Frank Luntz is a longtime pollster and Republican consultant whose voter focus groups have become key sources of analysis for politicians, journalists and political pundits.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 23, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Our film starts in the summer, July 7, 2016. … Let’s start by you telling me, what are the people in Congress, the Republicans in Congress, thinking about Donald Trump at that moment?
I met with a group of senators, leadership, in October of 2015. There had already been two debates, and Trump had done reasonably well in them, and his support was rising. More importantly, you could see the potential for him to win the nomination. So I told the senators, “This is real.” Half of them believed me, and half of them thought I was crazy. As time went on, you could sense that something was happening out there—not in Washington; people in Washington never understood the Trump candidacy. They just didn’t get it. But out in America, every time he said something offensive, more people came to his support. Every time he did something that you would say disqualified him, more people came to support him.
Trump was the equivalent of the backward candidate. Every possible move that would have disqualified anyone else from running turned out to be a positive for him. And these senators and these congressmen, when Trump came to Washington as the nominee, the presumptive nominee, they’re looking at each other going, “Oh my God, what do we do now?”
You had about a fourth of them who were really excited and saw this as a chance to expand the Republican Party to working-class voters and union members and people who hadn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Then you had about half that just didn’t know what to make of him and had an open mind. But you had about a fourth that were scared to death. I’d say that, when Trump came to town in [July] of 2016, about a fourth of the House members and Senators thought, oh, my God, what have we done?
His meetings with them brought out the best in him and the worst in him. There was a pattern that has continued until today, where he could deliver the most amazing speech and with total candor, a guy who says what he means and means what he says, and then he has one bad line that overwhelms everything. And that is the history of Donald Trump and Washington, D.C. You move forward, and then you’re pushed back. You do something that tremendously exceeds expectations—“Wow, I didn’t know he had that in him”—and then he tweets a line the next day, and it blows it all up. That is Donald Trump in a nutshell. …
There’s a moment—before we go to the moment, help me just with a little piece. What’s the state? I mean, I know that people have been saying the Republican Party was in civil war long before there was a Donald Trump. What’s the state of the party when he enters that host body in June or July of 2016?
The Republican Party establishment was never ready for him. They never understood him. They didn’t know anyone who voted for him. They thought that he was crass and coarse, and they just couldn’t connect. These were Reagan Republicans, Bush Republicans, but they were still Washington Republicans. And I’ve never liked the word “establishment,” because I don’t think it applies. It’s not that they were wealthy; it’s not that they drove nicer cars and lived a nicer life in Georgetown.
These are people who were also ideological Republicans and came to the party because of Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley and George Will and James Q. Wilson. Those were establishment Republicans, ideologically conservative but not far right, and certainly not populist. So you had about a third of the GOP at that point who considered Donald Trump the savior, almost like the second coming—the third coming, let’s say. He had a third of the Republican Party, the neocons, the intellectuals, the ideologues, who were waiting to see whether Trump truly embraced their philosophy. Then you had a third of the Republicans that I would call the economic, big-business kind of Wall Street Republicans, who simply didn’t trust him because of what he said and, more importantly, how he said it.
I think to say that the GOP was at civil war is wrong. I don’t see it. I didn’t see it, not in my focus groups and not in my polling. There were distinct elements of the Republican Party, but they weren’t at war with each other, at least not yet.
So one of the people we’re following in this film, as a kind of counterpoint, is [Sen.] Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake, at that moment, in that meeting, is in which of those camps that you’ve articulated?
You can’t put Jeff Flake into any camp. He doesn’t belong. He has a foot in every camp, and he has a foot in none of these camps. He is an independent soul, a free thinker, truly despised by the Trump wing of the Republican Party, which is now, today, the majority of the GOP. But at that time, in the summer of 2016, he was still regarded as a gadfly, not someone who was an indicator of anything in particular, but someone that people listened to, someone who the media listened to. And if he wasn’t impressed, people paid attention.
And he had real, I guess, political bona fides in some way, conservative bona fides, I guess, in some way.
Yeah, he had—no.
Jeff Flake came to Washington, and he was a star from day one. They saw his demeanor, his intellect, his willingness to speak truth to power, and people liked it. But over time, he began to lose credibility within the Republican Party because he was taking positions that so many of the so-called establishment, or the thinkers in the GOP, disagree with. By the time he was challenging Trump, which is in the summer of 2016, he really wasn’t in any camp, and he really didn’t represent a large segment of the GOP. But he was listened to by the media, so his disagreements and his concern got played in a big way.
So that moment, you have a hand in the creation of Flake’s response and Trump’s accusation that [Sen. John] McCain (R-Ariz.), when Flake says, “I was the one that wasn’t captured,” he’s referring back to something we’ll get to in a minute, which is 2015. …
Jeff Flake is Jeff Flake, and whatever you think he’s going to say is not coming out of him, and whatever you’d least expect is absolutely coming from him. Jeff Flake could be John McCain’s son, in age and in demeanor. But—I don’t know how to answer that.
