CEO, American Crossroads
Steven Law is president and chief executive officer of American Crossroads, a Super PAC that supports Republican candidates. He served in the past as general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as deputy secretary of labor during the Bush administration, and as a trusted aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 25, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
By the summer of 2016, when Donald Trump has beaten the opposition, he’s the presumptive nominee on his way to the convention, he stops by Washington, goes to the RNC in the morning and has lunch with the Senate, the Republican senators [on July 7]. What is the state of the party? …
Well, it’s a fascinating moment for the Republican Party. I think a lot of people in Washington probably assumed that somebody like a [former Florida Governor] Jeb Bush or a [Sen.] Marco Rubio or a [Gov.] Scott Walker would have been our nominee. Certainly, people in Washington would have had a lot of relationships with any of those other contenders for the nomination. And President Trump, or then-[candidate] Trump, was an entirely different commodity, someone who had not spent much time in Washington, certainly hadn’t developed a lot of relationships in this town. So it was a moment of uncertainty. What would this very different kind of leader bring to the party? Where would it take the party? And how would the party work with somebody who, though obviously a Republican and had been mostly a Republican throughout his life, certainly didn’t come from quite the same cloth as everybody else.
Where is the party at this time? There’s been, starting in the summer of ’09, the rise of the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus. It’s in flux at the time. …
Well, one of the things that happens when you don’t have the White House is that a certain amount of entropy typically happens in the party. We’re starting to see that with the Democrats right now. The shutdown votes that happened reveal the fact that the Democrats are now facing an ideological divide within their party, because they don’t have that simple unifying force of the White House. And certainly, post-Bush administration, and then especially after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, there was really a break between what we conventionally call Tea Party Republicans or far-right Republicans and then the more establishment-Republican part of the base.
What I think has happened since President Trump was elected is that some of that is starting to realign and get into a different shape. Most significantly, I think, you see the Freedom Caucus, which had largely been a rough group working in opposition to everything the Republican congressional leadership wanted to do, coming in line, being supportive, because even if they don’t want to be supportive of the speaker of the House, they don’t want to be seen as out of sync with the president of the United States.
So in some ways, President Trump, who many people worried would really split the party ideologically, has kind of helped it cohere together, which is an interesting new place that we find ourselves in.
… When [Trump] comes into the lunch, he at some moment interacts with [Sen.] Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). … Who is Jeff Flake?
He’s a really interesting person in the party. He’s never fit squarely within any particular ideological framework. Some people have thought of him more as a libertarian. In fact, that’s kind of the way he was styled when he was a House member. He’s obviously fairly conservative, though, on social policies. So in that regard, he looks a little bit more like a traditional Republican. But I think of him as someone who kind of keeps his own counsel and marches to the beat of his own drummer. …
Why does he take on Trump at that moment, do you think?
I think one of the aspects of his personality, and we certainly saw this open up in a much more vivid way with the publication of his book, Conscience of a Conservative, I think he views himself as kind of a moral actor. I think he views himself as someone who is a unique keeper of the flame of conservatism, in the same vein as Barry Goldwater. In some ways, I think he sees himself as kind of an heir to his legacy.
It was his view that he was going to stand out, be his own person. And, I think to his credit, there were some people who were vocal opponents of the president all the way up to the election who kind of instantly turned around and, in sort of a self-aggrandizing way, tried to pretend like none of that happened. And I think it’s maybe as much a reflection of Jeff Flake’s kind of personal sense of rectitude that he wasn’t going to play that game. He was against the president. He wasn’t going to hide from the fact, and that he was going to be straightforward about it.
It’s the campaign time. A lot of Republicans, it seems like, are keeping their own counsel, especially elected ones. In some states this is a good thing to have Trump running, and in some states it’s not so good. … Where is [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.) during this time, as Trump is running?
