Fmr. McConnell Chief of Staff
Josh Holmes, a Republican consultant, is a former chief of staff and campaign manager for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Dec. 22, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
So [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.) n election night, 2016, where is he? What’s he doing? How was he watching the election? You don’t happen to have been there?
I was there. Yeah. Leader McConnell, the majority whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. Cornyn’s wife, Sandy, and [McConnell’s wife,] Elaine Chao, the now secretary of transportation, were watching in the basement of the National Republican [Senate] Committee with staff of the senatorial committee and were watching the election with great interest, as you might imagine. We had an awful lot of Senate seats in play, and the majority was very much at stake, so it was an extremely intense atmosphere.
What’s he watching for?
Well, we had a couple of seats that were going to go early. And the first thing, the first polls that closed were Indiana. There was an incredibly close race there between Evan Bayh, who was a long-term senator, who had left and was trying to come back against Todd Young, which is a younger upstart Republican, [who] didn’t nearly have the name recognition that Evan Bayh did. But it was sort of seen by us as a bellwether as to whether or not we could hold the Senate, and when it came in, it came in really big. And it was not only a win for Todd Young, but it was a margin that was much larger than we ever anticipated.
Is this a moment when you feel there could be a sea change here?
Well, it was an initial bright light of optimism. If you’ve been on the other side of that, you know what it feels like when you see it go the other way, and you feel that wave start to rise up, much like Republicans saw in 2006 and again in 2008. So coming the other way, you have cautious optimism when the first ones start to break all one way.
… When they called the race in Wisconsin for Ron Johnson, it was elation in that room, because it meant a, that we were going to hold the majority, but b, we were doing well in states that, you know, by everybody’s account, were going to be awfully difficult for us to win.
And his reputation is—I’ve never actually met him, but his reputation is taciturn, cards close to the vest and not very emotional. Emotional then?
I think emotional is probably the wrong word. He’s intense. If there’s one kind of word that I used to describe Leader McConnell, it’s focused. He’s very focused on each task at hand. And in this case, we had months and months of preparation for a single day that determined the fate of his leadership as a majority leader. You know, he didn’t want to have just two years and out; he wanted—had some unfinished business and wanted to continue.
So he was extremely focused. We had gone over all of the numbers in every state, over and over and over again, in the weeks leading up to it, and it felt like we had the capability of holding. There were movements late in Pennsylvania which was a state that was thought to be extraordinarily difficult for us to pick up. But we thought Sen. [Pat] Toomey was making a late run and would be able to hold on there. We saw North Carolina kind of come back with Sen. [Richard] Burr. Marco Rubio down in Florida, who had just gotten into that race after the presidential primary in the early part of that summer, looked like he was going to put that away in Florida. So all of the fundamentals were starting to come our way. Of course, what we didn’t anticipate was that the president would be covering all those same states, not quite to the extent of the Senate races, but enough to win.
Back up a little earlier in the evening, and almost everybody I’ve talked to said everybody was preparing. Ryan was preparing; Leader McConnell was preparing for a Clinton presidency, so that was going to be some back-and-forth, some going back and forth, and that [Sen.] Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had actually called them. Tell me that story.
So Chuck Schumer had basically engaged in a drape-measuring contest with his colleagues for the previous week and had begun making outreach to his Republican colleagues to suggest that as majority leader, he would be happy to work with them and of course would love to keep their views in mind as they pursued his agenda the next year, which, you know, you’ve got to understand, from a Republican perspective, was not overly welcome, but certainly hilarious to people, in retrospect, after the campaign turned out the way it did.
Yeah. Did you guys—what were the odds you would give at that moment, if you can put yourself back there, that the president would be Donald Trump?
Well, we were so focused on Senate races. We gave ourselves a better-than-average chance. We thought we were above 50 percent of holding the majority. From my perspective, the presidential [race] needed something close to a miracle in order to get President Trump over the top, and the reason was because there were some institutional problems with that. You look at something like North Carolina, where you have this huge research corridor that has a large number of highly educated, upper-middle-income white families who the president’s numbers were not very good with. If you lose North Carolina, very hard to see how a Republican president can carry the country.
We felt like he was going to do pretty well in Ohio, and he was certainly doing better than most Republican presidents do in Pennsylvania. But then again, a Republican president hadn’t won Pennsylvania since 1984, so, you know, the bar was pretty low there. But he was doing—he was competitive enough in every one of those states where you never know what’s going to happen. But I think there were some institutional barriers that everybody sort of thought it would be very difficult for him to crack through.
It’s well known around Washington, when the time comes and you think the other party is going to win, or even especially your own party is going to win, you start to lay the groundwork for a transition. Everybody is talking about: “Here is my phone number. Here is your phone number. How do we get through to each other in the transition? And when we get all set up… and here is my list of people for on the Plum [Book], and here’s yours.” All of that kind of takes place, as you well know. In this case, the way I hear it, none of that had taken place. There was really no anticipation of, you know, “We have to work with the Trump people, and they’ll work with us, and we’ll get that all lined up before the results are in.”