Why does he go one-on-one with Donald Trump, of all things?
Because Flake was offended by what Trump said and how he said it. And Flake is independent enough and courageous enough that he’s willing to speak truth to power. I don’t think he ever expected to be the thorn in Trump’s side that he became. I just think he was a doubter, and he wanted to be proven wrong. And in his case, he wasn’t.
From what you know about Donald Trump, when Flake says this sort of smart-aleck comeback, “I’m the one that wasn’t captured,” and he already, I gather, doesn’t like him because he singles him out, they kind of go for it. What’s up with Trump?
Donald Trump does not take criticisms lightly. He does not like being the butt of a joke. And just like you don’t mess with a sleeping dog, don’t mess with Donald Trump. Don’t try to get the joke off. Don’t try to one-up him, because it will not work. If he doesn’t get the better of you in the meeting, he’s going to get the better of you in his tweets. And you may have thousands of followers, but Trump’s got millions. And Donald Trump doesn’t forget.
If you understand his persona, he listens, and he watches, and he expects loyalty. And if you don’t deliver that, you have to be prepared to accept the consequences. Sen. Flake was, but I don’t think he was expecting what he got.
And what did he get?
He got an awful lot of crap, and he got an adversarial relationship with the White House that lasted until this day.
When the campaign is happening, and all of the things—culminating, I guess, in [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan’s (R-Wis.) phone call around the Access Hollywood [tape], from August, September, October, right up to the election night, there’s a lot of headlines you can grab, if you’re us, where Republicans are pulling away from Trump. They don’t think he’s going to win. They think he’s going to drag the party down. There’s lots of nasty things he says along the way that they take great exception to. He seems to be fighting his own party. Is he a Republican in name only? Walk me through, just briefly, what was happening in August, September and October, vis-à-vis the Republicans and the Republican leadership, the Republican Congress members and Trump?
There were meetings going on on Capitol Hill almost daily: “What do we do?” Phone calls were being exchanged. Conference calls constantly. And every week seemed to be another scandal. Every week seemed to be another problem that you had to explain. And it was affecting the Republican generic ballot.
But what was also happening at that moment—and polls did not pick this up—is that Trump voters were deciding that they were going to vote for him, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. It’s not that they lied and said they were voting for Clinton and they weren’t; it’s that they simply opted out of the surveys; they opted out of public discussion. They kept it to themselves, which meant that Washington had no idea this was happening. …
I don’t know a single reporter out of Washington who thought Donald Trump was going to win. I have a simple question for them. When they came to interview me, I would ask them, “How many of your closest friends, colleagues, at home, the people that you talk to every day, how many of them are voting for Donald Trump?” The average was two. For places like The New York Times and Washington Post, it was as often none. So how do you know what’s going on, when all the people in your life have no idea and cannot comprehend what is happening in the minds of the Trump voters?
This was the biggest disconnect and the biggest mistake since “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The reason why is that you couldn’t find a Trump voter in the suburbs of Philadelphia; there weren’t any. You had to go another 30 miles out. There weren’t any in Cleveland. In the suburbs of Cleveland, hard-core [Hillary] Clinton, but get to the more rural areas of Ohio, and you couldn’t drive a block without seeing a Trump sign.
So if you’re Paul Ryan, Wisconsin, you’re Kentucky, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, do you know that that tsunami is coming, or whatever it is, that that victory is coming, or are you also not in the loop?
I don’t believe anyone in leadership other than McConnell saw it. The reason why McConnell saw it is that Kentucky is now one of the most Republican states in the country, so he could see that maybe not in Lexington or Louisville, but for the rest of the state, Trump was going to win 60 or 70 percent of the vote. There were pockets of Trump—public Trump supporters in Wisconsin.
I went to a Green Bay Packers game about two or three weeks before the election, and in the parking lot there was Trump everywhere, but that doesn’t make it on the news. That doesn’t make it on sports. The place was packed. And I saw as much—almost as much Trump bumper stickers as I did Packer bumper stickers. You didn’t see it unless you went to these places. And remember, the average American Trump voter didn’t want to acknowledge they were voting for him because it was so controversial. It wasn’t part of polite society, so they kept quiet. …
So when Ryan, on that phone call, says, “I can’t support this guy,” you’ve already said, “Trump remembers; he gets even; he whatever.” When a lot of the leadership is walking away from him in those weeks right before the election, from Oct. 7 on, is Trump remembering?
