party that party of limited government ideology and is that what’s driving it, or is it being driven now by results, no matter what they are, and we’re going to have a president who’s going to cut a better deal, because that was the plank upon which Donald Trump appealed to his base and, frankly, enough of the independent electorate to be able to be elected president.
That’s a hell of a different party than the one you were involved in running.
Well, I tell you, I think this is something that we’ll have to see and where the direction of the party lies, because I think in many ways, it’s true to say don’t listen to what the president says; watch what he does. Now, the problems with that are it matters what the president of the United States says. It especially matters in the international realm.
But I would say if you look at what he’s done, certainly he was part of and responsible for helping the Congress and getting passed and signing into law a significant reform of the tax code, something that my party has been about for a very long time and unable to get done.
… Election night, where are you? When are you hearing about the fact that, oh my God, Florida goes, and Pennsylvania goes, and Wisconsin goes? Are you having conversations with folks in Washington? What’s the hubbub about what’s occurring, what you guys are watching?
Well, it was pretty unbelievable. I didn’t believe it. I think like most people—and when you listen to some of the media that were clearly wanting the outcome to be the other way, so they weren’t going to go in and push this prospect—I think the whole country, if not the world, was shocked in the middle of that night or next morning to see that the outcome really was going to be a President Trump. You know, it was also, I think, very telling in the financial services business that I’m in now to see the markets swoon the way they did. The minute it started to look like Donald Trump was going to become president, the market fell off precipitously.
But then, within minutes if not hours, the market all of a sudden globally—the futures were back up. Again, it was quite an evening, and I think the country or the world hasn’t been the same since.
What can you tell us about the philosophy of leadership toward this new phenomenon named Donald Trump coming to town and going to be president of the United States? Was there a feeling that, all right, he’s a CEO; he’ll be a pen for us? We’ll finally be able to get done the things we want to get done? …
I’d say two things. One, yes, I would agree that there was a sense among my former colleagues on the Hill that they would finally have the opportunity to see things pass that the party had wanted to see passed for, if not decades, certainly many, many years, and from fiscal policy to social policy, health care, energy, the rest.
So there was obviously a lot of work that had been done on a number of measures. We saw first off that the president said that he would yield to the Hill and that then [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan said, “OK, we’re going to do health care first.” I don’t think that there was certainly an understanding about, broadly speaking, about where the health care bill was going to go, and despite all the years of having said there’s a repeal and replace. And yeah, the White House under President Trump was in no shape to say, “Hey, we’ve got a plan.”
So yes, the Hill felt that it could lead. But then I think the reality set in that if you’re going to get anything done, yes, a united government is what’s needed, and it’s been shown over the last decade or so. But if you don’t have a president and White House that are engaged and are unified behind wanting to get something done and how to get it done, it won’t get done.
I think that’s when you can see the difference between the attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare versus the tax bill. It was unanimity in the White House that they wanted a tax bill done; they coalesced around what they wanted done, and then that went and joined up with the many years of effort on Capitol Hill to get something passed.
… What was the message sent by the appointment of Priebus and Bannon [as White House chief of staff and chief strategist, respectively] on the same day? How would that have been viewed from the Hill?
Again, I don’t know necessarily whether—let me just say this. I think Donald Trump was always viewed, and has continue to be viewed, as somebody from the outside. And that is by his choice; that is how he got elected. So I think the juxtaposition of somebody like Reince Priebus with Steve Bannon reinforces that notion that there is going to be some tension naturally by an outsider coming into the White House by trying to fit into the established way.
And if you talk to some folks who may have had business interactions with Donald Trump in the past, you hear from them that this is all about the methodology. It is continuing to stir it up, to have chaos, to not have anyone feel necessarily confident in where things are heading. So you’re back on your heels a little bit. And I think that Donald Trump, throughout his life, you’ve read what he has written, and other people who have been involved with him will tell you that’s the way he operates.
But Priebus would have been seen as soothing? He’s an establishment guy; he would be helpful in dealing with Congress? I mean, how is Priebus seen?
I thought I just answered that, so I’m trying to understand what you’re saying.
Well, no, just specifically him. Some people have said to us: “We saw Priebus as a good guy. He’s an establishment guy. He knows how Washington works, so that’s a good sign.” I mean, the independent guy—
I’ll just tell you this. I mean, I love Reince. He’s a great guy. He ran the party. He never served on Capitol Hill. I think this was also some of the growing pains of the White House, is they really didn’t have up front somebody who had actually been in a legislative process running the ball down the field. Reince ran the national party; he didn’t run the legislature. He didn’t have the experience of doing that. And I think initially, the White House had really spurned a lot of the folks who had had that kind of experience in prior administrations in the White House.