Well, it’s really interesting, because generally speaking, when you come into the final stretch of an election campaign, you have a transition team in place, if you’re a Republican or if you’re a Democrat. They put these teams in place, and they have an extremely aggressive effort to try to recruit people who can fill the administration. And that’s big. There’s a lot of jobs that require finely skilled, highly skilled people to fill, and there’s not, you know, people who can run the National Security Council hanging off a tree. So you’ve got to really do a lot of research, talk to a lot of people, begin that recruitment, and put in place what is essentially a shadow government if you win.
What was so interesting about 2016 is that by all accounts, the Clinton machine basically was the same since it was in the ’90s—the same players, the same people. They didn’t have to do a whole lot of work to try to recreate what their government would look like. Essentially, nobody left. Everybody was still there.
On the Republican side, on the other hand, there was this effort that was headed up by Gov. [Chris] Christie (R-N.J.) at the time. It was—you know, had some smart people in place and seemed to be doing their work, but it wasn’t the same kind of aggressiveness that you saw previous, like Mitt Romney, for example, who, you know, his team was basically set if he were to have won that election in 2012. The next day, that transition office basically would have become the next government of the United States.
You’d never get that same impression with the Trump crowd. And of course, the day after the election, when they dismissed Gov. Christie and most of the efforts that they had done in that transition period, you found out why.
So Trump wins. You can feel it coming across the night. It was a surprise, of course. What did the leader have to say? How was he? How did he react when that moment actually happened?
We were sitting, again, tabulating all of the results that were coming back from all of these Senate races and had concluded that we were, in fact, going to hold onto the majority in the Senate, which was no small accomplishment, in a difficult cycle with a lot of seats up. And just about then, Pennsylvania looked like it was headed into his column. We’ve already seen Wisconsin and Michigan look like it was; they were beginning to trend there as well.
And at that point, the leader turned and looked at me and said, “You know, it really looks like we’re going to make America great again.” And you know, I think it became a reality to all of us at that point, that regardless of what conventional wisdom [was] on the way into the election, on the way out it was going to look a lot different.
What worried him about it?
I think you worry about everything with a new administration, not worry in the sense of can they do the job, but worrying about whether you’re prepared, as a party, to try to get the long-term, big-ticket items that you have put on your agenda list for the last two decades in line and actually accomplish them. And when you’re in a position of leadership, you have a small window to try to accomplish those big tickets when you get the opportunity, because the opportunity doesn’t come around very often.
You know, what we’re talking about are things like tax reform, things like the Supreme Court, which of course at that point had hung in the balance. Basically a generational shift in the ideology of the Supreme Court was at stake. And the concerns are, are you prepared to not only take advantage of the opportunity, but govern? And I think everyone, regardless of who becomes president, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, when that opportunity lands on your plate, it makes everybody a little nervous, and with good reason.
Do you think Trump was ready?
I don’t know. I mean, honestly, what I do know is—it doesn’t matter. I think Barack Obama was ready. I don’t think, if you listen to interviews of almost all previous presidents, I think in the first quarter of their presidency, they will say, “Holy smokes, I can’t believe all of the things that have come at me; I had no idea.” And I think there’s an element of that. Certainly for anybody who wasn’t involved in politics and didn’t spend a lot of time in the Oval Office talking to a president about the challenges that they face are going to have a lot of surprises coming at them. So from that standpoint, yeah, I think that President Trump had a lot of things that he had to get up to speed on in a very short amount of time.
Yeah. How had their relationship been before?
Trump and McConnell?
Trump and McConnell.
Pretty good, in large part because McConnell understood—he’s got a very good sense of what he can control and what he can’t, and McConnell spends absolutely no time wringing his hands about things that he can’t control. He focused exclusively on the business of the Senate and on his candidates that were in the field in 2016, and he never really got caught up in the daily conversation that was happening with then-candidate Trump and the national media about the outrage of the day.
I think as a result of that, it separated him from a whole lot of other Republicans who did get caught up into that conversation every day, and I think the president took some exception to even some Republicans who were openly critical of him. Sen. McConnell just never felt the need to weigh into the discussion.
… A lot of people always say—they say it about every president, a newly elected president: He’s been all over the place when he campaigned. In this president’s case, he was all over the place when he campaigned, right, but a lot of people put themselves to sleep at night saying, by the time you get in the Oval Office, the weight of it hits you—the pictures around you, the art in the hallways. You realize you’re president of the United States, and it settles you right down.
Was that the fervent hope?
Sure, I think that was. I think there were a couple of things in particular that made Republicans much more comfortable with the direction of the presidency during the transition time. One was the appointment of the Cabinet, who they felt like most of these Cabinet officials were people they could relate to. The second was the issue of the Supreme Court. And the previous summer, the president had put out a list, a short list of potential nominees that he would consider, if given the opportunity as president of the United States, to make the next Supreme Court justice. That list, from a conservative standpoint, was sort of a gold standard. If you were to go anywhere in conservative legal circles, you know, they would say that “I don’t think he missed a name of somebody we would want on that list.”
Given that assurance, coupled with the folks that he put in the Cabinet, I think people were willing to look beyond sort of the lack of clarity where he was on some of the issues to say: “He’s with us. He’s going to govern as a conservative, and we’re ready to go.”
How important was the announcement of Reince Priebus as the chief of staff in terms of cooling people out?
