Congressman Tom Cole is a Republican from Oklahoma. Cole was first elected to Congress in 2002 and serves a deputy whip for the GOP conference.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 11, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start out with where was the GOP at just at the point that the President Trump is elected?
I think probably it was the most shocking election in modern political history, because most people, including most Republican members of Congress, woke up Tuesday morning, Election Day, expecting that they would lose the election presidentially. We were pretty comfortable we would hang onto our House and Senate majorities, but I think they really thought, all the polling suggested that Secretary [Hillary] Clinton was likely to win.
And then about 8:00 or 9:00, it was like, what? We’re going to win the election? As a matter of fact, it was one of my funniest, favorite stories. After the election, so about a week after, we were gathering here in Washington. We were back for caucus elections, and everybody’s pretty giddy, because it’s been a long time since we had the presidency, the House and the Senate, over a decade. And Speaker [Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) gets up to address the crowd, and the camera—not the camera, but we’re all watching him, and everybody’s in a good mood. …
Everybody burst out laughing, because they knew what he meant. And he recounted a story. He said, “You know about 6:15 election night, I got a detailed analysis from a Republican pollster looking at exit data that said we were going to lose the presidency bad, that the Senate was gone, and we were teetering on the edge of losing our House majority.” So he said, “I felt pretty bad.” And then a couple hours later, the Republican National Committee Data Center called, and they’re pretty good. I used to be chief of staff of the RNC; I have a high opinion of their technical capabilities over there. They told him, “Well, there’s no way that Donald Trump would get more than 230 electoral votes.” And obviously, both were so, even as late as Election Day, I think people were spectacularly surprised.
All of a sudden, when you think you’re going to be playing defense against a new administration, you find you have an unexpected opportunity for offense. I mean, we all knew, even if we controlled the chambers, you know, we put a lot of things on presumably President Clinton’s desk, but they weren’t going to get past a veto. We didn’t have those kind of majorities any more than we did with President Obama.
So to have the opportunity all of a sudden to, if you can get it through, you can make it a law, I think created a really intense sense of excitement. The other thing, though, I’d say, is again, President Trump is a very unorthodox, untraditional politician, and most members did not know him well. Most certainly supported him as the nominee, but you didn’t know exactly what you were going to get. I mean, a pretty good idea when President Bush won. We knew a lot of the people around President Bush very well; he had run on a very specific agenda, and again, we’d watched him govern as a governor. We obviously, many—many folks knew his father, President Bush, so you had a much more—and even when Ronald Reagan won, again, he hadn’t been president, but he had been a governor for eight years. He was widely known in Republican circles. He had run for president three times, so you felt like you knew him, and had some idea of how the first year would unfold.
That’s certainly not the case with President Trump. He was not as widely known, had not been in government, hadn’t cast votes. You know, he’s such an untraditional politician, which is actually one of the reasons I think he was elected, that people also, while they were pretty excited, they had a sense that they weren’t exactly sure how this would work out or what to expect or who would be filling the key roles around him.
What was the feeling about him? Was there a feeling that he was a smart guy that would play the role CEO, but that Congress would have sort of the ability to create a legislature, legislation?
Well, I think there was a sense, certainly, that he would, you know, because of his business background, that he would probably be better equipped as an executive than many other potential candidates, than, let’s say, a senator who had spent all their life in politics, or having that kind of ability or experience. Might have the ability, but had never shown it. So there was that sense.
Look, I don’t know that you could say there was a feeling, because I think there was just a sense—we’re not exactly sure how he will operate legislatively, what kind of agenda will he present. We knew broadly what his policy aims were, but this wasn’t a campaign that generated position papers, where you could go back and say: “Aha, this is No Child Left Behind. This is going to be what we’re going to do on the tax front,” and what have you. A lot of that, since the president ran a nontraditional campaign, I don’t think there were anything like traditional expectations.