… So Ryan pushes for health care, as you defined, Trump goes OK, and there’s nobody in the White House to really sort of see another direction at this point, though people afterward will look at it as a mistake. What was your attitude when you heard that was the direction? Because you had stated that this was an impossible task in some ways that they were taking on. What was your view when you heard?
Listen, hindsight’s 20/20, but I think you could say there was a huge amount of built-up political capital when Donald Trump won, and there was probably a real willingness on the part, at least some weakness on the part, of the Democratic opposition at that point, that they would have worked in a bipartisan way to do something. Obamacare probably wasn’t the best choice if the administration had chosen to go that route. And I always say whether it was taxes or infrastructure, even, would have been something that they could have gained some bipartisan support, and hopefully, I would have thought that they would have seen, hey, there could have been a different route for this White House to go.
Now, I look back at the Obama administration and see their choice of the way they went and they chose a similar path. It was all partisan all the time. And again, it didn’t—the Trump administration chose the other route, which is all partisan all the time to the right.
But here’s the deal. When Obama did that, he had a unified Democratic Party. It seems that the Republicans—and you know this from your past there—was more divided. How big a problem was that? Should Ryan have understood that? And what role did the Freedom Caucus take?
See, I disagree with you, because I think that Donald Trump is a uniter of the party right now. And you can look at the Freedom Caucus, and you can look at all the objections that they may or may not raise along the way. But at the end of the day, what we’ve seen is the House is usually following Donald Trump, and he can force them into submission. That’s really what I think the story—and that’s what happened with the Obama White House and the Democratically controlled Congress, too, because they weren’t as unified. They were certainly much more unified in their election in the primary, although they, remember, had a very, very contentious primary between Hillary and Obama. So they were divided, too.
But yet Obama came in, and when you have a president that’s in your party and there’s both parties, both houses of Congress controlled, it’s up to that White House to seize the moment and unify the party. And you saw the Trump White House do that on tax reform.
We’re going to get there, I promise you, because we’re kind of taking it step by step. And the health care went through all sorts of ups and downs.
But that had nothing to do with the Tea Party or some kind of split in the party.
Well, they killed the first bill.
But it had nothing to do with that. It had to do with the fact that there really wasn’t a point at which House Republicans had ever coalesced around what the health care bill should look like, and it wasn’t until in the end where the White House saw it go down once, and then it didn’t really go down, but they didn’t pass it, and had to come back and try and pass it again. So there wasn’t a divide about, you know, a real divide on that question. There was just never any resolution between—
I take your point. But talk a little bit about—I mean, because a lot of people have talked about those moments step by step. What had occurred is you’ve got a president that is saying: “OK, let’s get this thing done. You guys have been promising it for seven years. Let’s get it done.” And time was going by, and Ryan was frustrated by the Freedom Caucus because they were saying, “Hey, we’re going to, number one, we’re going to vote as a bloc, and we’re not going to do this.” It’s a power game as well. I mean, come on, it’s politics.
And eventually, you’ve got Bannon coming up to the Hill giving them an ultimatum sent by Trump that, “You’re going to vote on this.” And you eventually have Ryan going down to the White House saying, “We don’t have the votes.”
And in the end, in the end, the White House forced it through, which is my point.
Right. We’re going to get there, though. But if you can help me tell the story of what happened during the first time of the roles that everybody played, the frustration of Ryan, the pressure of a novice White House that was pushing on them at a time to get the damn thing done.
I guess I’m going to say I’m just disagreeing with your assumption, because there just was never any agreement, because some people in the conference were—when I was there and are today—worried about premium increases. Some people worried about the cost and the government subsidies and the spending under the health care bill. There were some other people who worried about the taxes. I mean, there was never a coalescence around the answer.
I think that’s where the White House was relying upon the Hill having done all the work, and Paul Ryan assumed that all the work he’d done was just embraced by the rest of the party. And I can tell you just in the years that I was there and working with the physician caucuses and the other people, there was not resolution. There wasn’t a forcing mechanism in place either, because we knew in the bottom of all of our thoughts, we knew Obama was not signing a repeal bill.
But now there’s a forcing mechanism, and we saw ultimately that forcing mechanism kick in. So I guess I’m just disagreeing with your assumption. It was all over the map. And yes, there was power plays being undertaken by the Freedom Caucus because they’re there, again, as a byproduct of the 2009-2010 Tea Party election of the Republicans and the likes of Steve Bannon and others who have glommed onto this sort of grassroots movement and said, “We’re going to lead it, and don’t ever let the established leaders of the party have a win.” There’s all those dynamics going on. But at the end of the day, do you have a united Republican control of Washington? The president’s got the biggest stick; he’s got the biggest bully pulpit.