I think one of the strengths that Sen. McConnell has always displayed is, as they say in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you limit your circle of concern to your circle of influence, and Sen. McConnell doesn’t make it a habit to communicate a lot or to talk a lot about issues that don’t directly affect him and that he’s not necessarily in a position to affect. And where Sen. McConnell, I think, charted a course was not to fan into flame a controversy by commenting on it, by trying to take a position on it. That has ended up being a fairly smart play.
And then, every once in a while, if he felt that candidate Trump, as well as President Trump, had said something that sort of crossed a line that was of greater concern, he would speak out about it. Sometimes he’d express that view privately, or sometimes he would even say so on the record.
Was he, could you tell, a Trump man?
Well, I think his view was, it was vitally important that we win the presidential election. I think he saw in President—in then-candidate Trump some things that were encouraging, and maybe above all else a real commitment to strong judicial appointments. One of the things I admire about Sen. McConnell is that he’s focused on the things that matter, and particularly in things that you can actually accomplish. And if you’re sitting in the U.S. Senate, one of the most important duties you can do is to shape the judiciary.
And when he met with Trump, and when he saw things that President Trump, then-candidate Trump, said in the press, it was very clear that he was going to be a constitutionalist. He was going to appoint a very, very conservative, or reasonably conservative, jurist. And to Sen. McConnell, that was the best thing that you could possibly say about somebody you were thinking about for president.
… You didn’t happen to be with McConnell on election night, did you?
I spoke to Leader McConnell on the morning of Election Day. We were both pretty uncertain about the outcome. We kind of believed that the Senate majority was at severe risk. We were not optimistic about how the presidential race was shaping up. And he was concerned. The number one issue in his mind was, what’s going to happen to the Supreme Court? He’s held this vacancy open. It’s sitting there. He had hoped that someone like President Trump, who had good instincts on judicial appointments, would be the one to make the pick, but it looked like it might be Hillary Clinton at the end of the day.
… What’s the fear of Trump in the hearts [of congressional Republican leaders] as the administration is underway?
Well, first of all, President Trump comes to town without having spent much time at all in Washington, D.C. He’s been a political observer, a political commentator. He has the flair of a showman. And obviously, he’s said and done things during both the primary and the general election that are out of sync with the Washington style and the Washington conventions. I think the concern would be multiple things, that is this somebody who is going to continue in kind of a rambunctious style? Is this somebody who’s going to take any potential direction from the Hill, work closely with the Hill, chart his own course?
There are some instances, for example, on trade, where President Trump is a little bit different from conventional Republican orthodoxy, going all the way back to Ronald Reagan. So I think there was a lot of concerns about how is this relationship going to work with someone who is, as they say, sui generis? We’ve never seen anybody quite like him. And how is this experiment going to work?
And in the “American carnage” inaugural address, with everybody sitting behind him, we’ve talked to people who said they think the plan, at one time, was that he would turn around and point these people out and say, “I’m draining the swamp, and you’re on your way out if you don’t play ball.” That was a pretty intense beginning.
From my own perspective, I thought tonally he was a little tough for the moment. Typically, inaugural addresses are hopeful, optimistic, embracing the best of the country. And, you know, President Trump did hit some of those notes. But it was a darker vision than you typically hear in an initial speech. And it’s interesting, because if you look at—if you would kind of chart the path of a lot of everything that President Trump has said in similar occasions since then, it has been a much more affirming, positive, optimistic tonality. So that was kind of an interesting note to sound.
And then, as you point out, the other part that was probably tough for a lot of official Washington to swallow was that it was not merely a fairly negative view of the state of America, but it was somewhat of an indictment of the entire political culture, which included not just Democrats, but a lot of Republicans as well.
They’re sitting right behind him.
… It’s Obamacare, the assault on Obamacare, almost right away. … We don’t need to spend a lot of time with the House’s side of that, but I would like to talk to you about the Senate side in a minute. But give me a sense of what the risks were and the imperatives were of starting with Obamacare.