I think it’s less important than you think. I think certainly Reince was somebody that people knew, and from that standpoint, it’s better to have somebody that you know and that you have a relationship with, that you can call for all your opportunities and liabilities that come along the way in the first stage of that administration. I also think that there was some confusion about how the West Wing was put together. Was Reince in charge? Was [Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon in charge? The lack of clarity there from a lot of members of Congress about who actually was the one that was calling the shots there did lead to some confusion.
In fact, I think that a lot of the problems in the first 100 days with the palace intrigue were basically filled by that odd dynamic between Reince and Bannon and who is in charge. You saw staff with their own press people, which I thought was sort of astounding, something that people who have been in staff positions in administrations in high-level politics had never seen before.
What did that tell you?
Well, it said, initially, that the setup that they had with the West Wing wasn’t exactly what the president should expect. It was not serving the president the way a president who had to get up to speed on very serious issues should be served. And, you know, from my perspective, if you have warring factions inside of an administration, it’s extremely difficult to execute your job. It is hard enough when everybody gets along. You’ve got to remember, being in the West Wing is probably the only job in the world where you literally cannot do anything without half the country criticizing it, and to add friendly fire from the inside to that is a really tough situation for anybody to execute well.
When Bannon says at CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] he’s after the “destruction of the administrative state,” what does that mean to somebody like Leader McConnell?
Honestly, I don’t think that anybody took that seriously. I don’t even know what that means, right? I mean, the “administrative state,” OK. Are we talking about the government of the United States? I don’t think anybody runs for office for anarchy, right? I mean, I think, generally speaking, what it means when you get into power is that you want to use the government as the lever to try to achieve long-term goals for what you see as the betterment of the country.
What Steve Bannon was talking about was an absolute revolution that wouldn’t serve anyone. Certainly wouldn’t serve Republicans or conservatives. If anything, it would serve Democrats to underscore the claim that we couldn’t govern.
When the inaugural address is “carnage in America,” pretty forceful, sitting behind the newly inaugurated president is the government that Bannon was talking about and that in some ways Trump was talking about. Do you know how the leader felt about that?
I think, if you look at the inauguration of almost every president, their first inaugural address, there is a lot of campaign rhetoric that is built in there, that is sort of woven within them during the course of what is obviously an incredibly difficult campaign season. I think what happens more times than not is that you show up, you don’t know what the job is going to be exactly, and you use that campaign rhetoric to paint a picture that isn’t exactly how you go about governing.
I think anybody who is reading too much into that address would take away that this is somehow Steve Bannon’s view of the world, that we’re a nation-state that is basically going to build 1,000-foot walls around us, lock out the rest of the world, and sort out the goodies amongst ourselves. And anybody who’s spent any time in government knows that you can’t do that, and it doesn’t work that way, and in a global economy, the best ticket for an impoverished nation is to shut everybody else out.
So I don’t think that anybody in the leadership positions of the House and the Senate saw that as a warning sign. And I think over time, they were proven right to not be overly concerned about it.
Was there an early get-together where Leader McConnell goes to the White House, or the White House comes to him, and he and Trump and Ryan sit down and sort of sort out what’s the order of business?
There were. Now, I wasn’t privy to all of those meetings or the content of a lot of those meetings. I know that they met several times during the transition period, where they would talk about potential personnel, or they would talk about things that the president needed to look out for, just basically providing as helpful recommendations as you could to an incoming president who hadn’t spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C.
… When is it that the conversation comes around to, “Let’s start with the issue that, for seven years, the GOP has been saying, ‘We’ve got to do something about this’”? When does the Affordable Care Act become job one?
My understanding of the agenda setting, candidly, is what I’ve read, and what I’ve read is that Speaker Ryan felt like it was necessary to lead with the Obamacare repeal and replace. There were competing views on how you go about executing that, and what we saw initially was a disconnect between where the administration was going on a day-to-day basis. I think initially, Republican leaders thought it would be extremely helpful to get this done as quickly as possible, accomplish what it is that you promise the American people, and then come back with a replacement strategy in a bipartisan fashion that hopefully would build a health care policy that the American people were comfortable with.
Health care is one of the issues that almost every Republican at that point had run on, and there were a wide variety of views on how to execute that. The repeal portion of the repeal-and-replace mantra was very clear in everyone’s mind, the replace portion much less so. And what we saw in the initial months were the president reacting to folks like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wanted to go in a different direction than most other Republicans in that he wanted to repeal only. Other Republicans wanted to repeal and replace. You know, the president was on both sides. He wanted to repeal only; then he wanted to repeal and replace.
I think what that was a demonstration of is that the president at that point wasn’t extremely well served in having an extremely specific agenda that he could go out and sell and execute. The role of the president is not to write the bill. It’s not to delve into the details of health care policy. He has incredibly competent staff to do that, and he’s got 535 members of Congress sitting on Capitol Hill ready to execute that. His job is to make the case to the American people that what he’s trying to accomplish is good for them and good for the country.
And right away, he couldn’t quite turn that page, where he should—staff, generally speaking, could lay out a very clear agenda for him and have him go out and sell it, and it just never happened. He was bogged down into the—
I don’t know the answer to inside the West Wing why it was that nobody landed on, “This is exactly what’s going to happen.” There is a tendency—and President Obama went through the same thing—there is a tendency to believe that the less you are engaged in the legislative process, the more plausible deniability you have for whatever result will come. I remember President Obama basically ceding the entire authority to develop the stimulus program in 2009, when he came into office, to [then-Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats. I think six months later, he saw that as a huge mistake and something he would like to redo, because having a hand on that wheel was pretty important.
