Congressman Ted Lieu has led the charge for the truth. The Air Force veteran and reservist hoped to have been able to find common ground with the new administration but after the Muslim ban, he knew it would be incredibly difficult. He’s become a Vice Chair of the DCCC focused on winning back the House. He introduced the Dem version of an infrastructure bill, the 21st Century New Deal for Jobs-which would go a long way to reverse Trump’s death spiral if he joined the effort to pass this.I asked him how things can turn around in America…
AJ: I have to begin with today’s news drop, since every day is a big news day now. NBC-who arguably created Donald Trump as we know him with “The Apprentice” and the wall-to-wall coverage he received during the 2016 election, began the day with a stark headline “Russia controversy shows that Trump’s Executive Branch is Broken.” And also Donald Trump announced today the nomination of Christopher Wray to be the new FBI director. Could you comment on those stories?
TL: There are a number of problems with the White House right now. One is they have not nominated for a lot of positions. Many of these are key positions that they need. They have also taken a lot of liberties with actual facts. So they routinely mislead the American people. Then you’ve got people in the White House just breaking the law. So you’ve got the president committing obstruction of justice, you’ve got the Attorney General committing perjury, you have Jared Kushner making false official statements on his security clearance form; all of those things a felonies. There is a permanent disrespect for the rule of law in this White House.
And then in foreign policy you have conflicting signals being sent. You’ve got the Pentagon saying we like Qatar. We have a very important U.S. base there. Qatar is our ally. And then you’ve got the president trashing Qatar with his Twitter account.
AJ: As far as the new proposed FBI director; Christopher Wray?
TL: I read his biography. He seems like an honorable, decent man. We’ll see what happens when he enters the orbit of Donald Trump. And I hope he remains decent and honorable. And he was the head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice under George W. Bush. You don’t get to have that division unless you are serious about enforcing the rule of law. And my hope is that he will make sure that the rule of law is followed and that the investigations proceed against people who violate the rule of law.
AJ: So, let’s talk a little bit about policy. Donald Trump has declared this “Infrastructure Week.” You have handed the Republican Controlled Congress a $2 trillion dollar infrastructure plan. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it differs from the GOP plan?
TL: Sure, the American Society of Civil Engineers has identified a 4.5 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit. We believe that $2 trillion is the minimum that you would need to take America where we need to go in the 21st century. And that’s why I’m proud to have introduced, with my other colleagues, the 21st Century New Deal for Jobs Act. This is going to not only rebuild our highways, roads and bridges but also make sure our critical infrastructure is protected from cyber security attacks, going to make sure that we put broadband all over the United States, including into rural areas. We’re going to make sure we have clean water for everyone to drink. It is a comprehensive infrastructure plan that’s going to both, rebuild America and create millions of jobs. The contrast with the Republican plan is; they don’t have one.
AJ: I’ve been buried in the Lyndon Johnson biographical series by Robert Caro. Johnson assumed leadership in the Senate at a time of great distress for the Democratic Party. He chose to capitalize on the popularity of the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. He threw his support behind Ike, and that was a huge boon for him.
With infrastructure, I could definitely see history repeating itself but Mr. Trump’s popularity is almost nonexistent. So, how could the Democrats use Donald Trump, who has voiced support for passing an infrastructure bill, to pass some form of the 21st Century New Deal for Jobs Act? Perhaps it might be an opportunity for the Democrats to lead where Trump may be willing to stick it to the GOP for not following his lead?
TL: There’s a number of ways this could happen. 1) We take back the House next year. That would make it much easier to put the infrastructure bill on the president’s desk. 2) Prior to that, the president could change. He could go back to his election night speech, and if you watch it, it was not a divisive speech. He actually spoke of two areas he wanted to work on; veterans’ affairs and infrastructure. I remember thinking to myself after I heard that speech, Okay, I think we can work with that. And unfortunately, he abandoned that. Instead he took a hard right turn. In January one of the first things he tried to do was force down the Muslim ban. And that just made it very, very difficult for Democrats to work with him because he essentially caused every Democrat to have to take a position to oppose him because of how divisive he was. If the president were to revert back, to go back to working on issues like veterans and infrastructure instead of trying to constantly divide the country, then I think we could work together on an infrastructure proposal. But the president has to be the one who makes that move.
AJ: Absolutely, he’s had quite a bit of missed opportunity. I would have liked to have seen him start his administration with a vote on Merrick Garland. I would assume the Senate under Republican leadership would have been capable of voting down the nominee but it would have still shown respect for his predecessor (President Obama) in a way that would have made it difficult to oppose.
TL: Well, fundamentally, the president at this point has strategically decided that he’s not going to work with Democrats. He’s going to focus solely on his base. Unless he changes that view, it’s going to be hard to get a lot of things done in America. But right now, whenever any decision point comes along, he makes a decision base on what is going to animate his base. And he certainly has a right to do that but it also means he won’t get a lot of things done.
AJ: So, you’ve become a bit of a household name and that seems to be from your resistance to Donald Trump. Seems like you’ll have to get in line behind Maxine Waters and even more so Donald Trump himself, if you really want to be his nemesis (at the time of the interview I should have expounded that this was said in jest to point out Trump’s self destructive nature-and send a shout out to Rep. Waters). But my concern is that Trump will self destruct and we will be stuck with Vice President Mike Pence. We know that Pence claims to have been lied to by General Mike Flynn but we also know as leader of the transition Pence was notified of Flynn’s conflicts. So there seems to be a breakdown in communication between the public and the vice president. He seems to be getting a pass. How does that work and how do you think it should be addressed?