So when Ryan gets up on Nov. 15, and he says that “Here we have a unified Republican government,” what was the feeling in that room?
Well, obviously, you know, we did have a unified Republican government in the sense that you had Republicans in all the key positions. But look, we also understand that in the United States Senate, given the rule of 60, that there was going to be a Democratic—I think we saw the Democrats as more important than they did. I mean, I think they were so demoralized. They were pretty shocked, honestly. When we lost in 2008, everybody saw it coming. It was no big surprise that President Obama won. When we were able to win in 2016, that was a shock to the system, I think almost more to the Democrats than to us, because they expected they had the presidency for sure. I don’t think they believed they could win the House. As a matter of fact, I remember emailing that day with some friends of mine that were Democrats. We were doing the normal “How many seats do you think you’re going to win or lose?” sort of thing. So the House was secure.
The Senate we knew would probably lose ground. We felt good, but they felt they had a chance. But again, when you get 3 million more popular votes, and you still lose, and you lose by a bigger electoral majority than President Bush, for instance, or Al Gore, even though you got more votes, but you lose by more votes, I think it was really disorienting to the Democratic Party and probably to the Democratic electorate. That’s one of the things, the bedeviling things in the opening part of the year.
… What were the relations like between Speaker Ryan and the president? They had gone through some rough times on the campaign.
Again, they would have to address that directly. There clearly had been an element of strain in the campaign, no question about that. But in the end, the speaker’s main job in the election is to preserve the Republican majority, which he did. Nobody worked harder for us. Nobody put more on the line for us. And you know, probably more than anybody, I think Speaker Ryan wanted a Republican president. He has very ambitious policy goals. He’s a policy guy. He’s not interested in just holding an office and not accomplishing things. So while I think all the information he was getting suggested we weren’t going to win, he worked awfully hard. I mean, you can work hard, first and foremost, to maintain our majority, but Wisconsin was a pretty critical state in this, and he’s a pretty major figure in Wisconsin politics.
People like Gov. [Scott] Walker and Paul Ryan spent the last part making sure Wisconsin would do what it hadn’t done in 32 years, and that is vote Republican at the presidential level. Again, I think he knew that they had tried to build a relationship once President Trump became the nominee. I think they succeeded in that, to some degree. But again, neither one knew what to expect out of the other, if you will, the day after the election.
One of the first moves that the president makes is that he appoints [Reince] Priebus [as chief of staff] and also [Steve] Bannon [as chief strategist] at the same time to come onboard. What was the view in Congress? Certainly Priebus must have made people comfortable, but Bannon perhaps not so much.
Yeah, I think that’s probably a fair characterization of exactly how people felt. I mean, Reince is a very well-known figure, very, very respected figure in the Republican ranks. He had had a lot to do with us being successful at the congressional level over the years, and obviously we knew he had a very close personal relationship with Speaker Ryan. That was reassuring to us, too. So we felt like we would have a voice in the inner circles of the Trump administration that was as powerful as any. Chief of staff is an extraordinary role to have.
Steve Bannon, again, we recognized he brought something to the table. Obviously, at that point at least, he had the president’s confidence. He had contributed in the critical stretch run, you know, but not as well known, and probably more associated with a different element, not the part of the Republican Party that’s in the leadership positions, but more closely associated with groups like the Freedom Caucus, although even there, you know, he’s his own guy. He’s a political operator.
… For seven years, there had been promises made about Obamacare, getting rid of Obamacare. It led toward many promises that were made, and there was anger that had grown over the fact that promises were not kept, I suppose. Do you see that as one of the reasons why Trump was able to rise up? …
I do. I think a lot of people were busy telling the Republican base that we could accomplish things in divided government that were impossible to accomplish. The phrase I used to use is, look, you can’t repeal Obamacare when a guy named Obama is president of the United States. We had elements of our own caucus and certainly elements in the electorate that somehow didn’t understand that. We had, honestly, in my view, people that should have known better, suggesting things, “Well, if they just cut off the money, they’ll have to do it.” Well, most of the money that funds Obamacare is through mandatory funding. It’s not through the appropriations process. And that strategy was tried and failed in 2013, government shutdown. It’s a ridiculous way to proceed, as many of us predicted at the time.