Initially, I think some of the advice that the president may have gotten with health care is, “Yes, we have to do this, but let’s let Congress come up with it, and we’ll react appropriately whenever it comes along.”
… So what happened here? This president didn’t have his sleeves rolled up exactly.
I think President Trump initially, because of the lack of clarity within the West Wing about what they wanted to accomplish—and there was a competing dynamic with Steve Bannon, who played an incredibly cancerous role, in my view, of how this administration began to formulate policy, but because that dynamic was not clear, he became much more susceptible to outside suggestion. And the one thing that this president does more than any other president that I’ve ever heard of is reach out and talk to people about what their views are on certain things. He talks to more rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats than any president I’ve ever heard of. And in those discussions, particularly on health care, he got a whole different array of suggestions about what they should do. And not getting that clarity within the West Wing, but getting a whole bunch of suggestions outside of the West Wing, I think scrambled the pot a little bit. So, as they approached health care, it wasn’t terribly clear. It didn’t have the kind of sharp edge that it probably should have in the selling to the American people.
… And everybody we’ve talked to said he was stunned at how long anything takes. He thought, you know, “These guys work for me; I’m the president of the United States; let’s move it,” right?
Right. Well, in addition to that, he had a healthy complement of people who couldn’t help him get up to speed on that. Steve Bannon is somebody who worked at Goldman Sachs; he made movies; he founded a right-wing media network. He hadn’t spent a single day in government trying to understand what makes America work. How do we leverage all of these tools at hand to try to accomplish something that we said we were going to accomplish for the American people?
So if the president was entering Washington in a place where he hadn’t spent a lot of time, and looked over his shoulder to try to get a suggestion from staff, he was going to find Steve Bannon sitting there, who had absolutely no idea how to get anything done. And I think that the first four months of this presidency was a result of not being very well served.
Not to mention [his son-in-law] Jared Kushner, [his daughter] Ivanka Trump, almost anybody but [Chief of Staff] Reince [Preibus], [chief economic adviser] Gary Cohn, they’re all novices.
Well, and including—I mean, look, there are not very many party chairmen that become chiefs of staff in the White House. It’s a different function. It’s an extremely different function, and knowing how to navigate a huge bureaucracy and beginning to implement different regulatory changes and personnel changes, and putting the Trump stamp on the government, was something that was a huge challenge for any president, but it is a monumental challenge for someone who doesn’t have the staff who’s done it before.
Now let’s go to the composition of the legislative branch that he’s going to deal with, the GOP, the makeup of the GOP and, you know, the crisis inside the GOP. We’ll go inside fractures and all that other stuff, but first I’d like to take you back to the summer of 2009.
I love it. OK.
August of 2009. You know, Obamacare hits; the town halls blow up. A whole new—isn’t brand-new, obviously. [John McCain’s vice presidential running mate Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin is a precursor. There’s Ronald Reagan. There’s many, many. There’s the [Speaker of the House Newt] Gingrich (R-Ga.) ’94 moments. But now in the summer of ’09, activated, recharged, something’s happening in the Republican Party that we’ll see the Young Guns go out and turn into a very effective midterm election challenge to the Democrats. Take me there. In the summer of ’09, in August of ’09, what’s that about, as you guys are watching it happen? …
So after 2008, the election, the Republican Party was at its lowest level that it had been at in a generation or two. It was basically an irrelevant party. We had become a regional party at best. We had southeast appeal and not much else. We lost a ton of really talented United States senators in the 2008 election, people like Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), folks who were sort of earmarked to have long careers and be able to lead the party generations into the future. So there was a moment in the early stages of President Obama’s tenure where he had a 70 percent approval rating. They had a historically large majority in the House, and they ultimately got to 60 seats in the United States Senate. That is a relevance. If you have 40 seats in the Republican Party in the United States Senate, that is irrelevant, because 60 is all that matters.
So, from a legislative perspective, we’re dealt out before it even started. The only thing that we could do was to try to make as compelling case as possible to the American people that the direction that the country was going under President Obama’s leadership was the wrong one. It also happened to coincide with the time of extreme economic anxiety in the American people. We watched a stock market crash, a recession hit, jobs lost, a deficit explode. There were a lot of reasons for economic anxiety there, and there was maybe the first generation of Americans across rural America who would look at their children and say, “There’s no way my kids are going to have as good an opportunity to make something of their lives that I did.” And in America, that is sort of the great promise that we all make. And for that for the first time not to be true, something was happening here, and that anxiety was extremely real, and the idea that the elites and the government were the ones that were doing it was absolute powder keg. …
I mean, the economic anxieties that fueled this rebellion inside the Republican Party started long before President Obama started office. They were extremely concerned about the war in Iraq. They were unsettled about an economic condition but then really rattled, obviously, when people started losing their jobs, and Main Street starts looking a lot more desolate. Big cities don’t seem to be taking on the same kind of impoverished challenges that Middle America is taking on.
