Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, where she covers congressional and presidential politics.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Dec. 21, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me who Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is and what he owns in the legislative process that night of Donald Trump’s election. …
So here is Paul Ryan. He’s the speaker of the House, a job that he didn’t want, but now he is, at the moment, the head of the Republican Party, at least until a president becomes elected. It is his job to try and get this party back on track. And for him, that election night was such a Greek drama because he had spent over a year and a half pushing back against Donald Trump, rejecting what he thought Donald Trump stood for.
Paul Ryan is a man, above all, who is a Midwesterner. He is a man who believes in manners; he believes in values; he carries himself that way. And in that way, he and those around him saw Donald Trump as the exact opposite, not what they wanted for the party. But on the other hand, to get through his lifetime dream of a giant tax overhaul, they needed a Republican president in office.
So here he’s getting something he’s wanted his entire career, potentially, on a plate from voters. He can’t believe it. It’s a surprise that they might have a Republican president. But it’s the precise person that he does not want in the job. It was a very difficult night for a lot of Republican leaders and their staff members in Congress. I had many conversations, many emails, from Republican staffers that night just saying, “Hooray?” And I think that reflected it. …
There’s obviously a lot of history between Ryan and Trump. There was a real mindset for especially House Republicans, but Senate Republicans a little bit, too. There was a real mindset for congressional Republicans. They told themselves that the Trump presidency was going to be OK because they thought that Trump would rely on them for policy. They said: “Here’s a man who wants the microphone. He wants the camera. We’re happy to give it to him just as long as behind the scenes, he has to rely on us and trust us for exactly what we do.” They got that sometimes, but they often did not get that.
… Take me to Mitch McConnell. Who is he? What is he thinking as he’s watching this unfold that night?
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is someone who worked his whole life to be the majority leader of the Senate. He is a former prosecutor. He is someone who was also a local elected official for a long time. But at this point, he had been in the Senate for 40 years. This was his life; this was his world. And he’s someone who has loved the Senate since he left college. He believed in this organization.
And he sees coming up the pike just about to be president this character who wants to demolish institutions in Donald Trump. And that’s a difficult moment for someone like Mitch McConnell. Many around Mitch McConnell were telling me: “Listen, McConnell is someone who’s a pragmatist in the end. He’s someone who knows how to get things done, and we will do whatever we have to do to work with this president.” On the other hand, there was a real sense, not just from McConnell but from the Republican leaders who had been in the Senate a long time, that here is a man who has no idea how Congress works, and certainly not the Senate. This is an institution we’ve worked hard to preserve against some very difficult wins in the last couple of years.
And that was scary for them. I think they assumed that the president would defer to them when it came to some key values of the Senate, but they weren’t sure.
… What’s the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate Republicans?
Over the past few years, no question the House of Representatives has become more conservative, and there has been a real divide for Republicans between their moderates and kind of pragmatists, people who thought of themselves as Reagan conservatives, and sort of this new breed of Freedom Caucus, Tea Party, firebrands. It’s a divide that I think runs maybe not so much to what Republicans stand for, but more to how they get things done. It’s more style in some ways than substance. But that’s affected the substance, because what you have is a small group of renegades—they love calling themselves “renegades”—the Freedom Caucus in the House, who purposely keep their number to just the right amount so that they can block any bill on their own. They don’t want many more members than that, they’re invitation only, but they want to make sure they have just enough votes so that they can stop anything from passing on their own.
The Freedom Caucus is actually one of the least experienced groups in governing in the House. They have fewer years in office of any other Republican important group, but they say that’s how they want it. They think there needs to be more fresh blood in Congress and that they represent a perspective that the rest of Congress has lost and forgotten about.
Others say they’re the problem, that they don’t know what they’re doing, that they haven’t successfully been able to really achieve any of their objectives, maybe with the exception of the tax overhaul. But there is a real issue here, I think, of people who are institutionalists and who have devoted their lives to governing and those who are outsiders and are saying, “The institution is the problem.” And that’s the divide within the Republican Party.
So that when Donald Trump comes to the Hilton Hotel [on election night] and walks across that stage, what are the various sides and the two kingpins thinking as they watch him walk across that stage?