So there was a lot of frustration inside the Republican electorate. And that’s one of the reasons why Donald Trump won. He understood that and tapped into that better than any of the other candidates did. Again, now you had to deliver, and in the House, we did. We were able to get the repeal done. We had a hiccup.
… So you had been through this for many years. You knew how complex it was. What were your feelings about the fact that this was going to be the first thing out of the gate?
Yeah, I felt like we weren’t as prepared as we should have been, because we hadn’t actually moved legislation before. We had moved repeal legislation—that’s pretty easy—but to remove replacement legislation, you really have to sit down and do the hard work. Now, the argument against that in ’13 and ’14 and ’15 leading up to the presidential was, “Gosh, it can’t possibly pass, so we’ll just get beaten up,” because these are tough votes. And just because you vote on something that fails doesn’t mean the vote can’t be used against you in a campaign. I personally thought that we should have moved things through the legislative process, because what happens when you start moving it, you see where the fault lines are. Yeah, the legislative process is a good process. It delivers a better product for the American people. You also understand where the enemies’ arguments or the opposition’s oppositions are going to be, and I think you end up with a better product.
I felt like it was probably the right thing to do, but we weren’t nearly as prepared as we should have been. Again, we didn’t expect to win at some point in the election year, and I think that probably changed everything. I mean, if you thought you were going to win, and we thought we were going to win in 2000, and we really thought—and Bush led most of the way. The campaign actually closed at the end. In this case, while the polls always ebb and flow, Secretary Clinton was pretty consistently ahead. Again, I think we prepared to play defense rather than offense, and we’re pretty good at defense. It’s very, very easy to stay united and just vote no, and we demonstrated how capable we were of that. But it had been a long time since we had played offense.
You have to remember, the majority of Republicans, too, not only do you have a new president that’s never done this sort of thing before, the Republican Conference, certainly the House, over two-thirds of the members had been elected since 2010. They had never served with a Republican president, so they weren’t very good at understanding, how do you interact and relate with a Republican president? How do you develop an agenda together? Again, better preparation in retrospect is always easy to say that. It should have been something we were thinking about.
And of course there were pressures as well built into the process. You’ve got a president who’s looking at his watch saying, you know: “Come on, let’s get this done. We’ve got to get this done.” Or he’s promised the first day—
Well, you know, to be fair to the president in this, I would argue he had every right to expect us to have legislation ready to go, because hadn’t you guys been running on this for three terms? So in that sense, I look on what happened in the Obamacare failure as a congressional failure. I think, now, he should have had his own policy and his own thing, but the point is, we should have had a vehicle ready and able to go. And I think, because again, we didn’t want to run political risk in the preceding years, make unpopular votes when there was no chance for success, we didn’t prepare in the way we should have. …
Also, you had the Freedom Caucus that took a position and are very, very good at holding their members together.
Extremely good, yeah.
Explain the role that the Freedom Caucus played in the first bill.
Well, again, they had a policy agenda. They probably were more advanced in that. And they’re very good at holding their ground. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Principled politicians ought to be applauded, not derided. But at the end of the day, you do have to get to 218, and you can’t have 40 to 50 people tell 200 people that it’s got to be our way or we’re not voting for it. And that’s one thing—again, when you’re in opposition with a Democratic president, it’s frustrating, but if you’ve got to move something, and any particular group has the power and the willingness to stop you, to keep you from getting to 218, you know, then I think there’s a lot of dangers associated with that.