Then you watch something like the bank bailout happen, and you know, if you’re not an economist, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. And all of a sudden, you usher in President Obama, who has the most liberal agenda for the government in at least 30 years, and on his agenda is spending $1 trillion in the first month on all kinds of programs; and in the second month, he wants to close Guantanamo Bay; and in the third month he, all of a sudden, we’re engaged in a nationalizing health care discussion. And anxiety began to rise and rise and rise.
And that’s what people call the Tea Party summer.
What was so interesting, from inside a leadership office at that point, the left has always been extraordinarily good at mobilizing and protesting and creating a spectacle around issues that they care about deeply. The right largely hadn’t. There has not been a history of protests and demonstrations and signs and anger building outside of Capitol offices from the right. It just [historically] didn’t exist. And for the first time, in August of 2009, not only did it exist, it was overwhelming. There were thousands of people, some probably who hadn’t voted in 30 years, they were showing en masse, concerned, deeply concerned about the future of the country.
And that—to, I think, [Eric] Cantor (R-Va.), [Kevin] McCarthy (R-Calif.) and [Paul] Ryan’s (R-Wis.) credit, they corralled that. A lot of other things happen, obviously. We’re skipping almost everything else. And they made it an overwhelming—I think the class was 81 or 82 new people in Congress, and many, many of them were the results of these angry people that had been in that August ’09 series of protests.
So two things happened as a result of this refueled movement and the energy that was coming from the conservative side. The first was people were going to go out and vote, and they were going to make sure that Republicans got into office. The second was the candidate quality. Typically the people who can appeal the broadest was not a factor in their decision. For the first time, voters looked at a candidate based on whether they were a part of the system or not, and if they thought somebody was not a part of the system, that was their person, regardless of whether they had any qualifications for the job or whether they could even be elected.
And we saw in 2010 this great divide that I think was a precursor to some of the civil war in the Republican Party, because you had a whole bunch of House members that were elected because these districts, in that kind of environment, were pretty hard to lose as a Republican. But in the Senate, you still had to run statewide. These were larger electorates that didn’t have a monolithic view of the world. …
What was actually happening in the Congress in those four years?
So 2012, when Mitt Romney was on the top of the ticket, it masked the same problem that we faced in 2010. Because the top of the ticket was generally seen as a widely appealable Republican, the underneath anxiety that was still nominating, for lack of a better term, crazy people was still there. And we were still doing it. And what happened as a result of that is, in 2012, we had candidates like [Missouri’s] Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, people who said things that were so contemptable, it’s hard to imagine they ever got into office in the first place. But they branded the Republican Party in the process and had your average American, who didn’t follow politics every day, saying: “Good Lord, who in the world are these Republicans? How could they possibly say that about ‘legitimate rape’? I mean, what in the world is that?” I mean, deeply offensive stuff to anyone.
So we didn’t crack the code. Again, we left a couple of Senate seats on the table. An element that existed that was continuing to try to elect folks that couldn’t do the job, that weren’t capable of being United States senator, were still out there trying to elect these folks, and they were setting the Republican Party back in the process.
You know, one of the things—and I’ll get to your initial question by way of this—but there became a cottage industry after 2010 that tried to corral the energy and anxiety of the conservative movement and push it in a direction that basically opposed the Republican Party. You saw talk radio clamor together with operatives around the country to essentially try to profit off of the anxiety in these campaigns by selecting candidates who were just not from the establishment, is what they said. Now who knows what in the world the establishment is. But as best I could tell at the time, it was people who had absolutely no grasp on what the job of a United States senator was and had no capability of actually doing it. And voters saw through them, and they lost elections, and they set the Republican Party back in the process.
That element in ’10 and ’12 cost us six United States Senate seats. So the question going into 2013 is, what are you going to do about it? And that was my job. Leader McConnell decided that if he was ever going to become majority leader of the Senate that he had to take on what was a deeply unpopular point of view within the Republican Party, and that was to engage in primaries and to ensure that not only did we recruit good candidates, but we were behind them all the way through, to make sure that they won these primary elections.
Now, you’ve got to understand, inside party politics, that is a deeply unpopular point of view. It is a top-heavy, seen as an extremely out-of-touch move. In reality, what Leader McConnell saw was that as a leader, he had a responsibility to the brand of the Republican Party, and if you were going to go ahead and nominate people like Todd Aikin and Sharron Angle [in Nevada], then he had an obligation to try to beat that back.
… And so our goal, and the goal that I was chiefly in charge of in 2013, was to figure out a way to compete for the hearts and minds of primary voters and break the monopoly of information flow that they were receiving that painted a reality that just plain didn’t exist.
And it worked.
It worked, but it was extremely divisive.
Exactly. And into that whirlwind by 2015 is Donald Trump, observing, picking and choosing and moving it along, and I guess the beneficiary of that anger.
Well, if you had an observation of Republican politics in that time period, a couple of things stood out. The first was, man, it is incredibly easy to move people who are anxious already about their system of government into believing that everything would be OK if it wasn’t for the people who were there selling you out. That was one of the easiest arguments anybody could ever make, and it was incredibly effective.
The second was, if you could harness that, and you could portray yourself as the answer to that problem, it could catapult you far beyond any sort of institutional limitations that you may have felt coming into running for office. In other words, you didn’t have to be next in line; they put you there. …
You could jump the line, man, all the way up.