So what happens next? How does it get passed in the House?
Well, I mean, I think in the end the president showed that he was willing to go in and call out his own party for not getting something done, which is how the thing got passed in the House.
Tell me a little bit about Congressman [Mark] Meadows (R-N.C.), the important role that he plays, who he is.
I mean, clearly he’s the Freedom Caucus spokesperson, representative, head of. And these are the things—I mean, the Freedom Caucus started right after I left, because it was the Republican Study Committee. The Republican Study Committee had a big election for a new chairman after I left, and all of a sudden, some people didn’t like the outcome of the election of the new chairman, so they went and took their marbles and formed the new Freedom Caucus.
And that Freedom Caucus holds itself out to be the “conservative voice,” whereas I would think most of the Republican members of the Study Committee would say, “No, we are,” and there’s some crossover in all that. And again, a lot of this has to do with just politics and jockeying, and sometimes I think what’s frustrating is the consistency of ideologies not necessarily present in a lot of the discussions.
The Rose Garden celebration after the House win: What were your thoughts? Some people sort of say it’s a little bit premature.
Yeah, I mean, it was way premature. I mean, come on, but again, I think very consistent with what Donald Trump has been about prior to becoming president, and you see it now as president. He is really a masterful player when it comes to the press. So I do think it was part of that; it was part of the show.
McConnell, it’s now in McConnell’s hands. Some people complain that it ended up in a room with a bunch of white guys who were the ones sort of figuring out what it would be. Take me to the process that happened in the Senate. Other people, other Republicans that we’ve talked to say, “Hey,” especially the Freedom Caucus, that they didn’t think we’d ever get it passed. They didn’t want the damn thing to pass, and then all of a sudden they’ve got it, and so they’ve got to figure out what to do with it. What was the process when it went to the Senate? What was McConnell’s view of it, and what was the end result?
Well, I don’t know. Just looking from my perspective, it seemed that Mitch McConnell said, “Hey,” to the White House, “we’ve got it. We’re going to negotiate, and we’ll get it done. Stay away.” And clearly, that was not enough. Listen, the thing didn’t pass by one vote, or it was two votes in the end. But there was just a few people and a few of the members with John McCain in the end going ahead and saying, “Hey, no, we’re not going to be with you on that.”
So it wasn’t as if they weren’t close, because they certainly were close, and Mitch McConnell did a lot to try and get them there. But listen, to your point about the collection of people who were publicly presented and involved, yeah. I mean, listen, if you ask Donald Trump, I’m sure he wouldn’t allow for there not to be women as a part of that because it doesn’t look right for the party not to say: “Hey, women mostly are the ones making health care decisions for families across this country. You ought to have them involved.”
The McConnell relationship with the president, how important is that relationship? What did you see about the two of them? …
Look, the relationship between leadership and the White House is extremely important whether you have a united government or not, but especially when you have a united government, because you need a president who puts the shoulder to the wheel and get something done. I happen to have been chief deputy whip under the Bush administration, and we passed a lot of really difficult stuff. It was the MMA [Managed Medical Assistance]; the Part D under Medicare, the drug program, prescription drug program. We passed CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement]. We passed the Bush tax cuts. I mean, there were a lot of very difficult whip and votes that occurred.
I recall vividly having access to President Bush, having him on the phone in the cloakroom so that members who had questions or needed a little encouragement could have the president of the United States right there, even in the middle of the night. So it’s really, really important to have leadership in sync, in constant communication, with the White House.
Again, going back to your point about Donald Trump being an outsider and needing to work with others and giving them the room they need and to be there as a backup, it’s not necessarily evident that that’s in Donald Trump’s makeup, and that’s, I think, been part of the problem.
I mean, even to the point of after the defeat, the telephone conversation that’s been reported on that they had together, the tweets that went out from Bedminster [the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.], some really derogatory stuff about McConnell, a guy he needs. When you saw that, when you heard about that, what were your thoughts?
I mean, it’s just—again, it’s the unconventional nature of this president, and it’s a much different way of legislating and of leading. I think in Washington, you do that kind of stuff, you’re not going to have allies. If the going gets tough, if things get really tough, no matter what happens in this town, if something really gets tough for the White House, not so sure that that kind of relationship is beneficial.
One point I missed is historically. So after it goes—it’s passed in the House, and it’s in the Senate’s hands. That spring everybody goes back home, and there are all these town meetings, which if you look at the footage looks like the town meetings from 2009, except it’s now flipped on the GOP. What were you thinking about that?
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I mean, health care is an extremely personal issue for everybody. And when you get involved with legislating in something like health care, you’d better have the answers, and you’d better be confident in the positions. So listen, I think that there were certainly echoes, but in reverse, of what happened in 2009.