That’s right. As Donald Trump walks across that stage, Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are thinking, first of all, we can get some things passed; we have the presidential pen now. But then they’re also thinking, how do we keep this president in check, because that’s also our job?
… What are they worried about him? What is the worry about Donald Trump that they want to feel satisfied that it’s going to be OK? …
I think as President Trump moved into the White House, there was a lot of concern from Republicans in Congress about him making very rash decisions without informing them, not just tweets, but that included things that he would say on Twitter that they knew would reflect upon the whole Republican Party. From the Donald Trump perspective, that was great. Voters got him in there to shake things up and he thought, and those around him thought, that improves the Republican Party. But for Republicans on Capitol Hill, people he would consider the establishment, that was a nightmare. They wanted to project themselves as professional and able to govern. Their greatest fear as he stepped into that Oval Office was that he would make it harder to govern precisely because he wanted to bring down these institutions.
And they had a very difficult dance in trying to figure out how to do that. There was a long period of time where they were trying to sort out who was the best partner, if you will, at the White House for them to work with. Was it Mike Pence, the vice president, who I think throughout Congress has [been] relied on as sort of a backup and to try and keep things more or less more in balance?
But on the other hand, who is it that President Trump could talk to in the Senate? It wasn’t Mitch McConnell. Who could he talk to in the House? It wasn’t Paul Ryan, who was one of the loudest voices objecting to many of the things President Trump said. So in comes the number two in the House, Kevin McCarthy of California. He starts to create a rapport with the president. He’s more laid back than Paul Ryan, and he sort of has more of a business kind of approach to how things go. He’s also a number two so he knows how to treat the CEO in charge. That seemed to work out for a while.
In the Senate, there was a constant circle of who was the most in favor with the president among the Senate Republicans. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Finance Committee, was an early favorite. But on the other hand, those conversations that Hatch and Trump had very frequently, it’s hard to say that they brought about any real changes. They seemed to have a personal connection, but it didn’t seem to help Senate Republicans move their agenda.
… When you were standing around in the White House in those earliest days, [Press Secretary] Sean Spicer is brand-new, and they’re arguing about the size of the inaugural crowd and all of that. How chaotic were things? …
It was wild. It was very wild. The White House Press Room, first of all, in the wintertime is itself a cold place, so it was a sort of cold atmosphere. It’s not really well heated. There’s a door that opens and closes, and I remember a lot of rain during that time. So the room itself sort of had an odd atmosphere to it. It was a cold room, people coming and going. And to get to where the Trump communications staff is, you open kind of a sliding door that’s behind the podium, and I would go back there regularly when I was up there and ask basic questions, and people had a really hard time figuring out even sometimes who I should be talking to.
I will say they were always courteous. They were really trying. The group, this is sort of the junior press staff. But in the private conversations I would have off record with some staffers, they would say: “Listen, were getting it together. We really don’t know. We’re not clear where direction is coming from.” And part of that is the startup for any president. You know, it’s hard to get your staff in place. …
So health care gets rolling. Ryan writes a bill and out it goes. And Trump is—
Trump is going to make it happen. In his mind, we’re going to do this great thing. We’re going to repeal and replace—probably replace—Obamacare. And that was part of the problem. He comes out; it wasn’t clear. Is this a repeal? Is it repeal and replace? President Trump himself gave some confusing messages on that, and they weren’t unified from the start.
… How would you assess how Ryan and Trump in their interactions and division of labor, the salesman versus the product, how do you think they divided it up? How do you think they felt about each other? …
There was very real friction between Ryan and President Trump. But on the other hand, both of these men knew that they needed each other. At the time, I remember hearing from some Ryan aides; they kept stressing, “He was on the phone with the president just yesterday.” They had a series of phone calls where they were trying to connect with each other, at least on the basics. And more importantly, they were trying to signal to the press that they were getting along.
Well, I’m not so clear that they were getting along yet, but perhaps practice makes perfect and they found a way to work with each other, more or less, at least as the health care bill was growing. But they both had very different ways of going about it. Ryan wanted his members, especially the committee chairmen involved, to sort out the bill themselves. He wanted them to figure out what was going to be in it, and then he would take it to the president.