It’s one reason, after that phone call, and people—and it got out. After the phone call got out about Paul’s feelings about Trump and the election, what was noticeable is that Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the [House] Majority Leader, didn’t participate in that, didn’t criticize the president, president-to-be, didn’t engage in that distancing that so many members did. And Trump remembered that. There’s a reason why Kevin McCarthy has been labeled Donald Trump’s favorite congressman; [it’s] because Kevin decided that it was better to align with and try to keep the party together than it was to distance themselves from Trump and try to score a few political points with a few undecided voters.
In the end, that was a very good decision, not just for Kevin’s career but for the party, because it enabled them to do much better in House and Senate elections than anyone was expecting in addition to electing a Republican president of the United States. If Kevin McCarthy ever becomes speaker, it will be because he stood behind Trump when everybody else was abandoning him. And he did so in an efficient and effective way.
The night of the election—we’ve talked to people who were with both Ryan and Leader McConnell—they were standing there, first worried about the party retaining its power and seats, happy when that happens, and then standing there, and they had sort of, it sounds like, made their peace with a Clinton presidency, that they—“It’s great to have this power; we’ve got somebody we can work with; maybe we can actually get some work done with Hillary Clinton.” The idea that they start to watch—
I do not know that. I do not know that. That is not what I was seeing. In the last 72 hours of the campaign, the assumption was that Clinton was going to win, that she would get over 300 electoral votes, and that they would be stuck with her. The fear was they were going to lose the House and the Senate as a result. They’d be the minority party, and then you’d have a repeat of 2009-2010, when the GOP would be irrelevant, just truly not matter.
As the Election Day went forward, they were resigned to losing the White House and hoping that they could keep at least one body of Congress. And that began to turn around. I’m at CBS headquarters, and I’m getting emails and phone calls and texts. I have access to the computers where the data is coming into CBS News, and I had seen all the exit polls, which were completely wrong, completely wrong.
I reported on the exit polls, and to this day I get people yelling at me. They weren’t my surveys; they were the network surveys. Everyone at CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, Fox, MSNBC, CNN, everyone at 7:00 p.m. thought that Hillary Clinton is the next president, and the election would be such a landslide that the decision would be known by 10:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. at the latest, when California closed.
Things started to turn around, I remember, as early as 8:30. Then the chatter—because I know a fair number of members of Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, and I’m now—my phone is blowing up with Democratic members asking me, “Are we going to win this thing?,” including some very well-known ones, some ones in senior leadership. My assumption was that the exit polls eventually would be proven right, because they had always been proven right. You had the famous one of Florida in 2000. You had Florida and Ohio in 2004. But those were three- and four-point mistakes. The exit polling had her beating Trump, Clinton beating Trump, by 7 or 8 or 9 percent in some of these states. They had never been that wrong.
Well, they were. And as you get into the 9:00 p.m. hour, panic sets in among members of Congress on both sides. The Republicans thinking, oh, my God, this may not turn out the way we were expecting, and Democrats thinking, oh, my God, we may actually have lost this election. And the wave, the tidal wave of that realization that she’s losing and he’s winning, if I had to pinpoint a 15-minute period, it was between 10:00 and 10:15 p.m. A whole bunch of states came in from the Midwest, adding votes to Trump’s column.
By that point, there were enough votes in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and people were saying: “What the hell? She’s losing.” And you had the states that were impossible to win, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and those all had significant Republican leads. Now take it to 11:00 p.m., and you have the prognosticators of The New York Times now saying that it’s actually an 80 or 90 percent chance that Trump wins. The numbers haven’t caught up with him yet, but he’s winning these states by two or three points. You go into the data, and you looked at where the votes are out; [they] aren’t in the inner city. Where the votes are out are places like the exurbs of Philadelphia, where Trump is doing unusually well.
And all of Capitol Hill was stunned. …
You’re Paul Ryan. What are you thinking while you’re watching this happen? Because you’ve been on the record. Everybody knows where you’re coming from.
I talked to Paul that night. I talked to Kevin McCarthy that night. I talked to a number of Senate leaders that night. And I talked to [former Vice President] Dick Cheney that night. I talked to everyone that night, and they all said to me: “We’ll figure out a way to make this work. We’ll figure out a way to work with President Clinton. We always have, and we always will.” The assumption among everyone is that she’s the next president.
By 11:00, that assumption is gone, and now they’re thinking, how are we going to work with Donald Trump? … I know that there was a level of excitement that the Republicans were, for the first time since W, going to have the White House, the House and the Senate. But that excitement was a little bit tempered. It wasn’t without concern for what kind of president would Trump be. What kind of White House would he have? …
The conversation on election night was not just about the White House; it was also about maintaining the House and Senate, which they weren’t sure they were going to do, and what could they get done really quickly when they came back in January? Because Republicans came back the first week; Trump doesn’t get inaugurated until Jan. 20. The thought process was, let’s get all this legislation started; let’s move it down the track. Even if Trump isn’t completely onboard, we’ll still have moved these things along. We’ll have started it so he’ll join us, as opposed to waiting to let him set the agenda.