Talk to me a little bit about McConnell, because you know him well. What is he like? What’s his reputation for getting legislation through? What’s your thoughts on that?
Look, Mitch McConnell’s the master. He understands the rhythm of the Senate. He has been in that body and in elected politics for a very long time, so he understands how to get something done in a legislative arena. And with all that came with Donald Trump’s election, it not only is a different way of doing things for Mitch; it’s a different way of doing things for everyone in Washington. So Mitch is the best of the best in terms of trying to get something done.
You know, again, he’s a very reserved individual, plays his cards close to the vest, but in the end has seen much success in that practice.
Have you ever had a conversation with him about Trump?
(Laughs.) I don’t reveal the details of discussions, but I’ve certainly seen him, had conversations. But again, I have a lot of respect for him.
Let me ask you about McCain. You have seen the footage; you’ve seen McCain come out, and he does the thumb down. You’ve seen this story about health care all the way through. What were you thinking when you saw that?
Well, listen, John McCain said that he didn’t think that the bill provided the answer and what was needed. Listen, I couldn’t help but think the fact that, you know, Donald Trump and the way he treated John McCain didn’t just evaporate. I mean, it is about personality; it is about relationship and respect when you serve the people that elect you. And again, I think to the point that when you run as a candidate for president and you light up the people that you want to work with, that doesn’t bode well. It makes for increasingly difficult times, so I’m not saying that that was dispositive in terms of where John McCain came out on the bill, but I also have to think, as a person who’s been involved in elected office for a lot of years during my life, I will tell you those kinds of things matter.
And if Donald Trump just wants to cast aside all those players and not respect them, and that’s how he got to be, in terms of his electability, to be where he is, there’s a price to it.
Some people will say that he was very frustrated, of course, with the situation. Maybe he didn’t even understand why it took so long, how they could possibly fail after seven years and still you can’t do it. And he kind of pulled back from the system, the Congress and the leadership to some extent. Priebus also at this point goes, is fired, and he starts focusing more on social issues, to some extent, and gets involved with Charlottesville, which we’ll talk about in a second. Did you see a turn to some extent after health care went down on how the White House viewed the way forward?
Well, I think that the health care defeat really lay the groundwork for the passage of the tax reform bill politically. I think Republicans knew good and well that if they would fail again on something as major as tax reform, which is really the DNA of the party—the DNA of the party is cutting taxes—they could not let that go down on the heels of not being able to repeal and replace Obamacare.
And with the chronology, Charlottesville happens next, Aug. 11, 12. You’ve said some very important, strong things about it. The president comes out and states—he’s awkward in the way he equates the premises with the protesters. What was your reaction? What was Trump missing? …
My view was plain and simple. I mean, the irony of being in Thomas Jefferson’s town and to sit here and allow for that kind of hate and not calling everyone out who was a part of the hatred, it just struck me as just unacceptable. And I think most of the country—most of my party, I think—took that position, too, and did not like the fact that when you had people bearing torches, saying completely repugnant, racist, anti-Semitic slurs, remarks and chants, that you didn’t call them out unequivocally, period? So I just think there was a lot of visceral reaction to that, and unfortunately, that lingers.
The effect of what happened and what he said and sort of then going—pulling back on it and then doubling down on it a couple of days later, the effect on the party? Sen. [Jeff] Flake—we sat down with Sen. Flake, and Sen. Flake said the problem here is the stain it puts on the GOP has long-lasting effects. This is dangerous; this is bad for the party.
Well, listen, as a Republican who’s not in public office, I still felt very strongly about it that I would speak out and make sure that the party itself, and the others in the party outside of Donald Trump and what he says, don’t always agree with that. I mean, we can never agree with something like that. So again, that’s what prompted me to want to say something, especially as it occurred in Virginia and as someone who’s of a religious minority who counts this country as such a blessing, because I said I served in the Virginia General Assembly in the House of Delegates, and right behind me in the Chamber of the House of Delegates was etched into stone Thomas Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. It’s a very unique piece of history, not only in the commonwealth of Virginia, but it turned into part of the Bill of Rights.
And nowhere else in the world do you see this protection of one’s faith and the ability to practice without a state endorsement or forcing one to practice a certain religion. So to me, it just goes without saying you have to condemn remarks. You cannot have any wiggle room when something like that happens.
Why does the president seem to err in that direction, making those statements and seems to have a tin ear to how people view it? We have to, if you will, comment on yesterday as well, of this idea, these statements that he made dealing with immigration and Africans and Norwegians.
And Haitians and everything else.
What’s going on here? And what did GOP representatives and leadership, how do they deal with that?