The president, who didn’t want to be too involved in the details, didn’t want to be involved so that he could make big decisions in some way, and working that out was difficult. When to read in the president, how to read in the president, became tricky. And you saw that become very tricky when they presented their first take of the bill and President Trump said, “If this fails, we’re not talking about health care again.” He put an ultimatum on the board that’s something you wouldn’t have seen in public from a congressional leader like Paul Ryan.
And they called his bluff; it did fail. And those who didn’t like the bill said, “All right, we are ready to walk away from health care because we don’t like this bill so much.” The Freedom Caucus said, “Fine, no health care; we’ll move on.” But of course the ultimatum was a bluff, and they did come back.
Standing on the bridge. I love the metaphor, but it’s not going to last very long. Trump’s doing his thing, Ryan’s doing his thing and they kind of forget, I guess, the politics of the Freedom Caucus, which is sitting there saying, “Wait a minute. You can’t tell us just what you want to do. It’s not going to be that easy.”
Right, so here you have Paul Ryan, who has wanted to repeat Obamacare since it was put in place, and moreover all of his voters have told him, “You need to do this.” And he’s trying to figure out a normal congressional way of doing this, rational way. But then you have the Freedom Caucus, which is made up of people like Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is a champion wrestler from college. And their whole purpose is to push the party as far as they can toward their end, the conservative end. And they’re OK with shutting down government, they’re OK with setting a bill on fire and throwing it out the window. That’s not how Paul Ryan operates. But the Freedom Caucus has enough members to completely block this bill. And they start calling it Obamacare light, and in the end, Paul Ryan hadn’t massaged that enough to bring them on board. But to be fair to Paul Ryan, he’s got three or four different groups he’s got to appeal to. And if you change one thing for one group, then you’re going to lose votes in another. It’s a very difficult riddle he’s trying to answer in dealing with this Republican caucus. And it’s one that other speakers obviously have failed to answer, like John Boehner. It’s why he left.
So after that ultimatum, Trump says, “I want a vote, and I want it now.”
Yeah, I remember that night. It was wild, yeah.
There was a House Republican Conference meeting, and those conference meetings are fascinating. I wish everyone could go to them. They’re in the basement of the Capitol. Part of it is lovely with this beautiful, bright blue carpet that the House members walk along to go to their meeting. But to get to that nice area, they pass through this subterranean passage where overhead are these pipes and heating valves and all this wild stuff. And that’s where the press waits, so that’s where we talk to them.
So here were all these Republicans sort of walking through this subterranean passage to this big conference committee where they’re going to be told, “You have to vote for this or else.” And I remember very distinctly that night those who loved the bill [had] no problem stopping to talk to us in this crowded, underground hallway. But those who were on the fence, and members of the Freedom Caucus at the moment, avoided us for that moment. It was difficult because it was a crowded underground hallway, and they had to kind of scoot around us and get inside.
The meeting starts, and we were waiting for people to come out. There are two exits to this meeting, and I went to the back exit figuring this was a night when people would use the back exit. And I was right. Chris Collins of New York comes out, and he’s one of the staunchest Trump allies in the House Republican Conference. He comes out, he says: “It’s a big night. We’re going to get our bill. The president just told them, ‘You have to pass this, or we’re moving on from health care,’ and we’re going to pass it.” He’s so emphatic, so full of victory in every syllable he uttered.
But then if you walked around to the other end, and you talked to [Rep.] Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) or [Rep.] Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), if you could catch up with them on the way out, you could tell they still had serious problems with this bill. They still felt like it was keeping too much of the Affordable Care Act in place. They were not sure they were going to vote for it. And it was a moment where I felt there was a real miscalculation here. There was a real lack of understanding of what the Republican Party and Congress was.
What do you mean?
Well, there was a real lack of understanding over how to maneuver this kind of fleet of boats that was tied together. You know, you can move a few ships, but some of them might still be anchored, and that’s going to bring the whole fleet back. And that’s what happened that night. Remember, as the Freedom Caucus was meeting in the House Rayburn Office to determine if they were going to vote for this first version of the health care bill or not, I have never seen so many reporters in the hallways of Congress, ever. There were people I’ve never seen before, some of them just out of college. News organizations were just sending everyone up there, you know.