There was this sense that they had a very clear mission, that things that they needed to get done in 2017, they hoped that Trump would share that agenda. But they felt that, if they got started immediately, on the very first day, very first week, that the president would join them eventually.
This is rare, you understand.
Normally the White House sets the agenda. The Republican members of Congress felt that they would set the agenda and not wait for the White House to get its people in order, to get its priorities in order. And that’s rare. W. set the agenda when he got elected in 2000. George Herbert Walker Bush set the agenda in 1989. Clearly Ronald Reagan in 1981. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton. In modern presidential times, the White House tells Congress what it wants to do, and then Congress tries to get it done. Not this time. This time, Congress was going to get started, out of a concern that it would take this administration longer to get itself together, longer to decide what were its priorities, and Congress couldn’t wait.
And you had a guy—well, so Ryan, within a week, has gone before the cameras—it’s a wonderful moment for us where he says, “This is what unified government is going to look like.” But he doesn’t really believe it, I suppose.
I think Paul was cautiously optimistic that the thrill of victory would encourage people to find common ground and that this president had a capability of reaching out to Americans like no one other than Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan; that Trump would be able to use the bully pulpit to challenge the Democrats to come onboard, and that they’d be able to get things through the House and through the Senate quickly, enabling the president to then do the other things that he wanted to accomplish. Nobody had any idea that it was going to come apart so quickly. No one had any idea of what was about to happen.
There’s a wonderful bipolar presidency kind of week or two or three right near the very beginning. There’s the inaugural address, “carnage in America.” There’s the Bannon—I’ll give you [Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon. I’ll give you [Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus. There’s the joint session, where he’s a completely different guy. There’s in between all of that. …
Let me do two of the positives, and then I’ll do two of the negatives.
I was personally petrified of election night, because this had been such a divisive, polarizing campaign that I felt that the winner had better deliver the most hopeful, humble partnership—a coming together of both parties, or the country would not heal. I was not expecting Donald Trump to be the person to deliver that speech, at least not after the exit polls, and I was not expecting him to be as good as he was. It’s forgotten in history, but Donald Trump gave one of the most conciliatory victory speeches of any presidential candidate in modern times. He was brilliant election night, and he delivered a really powerful message to both sides. The election is over; it’s time to heal; it’s time to work together. And that gave me hope.
And then the “American carnage” speech, where sitting behind him are all of the members of the Congress that he’s about to go to war with, or at least in promising. …
There are two Donald Trumps. There’s the one that’s ready to pick a fight, the one that’s ready to man the barricades and not back down, which his supporters love, and you saw that Donald Trump on Inauguration Day. There’s a second Donald Trump who gave his opening speech to Congress and truly reached across the aisle and delivered something that nobody was expecting, to the point where Democrats were complimenting him on how well he did. In any day, we don’t know which Donald Trump is showing up. …
Let’s get started on health care then. If you’re Ryan, you’ve got your PowerPoint ready. You’ve got your Congress that’s, for seven years, been saying, “Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare has got to go.”
Tell me, how did that become job one instead of, for example, some of the other things it could have been?
The reason why they ended up with health care is that they needed savings to pay for significant tax reform, and they needed to pass tax reform to set the government up for significant infrastructure investment. From a policy standpoint, they needed to go health care, taxes, infrastructure. But from a political standpoint, that was the worst decision they could make, because it meant that the most divisive, contentious, horrific issue kicks off the new Congress and the new White House, dividing everybody, creating a level of animosity that I haven’t seen up here in the 25 years I’ve been working in Washington, D.C.
If they had started with infrastructure, they could not have done something as big as they did, but it would have been an example of bipartisanship. It would have been something that the public could have immediately seen as changing the scope and the tone and the demeanor of Washington. To me, I would have recommended—and I did recommend that it is better to start smaller than you want, and start together, than it is to do the most important issue for Republican voters, but do it in a way that’s going to drive a wedge between the two parties.
… Practically speaking, what could a new guy with no, whatever—I mean, he’s a cheerleader, right? He’s the encourager.
In hindsight, this was a significant mistake, because in hindsight, you can’t ask people to overturn a policy that was singularly the definition of the Obama presidency; that there is no way that Democrats, no matter how much Obamacare was failing across the country, you cannot ask them to repudiate their president and their legislation that they supported. It is not just a bridge too far; it is a chasm too far.