Any time you touch on health care, which is one-seventh of the nation’s economy, and obviously something that’s very near and dear to most people’s hearts, it’s a complex and deeply personal issue that you’re engaging on. It’s something that invariably has impacts on people’s real lives. I think Democrats and President Obama found this out when they passed Obamacare. And they found out, as [then-Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) famously said, when we pass it, you’re going to find out what’s in it. And people were alarmed by it.
The other thing that happens, too, is when you pass legislation on something that matters personally to people, they blame you for every problem that they encounter with that, whether or not the legislation you passed was part of it. So there was a huge amount of risk on dealing with the deeply personal, somewhat controversial and complex issue.
Then you add to that the fact that when you pull back elements of Obamacare, there’s certain things that are beneficial, but people also lose certain things, and I think there wasn’t a serious reckoning, up to that moment, of what the consequences were for repealing Obamacare, in particular what the details of the replacement plan would look like, and that became a controversial issue. It became ideologically tinged, and before we knew it, we were in kind of a trench warfare within our own caucuses in the House and Senate about how to fix the issue.
And that was the risk, I think more than anything else, of tackling an issue like that, that is really complex and has all sorts of potential to mix things up and mess things up for people once you start to touch it.
As Trump famously said, it’s complicated.
Yes, I think we all found that out. And in President Trump’s defense, he wasn’t the only person who found it to be more complicated than they expected. I think Republicans on Capitol Hill had kind of lulled themselves into a sense of how easy this is. We’ve had—I don’t even remember—maybe two or three dozen votes to repeal Obamacare. It’s the easiest thing in the world. But there had been no serious reckoning with what the consequences of that were, because up to that moment, until it was President Trump in the Oval Office, every one of those measures was going to be subject to a veto by President Obama. So when the real work got done, I don’t think anybody was prepared. Not just the president, but neither were Republicans in Congress.
And in some ways, I think, Trump was surprised. … The stumbling block becomes the Freedom Caucus, which he thinks of as having an affinity with his base and him.
That was a fascinating moment, and it touches on the point I’ve made earlier. What’s interesting is when you have the president of your own party in the White House, and especially if they’re a powerful political force—and President Trump is undeniably that within the Republican Party—you can get your way, and you can start to unify the party behind what you want to do. And factions that had developed in the Republican Party prior to 2016 have had to coalesce. You have a few outliers. But for the most part, there’s a lot greater unity in the party because there’s one single direction, and there’s somebody who’s leading the party who has fairly substantial command of that Republican voting base.
… If you’re Leader McConnell, and you’re a man of few words, keep your own counsel and know how to pull the levers, know who is who, [have] a complicated group to take care of and keep happy, what do you do [when a bill is passed in the House and comes to the Senate]? Americans are unhappy, seem to be unhappy with this. The Tea Party has worked with [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.), and they’ve written something. The president calls it “mean.” He’s breathing down their neck. He wants something. … What does he do?
Well, there are couple of things that I think have distinguished Leader McConnell’s operation, his approach to the job, and I’ve seen not just his leadership, but past Senate Republican leaders and Democratic leaders. I think there are two things that distinguish a successful leader. One is you listen to your caucus very carefully and closely, and you work it member by member by member. … The second thing is, you have to have a defined and clear strategy that you stick to. And those have always been the twin ingredients in how Leader McConnell has approached issues, regardless of the subject, including the shutdown, but also in the Obamacare fight. So I think his approach was to identify the different individual members and pockets of members who have different views on what should be done on Obamacare, and I think he engaged each of them. He also empowered the relevant committee chairs and other people of influence in the caucus to get them to start trying to figure out, “Let’s map out where our caucus is and figure out what is an achievable result on this.” And I think that’s how they went about it.
…The famous night when [Sen. John] McCain (R-Ariz.) walks out and does the thumbs-down moment, they all know it’s going to be real close. The president has called McCain. They’ve pulled him off the floor. He’s talked to him. He’s walked back in. When you saw that, what were your thoughts? What was going through your head about where the Republicans were at that moment?