It was so wild that I remember people were almost injured trying to get to members of the Freedom Caucus. At one point, I think it was Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) had come down the hall, and I saw him first. I ran up to him, and as soon as I do, there’s a giant crowd comes around, and then there’s cameras. It was so many cameras at this moment, this very decisive moment, and so many reporters that I had to yell, “Everybody stop!,” because we were about to fall down onto the congressman.
But the pressure was so massive, and this was the atmosphere that the Freedom Caucus was in. They knew the spotlight was theirs. They knew the decision was theirs on the health care bill, even though they only represented 30-some votes out of the entire Republican Conference. They still—they were owning the spotlight. That’s where all the reporters were, and that’s where people knew the action was.
And for Trump and Ryan, what is happening before their eyes there? What does it mean to them?
Well, I think for Ryan, it was a real pickle. He saw this promise they made to repeal this bill slipping away. And I remember that news conference when he came and talked to us after they pulled the bill. He’s generally a happy-warrior type of guy. You could tell he was crestfallen. The light was not in his eyes that’s usually there. He’s got that kind of Irish glint—he’s got Irish ancestry—and it wasn’t there. I remember Dana Bash from CNN asked, “What do you say to all these people that you made this promise to?,” and he said, “Yeah, that’s the right question.” And in the end, you could tell he was grappling with that question, too.
So that’s the day that he goes to Trump and says, “We’ve got to pull the bill.” Is that right? That’s the Friday?
Yeah, that’s right. That’s the day, exactly. This was after that, yeah. He told the president, “We don’t have the support; it’s not going to happen.” There was a question of whether do they make the members walk the planks, as we say in Congress? Do they make them take the vote and let it fail in public so they can point fingers and say, “Here’s why it failed”? But Paul Ryan didn’t want to do that for a number of reasons. I think it was, first of all, early in this Republican governance. You don’t want such a public loss. And also, he didn’t want to have to put members in that position. He was thinking ahead, and he was thinking of other issues ahead. He didn’t see the gain.
But Trump did?
Yeah, Trump did. Trump wanted to put on record who it was that had defeated this bill. But in the end, Paul Ryan won that fight, and, of course, that’s his job. He gets to decide what they vote on.
… So it gets passed, finally.
Yeah, finally, the second version, yeah. They get back to it. Surprise! Only lost five months—no big deal.
But there’s this garden party in the Rose Garden where the president has them all down [to celebrate the House passage of the bill]. …There’s so many more, as you know, twists and turns that follow a piece of legislation.
I could not believe that. You know, I’ve covered Congress and Washington for a while, and all of us were sitting at the Capitol; we’re reporting on the bill having passed, and we just can’t believe that they’re going to the White House to have a giant victory celebration. I mean, it’s certainly something in their purview, but none of us had ever seen anything like that before. And all of us knew that the Senate was not remotely a foregone conclusion, that this was getting way ahead of things.
But there was a real sense—and this was just among the press corps—that the House Republicans had to do it because Trump wanted to have a big victory party. They all knew they had problems ahead, but they were going to pretend for the moment that everything was great, that they were on the way to a major legislative victory. And a lot of them knew that that might not be the case. It was wild; it was crazy. I remember watching it. We were all just sort of like our jaws open, like wow. And it really, honestly, felt a little bit like a jinx as well, you know? Washington’s not the most superstitious place on earth, but there were a lot of people who later said, “We shouldn’t have done that.”
… [On the Senate side, Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) no vote defeated the health care bill.] So tell me the McCain moment, the power of it.
Yeah, amazing. Amazing.
The meaning of it and why he did it and what it meant probably to the president of the United States.
It was incredible. Yeah, for weeks, McCain had been seeming agitated about the bill. I spoke to him a lot in the hallways, and he was agitated about the bill. He was agitated at even being asked about it. And he just kept saying two things. He said, “One, I’m waiting to see what my governor thinks, and two, I want regular order,” meaning, “I want a full committee hearing; I want there to be much more discussion, full debate on this bill, and that’s not what we’re getting.”