But the problem within the Republican Party has always been to see things through their eyes rather than through the eyes of the people that they’re trying to reach; that they made the correct decision for the people who put them in office and kept them there, and put Donald Trump in office. That’s what they wanted. But there’s still half of America, which is a significant percentage, that did not vote for Trump, did not vote for Republicans in Congress, and did want to repair Obamacare, but didn’t want to dump it. And when you start with the most contentious issue, what are you going to get? The most contentious Congress in modern times.
And in Ryan’s own caucus, you had the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus people. Talk a little bit about who they are and what their clout was and what their role was in the health care debate.
What people tend not to realize is that the bigger the majority, the less influential these pressure groups have on the overall [Republican] Conference, because if you’ve got a big enough majority, then you don’t need these 20 to 25 members. I know the numbers were bigger, but let’s say you’ve got a hardcore of 20 to 25. But when your majority is reduced by eight or nine seats, then those members become that much more important, because you can’t get a majority if you lose them.
So even though, on election night, the assumption was the Freedom Caucus would be less important, in reality it had become more important, because the majority was more narrow; that they could stop the GOP from passing legislation, forcing them to work with Democrats, forcing them to move to the center as a result, making more Republicans on the right angry with the legislation.
I know people speak of the fractious nature of the GOP in 2016. I think it’s actually more fractious in 2017 and 2018, because now you have to make real decisions about real legislation. And if you can’t get those on the right, you have no choice—if you’re going to pass it, you have no choice but move toward the center, and they discovered that on health care.
Well, you have this relationship between [Rep. Mark] Meadows (R-N.C.) and Trump, which is fascinating. They liked each other. They’ve talked to each other, sometimes every day. I think in some ways, it looks to the outsider, and then to us, like Trump didn’t really understand that they either didn’t work for him, or that by schmoozing, he was not actually winning them over, that they were going to be able to hold that bloc together, even though he’s saying, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” and offering ultimatum.
If I had been advising Trump, and I don’t—I want to be clear about this. No, really, I’ve been in the White House, but I’ve not seen him since the primaries. If I had been advising President Trump, I would have told him to use the White House, the Oval Office, the Lincoln Bedroom, the private quarters, even Camp David, as a place to meet with, to backslap and to negotiate, and to show the members of Congress that they do have not just the power to make a difference, but the responsibility. But he really didn’t do it. And I don’t know if he realizes that he actually met with less members in this first year of his presidency than any other president in modern times.
Gee, that’s not the conventional wisdom. The story is, he had them down for bowling; he had them over for dinner; he was chipping them off, left and right. Not true?
Barack Obama was known for having a standoffish relationship with members of Congress, and yet in that first year, he was deeply engaged in reaching out and trying to get not just members of his own party, but trying to find some way to bring Republicans onboard for at least a patina of bipartisanship. That’s not really what Trump did, at least not for the first few months. He was less engaged, and I think that that hurt him. Then he tended to have members of Congress over who were loyalists as opposed to those members who were truly swing votes in some of this legislation.
You cannot imagine the shock to the system of President Trump’s election and how that threw everything up in the air, and the opportunities that he had to reshape the electorate and reshape his relationship with Congress, starting with Paul Ryan, but all through the House and Senate. But it didn’t happen. Ronald Reagan created a governing majority in the first year of his presidency, even if his popularity had dropped because of a difficult economy.
Instead of expanding his support, Trump has watched his support erode. The people who voted for him, who liked him, love him, but there’s a whole lot of people who voted for him because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton, and now they’ve decided that they’re not fans of Donald Trump either. All of that could have changed.
… For months, Donald Trump only traveled to states that voted for him. I would have advised him to travel to states that didn’tvote for him—Nevada, Colorado. Expand your base. Reach out to people who were willing to listen to you and give you the benefit of the doubt, at least at the beginning, even if they didn’t vote for you. That’s how you establish a governing majority that takes you through eight years, is by turning the half of America who didn’t vote for you maybe not into allies, but at least not into opponents, not into opposition.
He didn’t do that. He didn’t even try to do that.
And he missed. He missed a great opportunity as a result.
Why do you think?
I don’t—I’m not going to speculate.
… When Trump, when they hold the celebration at the Rose Garden after the health care bill has been adjusted by the House, a lot of people we’ve talked to say, “Come on, this is just proof positive of how naive the new president is, and the poor Republicans having to stand there.”
… I don’t think the Republicans ever had a real grasp of the language and messaging that the American people needed to hear about Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. The public did not want to start over. They actually did not want to repeal it. Republicans did, but a majority of Americans did not. They did not like what existed, but they didn’t want to start over. That’s number one.
Number two is that they kept talking about theoretical aspects of the bill rather than what it means to the average individual. I kept hearing, particularly from the speaker, the importance of competition. He was doing a policy lesson to the American people, and they just wanted to know, how much is it going to cost me? Do I get to keep my doctor? And will I get the quality I want?