Look, I am not a psychoanalyst, and I can’t explain why someone would say that. And I have also seen—I saw Paul Ryan speak out against those words. I hope that more people would speak out against those words, because this is not the America that I know. As a second-generation American, the America that I know is not a country that looks at others who come from less fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds or just different countries somehow not as good as we are. That’s the beauty of our country. We’re a country of laws, but we were built on the backs of immigrants.
And again, I’ve traveled the world a lot now in my current job, and I see the respect that everyday citizens around the world have for our country. And when I come back to our country and I see this unbelievable country that is one of laws that welcomes others, this kind of rhetoric is just so counterintuitive and inconsistent.
And it has an effect on the GOP?
Well, I’m hopeful it doesn’t, but I’m thinking that the president of the United States is a Republican, and he’s the head of our party, so I’m worried about the fact that the party is somehow going to find itself associated with an attitude that’s not necessarily one of strict adherence to the law, but also recognizing the fact that it is the history of immigrants that has helped make this country.
… Sen. Flake, how well do you know him? Because he, of course, was in the House for a long time. Who is he? Can you describe Flake for us?
I came in with Jeff Flake, so I know him well. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a principled guy who’s been fairly consistent with his views on some very controversial subjects, whether it be trade, whether it be relations with Cuba, or whether it be immigration or whether it be spending. And Jeff’s been fairly consistent throughout the years on that.
The 18-minute speech, he basically is saying—says within it that Trump is a danger to democracy. When you watch that speech, what did you think about what your old friend was doing?
I mean, look, he’s obviously very frustrated, and he felt unshackled by the burden of having to be quiet and just went ahead and unleashed and I think just said his piece because of the frustration that had been built up. I do think that he is a person of great faith and decency and has a moral code. And I think, just my gut is—I haven’t spoken to him after that speech, but my gut is that he felt the need to speak out because that sense of moral purpose had been violated.
… Did you agree with anything that—did you agree with what he was doing, what he was saying?
You know, listen, I saw someone who felt that he, by speaking his mind, was put into a politically unpalatable situation. And I think the name calling that came from the White House toward him was something that, again, that’s just something that people in politics and in Washington may be used to with party opposition, but never a president of your own party. And the president of the United States engaging in name calling, that is really something unique and different. I mean, I think everyone is I believe still trying to understand the benefit of all that and why that continues to occur.
And the big question here is the effect on the GOP on people like [Tennessee’s Sen. Bob] Corker and Flake and [Pennsylvania’s Rep. Charlie] Dent and a lot of the establishment folks, folks that were in leadership positions or important people in the Republican Party. They’re all conservative Republicans, but they’re moderate conservatives or conservative-conservative. But the fact of them feeling that they don’t have a place in this GOP, how damaging is that? What’s the problem?
You know, think about it. You say conservative, but moderate conservative? No. I don’t think President Trump would call himself a conservative. He is someone who wants to get a deal done. And honestly, he’s gotten deals done, right? So you would say, well, it’s not just conservatives who are leaving. I think that there are—I mean, there are plenty of people who are not necessarily aligned with consistent conservative values that are staying, right?
It’s just more of a temperament going on right now and about are you going to get things done, and are you going to be a part of trying to effect some solutions on some of the things that you’ve always fought for? Obviously, tax reform was a big one, big, big, big one. So maybe after that happens, people feel like OK, anything else that we’re going to get done, not so sure, so we’ll leave.
Look, if the party is seen to be one that can accomplish major tax reform, if Donald Trump can forge consensus on immigration, on taking care of the Dreamers, something that I was very involved with, I think that’s a huge win. And if he can cobble together a coalition on infrastructure for this country, that’s a pretty good place for a party to be on the policy level.
… Well, let’s talk about [Alabama Judge Roy] Moore. You’ve got Bannon backing Moore. You’ve eventually got the president agreeing to jump on board. The Republican Party, McConnell, pulls away from him eventually after the abuse allegations come out, and the RNC pulls away. What’s going on there, and how difficult a situation was that, and sort of what’s the bigger picture here?
Well, I mean, look, I think President Trump had said at the time that it was a Republican candidate; he wanted another Republican vote, and that’s why he was going to be for Roy Moore. He later then, after Roy Moore lost, claimed that “Hey, I never was for him in the primary. I was for Luther Strange, and I told you he was going to lose anyway.” So I don’t really know other than he’s a Republican Party president being for a Republican candidate.
Now, I personally, again, having no dog in that fight and clearly say it was up to the people of Alabama, Roy Moore never should have been our candidate, and he shouldn’t have won. So I think that the outcome was that he didn’t win and there’s one less Republican vote in the Senate now.