You also, by the way, teach other elements in the conference: “Oh, I guess if they do that and get their way, we can do that and get our way.” And there’s been a little bit of that. We’ve seen some fragmentation until recently, actually. The tax bill healed a lot of things. But a lot of fragmentation along the way, where different groups didn’t operate as a team, and politics, in terms of legislating, is a team sport.
So bring us, to some extent, into the leadership’s frustration with the fact that they’ve got the Freedom Caucus that’s not going to go forward with it; the votes aren’t there. What’s going on at that point, early on?
Well, I think there was a big debate: Do you have the vote and expose the people that made it fail, or do you try to keep working it? As a matter of fact, there were leadership members talking to some of us and asking, “What’s your advice?” I will tell you, I was on the losing side of the arguments. “Well, let’s have the vote. I mean, we need the—if we’re going to deal with this.” The speaker decided differently. I think in retrospect, he probably made the right decision. He was in consultation with the president. I think the president wanted the vote as well. The president made that point: “I’d like to see who my friends are and who they’re not.”
But I think Speaker Ryan, to his credit, said, “I think there’s a way, if we back off, let these elements work together, and we can come back again and get this through the House.” He turned out to be correct in that, and we did eventually get it through. So had we frozen people into position by a vote which, again, I favored, we might not have been able to put the pieces back together. This is one where you’ve got to make a call, and our leadership team listened to everybody. They made the call—in retrospect, in terms of getting the legislation through the House, probably the right call.
And trying to unpack a little bit again, because we’ll take it piece by piece, when Steve Bannon comes to give the ultimatum that the president wants a vote, what’s the feeling within the Congress?
I think probably the majority of us wanted the vote, and I don’t think the people that were opposed feared the vote. They were arguing for what they believed in … And this is where leadership does what it’s supposed to do. They listened to all that argument. They had clearly a pretty intense discussion internally. I’m told, but not who, that there were elements on each side.
But in the end, it’s the quarterback who makes the call, and the quarterback, in this case, is speaker of the House. Paul Ryan made the call: “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think that will divide the Congress longer-term.” He went down and made the case to the president, and he prevailed. And again, if you look at the results in terms of what he’s responsible for, which is moving product through the House, it turned out to have been the correct call.
Can you take us into that decision? He gets into a car. He drives down to the White House that afternoon to make that decision, make that conversation, have the conversation with the president, saying he doesn’t have the votes. How difficult was that situation?
Oh, I think that’s a very hard thing. It’s hard to go tell any president you don’t have the votes, particularly when you’re sitting at 242 or so, over 240 members, so you can literally give up 24 or so votes and still win. So that’s not a message you like to deliver, and frankly, it’s a message no speaker, as a rule, should have to deliver. But I don’t think—so it took a good deal of courage to do that, and frankly, a good deal of confidence that you were right, and that not holding this vote, which you knew the person you were talking to, the president of the United States, wanted to do. But this was one where I think the speaker put the good of what he saw as the good of the conference out of pleasing the president, that “My job is to produce for you. I hate to tell you right now, today, we’re not going to be able to do it. I think if we don’t force this vote, I can see a way forward. I think if we force the vote, I won’t be able to go forward. So my judgment is we’re not going to do this vote.”
Now, I don’t know if he said persuaded him, or made the call on his own, I wasn’t in the room. But it took a lot of guts to go down and tell the leader of the free world, the president of the United States, that that day, while you were trying to work with him, you weren’t going to be able to produce the victory that he wanted, and you didn’t think, following the course that he advocated, would allow you to be successful on his behalf and on the behalf of your shared goals in the future. And again, the speaker prevailed in that argument. I think subsequent events showed that he was right.
Did you have any conversation with Speaker Ryan around that period of time about what he was feeling about it?
No, I talked to the majority leader about it. Of course he solicited my opinion, and I’m sure it was relayed, and they went a different direction. So good for them. But yeah, there was a lot of discussion. I mean, I was involved in the whip operation, so the whip team was working overtime to try and persuade members or answer questions, or, “What’s your concern?,” or, “Is there a tweak in this legislation that can answer it?” It was an all-hands-on-deck effort, and it was a disappointment, for sure, when we didn’t succeed. But, you know, that was in March. But by May, we succeeded. So eventually, we got there.