Now, he never said, “I’m going to oppose the bill.” We weren’t sure if he was signaling strong opposition or if he was just unhappy. But as, of course, came to be that incredibly dramatic night of the Senate vote, we weren’t sure where the chips were going to fall exactly. We thought Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) were probably nos, but it wasn’t entirely clear. And I remember standing in the balcony of the Senate chamber and looking over, and I had my notebook, and I was jotting down where everyone was on the Senate floor at each minute, minute to minute. …
I remember looking down on the Senate floor, and John McCain makes eye contact with Lisa Murkowski, and he just goes like this. And I remember just myself and another reporter saw it, and we both said, “Did you see that?” And of course we had to stop and say” “Well, maybe it was about something else. Maybe it wasn’t he’s voting no.” But we were quickly jotting down notes and watching everything. And sure enough, soon after, you saw John Cornyn (R-Texas) starting to pace, the number two Republican in the Senate. You saw [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) looking more and more unhappy. His arms were closed. And you could tell from the body language on the Republican side that they were very worried.
You could also tell from the body language on the Democratic side that sort of hope was springing eternal. Perhaps Obamacare would live. And Democrats started coalescing. More of them sort of standing up, and you could see them looking over, leaning over to try to see John McCain, see what he was doing.
And then, of course, finally we waited. We waited, and McCain walks up and gives his official no vote, and that’s when you saw glee on the Democratic side, and on the Republican side, just kind of nothing when he walked back. It was an unbelievable moment.
Did you look at Mitch’s face?
I did. You know, his face changed throughout that rough hour and a half. There were times when you could see him just look intensely disappointed, frustrated. There were other times where he has a very good poker face, and that was the face I saw mostly that night. … You could also see that when he stood up after the vote failed and spoke, and you could almost hear. It’s rare for Mitch McConnell to kind of indicate emotion in his voice, but I heard it that night when he spoke.
… What were the stakes for him right there at that time, at that moment?
The stakes were monumental. In order to keep control of the Senate, he at that moment thought he needed to pass that bill, that health care bill. In fact, he had hoped to increase his numbers in the Senate in the next election because the map is favorable to Republicans. But if Republicans could not show that they could govern, no one more than Mitch McConnell felt that was a potential disaster for them in 2018. He went into 2017 thinking, we have got to pass these bills, because in the end we have got to prove to voters that we can govern. So for that night, I think he felt his 2018 vision potentially crashing down.
And we know what Donald Trump thought. He has this device that he types his responses to things on.
The Twitter, right, yes.
And the world learns it fairly quickly.
Right. I mean, Donald Trump immediately tweets out, “John McCain, you let down Arizona.” It was not hard for him because he had a long-running feud with Sen. McCain. For McCain to be the villain in that moment for Donald Trump was almost kind of a perfect play for him.
It’s easy for him. It was Shakespearean. It was Shakespearean. These are two men who represented completely different approaches. And as John McCain said himself, they had different upbringings, different backgrounds. They were almost destined to kind of be these two forces from roughly the same generation that would be pitted against each other.
… The tweets he sends about Mr. McConnell at that moment—pretty intense. It’s like war. Here we come; do you want to fight? Boom.
… These were intensely personal attacks he was making on Mitch McConnell, who was the much-needed leader of the Republicans in the Senate. That is really historic drama that there’s almost no modern reference for, for these two men who were the key leaders in their party to have such personal animosity in such a public way. Unbelievable. But Donald Trump was putting all of his regret, all of his anger, all of his frustration with his press coverage, he was focusing it at that moment on Mitch McConnell and blaming him.
And he’s at Bedminster, the golf club [in New Jersey], and as the tweet storm continues, and so do things like “fire and fury” and all the other things he’s saying, it’s like you could do a whip around, which is what we’ll do, of all the things he says, all the things he does at that moment, and signaling what?
I think at that moment, this was a president who felt he needed to flex a lot of muscle, and even more than that, he was throwing punches. He was throwing punches at leaders within his own party, at leaders of other countries. He was someone who was trying to show, “I have strength, and you’re going to feel it.” Now, did any of them land? Did they end up causing more problems for the president? That’s part of the divide, right? There are many who say—President Trump supporters say: “Yeah, that’s great. That’s what we need. Shake up Washington; throw some punches.”