We were deeply involved in the messaging behind this, trying to explain something as simple as the choice and control you want, the affordability you need and the equality you deserve. Want, need, deserve, choice and control, affordability, and quality. That’s simple. That’s less than 30 words, and that’s what the American people needed to hear. They didn’t hear any of that from the Republicans.
No, that’s true.
They got an ideological lesson, and it didn’t resonate. Then they could not understand why support for the Affordable Care Act was actually rising during this debate and that the Republican plan, their support was not even at 40. It was dropping into the 30s, and by the time the debate ended, it had actually dropped to 29 percent. So 40 percent of Trump’s voters didn’t even agree with the Republican plan on health care. What the hell? The messaging was awful. …
And while the Rose Garden thing is happening, and as it’s about to go into the Senate, the town halls, the hollering, the anger, the whatever that I think maybe seemed to be a surprise to Ryan and others that was happening out there, certainly was a surprise to the senators we’ve talked to, that it was all going on out there.
The yelling and screaming at the town halls was fake. It was phony. It was being driven by a couple of organizations that were paying people to participate. There are exceptions to this. I made this claim on CBS, and I got a dozen people who came on my Twitter feed to say: “Oh, no, no, we weren’t paid. We went there because we’re angry. We are owed, or we deserve quality health care, and you’re hurting us.”
But I went to those town halls, and I watched what happened as people would arrive. It was organized, it was orchestrated, and it was fake, but it did serve a purpose. It caused Republicans to go indoors. It stopped them from reaching out to average voters. And you’ll find very few Republicans now doing genuine open town hall meetings. Most of them are in some sort of controlled environment because it just got so ugly. And it was all deliberate. This was a grassroots organization, not that dissimilar than what happened to the Democrats back in 2010.
… You know, if you go back to the summer of ’09, August, that kind of revulsion around Obamacare and everything else, and you watch it happen over the Obama administration in lots of ways, you watch the yielding of the Tea Party, but all kinds of other things as well. It seems almost like Trump reaped that anger and frustration and said, “Here we come,” and in a way, I guess that’s how he got elected.
Yes. Donald Trump is the antithesis of Barack Obama. Obama is cool, and Trump is hot. Obama is intellectual, and Trump is street. Obama rolls with the punches; Trump is likely to throw the punches. The fact that Obama was who he was, the reaction to him was going to be that much more strong, and that’s how we got Donald Trump. I don’t believe—if we did not have Barack Obama in 2012 to 2016, we would never have had Donald Trump. He was the perfect reaction to Obama’s persona and to Obama’s presidency.
Because he’s in your face? Because he’s willing to say whatever is necessary? Because, as you say, he throws the verbal punch?
Trump, if you do—you’ll never use this—but if you watch what Obama says and how he says it, he always starts with his opponents, and he gives them credit. He gives them a shout-out. “I believe people should have the right to keep their hard-earned income. I love success, and I want it rewarded. I want people to make as much money as they possibly can.” Pause. “But,” pause, “we have to find some way to help those who haven’t been helped, so we’re going to have to raise taxes on the wealthy, and give it to those who have been left behind. The wealthy can afford it. Those who have been left behind deserve a chance. They deserve a level playing field.” Obama tried to speak to everyone. Trump speaks to a specific group of people, and he does it well. Obama gave you that sense of self-assuredness, that he was in control, but it was a gentle—it was a much lower key. It was—he’s jazz, and Trump is hard rock. Obama’s Dizzy Gillespie, and Donald Trump is AC/DC.
… When McCain puts his thumb down on the skinny health care bill, what’s the meaning of that? What are the ramifications of that? What does it tell us past and future, and about the relationship with Trump?
Nobody was expecting John McCain to vote no. Nobody was expecting the—what do you call that when he does that? It’s a visualization.
Nobody was expecting John McCain to vote no, and the way that he did obviously had ramifications, not just in the Senate or in Congress, but in the White House as well. I know a fair number of people, me included, who thought that the failure to have any kind of significant health care reform at that time could cost the Republicans the majority, that what the Senate did would have even deeper ramifications on the House and how it would make everything more difficult because members are fighting with each other now. There isn’t the level of unity that you would expect when you control the White House, the House and the Senate. People never get along completely. There’s always room for dissent and discussion, but not like this.
Now, they’ve been able to undo Obamacare step by step, vote by vote, legislation by legislation. Yet here’s what’s interesting. They’ve actually come closer to achieving their goal than anyone realizes, but they’re not getting credit for it among Republican primary voters, and they’re getting blamed for it among Democrats. It’s like there are two different worlds out there. The Republicans feel that there wasn’t some significant symbolic vote that just obliterated Obamacare, so they’re still angry, even though it actually is being taken apart bit by bit. And the Democrats feel that whatever you do to take it apart, you deserve the wrath of God.