When you would go, and you’d whip Freedom Caucus members, what was the reaction you were getting from them?
They didn’t think the bill was as good as it should be. They said, “We can make this bill better. We don’t think this fully delivers on the promises that we made as we understood it.” Again, I think this goes back to, had we gone through this exercise when President Obama was there, we would have known these things a lot more clearly. You know, it’s pretty easy when you just draw up a plan, but you don’t engage in debate, discussion, try to move it forward legislatively. People—“Yeah, yeah, I could be for that.”
But once they finally are listening, and they’re focused, and they know they have to vote on it, and it’s going to be recorded as to whether or not, they pay attention. You find, again, the cracks in your product, if you will, and where the fault lines are. So we ended up doing that in real time instead of, you know, preparing to do it before. It’s just like in the military, the military trains, trains, trains, because at the decisive moment, it helps to have gone through this 100 times before. And we should have done more training in ’16, and—excuse me, in ’14 and ’15, so that we would have been ready with a Republican president, somebody. No matter who it was, any president, you know, we would have been better off, in my view, to have been better prepared.
It does get done. The Freedom Caucus is much more involved. A lot of people say that they sort of were in a leadership role in getting in the next bill passed. Other people will say, but the product that was produced was something that could never get through the Senate. What was achieved? How was it achieved, and how important?
Well, I think actually the Freedom Caucus became very much more productive. I don’t think they wanted to be responsible for failure. And I think they saw that as a failure. But I do think they were sincere in wanting to make the product better. And you know, I give them credit. I give the leadership credit and obviously the chairman of their respective committee, particularly Ways and Means, for sitting down. “OK, let’s find a way, because we all know we need to win.” And I think they were productive participants in that.
If you look at the end where we lost, most of the members that voted no were not Freedom Caucus members. Now, that meant the bill moved to the right and became less acceptable in some marginal and swing states, and that’s fair enough. People have different feelings about what they need to do. But at the end of the day, they were hopeful in getting a product that could get 218 votes, and that was our first responsibility. …
The Rose Garden celebration, after the House passes it, are you there?
Oh, yeah. Well, I remember going, “I’m not sure it’s wise to be spiking the football at the 50-yard line, but what the heck?” I think the thought was that number one, it was a big accomplishment, and from the House standpoint it was; and number two, that it might add momentum going forward. So, it’s a little bit of the roll of the dice in a PR sense. But—and I assume that the president—the president runs the White House and the Rose Garden, so he obviously had to agree. I don’t know whose idea it was, but I understand the idea of patting the team on the back after a tough struggle and also trying to create some momentum going into what was clearly going to be the decisive effort in the United States Senate.
So it goes to the Senate. One of the things that the president says at some point when he’s talking to the senators is that he feels that this is a “mean” bill. This is after the celebration. This is after pushing you guys so hard to get it done. What are you guys thinking?
Well, you know, I can only—I’ll speak for myself on this, because it’s probably a variety of actions. I laughed when I read it. I mean, the history of the United States presidents telling United States Senate that they’ve got to save the republic from the House is long and honorable. Look, I think the president was trying to invite the Senate to improve what they’re doing. You’re right. It’s just too far. You’re right. And then we’ll go back and work with them and get it done. So, believe me, senators say plenty of things about the House in private. House members, I can assure you, say plenty of things about the Senate. What’s the old Sam Rayburn quote, when supposedly one of his members, when he was a Democratic speaker, called the Republicans the enemies? He said: “No, no, no, no. The Republicans are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.” And both sides, both parties tend to feel that way. There’s a rivalry between the chambers, and they operate very different, differently. And they have, frankly, very different personalities, histories, procedures.