I remember at CPAC in 2013, Leader McConnell was on stage, and he was speaking. I think Donald Trump had just finished. Standing backstage watching, and watching the audience, was Donald Trump. He was not there to sort of enjoy the folks’ applause. He was observing; he was learning. He spent an enormous amount of time watching politician after politician, speaker after speaker, interact with a conservative crowd, and it would be hard not to come away from that experience with some pretty good ideas about what’s moving people.
… When he’s about to come in, he’s been elected, give me a sense of the state of the party, the GOP in Washington at that time. How fractured? How civil war? How tribal? How Balkanized? What’s he about to confront up the Hill when he becomes president?
The element that led to losing Republican Senate seats and branding the party as this sort of crazy, out-of-touch, senseless party had largely been beaten back. In 2014, Republicans didn’t lose a single primary. In 2016, Republicans didn’t lose a single primary. It had been four years since any of the sort of anti-establishment anger had been harnessed by this cottage industry and used to any success.
However, the very rise of Donald Trump had emboldened an element that had been all but snuffed out over the previous four years. They had absolutely no interest in Donald Trump to begin with. In fact, most of these folks were all [Sen.] Ted Cruz (R-Texas) supporters. In large number, this anti-establishment cottage industry were almost monolithically supportive of Ted Cruz’s candidacy and kind of laughed off Trump’s.
But during the course of the primary, Trump was playing the notes to a perfect tune for them. They reacted, had to react. Everything that they had been saying for the last four or five years, he was just pitch-perfect in echoing, and sooner or later they started to come around, and they became Trump fans. But with them came this other huge bloc of voters who weren’t even typically primary-voting Republicans. They were rural; they were largely white; they were economically in the middle- to lower-income range. These are traditional Democratic union labor voters, and they were all about Donald Trump. Infusing those two together, the anti-establishment cottage industry thought, why don’t we get in front of this parade and see if we can’t lead it? And we saw an awful lot of that as President Trump glided into the nomination of the party, and then eventually with Steve Bannon coming onboard in August.
I mean, I think if Steve Bannon—he was a part of that 2010 cottage industry, he was very much a part of the 2012 cottage industry, and he’d gotten his clock cleaned in 2014 and 2016 by running crazy candidates. But here he saw an opportunity: a president who had not spent much time, a then-candidate who had not spent much time in Washington, D.C., and he could sort of shape that. He could sort of begin to tell him what his version of reality was; in a sense, take what he had attempted to try to do to an anxious Republican electorate and instill it into one person, that candidate for the president of the United States.
… He gives that speech to the joint House and Senate, and that’s a different Donald Trump than we ever saw running…. What was the deal?
I don’t know what led to the change in tone. I do know that Republicans were ecstatic about the first address. They had felt like all the anxieties that you had about not knowing exactly what this president was all about or what kind of governing style he would have, all of those things were laid to rest with that speech in that he again played every note they wanted to hear. It was really a symphony of what Republicans wanted to accomplish, the kind of tone they wanted to accomplish it with, and a kind of longer-term governing vision for what could be a new coalition of electing Republicans in America for the next 20 years.
Then what happened?
Governing stuff. Governing is difficult. And to understand much of the failure of the initial Obamacare repeal effort is to understand how most of these politicians were elected in the first place. Most of them—I think like two-thirds of Congress was elected during the Obama era. In other words, they’d never served under a Republican president. Their only—they had one song, and that song was opposition.
… What does that tell you about [President Trump] and Ryan at that moment in the creation of the health care?
Well, I think nobody had properly explained to the president how difficult the legislative process actually is, and he expected a process to run much quicker. He expected all of it sort of being a formality, since everybody was on the same team. Everybody should agree to what you’re trying to propose if you’re all on the same team. In reality, the legislative process is ugly no matter what.
… [The health care bill moves from the House to the Senate]. It moves to McConnell. McConnell being McConnell, and McConnell knowing better, as I hear it, says to the president, “Stay back; let me do this now.” Is that basically how it goes?
You never have the same element of leverage over the Senate that you do the House. Some of it’s the institution, because of being elected every six years instead of every two. Other pieces of it are, you’re elected statewide, and the Senate is a bunch of class presidents, right? Everybody’s got, as McConnell says, everybody’s got sharp elbows and big egos. Everybody wants to do their own thing. You’re not going to shove around a whole bunch of United States senators.
Going into that process, it was going to be 1,000-to-1 to get something over the finish line to begin with, and what McConnell thought was, I’m going to try to create a path that gives us a shot. But that shot involves a lot of private consultation, a lot of work behind the scenes, and a lot of discussion with his colleagues about the end product here that’s not going to be a speech in some stadium around the country. This was like legislating. So what he tried to do was take it on himself; shoulder most of the praise and blame as you go along in putting a package together; shorten the timeline for how the public reacts to what he’s come up with; in other words, try to make this more about his process than make it about specific pieces of the legislation that you’re trying to work with in a committee fashion.
It had worked for [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the process of Obamacare, and, to a certain extent, Dodd-Frank, in corralling a conference that was probably concerned about what would ultimately progress. But McConnell had a much smaller majority. I mean, he had no margin for error, so this was really hitting a keyhole at 50 yards. But he had to take a shot. The president wanted to do it. The speaker had just gotten it over the finish line in the House, so it was the Senate’s turn. There was no leaving it at the dais. They were going to have to try to accomplish what seemed, at the beginning, to be almost impossible.