… It seems like, at this moment, Trump sort of moves away from the complications of the legislative process and the back-and-forth with whatever, goes to Bedminster, [N.J., the site of the Trump National Golf Club], does that tweetstorm back and forth with Leader McConnell. They have that horrible phone call, screaming phone call at each other. And it’s almost like he’s with—“fire and fury” happens. It’s like he’s moving away from what would be considered normal behavior in a moment of defeat and going to something else. What’s he doing?
I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’ll tell you the impact of what he’s doing. There was always hostility by Trump voters toward Congress, always a feeling that even the Republican leadership, their leadership, wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t pushing hard enough, wasn’t fighting back against [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Barack Obama. Then Trump gets elected, [Sen. Chuck] Schumer (D-N.Y.) takes over as [Senate minority] leader, Pelosi stays as Democratic leader. And that tweetstorm galvanized Trump voters to turn against Congress in a way that I’ve never seen a governing party’s supporters engage in.
From that point on, every time I’ve done a focus group, which is two a week, three a week, I hear the same kind of hostility and bitterness by Republicans toward Congress that I do by the Democrats. The reasons are different; the issues are different; how they frame it is different. But it is no less angry. And that’s one of the reasons why Congress is just as unpopular today as it was before Trump got elected.
So Trump is stoking it in some way.
He’s feeding it. Trump is feeding hostility toward Congress, and what he did not and does not realize, on this day, is that if he doesn’t stop, he will deliver himself a Democratic Congress. And you can mark my words on that, because you’ve got a significant segment that will not vote—they won’t vote Democrat, but they won’t participate, and you have another segment that will vote against the incumbent, simply because they want change that much. That’s how you lose the majority. If Democrats win the majority in 2018, it will be because of what Donald Trump said about Republicans in 2017.
You mean he’s diminishing his own brand?
Trump called the Republican health care plan “mean.” What? He complained that the Republican House Republican tax cuts weren’t enough. What? No president has ever attacked members of his own party. This doesn’t happen in politics. I can say it again and again, because it’s mind-blowing that he’s actually undermining the second two years of his administration. I don’t understand—what he doesn’t understand is that every time he identifies a Republican, attacks Bob Corker, Corker doesn’t run again; attacks Jeff Flake, Jeff Flake doesn’t run again, engages in these horrific battles with people who are tasked with getting his legislation passed. What do you gain by that? What benefit is that to make it harder for people who support you to get this stuff done? What benefit do you get from making it harder for the House and the Senate to elect Republicans? But that is exactly what he has done over the last six months. And if things don’t work out in November of 2018, he has no one to blame but himself.
OK, so it’s during this period that the tweets and the back and the forth and the assaulting McConnell and others that Charlottesville happens.
How does undermining your Senate majority leader make you any more powerful, any more successful? How does having a battle with the person who has to somehow manage the arcane rules and regulations of the Senate, and you’re undercutting him every day—and you think that’s good for your politics? You think that’s good for your future? And most importantly, you think that’s good for America, that you’re making it more difficult to get your legislation through? I don’t get it.
What I realized by the fall of 2017 is that the Republican Party had become Donald Trump’s party. The 20 percent that wondered, is he the right guy, they’ve left. Trump’s added a few people since the election, but the party now embraces him fully, and they even embrace the tone and demeanor, so that when Trump goes to war against another Republican, such as he did in Arizona with Flake and McCain, people lined up behind him, not behind them. And to the people in Washington and to the political observers, it made no sense, because you’re going to war against the two votes that you desperately need for every piece of legislation.
But this is who the president is. He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t—he says what he means and means what he says. And you know what? Americans have said, now, for 20 years, that’s what they’re looking for, someone who speaks up, doesn’t censor themselves, tells you exactly what he’s thinking, or she, and in that sense, we should regard it as refreshing. But it’s when it causes pain and when people become afraid, then you have a problem. It’s when it makes it harder for you to achieve what you have promised the American people, then you have a problem.
By the fall of 2017, Trump was fully in control, and the White House got what the White House wanted. But it has made operations in Congress so much more difficult and put in jeopardy the infrastructure legislation that Trump wants so badly and that America needs.
When Corker writes about “adult day care” and that back-and-forth happens, again, what is that?
… I have watched this process very closely for the last year, and the one thing I’ve learned is that Donald Trump does not lose a Twitter war. He does not lose an exchange with someone who he’s targeted. It may not help him, but it will certainly hurt the person he goes after. So don’t engage. I told Republicans who disagree with him, it doesn’t help you to challenge him. In fact, it will hurt you in the end. Give him credit for this. His Twitter account is the most powerful account on the face of the earth. Donald Trump may not be able to move mountains physically, but his Twitter account can move public opinion significantly and immediately. You may not like it, but you have to respect it for the power that it has.