I think it shocked a lot of people. Obviously, Sen. McCain being a senator, has the right to take a position on any issue that he wants. That’s the prerogative, especially of being a senator. But I think a lot of people in the party, I think Leader McConnell, I think a lot of us were quite surprised that he did that, and many of us remember he came back to cast, a lot of people thought, a really kind of heroic return to cast a vote so that we could proceed to the bill, and then cast a very different vote to block the progress of it.
I think a lot of us were stunned. And … I’m thinking about the midterm elections; I’m thinking about our candidates. My view was, there was going to be hell to pay for our party, and all the nuance we can throw up to try to explain it will not matter much. Our base is going to be angry and upset, and there will be consequences.
The president was not very happy either.
No, he’s not.
How does he react?
Well, he, of course, lashes out. He assigns blame. He fixes blame to the Senate, and in particular to the Senate leader. I think from President Trump’s experience and perspective, that fits. I mean, here is a guy who has long run a business; the buck stops with the CEO. If he’s dealing with contractors and they’re late on an assignment, or the work is shoddy, they’re the people he holds accountable. And, you know, now he’s dealing with a situation in Washington, D.C., where it’s kind of a soup. Blame is diffused. Responsibility is kind of all over the place. Things happen that are unpredictable.
… There’s this telephone call filled with bad words, back and forth, between the two. We’ve talked to people who say they’ve never heard of such a thing at such a level of anger between the speaker—I mean, between the majority leader of the Senate and the president of the United States. You know McConnell well enough. Seem uncharacteristic to you that, if the reports are true, that they were that intense with each other, uncharacteristic? …
Well, at least on Sen. McConnell’s side, I’ve known him for decades, and I’ve never once heard him raise his voice in any instance ever. I’ve seen him angry, justifiably so at times, but he expresses that in a constructive way, a forceful way, but would never raise his voice or use profanity to drive a point home.
By all accounts, this president is a passionate man. He’s vocal; he’s verbally intense. And I would say that if you look at the course of his discussions with a wide variety of people, he’s had those kinds of conversations with others, not just with Leader McConnell, but even with members of his own Cabinet. So I think in some ways, at least the president’s conduct of that call—I wasn’t on it; I’m not personally familiar with the particulars of it—but his part on that was not inconsistent with how he’s expressed displeasure in other settings.
… It is around this time Trump is up in Bedminster, [N.J., at the Trump National Golf Club], “fire and fury” gets said; all kinds of things were happening. As we watch it, it looks like he’s walking away from the legislative process in some way, and now he heads for the next couple of months into the land of cultural identity. The NFL thing will get mentioned; Charlottesville is looming. …But along the way, especially the Charlottesville stuff, guys like Flake and [Sen. Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.) and a handful of what used to be called, or maybe are still called, the establishment Republican senators make statements about it. … From where you sit, from what you worry about, how important was what was going on with Charlottesville to this president and to the Republican Party at that moment?
A couple things. First of all, just going back a couple frames, I think it’s exactly right that at that particular moment after the collapse of the effort to repeal Obamacare, the president was profoundly frustrated with, and essentially took a step back from, the legislative process. In that regard, I’m actually very sympathetic with him. I mean, even somebody who’s been around this town for 30 years, it is frustrating to work in this town. The pace of change is glacial. All sorts of things happen that complicate things that you don’t like. And even if you’ve been around it a long time, you could bang your head against the wall, and I’m sure for President Trump, it was mystifying and upsetting.
I don’t know whether there was any kind of deliberate effort to move away from legislation to more cultural issues, but the one thing that I do see in the president, and not just with him, but with many presidents, including President Obama, that when the times get tough and they’re disappointing, you kind of go back to your base, and you reconnect with the people who are your people, the people who elected you, and you just sort of feel more comfortable in that environment. President Obama did that. Certainly Bill Clinton did that in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky revelations. So in some ways, you just take a step away from Washington, get back to your roots, as it were.
And that’s not entirely a bad thing. However, some of the manifestations of that, particularly with respect to Charlottesville, did create significant problems, a lot of conflict and concern within the party as well.