TL: Let me start by saying that my goal is not to be the president’s nemesis. My goal is simply to tell the truth. As an American I hope the president changes and stops routinely lying to the American People. But my goal was never to be in a position where I have to continually point out the chaos and lies coming out of the White House. That is not a position I want to be in. As an American I find it rather horrifying. And my hope is that this administration calms down and changes course.
Regarding Vice President Mike Pence, I was not in those conversations so I don’t know what Michael Flynn told the vice president. But I haven’t seen anything to contradict the reports that the vice president simply repeated what Michael Flynn said. And I haven’t seen a report that said that Vice President knew something different than Michael Flynn told him. So I can’t really criticize the vice president for repeating a falsehood that Michael Flynn uttered. The vice president apparently didn’t know it was a falsehood.
AJ: I believe the reason why it was suspected that the vice president knew more than he was admitting was because of a letter sent to the transition by Rep Elijah Cummings, the head of the transition being Mr. Pence, telling him that the conflicts with Mr. Flynn were known at that point.
TL: Oh, so that’s a different issue. I’m sorry. The issue for which Mr. Flynn was fired was that he told the vice president a lie and the vice president repeated it to the American public. That had to do with the statements that no sanctions were being discussed with the Russian ambassador.
The issue as to what was known about Michael Flynn himself and whether or not he should be on the transition team or a member of the new administration, it is troubling that after information was provided by Elijah Cummings to Vice President-elect Pence and to the Trump transition team laying out a series of issues that any reasonable person would say that we should not put Michael Flynn on this team and yet they did. And so I don’t know why they thought it would be good, I don’t agree with what they did so I think it does go to the judgment of Vice President Pence that he would have ignored all of these red flags and still allow Mike Flynn to come on as National Security Adviser.
AJ: In this administration as in the last one, whistle blowing is becoming a front and center issue. Do you have a view on the case of Reality Winner, the NSA contractor who has been arrested for leaking a document on Russian behavior? With her leaking one document as opposed to the mass leaks by Manning and Snowden, this seems like a much more realistic case of whistle blowing. Could you briefly explain the difference between a mass leaker and a whistle blower in the case of the government?
TL: Congress passed a series of laws to protect whistle blowers. If you’re not a whistle blower then you are not protected. And the laws can be quite complex. But it is a distinction between classified and unclassified material. If it is classified information then there are specific routes that you can take to provide information you know, such as going to the IG (Inspector General). If it’s not classified then you can take that information to the Press. So it would depend on the nature of the information and whether it’s classified or not and whether it fits within a whistle blower definition. So, it’s a pretty nuanced issue with different laws and I encourage you to look at the different statutes to determine for whistle blowers whether they meet that definition or not.
AJ: The last question is a political one. What is your prescription for repairing the Democratic Party brand? Winning more votes yet having more Republicans get elected sounds more like a structural problem with the electoral system than it does a branding issue and yet the Democrats that I talk to want to change the Democratic Party brand. How do you think the Democrats should respond to the changing environment?
TL: Last year, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that was largely based on one thing and that was that Trump is bad. That didn’t quite work. My view is that it’s important to continue to point that out that not only is he bad, he’s really bad. But we also need to say, and here is what the Democrats stand for and what we want to do. That’s why I authored a 21st Century New Deal for Jobs Act-we’re for infrastructure. We want to create millions of jobs across America. We want to rebuild highways, bridges and railroads and we want to have broadband all over the United States. So I do want to point out the problems with the current president but also provide an alternative choice for the voters. And I think that’s what we need going into 2018.
AJ: And how do you communicate that message successfully? I think it’s arguable looking through Hillary’s website and listening to her speeches that there was plenty of meat on the policy bones (You can buy the book Stronger Together on Amazon to dig deeper) of the Clinton Campaign but the narrative of the election season always seemed to come back to hyperbole and Trump. There was very little appetite in the media (see the debates) for policy discussions. And so you have a candidate who was always being asked about Trump (or her likability or her email) instead of being asked about policy. How do you drive the conversation away from the man who steals all the oxygen out of the room and focus it on what the Democrats want to do for their constituents?
TL: So, two answers: 1) If you actually look at advertising dollars spent by the Hillary Clinton campaign, there’s an interesting study out, they put a disproportionate amount of [resources] into saying Trump is bad. It wasn’t just the media. The ads for the Hillary Clinton campaign made it a point that their theme is that “Trump is bad.” The majority of ads were not saying that Hillary Clinton was going to create a lot of new jobs. That simply wasn’t their ads. So they weren’t about Hillary Clinton making a lot of new jobs they were about Trump is a really bad person. And I don’t think it’s just the media. You also had the Democratic campaign itself spending money on the message that Trump is bad. Now going into 2018 there are some structural differences. You don’t have a presidential campaign with that over arching message that drowns out every other message. You have 435 individual House races and in a midterm election it’s much easier for individual candidates to get out their own message about what they’re going to do for the voters in their own district, talk about local issues, talk about how they’ll create jobs and how Democrats are going to protect Social Security and Medicare. And it’s much easier in the midterm to get your message out than during a presidential campaign where everyone focuses on the two potential candidates. So I feel pretty good going into 2018 that the individual candidates in these individual districts can put out very strong Democratic Messages. And I believe if the elections were held tomorrow we flip the House but it’s going to be held in a year and a half so we’ll see if we can continue to maintain the same energy then that we have now.
Ted Lieu is the Honorable Representative to the House of Representatives for California’s 33rd District. Find out more about him HERE and do follow him on Twitter @TedLieu