But there are others, those who have been in Washington a long time, like Mitch McConnell, who have seen people get in these kind of public fights before and who say, “That never helps us govern.”
Well, he gets into a hell of a fight next, which is Charlottesville. What was his response to Charlottesville?
The president had several responses to Charlottesville when you really analyze it. …
We see the president come on air, and I turn up the TV, and there’s the president, I think initially saying what you would expect him to say about any attack and how it’s bad. But then I kept listening and I heard him say, “Well, essentially the protesters aren’t blameless either.” …
So here’s the president kind of blaming both sides, and a fatal act of terrorism that was caused by one side, and of course there was a firestorm on Twitter initially. The White House did actually try to walk back those comments later and say, “Well, the president certainly does not accept racism; he doesn’t accept white nationalism.” They tried to say he’s being misunderstood here. But then days later, the president speaking for himself again said, “You know, I think both sides are to blame.” And this was the president really putting across, I think, how he sees it, that he thinks the protesters were inciting violence as much as those who were against them, the white nationalists.
So this led to a very serious situation for House Speaker Ryan and Senate Leader McConnell, because they saw this not just in the context of politics, but sort of in the context of our national identity. So you had Mitch McConnell, who is someone who came up during the civil rights struggle, a white person who was a prosecutor fighting for civil rights causes, and he came out with a strong statement immediately saying, “The president was wrong, and this is not what we stand for.” You know, there’s are two very different things.
This was Mitch McConnell who had spent months and months himself trying not to publicly respond to all of the president’s attacks on him. He’d been trying publicly to shrug them off and be the one who was above it. He wasn’t going to add fuel to that fire. But in this case, in Charlottesville, he felt that there was so much wrong in what the president had said that he had to speak out. Of course, I’m not sure that helped relationships any between the two of them.
It’s a very interesting time because also of senators’ critique of the president of the United States, Republican senators, from a party which has been trying to find its footing with him, and knowing how he now reacts to criticism.
It was such a tricky couple of days, because of course my job was to ask every Republican senator: “What do you think? What do you think? Who is to blame here? Do you agree with the president or not? What do you think about white nationalists?” And I remember day one, the Monday after Charlottesville I think, or the Tuesday, whichever their first day was back, the first day back after Charlottesville for the Senate I remember many of them, they hadn’t yet figured out what the right thing was to say. Here were senators saying, “Well, that attack was terrible; we’ve got to take stock as a nation,” that kind of thing. “But do you think the president was right?” They said, “Well, I think the president—” I heard many times that day—“The president has a right to his opinion,” and this was sort of trying to find a middle ground for senators.
But over the next couple of days, as Mitch McConnell and others came out clearly saying, “No, we think the president is wrong,” then you saw more bold stances from Republican senators who were saying, “No, the president is wrong here.” But still in the end, not all of them did come out and specifically oppose the president on this. Some of them still had very generic statements about it.
Trump really doubles down. His response back to, especially the senators, is intense … He flies to Phoenix where he takes down McCain and Flake in a very intense pushback.
It’s true. That was the one, the Arizona rally that had the mistweets about the crowd size as well, that same one?
And it’s also where he says, “I’m thinking of letting Joe Arpaio out.” He’s moved from policy in act one to culture war as we’re noticing through Charlottesville and now down into actual war with his own party.
Well, you know, the president, I think, is more comfortable with conflict. For example, you can watch any press conference that he has. He loves it. He loves kind of in his view fighting with the press. I was at his first press conference with questions. And we thought, oh, is he [taking] two or three questions because we don’t think the White House really wants him out here just kind of answering any question.
No, it went for, what, an hour-and-a-half? He loved it. And I remember the sense, looking at staffers, White House staffers around the room, they loved it, too, because I think everything he was unleashing at the press was stuff that they had been feeling. That he had been pushing onto them for months and months. And here he was releasing this kind of energy, this combative energy that the president has at the press corps and engaging and he loved it.