The role that Bannon was playing, do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah, but again, it was just— it was all very much about a power play, and very much about seeing the folks that you want elected to office ultimately to replace those in office who you want out. It was a power play. There’s no ideology behind it. This so-called nationalism that Bannon was about, there’s not an ideological certainty or strain of anything. It’s a power play, and it’s that anger, again, that somebody like Bannon came in to try and take advantage of to play a power play, that’s all.
When Trump jumps on board and is supportive of Moore, McConnell, who had come out very strongly and said, “Hey, I believe the women; I’m not supporting this guy,” and the RNC pulls funding, but when Trump jumps on board, the RNC reneges; McConnell backs off and says, “Alabama will decide for itself.” Why? What happened there?
I think the president says, “Hey, I’m going to get in, and I want another Republican vote.” This goes back to the strength of having a president in the White House for a party. And I think that’s what changed things, and he was able to go in and tip the scales a little bit more, and the polls seemed to be tightening up a little bit. If you remember, you had the “Me Too”—#metoo event that occurred right in the middle of that, so it started to muddle all the stories and the testimony about all the women against Roy Moore. It seemed like there was so much of the sexual harassment from Harvey Weinstein on down that it was all kind of muddled. So I think President Trump saw that, “Hey, we’re going to get in there. The polls look like hey, maybe we can win. Put another Republican vote in, and we’ll deal with this guy later.”
But the party coming along, they were pretty specific why they disagreed with this race, and there were a lot of people who didn’t care if the Democrat won. I mean, if that’s the only way, that’s it. But they go along. Is it at this point that you can define this is Trump’s party?
Yeah, I think the minute he got elected, it was Trump’s party. And as long as he’s our president, it’s going to be Trump’s party, and the party members are going to take the attitude that I reflected before I think in what Lindsey, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), had said; that we may disagree at times, and we may have been not for him in the primary, but the American people have spoken; they expect us to do the job. That’s what they think. So I do think that you’re going to see that, and it’s much more of a pragmatic view saying: “Look, I’m not necessarily in agreement with all that’s said on Twitter. I’m not necessarily in agreement with all that’s said, period.” But as far as policy is concerned, and that’s where legislators and Congress steps in, they can do what hopefully they want to get done with President Trump in the White House.
The tax bill—let’s talk about the tax bill. So the winning of the tax bill, what—and you’ve talked about it a little bit in bits and pieces, but let’s do it all in one place. The winning of the tax bill: Why was it so important, and what’s your overview of it? Was it a great accomplishment? Some people say it was papered over; it moved too quickly. What’s your overview?
Look, it’s a huge political win, huge policy win—political win because it was in the context of the pretty significant failure on repeal and replacing Obamacare. I think it reinstilled some confidence and morale in Republicans, not only in Washington but throughout the country. As far as the policy’s concerned, it’s something that the Republicans have been about for a long time. You know, Donald Trump ran on a political of job creation and economic growth. I think that this bill will reflect huge economic optimism. We’ve already seen it. You see the equities markets now respond; they’ve been responding to a President Trump.
I think the reason why they responded is, number one, even before this bill, that Donald Trump came into office and said: “You know what? I’m not going to be a hostile adversary to business in this country, small or large.” And that’s what the problem was, I believe, at the root of the Obama administration: hostile to people who want to take risk. This country, our economy, the free markets are based on people who want to undertake risk.
This bill, then, comes on the tail of that, so all year long you have increasing business optimism, both small-business people and large. And then this bill says: … “We’re going to help people who want to take a risk, the entrepreneurs, small-business people as well as large, and say we want to compete. We want to compete globally.” So I think it’s going to be a real boost to people in their pocketbooks, and I think you’re going to see more job creation, and you’re going to see wage increases.
And the role of the president in all this is?
He was a big cheerleader on the tax bill. I think that his White House was unified in saying, “Hey, we want to get this done,” unlike the health care bill, where there’s not unanimity as to how to get it done, and same thing with Capitol Hill. I think this goes to the point where the DNA of the party is cutting taxes, which is why I think there was always a lot more prospect for success here.
And when everybody gathered at the White House and they were all up and down the stairs and they’re all saying wonderful thing about Trump and all, your view of the significance of that event?
Look, again, this is Donald Trump. He’s a master at playing the press. He’s good at putting on a show, and I think you’d have to expect that under a Trump administration.
… There are some people that see this, and you see these events like when the Cabinet got together and everybody sort of said nice things about the president, and then you had the senators all saying these wonderful, wonderful things about the president, and how [if] the president takes offense, and if you come at him, no matter who you are, whether it’s Bannon or a Democrat or Obama, you’re going to rue the day, because he’s going to go after you. There’s a feeling that, and the way the people are—the populist folks that are drawn to him, that he can do no wrong, and no matter what he says, that they will agree with it; that there’s almost—and this is more of the Democratic point of view, that there’s a cult of personality almost that is being built around this guy and that this is a danger. Do you see any of that?