So Frank, when Flake quits, when he walks out onto the floor and delivers that 17 minutes, what did you see when you saw him doing that? What did you think the implications were?
To me, that was another example of surrender; that Flake had given up, that he just decided it wasn’t worth it to have this battle. But I am now concerned: What does this do with others who disagree? What does this mean? What lesson does the president learn from this? Because I understand the Trump voter, and they have really high expectations and high demands. How do you deliver for them if you’re constantly fighting, challenging, and sometimes even defeating members of your own party?
He has a much broader record of accomplishment than anybody realizes—regulatory reform, tax reform, judicial reform, some legislation that doesn’t get as much publicity but is fundamentally changing policy out of Washington, D.C., and of course the executive orders. But he doesn’t get credit for it, because he’s fighting with people all the time, so he’s not focused on reminding people of what he’s done.
Every other president before him has had the discipline to come out on stage and give a list of the half dozen accomplishments that they have in the very first year. Trump has more than that, but he never talks about them because he uses his time to attack.
Are you saying it’s no great loss that Jeff Flake has walked away?
No, it’s a significant loss, and it’s a significant loss that Corker walked away, because there are still a few people in Washington who are statesmen, who are prepared to do the right thing, even if it means challenging people of their own political party. There is no control of the truth. There is no monopoly of great ideas. They exist throughout the country. They exist from the left, to the center, to the right. And the only way that they come to the forefront is in an environment of openness and respect and civility and decency.
And when those people who are willing to speak up and speak out, whether or not you agree with them, doesn’t matter. It’s the tone of how they communicate, and their thought process. Jeff Flake is a smart man intellectually; he’s not that smart politically. Bob Corker is one of the best chairmen of the Foreign Relations Committee in my lifetime in terms of his relationships, but he decided that it wasn’t worth it anymore, and the country loses in that situation.
… The passage of the tax bill, a lot of people say: “Well, whatever problems you think existed in the Republican Party, all is forgotten. There they are. They did it. And did you listen to what they said about the president of the United States?” Frank, what do you make of the plaudits that were applied to the president of the United States personally by people who had professed to not like him at all, who worried about him a lot? …
Once again, you have a situation of poor or truly awful communication. I’ll give you a couple of examples. For the tax bill, they all talked about economic growth. Here’s the problem. To the average American, economic growth is about Wall Street, not about Main Street. That economic growth is for academics, not for them. The average American wants a healthy economy, healthy schools, healthy neighborhoods. They don’t understand or appreciate or support economic growth, and that was the number one way that the tax bill was being sold.
Second is that it’s not just about the taxes; it’s about the process. The American people hate the tax forms. They hate the IRS. They resent having all this money taken from them, and there wasn’t enough of that empathy that they kept promoting all these corporate tax cuts, when the public was saying: “Hey, listen. I live paycheck to paycheck. I need some of that money.” They needed the corporate tax cuts because of the economy, because they want to create more jobs, but the average American is hired; they have a job.
The Republicans are talking about creating more jobs at a time when unemployment is at 4 percent. There is a disconnect there. They wanted more money in their pockets, not more money for Apple and Walmart and these huge global conglomerates. The GOP is tone-deaf when it comes to reaching the average hardworking taxpayer. And that’s the last example, which is that people don’t want to be known as middle class, because we’re not a class-based society, but everybody wants to be thought of as a hardworking taxpayer.
Go back and take a look at the official talking points. Go back and take a look at how people communicated that tax reform. It was all about the middle class. Well, that’s not how people see themselves. Certainly not now, with 10 years of economic stagnation and an economy that’s improving for Wall Street, but not necessarily for Main Street.
… Are you seeing voters who are starting to care more and identify the Republican Party more with—
No, no. There’s nothing—stop. Stop just trying to make everything partisan. The world is not partisan anymore. The reason why Trump won, and my last comment to you—the reason why Trump won had nothing to do with the Republican Party at all, and everything to do with Donald Trump. He’s redefining what it is to be a Republican, which is why so many people have joined and other people have left. I assure you that the union members who are living paycheck to paycheck, who work for the Teamsters, or the coal miners, or the teachers federation, all these different unions, those that voted for Trump did not vote for the Republican Party. They voted for Trump.
This idea of Republican versus Democrat is old-fashioned politics that went out the window in the 2016 election. Do not look at politics or this country today from partisan-colored glasses, because that is inaccurate. Donald Trump is a phenomenon that is more powerful, more influential than a simple political party. That is why he has been so successful. And that is also why he has failed, because he doesn’t have the same relationships with Congress. He doesn’t have the same relationships with the political establishment that every other president has. So this has sowed the seeds of his success, but at the same time, has also sowed the seeds of his failure.