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This is the second episode of “Party Time,” a mini-series from FiveThirtyEight’s Politics podcast examining where the two major political parties are heading in the Trump era. Throughout February, we’ll be talking to lawmakers, strategists and stakeholders who hold different viewpoints within the parties. In the first episode, we heard from people closely allied with President Trump.
In the second episode, we hear from Republicans who are more wary of Trump’s effect on their party: Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah; Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for National Review and a leader of the reform conservative movement; and Peter Wehner, who served in the past three Republican administrations, including as deputy director of speechwriting and head of the Office of Strategic Initiatives under George W. Bush. Here is a partial transcript of our conversation with Lee, who didn’t endorse Trump during the election and in October called on him to exit the race. The senator now says he is committed to working with Trump on areas of agreement. We talked about where constitutional conservatives will find common ground with Trump and where they might disagree. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Galen Druke: How has Donald Trump’s election changed the direction of the GOP?
Sen. Mike Lee: It’s changed the direction of the GOP in the sense that, first of all, he won, and that’s a different outcome than we’ve had in the two preceding presidential election cycles. And having won, we now have a tremendous opportunity to go back and restore some limits to federal power, especially executive power. And our attention has been focused on those things now, in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, in part because we’ve seen so much concentration of power in the last eight years, under the Obama administration. And I think the American people, not just Republicans, but Americans from across the political spectrum are ready to restore constitutional limits that are designed to protect us against that very kind of accumulation of power.
Clare Malone: Senator, you did not endorse President Trump during the campaign, but obviously, your party has won. I’m wondering if you can tell us what you think the priorities of the GOP are under this new administration.
Lee: Yeah, you’re right. President Trump and I had our differences along the way, but he has won now, and he won quite effectively with a message that told people, “Look, America’s poor and middle class are having a tough time, just as the rich and well-connected are getting along great.” A lot of that has to do with the fact that too much power has accumulated in Washington and it’s been given to government bureaucrats. To put this in perspective, in 2016, Congress passed and the president signed 2,966 pages of new laws while federal agencies [issued] 97,110 pages of new regulations — about 32 times as much. It’s a big difference between these two sets of laws because although they both contain legally binding requirements and norms, the large set of documents was put in place on account of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. It’s the smaller set that’s put in place by people who were actually elected by the people to make laws.
Malone: What you’re expressing there is a kind of traditional conservative point of view. I want to pull this 30,000 feet up. Are there any wings of Trump’s Republican party? Any new wings? Any distinguishable separations within the party under this president?
Lee: I’m not sure I would say new wings so much as I would say there’s a new focus. There’s a new concentration of emphasis, in that President Trump has said he wants to return power to the people. I take him at his word on this. I’m going to work tirelessly with him to return more power to the people and to the states in areas like healthcare, education, and welfare, and transportation. And in the separation of powers area that I was just discussing, we’re gonna move toward rebalancing the separation of powers by passing reforms like the REINS Act, which would require approval from Congress before any regulation costing more than $100 million a year can go into effect. President Trump has said he’s supportive of this bill and this type of effort. So these are examples of the kinds of things that he will do in order to return power to the people. And so it’s this populist message, what some people might call the populist wing of the party. I wouldn’t call it a new wing because it’s such a significant part of who we are as Republicans now that it’s better characterized as the fuselage.
Druke: You mentioned that Donald Trump is putting a renewed emphasis on the working class and that you’re interested in working with him in that aspect going forward. Do you feel like the Republican Party had lost the working class somewhere along the way during the past Republican administrations? Is that a pivot from where the party was a decade or two ago.
Lee: I absolutely think that is something we lost as a party. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but sometime in the last couple of decades, we lost that emphasis on hardworking Americans, on poor middle-class Americans, and somehow we almost seem to accept perhaps, with some Republicans wearing as a badge of honor almost, this badly manipulated caricature of Republicans being a party of the top 1 percent, the party of the country club elites. And we’re not. We’re at our best when we’re focusing on protecting America’s poor and middle class by restoring protections in the Constitution.
Druke: That’s a place where your ideas align with the president, but there are definitely some areas where principled conservatives in the House and Senate aren’t going to agree, right? When it comes to a trillion dollars in infrastructure or a new foreign policy of isolationism, when it comes to those points, how is the Senate, for example, going to work through them?
Lee: I think each instance will present its own set of challenges. With infrastructure, for example, that’s a great one to bring up, because we’re still not sure what that’s going to look like. We’ve heard from some people in the president’s administration, including Wilbur Ross, that this is going to be private money, that this is going to somehow come together without the need for federal tax dollars being invested. I can’t wait to find out how that’s going to work. And if that is the case, then there will be a lot fewer concerns among conservative Republicans. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about a massive, potentially trillion-dollar new investment in infrastructure, there are going to be a lot of us who have some real questions and concerns about where that’s going to come from.
Malone: We spoke to Pete Wehner, who worked for Reagan and both Bushes, and he said that every lawmaker is going to have a different threshold for where they might reject Trump, where they see a division between Trump and traditional conservative values. And I’m wondering do you have any sort of lines in the sand now that he’s president?