No, I don’t share in the fact that this is going to be the end of the country as we know it, because—no, I think that’s beyond hyperbole. I think that what we see is right now a significant swath of the country who looks at Donald Trump and says: “You know what? He’s willing to stand up to those people in Washington. He’s willing to stand up for us.” They’re so tired of Washington, and what they see and the coverage that they get and they choose to listen to is that this is the guy, again, who’s going to take Washington by the lapels and shake it so that it starts to work for them again. And I think that that is the consistent motivation for his base and why it is that he’s able to continue to cultivate that following.
… It’s not the party that you came into when you first came to Washington or when you left Washington. It was not the same party. And as you say, when a president takes over, it’s his party. Do you have any overall thoughts about how it affects your party, your GOP? …
Well, look, I mean, just remember, I think it’s important to separate out what he says and what’s actually happening. Then you can talk about the fact that what he says does matter. But what’s happening from a regulatory standpoint, from a policy standpoint and from a judicial appointment standpoint is the same party that I’ve been a part of throughout my legislative career, both at the state level and the national level. It is about limited government; it is about lowering unnecessary and burdensome regulation; it is about cutting taxes.
Now, we haven’t yet seen what’s going to happen on the trade agenda, because my party is one who believes that America can compete in the global marketplace. And we are not necessarily intent on being nationalists and building barriers to trade. We do want fair trade, but we’ve always been a party that believes in free markets and open and fair trade. So we’ll see, because there’s not much, other than TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], which I think was a big mistake to withdraw from TPP, but again, this was something that Hillary Clinton wanted to do after she was for it, and that’s something that Donald Trump campaigned on.
But I also think that that is where my worry is, is just internationally, where does the country head? If it’s not governed by a party of free-market believers, like the Republican Party that I know, you’re going to be creating vacuums for somebody like China to be stepping into. And if you look at the national security strategy that was recently released by the Pentagon and Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis and others, they talk about this notion of competitive engagement, that we have to be concerned about where China’s going, where Russia’s going.
Well, China’s going right into that space that we created when Donald Trump withdrew from TPP. So I’m very concerned, again, about the long-term prospects and where the country heads on matters such as this. As far as the party’s concerned and where we head, I am concerned, continue to be concerned about the immigration issue, about our being a party that’s welcoming to all kinds, and our country in a legal way being that which we’ve always been [what] the Statue of Liberty reflects.
So, again, if President Trump can manage to coalesce a group of people to pass immigration reform, that will negate a lot of the noise that’s been around the immigration question under his presidency.
… Has the party, has its leadership in Congress, sort of jumped aboard? Maybe there’s a separation here, but it seems in some ways, or people will say that they’ve kind of jumped aboard the populist bus that Trump is driving. Is that real or imagined?
Look at the policies and what they’ve done. I haven’t seen yet the populist reflection in the policy. The policy’s pretty conservative and pretty much by conservative orthodoxy when you’re talking about cutting taxes, getting rid of unnecessary regulations and laws which burden the free markets. These are the kind of things that have been discussed within the party for a very long time.
My last question—these guys will have some finish-up stuff. You know, your old comrade in arms, Speaker Boehner, in that fascinating interview he gave to Politico, he seems more worried than you are about the party. He’s worried that the GOP is possibly going to be damaged by a Trump administration. He fears even about the two-party system at a gut level, about the possibilities. Do you agree with any of that? Do you understand why he sort of has talked about that?
Well, just thinking of prospects of midterm elections, I think there is just historically a possibility that there’s going to be real slippage in the House, so my concern for the party is that it start to figure out what it can do best to position so that that doesn’t happen. And long term, I think it’s very difficult to project the future, especially in the day and age that we’re in. Look how different it is now with 24/7 social media and the rapidity of information flow. It’s pretty unbelievable where we are now versus two years ago.
So I am, in what I can understand and look forward to, in terms of what will be in Washington or across the country after the midterms, I think the party has an obligation to, number one, see through the policy agenda it’s about. And that’s why I think it would behoove itself in a great way to pass immigration, DACA, a DACA fix, and to do an infrastructure bill. Those would be two policy planks that would go along with tax reform. That’s a darned good record of achievement given what’s gone on in this town the last couple decades.
And then to start to figure out, how do you take those accomplishments and hope that they inure the benefit of your constituents? But also, how do you speak to minorities? How do you speak to women? How do you speak to college-educated whites who seem to be turning away from the party? That’s the challenge, and I don’t have fear that there aren’t smart people who are thinking about this, because I know there are, to stem any kind of lasting damage.