… So let’s go to the end of this, of the Senate story. Tell me the [Sen. John] McCain (R-Ariz.) no vote. What was it about? Did the leader know it was coming?
Not until shortly before.… Sen. McCain, Sen. [Lindsey] Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. [Ron] Johnson (R-Wis.) on the day before the ultimate vote had expressed reservations about the legislation. Sen. [Susan] Collins (R-Maine) was already gone. They had in their hands the ability to kill the entire thing. Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski (R-Alaska) was to walk shortly thereafter. And so literally, the next one of them out of those three to say no was the difference between passage and failure.
They held a press conference where they laid out four or five criteria that needed to be met in order for them to support the bill. Leadership and the White House scrambled to try to satisfy each one of those. There were things like speaking to the governors of their state to make sure that they supported this process, that they could implement the Medicaid properly. In the end, they satisfied all five and from a leadership perspective felt pretty good about where you can be with your members, knowing it’s a pretty dynamic, fluid situation. No vote is solid until it’s cast. But certainly Sen. Graham, Sen. Johnson and to a certain extent Sen. McCain indicated that they were satisfied with the criteria that they laid out.
Going into that evening, there was a strong feeling of optimism in all of the Republican Party that this was going to get done, and late in the evening, Sen. McCain’s reservations became more evident, and he began expressing them privately, and then publicly.
… How did the leader—I mean, obviously disappointed, but how did the leader feel about what the implications were of that decision?
Well, he was obviously disappointed and then expressed as much after the vote that he was disappointed that they couldn’t. He felt like they were really close and that they were just on the verge of getting this done, and [he] was disappointed by it. But the one thing about McConnell that makes him a pretty effective leader is he just doesn’t spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t going to go castigate John McCain for his vote. He didn’t need to know why he didn’t vote for it. What he needed to know was how you fix it, and how do we get to a better place on the next big vote? And if that was the end of the story in July of 2017 about the Trump agenda, it would have been a pretty sad one.
Well, at that moment, whether there was a future or not, one thing we noticed, one thing we note is that something changes in Trump, and his first instinct is almost always to fight. So there’s a number of tweets about the leader. Boom, boom, boom. …
My wife was giving birth to our first child, so I wasn’t exactly on email at that point. I had started receiving a bunch of calls shortly after we got home, which were a couple of days after the series of tweets happened. And it was disconcerting, to say the least. I mean, those of us who have been involved in legislating and governing know that if you’re going to get anything done, you have to have those relationships as strong as you possibly can. And what was clear here is that the president didn’t understand that his future and Leader McConnell’s future and Speaker Ryan’s future were inextricably entwined, and there was no success without the success of all three of them. That was an indication, at that point, that there was a real disconnect, and something needed to be done; something needed to be fixed.
… Charlottesville, in my view, was a low point of this administration’s 2017. It illustrated Steve Bannon’s hold on the views that were expressed by the administration at that point. There is nobody that I know who could come away from watching the images of that weekend and say it was a triumphant moment for anything, yet that was Steve Bannon’s point of view at that point, and he was, from all reports, egging on the president to continue this sort of divisive way of approaching this issue.
… The president, at that point, had not faced a national catastrophe. There hadn’t been the hurricanes. The international conflicts had largely been siloed into international news. There hadn’t been that sort of eye-opening American moment that he needed to deal with, and here it was, and it was in a form that was very difficult for him to deal with, because on one hand, you had this view from inside the administration with Steve Bannon that these white nationalists were somehow these underserved, middle-class, forgotten people that deserved full attention, and on the other hand, virtually everyone else is shocked and outraged that this kind of behavior exists in 2017.
And he didn’t handle it the way he should have handled it. He had an opportunity to, and he was listening to the wrong people. And the way that he expressed himself set himself back, truly. I don’t believe for a second that President Trump is a racist or even prejudiced at all, but you could be forgiven if, watching that episode, you came to a different conclusion.
What was the leader’s response?
He was irritated. He was hurt. I mean, Leader McConnell is someone who started his political activism on campus, organizing rallies around the Voting Rights Act. You know, he attended the “I Have a Dream” speech. He was [at] the Capitol Rotunda watching Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act. This is an issue that resonates extremely deeply with him. And you’ve got to remember, when you’re growing up in the 1950s in Kentucky, and these are your views, you have battle scars. You remember what it was like to not have national consensus on racial issues, and in his view, you can’t go back. There is no sort of two sides to the story, as was suggested at the time.
… Others in the Senate, of course, began to become critical of him in a kind of interesting way.
Well, they all issued statements, and McConnell included. I think Ryan included almost everybody. Look, this is not a close call, you know. If you’re elected to represent any state in this union, the idea that you can somehow harbor racial animosity is just a foreign concept. I mean, in 2017, it’s not even—the fact we were even dealing with it was astonishing to most members. So firing off critical statements were not—there was no pause. I mean, if you noticed, I think almost every Republican issued statements almost immediately.
Trump doubles down. How shocking was that?
Extremely. It was concerning. And again, it felt like the Bannon view of the world was beginning to take over, that the legislative failures and the agenda coming to a halt had basically provided the car keys to Steve Bannon and a very different view of how you should govern in America, and that was extremely concerning to Republicans. … These are people who were all elected long before President Trump was interested in running for president. They were elected to do things like reduce taxes; they were trying to provide better health care. There were a laundry list of Republican priorities, none of which were stoking racial animosity. And that was a problem.