Lee: My biggest line, the biggest, most prominent lines that I draw in the sand, relate to the limits on the power of the federal government. In particular, the structural protections outlined in the Constitution: the horizontal protection we call separation of powers, recognizing the distinct role of each independent coordinate branch in the federal government, and then the vertical protection called federalism, the notion that the federal government was always designed to be a government possessing powers that [James] Madison described as “few and defined.” And he referred to the powers reserved to the states as “numerous and indefinite.” Those are the most important touchstones as I see it. And anytime I see those thresholds transgressed, I’m going to have a lot of concerns that are going to have to be addressed.
Malone: Can you think of any issue areas where that might crop up?
Lee: A good example of this might be trade. The Tariff Act of 1930 and the Trade Act of 1974 both give a lot of power to the president of the United States to change trade policy, to increase tariffs or impose tariff-like remedies on international trade in response to changing trade circumstances. I think that’s giving the chief executive too much power. And this is without regard to who happens to be the president at the time. This is part of my theme, part of the same argument as to why I think we need the REINS Act, a piece of the legislation which President Trump himself supports. And so I don’t necessarily know that that will 100 percent be at odds with where President Trump wants to go. Maybe he’ll be just fine with restoring constitutional protections in that area. But that said, he has said that he would like to take steps perhaps on his own in some of these areas, like trade, like imposing tariffs. So I can see that being a potential area of conflict.
Druke: You have been an outspoken advocate of the Constitution during your time in the Senate, and the views that you’ve expressed here are not necessarily views that we’ve heard across the board from Republicans in the Senate or in the House.
Lee: Well, in my small hometown of Alpine, Utah, we speak of little else other than federalism and separation of power.
Druke: But I’m wondering: Are there enough people like you in Congress to form a coalition that can challenge the president on these kinds of issues?
Lee: Sure. Now, you’re right in that our coalition is still a small one. It’s not necessarily one that controls all of the votes in Congress or not even all the Republican votes in either house of Congress. But we are a growing movement. When I got here just a few years ago, there weren’t all that many people talking about federalism and separation of powers. And I can tell you in both the House and the Senate, there are a whole lot of us who are now. And every time you add one person who is willing to talk about these things relentlessly, a whole bunch of others pop up who suddenly decide that it’s time to come out of the woodwork and talk about it themselves. It’s making a lot of headway, a lot of headway very quickly, in part because this really is quite consistent with much of what Donald Trump wants to do.
Druke: And beyond just the concept of federalism, Sens. [John] McCain and [Lindsey] Graham have spoken out against the Trump administration on issues such as the immigration ban. And Sen. McCain called the Australian ambassador to the U.S. to reiterate our country’s support for Australia, after hearing of Trump’s exchange. So are there going to be different groups within the Republican majority that are breaking with the president in different ways? Is it going to be this almost parallel Republican government?
Lee: I wouldn’t describe it that way. I think there is a fantasy on the part of some Democrats, that sees it that way. But I don’t think that’s really accurate. Look, it’s not entirely unheard of for some members of the president’s party serving in Congress to disagree with some of the president’s policies. That’s, in fact, fairly common, and in my opinion, in both parties it should be more common than it is. I can’t tell you the number of times when during the last presidential administration, especially when the Democrats were still in the majority in the Senate, I would sometimes have Democratic colleagues approach me and speaking in hushed tones, tell me: “Hey, I’m glad you’re speaking out against X or Y or Z.” I think it’s important for us to defend our own institutional prerogatives as lawmakers, and I say: “That’s great; I appreciate it. But why are we whispering?”
I think it’s healthy when members of Congress, Republicans or Democrats, senators or congressmen, are willing to speak out and express independent thoughts, separate and apart from what leaders in their party or the president of the United States himself might be embracing at the time.
Druke: In speaking with conservative thinkers about Donald Trump, one of the biggest criticisms has not even been so much about policy as it has been about character. Conservatives have long promoted strong moral values as part of their doctrine, so how do conservatives now promote those moral values given some of Trump’s behavior?
Lee: The same way we did before. The same way we have always tried to. Each one of us has to do our own part. And look — the fact that we’ve got a new president with his own unique personality, with his own unique talents and his own unique challenges, just like anyone else, neither excuses anyone else in departing from what we believe to be right, but it continues to remind us of the fact that each of us has to stand behind what we believe is the right thing to do.
Malone: Do you think if by the time the next primary season rolls along and movement conservatives feel that Trump hasn’t done enough for them, do you think that there will be a primary challenge to the president?
Lee: Oh stop, stop. It’s way too early to do that. This guy has just barely been sworn into office. I mean, less that two weeks ago. It’s way too early to ask that. Look, I had my differences with Mr. Trump during 2016. He is our president now, and I want to do everything I can to support him in so far as he pursues an agenda of restoring constitutionally limited government. And I intend to do precisely that.
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