So Flake was right to worry about the stain?
No. I’ve always felt that President Trump is such a uniquely groundbreaking, iconoclastic personality and historical figure that in a lot of ways, he transcends party affiliation. I mean, he is a Republican. He’s made his home in the Republican Party, and the Republican Party has now embraced him. But I think people view President Trump as a person unto himself and the party as something else, not separate from him but not defined by him nor defining him.
So instances like Charlottesville, where I think he led out and kind of got himself caught up rhetorically, I don’t think that necessarily washes back on the party. Nor, obviously, have all of the party’s orthodoxies or ways of operation completely bound him up either. He’s kind of his own man, so I think some of the viewpoint expressed by people like Sen. Flake, that somehow whatever Donald Trump is and does will define the Republican Party forever, I’m not sure that’s the case. In some ways, he may actually help us, particularly with certain segments of the electorate that we’re not reaching and have not for a while. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever baggage he acquires is ours to carry as well.
… [Following the Flake episode, Trump is criticized by Republican Sen. Bob Corker]. There’s a tweet fest, no-holds-barred cage match between these two guys in The New York Times one morning. What do you make of that?
… The thing you have to keep in mind with Sen. Corker is this is someone who’s already decided to retire, and one thing that people often observe is that folks find a great deal more conviction and courage once they’ve decided they’re going to leave the place. Sen. Corker is a tremendously principled guy, but I think he decided to set the record straight and go out his own person. And things that he kind of kept pent up, that he had been thinking, he just sort of gave full vent to and decided to express himself. And that obviously—this president doesn’t leave tweets unanswered, so that couldn’t help but expect it would result in that kind of a fiery contest.
In your 30 years of observing it all, and you’ve seen some pretty nutty stuff I would imagine—we all have—the idea of the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee talking about “adult day care” at the White House, back and forth in such a food fight with the president of the United States, at such a level, is astonishing. …
It’s really unusual to see two grown men in very important and substantive positions of the same party hurling this kind of level of insult back at each other. I remember, at the time, there was some view that Sen. Corker had also kind of acted not only out of sync with his usual personality, but unhelpfully. So I don’t think, you know, like a lot of fights, there’s some blame on both sides. And most people feel like, in that particular instance, neither one acted at the level that you’d ordinarily expect of people of real responsibility and maturity.
How are Republicans handling it? …
Well, there’s a little bit of the Star Wars bar fight scenario, where people observe the conflict, kind of look the other way, and then get back to their drinks as if nothing happened. But it is disconcerting, and it doesn’t go away just because we’ve been at it for a while now and we’ve seen a certain amount of this. But I think there’s also recognition that, you know, there’s simply no quarter in continuing the fight. That’s generally true in life, and I think it’s generally true with this president; that there are certain instances where it makes sense to speak up, hopefully in a constructive way. But, you know, to take on every tweet, to take on every utterance, every slight, is almost certainly not going to be something that is helpful or productive.
He loves to say that he’s a fighter and he doubles down. … You’re a fighter; you do it.
And I would say that’s another thing where I think it’s two different cultures clashing. You know, if you’re in New York, someone insults you, you let them know that they’re not going to be able to get away with that, and you don’t show weakness. It’s especially true in the high-stakes world of real estate development, where you’re dealing with a lot of big personalities and brash operators.
Here in Washington—and I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing about Washington—you can go down to the Senate floor, you can rip the hide off of your political opponent, and then you can get together afterward and act like nothing happened. … I think it’s this president who comes from a very different perspective, where if you say something against me, I’m going to say something against you. In the Washington scenario, it’s like: “Oh, it’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” That’s also not a great thing either, and neither of those two cultures can figure each other out very well.
… Flake leaving the United States Senate not staying to fight, not running for re-election? A lot of criticism with him for just going in, saying the words and then walking away.