So again, president’s playing to the ego and vanity of the Senate that you have to come save us from a mean House bill. It didn’t bother me at all. I actually thought that that’s a pretty smart showman, and he’s playing to the ego of his audience, and if that helps him get something passed by the Senate, where we can go to conference, I’m all for it.
So you didn’t have a feeling that it also undercut the folks in the House?
No, because I never thought what we passed out of the House would be the final product anyway. So it doesn’t—look, nothing is final until it’s really final passage, so just because we passed something in the House, and that’s what it took to get through the House, doesn’t mean the Senate has to accept it, or—look, you can point out whatever flaws you want, and if you can actually give us a product that’s broadly in the same direction, then we can sit down and work through the differences. And indeed, at the decisive moment, at the end, in the Senate, you had Speaker Ryan literally calling senators, telling them, “If you pass something,” because they couldn’t get to consensus. And what they came up with was incredibly weak. You know, just get rid of the mandates, so-called skinny repeal. “If you pass something, we will not pick it up and pass it ourselves. We will go to conference with you so we can continue to work on it.”
That’s one of the tragedies of the defeat in the Senate. That vote was not about whether or not Obamacare was going to be repealed. It was really about, are you going to continue the discussion? Because we could have gone and worked with the people that had problems and perhaps then got to a product. But they basically, when you vote no in that, you’re voting no on going to conference. You’re pulling the plug on it. You would have still had the ability to do that later. We could have had the conference, maybe answered some of the concerns of—there’s only three senators that voted no. There were probably others that had concerns as well. I think it was a larger group, personally. But we could have—and you still would have had the right to vote no. It wasn’t going to become law, because the speaker had given you the assurance he would not pick this up and move it. We would go to conference, and we would try to negotiate a more acceptable product to all concerned.
Are you watching that night when it’s going on?
I am, yeah.
When [Sen. John] McCain (R-Ariz.) does the thumbs down?
What are you thinking? Did you have any conversations with Ryan about it?
Well, I knew things were—I had heard that, just through the grapevine, not talking to any of our leadership, I knew the speaker had been making calls. I knew there were deep concerns that something might go wrong. I mean, their margin, to be fair to our senators, was very, very narrow. And frankly, they had, in some ways, had less time than us, because they hadn’t been working on it until we passed it. So in a situation like that, there’s always a chance that something can go wrong, and words were—you know, we knew there were pretty two certain no votes. I mean, obviously. So at best we were hoping for 50/50, and we were down to one person.
And look, I knew some of these—a lot of the senators are good friends. A lot of them I have served with. And I understood what tough votes these were for some of them in Medicaid-expansion states, so they might not have been the one to cast the vote no. But in some cases, I think it probably didn’t bother them that a no vote was cast, and they didn’t have to live with the full consequences of repeal. But again, you don’t know what’s in everybody’s heart at a moment like that, and I trust they all did what they thought the right thing was. But it was an enormous blow to the Republican cause and an enormous deflation to the Republican electorate. It actually probably put our majority in the House at risk much more than it did the majority in the Senate.
And the reaction of the president?
You know, I’m trying—I don’t blame the president for being disappointed and feeling let down, because again, I think he arrived in town thinking there was legislation already ready. You guys have been talking about doing this for years; you’ve got enough votes to do it. I will sign whatever you can pass. I’ll be involved in discussion, and they certainly were at the White House. The president worked us very, very hard, and he met with somewhere between 160 and 200 members of the Republican House Caucus. And working it, I know obviously, he probably met with every single United States senator, certainly on our side of the aisle, probably several of the Democrats as well, from red states. When you make that big an effort, and this is your opening salvo, and what you hope is going to be a good first year, you’re bound to be disappointed by what happened.
Some people said that he more or less walked away, to some extent, from the process, the process that takes place in the legislature.
