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Michael Steele on the Campbell Conversations

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Michael Steele
Michael Steele

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with one of the most prominent national critics of former President Donald Trump, from within his own party. Michael Steele has served as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and is a former chair of the Republican National Committee. He's now a columnist for, "The Root," a political analyst for MSNBC and a senior fellow at Brown University. On Monday, April 4 at 7 p.m., Steele will deliver a public lecture at Syracuse University called, "Be Not Afraid: Faith as the Cornerstone of Public Service."

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is one of the most prominent national critics of former President Trump from within his own party. Michel Steele has served as lieutenant governor of Maryland and is a former chair of the Republican National Committee, the first African-American to serve in that position. He's now a columnist for "The Root," the political analyst for MSNBC and a senior fellow at Brown University. On Monday, April 4 at 7 p.m., he'll be delivering a public lecture at Syracuse University titled "Be Not Afraid: Faith as the Cornerstone of Public Service." Information on attending this lecture can be found on the Campbell Public Affairs Institute's web page. Mr. Steele, welcome to the program.

Michael Steele: It is great to be with you. Absolutely, Grant. Good to be here, man.

GR: Well, it's wonderful to have you. So we'll talk a little bit later about your lecture, but I have some other questions for you first.

MS: Sure thing.

GR: Let me start with this. You were a prominent critic of President Trump, as I just mentioned, going back to 2016. And so I've got a few questions for you about him. First of all, as a president, what do you think were his biggest shortcomings?

MS: Well, I think one of the most important attributes of being a president is the ability to listen, to understand and recognize that the only way you can be effective in leadership is to begin by listening to the people around you, to the mood of the country, to not just the words, but the feeling, the vibe you get. My mother told me as a young boy, she said, “if you are ever going to make it, the first thing you need to learn to do is to shut up and listen.” And in fact, I have her words in a little plaque sitting right in front of my desk. So I see it every day, and I'm reminded of my responsibility and my leadership in whatever I do. The first rule is to shut up and listen. And I think the second is understanding that it's not about you it's about your service to others. And, you know, my criticisms of Trump are not just, you know, from the campaign and the politics. I worked with him before that going back to 2013. So I'd seen the markings and the makings long before and one of the concerns I expressed to those who would listen to me at the time was this is not the nominee for our party. This is not the man you want in the Oval Office because it matters who sits behind the Resolute Desk. There's more to it than just your political agenda and your political power. It's about governing a nation that is diverse and that is at times troubled with that diversity, that is at times frustrated by its own purposes, its own ideals. And you need someone who can speak with clarity. And that clarity only comes from understanding. And that understanding is only formed by listening.

GR: So how would you characterize the way that President Trump behaved right after the 2020 election?

MS: Again, irresponsibly, selfishly, not with an eye to what arguably is an important standard inside the GOP. The rule of law, seeing, you know, the Constitution and the Constitution through his eyes only and trying to make of it what he wants it to be to achieve the end that he wants. There are people, unfortunately, out there who would disagree with that. And that, to me is a sad commentary about where we are. I'm sorry. At that point is not about whether or not you like Donald Trump or you know, thought he was a great president or a bad president. He lost an election. Therefore, there is a process that is 244 years old that we go through, that every president who's either lost an election or was term-limited out of office goes through. So this was not unique to the man. It wasn't “oh, you did this out of spite,” you guys, you know. No, he lost. And so, therefore, the constitutional requirements that govern the House, the Senate, and the process that has been given to the states under the Constitution takes place. And up until 2020, that process has never been disrupted. And the fact that you have American citizens out there right now who still believe the lie is selfishness, that's just selfish. It just is. So I can't say much more about it than that because, you know, I just refuse to play the game.

GR: Now, the January 6 committee in Congress is finding information that suggests anyway that former President Trump may have had a more active role in the riot at the Capitol. There's a federal judge who has said it's likely that Trump broke the law and then there are other accusations as well. I wanted to get your take on whether at this point you think it's good for the country to keep this level of focus on the former president and to consider a criminal prosecution or to learn from it and move on.