Well, first of all, I admire Sen. Flake a lot. I’ve gotten to work alongside of him on a few issues and gotten to know him on a personal level. I mean, he really is a person of real sincere conviction. He has a strong moral compass that comes from his Mormon faith, and I think he feels these things deeply. I don’t think he’s simply posing for the cameras and trying to aggrandize himself in some way.
But at the same time, I think his perspective is unique. I don’t know that everybody in the caucus has the same view about how to best react to this presidency and things with which we may disagree. But I do think he came to a view, at some point, that where he was politically, and not just in terms of his poll numbers, but how he felt he needed to speak and the positions he needed to take were essentially at odds with being able to successfully prosecute a case for re-election.
And I think that’s a lot of what went into it. It’s not that he was unpopular, not that he couldn’t find a way to run a good race, but to do so, he would no longer be true to the things that he felt deeply as a matter of personal conviction, and you can’t fault that.
… Corker, an establishment moderate Republican senator leaving, Flake leaving, a lot of people starting to filter out of the Congress, out of the House of Representatives, it feels like attrition, just natural attrition and other things are starting to take place in Donald Trump’s Washington. … From your perch, what’s happening to the soul of the party, the establishment-Republican side of the party?
The establishment side of the Republican Party and the soul of it: That’s a little harder to opine on. Look, I think from the moment that Donald Trump became our party’s nominee, I think there was a recognition in mainstream Republican circles, which isn’t just a solid core establishment but conservative Republicans in all stripes, that this was going to be a very different kind of presidential nominee and, if elected, a very different kind of president. This was somebody who didn’t come up the usual way, through a governorship and going to Republican Governors Association meetings and knowing a lot of members of Congress. This is somebody who was going to keep his own counsel and have his own style, which is not a typical Republican style.
Most Republicans, they’re kind of smooth, and they kind of carefully are cautious about what they say, and this is somebody who paints in bright and vivid colors, and a lot of ways, stylistically, he’s a lot like a lot of Democrats. I think there was an uncertainty about how this marriage was going to work, and I think it was a process that the party went through, all through 2017, in trying to figure out how to work together.
I think the famous phone call in August between Leader McConnell and President Trump was kind of a crisis point in that, where this conflict of culture, as much as anything else, kind of came to a head. I really think the way you’ve seen since then, slowly but surely, has been a recognition that there is, if nothing else, a commonality of interest. There may be an absolute difference in style, some difference in goals, but a really strong commonality of interest that ought to get us to work more together and to be constructive.
I think the balance of 2017 really headed in that direction, and looking at sort of the soul of the establishment or, you know, kind of mainstream Republicans and what people were thinking, going into the fall, there was a recognition that, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, if we don’t hang together, we’re almost assuredly going to hang separately. If we don’t find a way to work together on issues of obvious shared interest, we’re going to have a terrible midterm election. We could very easily lose control not only of Congress, but of even any ability to make this presidency a success, and it’s time to find ways to work together.
[… After the passage of the tax break, is the GOP civil war still burning, or is the party coming together?] Which is it, wallpaper, or the breach has really been healed and things are better now because of the tax break?
I think the party is starting to align in a more unified way behind this president, and not necessarily behind every aspect of his persona or the way that he communicates, but certainly behind an agenda that is starting to take shape. Someone in politics once said that nothing succeeds like success. You get a win, the win feels good. You’d like to have more of those.
… The Republican Party has been in a wilderness called the Obamacare presidency for a long time, and when you start to realize that, if you can work together, you can have a victory like tax reform, and feel like you’ve done something worthwhile, it starts to engender a desire for more cooperation. I think it’s striking that there’s been a lot more cooperation between the House leadership and the Freedom Caucus. I never would have believed that could have happened, but I think it’s finally starting to evolve.
I also know that there’s a lot more direct communication between Leader McConnell and the president going through things, figuring out, you know, what are our priorities? How do we handle these different things? …
I think when you have somebody in the White House who is able to provide a unifying rallying point in terms of policy, it starts to bring people together. Regardless of whether people love and admire that person, but as long as they have a general sense that this policy direction is going to lead to success, people often get onboard.