You know, I don’t believe that’s true. I think the president was deeply engaged. And look, I remember the whip team went out and had several meetings at the White House. I’ve been on the whip team since George Bush was president. That never happened when he was there. President talked to almost everybody, and certainly people that had concerns, over and over again. So I think he really worked it hard.
Now, I think he also, at the same time, was learning, and this actually paid off here at the end of the year. He knows the members, I can assure you, on a one-by-one basis, better than President Bush did or President Obama, because he interacts with them more. I have Democratic colleagues who will tell me, “Oh, my gosh”—they would never vote—“I was on television. He saw me talking about drug prices. Got a call the next day from the president.” So what he is better at than he gets credit for is establishing these one-on-one relationships. I think you saw it recently in this famous episode this week, in January, where he had House and Senate members in the Cabinet room, and earned that exchange. That is a pretty normal. Now, bringing them both together in different parties, but Donald Trump interacting, talking to [them] by name, knowing—he’s very good at building a personal rapport with individuals that he’s going to need to make a deal with.
The next thing that happens is, well, number one, the president is not happy with it. He has a horrible conversation with Senate leadership. McConnell and he are sort of swearing at each other. He goes to Twitter war, basically. Then Charlottesville happens. And Charlottesville, he makes statements that a lot of Republicans and Democrats back away from, feeling that—we talked to Sen. [Jeff] Flake (R-Ariz.) the other day, and he talked about the fact that there was a fear that statements like that can be much more dangerous than maybe the president understands; that it can tarnish the party to some extent. What was your feeling? What was the attitude among leadership in the House?
I can’t speak to the attitude of other people. I can speak for my attitude. Look, I’m very disappointed in the whole Charlottesville fiasco. Look, this was not—you have to look at who the groups organizing the demonstration were. These are hate groups. These are white supremacists. This is not the Daughters of the Confederacy. And the terrible incident we had, where one of the counterdemonstrators [was] killed, it also cost us the life of two police officers in surveillance because of this. I mean the guy was from Ohio, OK? This was not about the people of Charlottesville making a local decision. And you have to remember, when you look at these things, the only Confederate statues the federal government has are on battlefields, where they’re probably pretty appropriate. These are local decisions. They’re not federal dollars. So you had people wanting to use this incident to create a national sort of thing, and they are the kinds of groups that I think Americans across the political spectrum, left to right, ought to condemn. And frankly, some of the left groups were the kind of groups I would think ought to be condemned.
I was disappointed that that wasn’t made apparent right up front, that we can have debates and discussions, and there’s a lot of things to talk about in our history. As an old historian, I can tell you, Americans don’t have a deep knowledge and understanding of their own history in many cases, but this isn’t the way to do it. This isn’t the way to conduct the dialogue. And this wasn’t about having a dialogue; it was about provoking a violent demonstration. When people show up with baseball bats and helmets, they’re not coming there to assemble peacefully. And when they’re from far, far away, from places that don’t directly—have a guy from Ohio down in Virginia demonstrating over a Confederate statue, strikes me as unusual; that that probably ought to be a decision left to the people of Virginia, and obviously the people of the locality, most of all.
But yeah, I think that was a sad [moment]. I don’t think the president meant to do anything like that. I think a lot of people credit him with doing things systematically, deliberately, when he didn’t. But again, the right thing to do—and he did, by the way, a lot of the right—he mobilized Homeland Security, got people down there. They were watching and monitoring it. But the right thing to do was to condemn the perpetrators of this demonstration, because it was not a demonstration that’s in the spirit that American civil protests ought to ever, ever be conducted.
… On Oct. 24, there was a famous—that was Senate, though, so I’m not going to ask you about that. Oct. 24, Flake goes to give his speech, his 18-minute speech that became pretty famous. Were you watching that?
No. You know, I don’t recall watching it. I think I might have caught part of it, because I wasn’t sure what it was and, you know, [I was] busy with other things. I caught—but I did see part of it. I have read the book, and I served with Jeff in the House. And again, he’s a guy that—look, it’s hard not to like Jeff Flake as a person. He’s a really decent, really fine human being.