Then he goes to Arizona, and he takes down McCain and [Sen. Jeff] Flake. Thoughts?
It was all in that same period. That August was an extremely dark time in Republican politics. There was a view that we just sort of came unmoored, that the president’s commitment to the Republican Party was drifting further and further and further away and that in some ways, he felt like he didn’t need it. Now, ultimately, that turned out not to be true, but at the time, it felt real.
And he’s a Republican president. …
Everybody was wearing the same brand. But also, what gets lost in the personality disputes, in the rhetoric, is that governing is extremely difficult on its easiest day. Governing takes every one of those Republican votes to support your agenda, every last one.
And how do you do that, when you’re tweeting that the leader is, you know, an idiot, and when you are saying the things he’s saying about the other things, when he’s saying it about Flake and he’s saying it about McCain in their own state?
Well, if you remember, the—there were like 35 or so statements issued after the tweeting against McConnell from Senate Republicans attacking the president. There was a period in August where there was ultimate warfare in the Republican Party, and people were not reserved about expressing it. These were not private conversations; they were press releases. I mean, there was the concern that this thing was headed south in a hurry if somebody didn’t get a hold of it.
… You know the leader very well. … What do you think was going on in his mind about … an historical moment occurring right before his eyes? He’s in charge of the body. He’s got the obligation to get things done. What’s he thinking?
It begins to dawn on everyone that it is going to be extremely difficult to keep this party together, that—
And he feels that way?
Well, we’d already had in July one vote short of our top agenda item, so there wasn’t exactly consensus on the Trump agenda to begin with. Now, with open warfare within the party, it was a real trick to try to figure out how to keep your members from an open revolt. How do you get 52 members, who had all issued statements condemning the president of the United States during the month of August, to all vote on the same thing with the same point of view over the three months that would ultimately determine how this year went? That is an extremely tall order, extremely tall order. So there’s a lot of concern about how you get everybody to play as a team when you’ve got an open fight between Senate Republicans and the president of the United States.
… If you can, explain that point, the panic that existed, when those statements were being said, and why they were so damaging, and why the fear that this was going to mess up the thing that everybody’s been working towards.
Yeah. So when you have something as divisive as Charlottesville, and the party splits wide open, and there’s open warfare between Senate Republicans who thought this was a real problem, and a President who sort of refused to acknowledge that, there is reason to believe that that kind of split doesn’t repair itself, that it only widens from there. …
… Let’s move to taxes now. … When we look at the pictures of the people on the stairs there at the White House and Trump in the middle, and we hear … such glorification of Trump and thanks to Trump and everything from all the members that are standing there, is it really true that in the Republican Party, which was on the precipice of civil war and destruction, everything is all better?
Well, it’s important to understand the arc, right? This presidency fundamentally changed the moment that Steve Bannon walked out of the White House. When John Kelly got his hands on the wheel [and was named chief of staff], and the kind of respect that he had from the president, the information changed; the structure changed; the communication changed; the reality changed, and the goals became solid. They became something to work for, to have everybody on the same page. You made calls to rank-and-file members with not crazy things that you read in Infowars, but serious questions about where they were on tax reform.
There is no chance that ultimately all of the members of the House and the Senate find themselves in a position of comfortability with tax reform if not for their conversations with the president of the United States. He was an absolutely critical piece of the puzzle. But he worked really collaboratively. …
Everything changes in August. There is no sleeping at the switch. People are engaged. You know what people do. There are clear lines of authority at the White House. They’re working as hard as members of Congress are. And more than anything, they know they have to get to the end. They know they have to accomplish this. There is no hedging bets. This has got to get done.
… Without tax reform, coming on the failure of Obamacare repeal and replace, that would have been a catastrophic message to send the American people, that, “Look, whether you agree or don’t agree with what we’re trying to do here, we can’t get it done anyway.” No chance. They would never have survived a midterm election. The other piece about taxes: Taxes is the tie that binds Susan Collins to Ted Cruz; that there is an ideological span within the Republican Party that agree on one thing, and one thing only, and it’s tax relief. It is why a whole generation of Republicans became Republicans, and this is something that they’ve been working on diligently behind the scenes, but diligently, for 15 to 20 years.
Let me ask you this. Is it just papering over the real problems in the GOP and with Trump? … What effect has it had on what you guys look at, and worry about when it comes to the primaries and it comes to the election?
The president has the capacity to unify the Republican Party as only a president can. The Democratic Party has masked very real divisions for years just by virtue of President Obama being president of the United States. We saw those burst wide open in the primary between [Sen.] Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton. The same thing exists in the Republican Party, only it’s sort of in technicolor, because it’s a governing coalition while it’s happening.
But the president has the ability to put it to rest. He has the ability to say: “These are my folks. We’re going to govern. We’re going to get things done in a way that nobody else does.” And I think what we’ve seen over the last few months is his willingness to begin engaging in a more traditional governing style that includes that.
Now, can it reverse itself at any moment? Absolutely. It absolutely can. But, you know, the goal is to try to keep as many Republicans together as you possibly can entering into a midterm election that, if everything was perfect, it’s still going to be challenging.