Does all of that, or part of that, have to be done before the midterms?
I think it would be beneficial if it would happen before the midterms.
And if the midterms happen and the Republicans lose the House, what’s the effect on the party? Does it rethink things? …
Remember, we’re in a binary system here. I’m not so sure we’re having a third party created here, because I think the creation of the Electoral College, the way all that operates, very difficult to see. I’m not saying never, but very difficult to see the prospects of a third party. So it always matters what the other party does. So if there were a situation where Democrats took over the House, we’d have to see what they did, how they played their hand, because that would also impact on the prospects for a re-election of Donald Trump and a gaining of traction again for the Republicans.
Last thing. I know I said the last thing two questions ago, but the effect overall of Donald Trump on your party?
Well, yeah, I think that if one suggested there’s a movement of Trumpism, I think it’s about Donald Trump. I’m not so sure that there’s any movement after Donald Trump. And again, on the stage of leadership in terms of where America is in the world, I’m worried about that, and I hope the party can, and I hope he can, regain some ability to engage in things that we need to and have a concerted outlook and plan.
And again, I think he is an extremely influential, impactful figure that was right for the times given the construct of the primaries and the general election. And I’m not so sure that the party or there’s anyone else who could be like Donald Trump.
That’s for sure. Mike?
To go back to health care, the moment when McConnell was crafting the bill behind closed doors, which is one of the things that John McCain objected to, and you talked in this interview and the last interview we had about when the Obama administration came in with stimulus, health care, party-line votes and the message they sent, when you look at that process, even with the tax bill, but in particular that process in the Senate on health care, was there a mistake being made? Were there lessons that weren’t learned from when you guys had seen when Obama came in?
I think this goes to the sort of fundamental decision to do health care first, because of the dynamic, because it wasn’t part of the party’s DNA to do health care, that you were starting from behind. And the fact that it was such a visceral issue for the Democrats, Obamacare, they were never going to engage in a situation where the Republicans or President Trump said, “We need to repeal Obamacare.” The Democrats weren’t going to be a part of that. Many today are saying, “Oh, we’ll fix it,” but there’s no way they’re going to be a part of something to say, “We’re going to repeal it.”
That right there should have given pause to say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t start with this.” And probably in hindsight, I think one would—I think many would agree that they shouldn’t have.
After all those years of the Republicans saying, “The Democrats will not include us in anything from day one,” and then all of a sudden it looks like that’s what’s happening with Republicans as far as repealing Obamacare, that’s the center of your point?
This has to do with the exaggeration on both sides and the hyperbole that’s set in about Obamacare. As you can see, Republicans couldn’t agree enough to get rid of what was said to be the worst bill ever, right? And Democrats, because they thought it was the be all and the end all, they were never going to be on the side of repealing it. So just right there, if you took a step back, probably not the best place to start.
And on the tax bill, it doesn’t seem like there was a real effort to bring in Democrats.
Again, I think because there’s a notion that Democrats, because of the political nature of what’s going on today and the divide in this country, probably were never going to see the cooperation that maybe you should have. But also, the Republicans obviously were able to demonstrate that they could do this on their own and pass a tax bill the way they did. Now, again, if a decision was made earlier on and the first thing out was to do an infrastructure bill where people were together, you have to wonder, what would that have done? How would that have played out with these subsequent pieces of legislation? Again, too late now, but interesting if one were to say you could learn from the mistakes of the Obama administration and impose it today, but too late.
… When you talk to people in Washington and you talk to Republicans, they point to lots of successes, employment, deregulation, tax bill. But is there a fear that this is all being overshadowed by the president, by the controversy of the day; that even if you can get your policies through, that that’s not what voters and the American people are paying attention to?
Well, I mean, I think—look, politics is always driven by intensity and passion, and where that passion lies on Election Day has a lot to do with the outcome. So if there is passion and belief in the economy and more job prospects and wage increases and the rest, and if that’s what wins out on Election Day, or is it reaction to what’s going on, what’s being said by President Trump, that’s the answer. We saw when President Trump was elected the extreme reaction that I believe was greatly due to his election, was the visceral response on the part of the independents to vote for Donald Trump because they so disliked Hillary Clinton. So again, we’ll have to see where the intensity lies on Election Day in the midterms to see what will be overshadowing.
And the popularity levels that he’s at, which are pretty low, historically low, what does that say?
He was that way in the election. I mean, when the polls demonstrated that he was registering like that in the election, but in the end he won, and a lot of it had to do with this anger and dissatisfaction—and I think the choice on the part of the Democrats to put up Hillary Clinton, who was the epitome of everything people were angry about, added to the prospects for a Donald Trump win. …