And I think it was the same thing when he went to Arizona, he wanted to engage and get on the home turf of the two men he saw as his enemies within the party, John McCain and Jeff Flake. He wanted to strike out at them where they live. And it was a classic Trump move. It’s something that senators wouldn’t have done. It’s sort of not considerate. But, that’s not what this president is about. This president is about nakedly pursuing his goals. And if that includes trying to take down an enemy, that’s what he’s going to do.
He comes back to Washington, and what’s happening in Washington is that Bob Corker, the senator from Tennessee, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, has decided he’s not going to run for re-election, and he says some pretty stark things about Trump.
Bob Corker is such a fascinating character in all of this. In 2016, he was on the short list to be vice president. He hosted a rally for President Trump in Tennessee where the two men kind of had a bromance on stage, talked about how great each other were … But then President Trump enters the White House; Bob Corker does not like what he sees. He’s got real problems with how he’s dealing with him, with his fellow Republicans in the Senate. Moreover, as chairman of foreign relations, he sees a real recklessness from President Trump, and he says as much to the press. To me, that moment was Republicans who opposed some things about President Trump trying to figure out how to do it. It’s not enough to just in their own mind think, oh, I’m worried about him here.
This was Bob Corker trying to fight Trump in his own world. Well, here’s a president who’s going to lash out at those he opposes. “I’m going to do the same thing to him.” That’s what Bob Corker was thinking. And it’s not clear that he really achieved as much as he hoped to. He certainly got something off of his chest, but I don’t think it changed the perception of President Trump at all. It did help the media because we knew we publicly, finally, had a senator talking about what they thought in private.
And then there is [Sen.] Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) resignation speech.
… So there was a real question if Jeff Flake was going to be able to make it through his primary. And I remember seeing Jeff Flake, talking to Jeff Flake a lot in the hallways during that time. He’s very polite, so he generally doesn’t brush off the press, but he didn’t want to talk. You could see he was a man who was really wrestling with some things. And we knew that he had serious problems with the president, and there was such an important national conversation at that point that we were looking at senators, to be honest, about what they thought about the president. We kept asking him, and most of the time he would just kind of demur. You could tell he was hungry to talk about it, and he was really wrestling kind of in his soul with how to deal with this president. He had a moral conflict about this president, and that all kind of flowed out of him when he stepped onto the Senate floor and he said: “We have to take a stand. We have to. Those of us who believe this man should not be our leader, that this man, his values, his morals, we need to speak out.”
I don’t think he mentioned President Trump by name in that speech, but it was clear what he was talking about. And he ended that speech, of course, by saying: “I’m leaving the Senate. My part of this fight is over.” And there was a lot of irony there, because he was saying, “We have to stand up to this president,” but yet he himself was sitting down. And that’s a conflict I’m not sure he’s ever fully explained except that he made it clear just a few hours later to reporters that he didn’t think he could win.
… And then down comes a tax bill that everybody seems to be able to support and lots of people can sign, and they all join in together.
They had to support it. They had no choice.
And who votes for it? McCain, Corker, Collins, Murkowski.
Yeah, they all get on board.
Explain this to me, please.
First of all, changing the tax code is more in Republicans’ DNA than reforming health care. This is something that they understand, and it kind of runs through their veins. It goes back to sort of their modern patriarch, Ronald Reagan. So whenever you can invoke Ronald Reagan, Republicans feel better about things, and that’s the case with the tax overhaul. The difference on the tax bill was that every Republican truly did want to get to yes and cut taxes. On health care, there were a lot of Republicans who were not sure that dismantling Obamacare would be better for their states or for their districts. And there were a lot of Republicans who maybe didn’t want to get to yes, that were much harder to get to yes.
Add to that, when the health care bill failed, the truth is it just added pressure for Republicans to pass the tax bill. They were already under pressure to do it, but now absolutely if they couldn’t do this, voters would have no faith in them; voters in their party, voters in the other party, the independents who were deciding things right now, nobody would trust them.
So for their party this was a must-pass bill, and moderates and conservatives alike understood that. Even those like Susan Collins who were uncomfortable with some parts of the bill, like repealing the individual mandate, in the end they got on board, and I think they really did think the future of their party, and for many of them the future of their jobs, was at stake.