And your thoughts on a senator saying the things that he said?
Well, I don’t agree with some of the things that he said. But look, I think with all due respect, he was a difficult guy as an appropriator. He was my fellow appropriator the last two years to deal with, because he’s absolutely certain about his opinion, too, and he’s just as willing not to back down. We weren’t able to move what’s called the Labor H Bill, simply because he wouldn’t vote for it, in a very narrowly divided House. And that’s fair enough. Your vote is your own.
But again, in politics, you’re allowed to argue your point of view. You make the decision if that point of view is so important, or what you think you’re fighting against is so egregious, that you’re willing to put your seat on the line for it. I think Jeff clearly did that. And that is a personal and political courage of a sort, but it also means you’re not going to be very effective. Again, he has to make that choice, and I respect whatever choice he makes. I know he’s an honorable person.
… Let’s talk about the tax bill. The passing of the tax reform bill, how—and certainly the president sees this as a great achievement; most Republicans see it as a great achievement. How important was it? How necessary was it? Other people on the other side will sort of say it just papers over the fact that their GOP has a lot of other problems.
Well, I think the Democrats have a lot of problems, too. Look, I think both political parties have a lot of problems, and I think the country’s badly polarized. But in terms of legislative achievement, extraordinarily important, number one, it’s the biggest overhaul of the tax code in over 30 years. Two, it’s a promise that was made and, in this case, delivered on. Three, we had the opportunity to actually partially get back on Obamacare by getting rid of the individual mandate, which most of us really strongly, strongly disagree with.
You learn when you win, just like you learn when you lose. Winning’s a habit. Being able to work together to make the compromises, for people that had even disagreed with one another—you know, obviously [Sen.] Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and my friend Jeff Flake had disagreed with the president, but they voted for the tax bill in the end. Being able to lower personal differences, get focus back on policy, and move something through that was this important, this complex, and even help redeem your earlier failure on Obamacare I think was extraordinary significant.
What you hope is that experience now will play into going forward and, toward the rest of the midterms, that we know how to work together a lot more; we know how to govern; we put all the pieces together. And we’ve done that in small ways on things like deregulation. We’ve done it in bipartisan ways. We had significant reform in Veterans Administration and human trafficking victories. But every now and then you’ve got to hit a homerun, not just singles and doubles. This was a homerun, very important for us to achieve.
My last question, and these guys will have a couple more to see things that we missed,you’ve got that moment at the White House, and everybody’s lined up on the stairways. Everybody says a lot of very wonderful things about the president. The significance of that moment, and also the question of, so is this Trump’s GOP at this point?
Well, you know, I missed that moment. I was actually—we were having a Rules Committee meeting discussing getting the support we needed for the passing of the continuing resolution, which was still in doubt. So even in victory, there were still problems. There always are, legislatively. Look, I don’t—I’ve never thought this is, quote, anybody’s Republican Party. It’s the Republican Party. It’s the oldest continuously operating political party in America. It was created on the great moral principle of eliminating slavery and [on] human freedom.
It’s changed over time, as all these parties do. But he’s the president today. He’s the most important person in the Republican Party. He’s clearly attracted voters into the party we’ve not had before. He’s won in places that we had not won in a very long time. And in the win states, again, like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, we had not won at the top level in 28 and 32 years. Pretty enormous achievement.
Now again, in politics, you’re only as good as your last game, so we’re going to have to see if we can build on this success and continue. But I would say, at the end of the year, he’s still a very unorthodox president, but he’s a fast study, knows a lot more. The Republicans in Congress are probably more comfortable with him now, particularly having achieved a major victory. I think he knows them individually very well, and I think he’s learning the process. So, you know, all is well that ends well. And while the presidency hasn’t ended, the first year ended very well.