MS: Okay. If that's our standard, then you can do bad things and not be held accountable. Because you and I can't do what he did, and not wind up in jail. You and I. I mean, there's a woman and I believe the state of Texas who is in jail right now, for making up for five years, for making the mistake of having voted when she wasn't eligible to vote because she thought she was, the board of election gave her bad information, she went and voted. They found out after the fact that she basically was ineligible to vote and voted technically illegally. And she got sentenced to five years in jail. She didn't try to overthrow the election that she was in. She did not say that the system was rigged against her and was lying on her. She's sitting in jail. So you tell me where we draw the line. I mean, that's the problem. We look, it's “oh, well, he's the former president or he's the president, and therefore we can't.” Everyone says the words “he's above the law or he's no president is above the law.” And yet then they go and act as if he is. So you tell me where we draw the line. Our justice system right now is hemming and hawing and refusing to look at the evidence, because oh, my God, we don't know what that may lead to. Well, it will lead to what it leads to. And so the American people look at this and they raise doubts about whether or not this experiment is any longer viable, because it's clear that some people are going to get prosecuted, some won't. Some people can get away with stuff. Some can't. Some people will be held accountable. Others will not. And so if that's our standard, then we're going to reach something that, you know, we're not prepared to sew.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee and a prominent critic of former President Donald Trump. Jim Walsh, who was a long-time Republican member of Congress, from this area centered around Syracuse, recently wrote an op-ed arguing that former President Trump still posed a real challenge to our democracy. And he exhorted his fellow Republicans to make sure that Trump didn't gain any traction for 2024. Maybe you've already hinted at this and what you've just said, but first of all, how much of a current threat, current threat, do you think the former president poses?

MS: Absolutely. I think I think the congressman's got it right. I think Jim has got it exactly right. I think he understands completely the poisonous pill inside the party right now that continues to give credence to this type of behavior. We have a former president of the United States currently exhorting the dictator butcher of Ukraine Vladimir Putin to help him. Excuse me? Say what? I don't understand. How does that work? Right. You have this the same individual in Trump going out and continuing to say that the election was rigged, he didn't lose, Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. And yet here we are, eight months from the fall elections and the Republican Party is poised to regain power, at which point there will be all kinds of crazy inside the party to shut down the January 6 commission, which will happen so there will be no further investigation into Trump's behavior, his allies behavior, what happened on January 6 and everything will shift to Hunter Biden, Burisma and Joe Biden. And that will be the next eighteen months until we get into the presidential cycle in which the country very well may reelect a man who will spend the next four years as president of the United States doing what? Taking back his revenge. The one thing I know about the man is he is a vengeful individual. And he tells you that, he's very clear about that. When he feels he's been wronged, you will pay. So, yeah, we need to be concerned. Imagine Trump in the White House right now with Putin doing what he's doing now. We know how he was with Putin when it didn't matter. How do you think it's going to be now? What do you think NATO's going to be? What do you think our alliances are going to be? Where do you think the relationship with Russia is going to be? Where do you think our domestic, how our domestic issues are going to be addressed? There's a lot that's required of leadership when they take on that responsibility. And that's really a part of what I want to talk about to the family and of Syracuse. When I, when I'm in front of, you know, this community to share the connected dots that emanate from leadership, it matters who sits at the Resolute Desk. It matters who sits in the state capitol, these things all matter. And by truth, they are a reflection and extension of us. And I think that's important. So, yeah, there is a threat here because the world right now is in an unstable place. Our country is in an unstable place. I was literally talking to a friend of mine a couple of days ago who was telling me he was dreading to go see his grandmother. I was like, “Why are you going to, Grandma why? He said, “because she's just going to start going on about all this Trump stuff. And I just I don't even want to talk to her.”

GR: It's a lot of that.

MS: I mean, what have we become where our life is fixated around one individual? We don't... people don't have these kind of conversations about Jesus Christ come on, people. Seriously. You don't go see, it's not like, I'm not going to grandma because, you know, she's going to go hang out with Jesus on Sunday. What do you do? You put that suit on and you go sit next to grandma at church because she wants you there. Now, you had a point where now I can't I ain't going over there. I mean, talking to that woman because she starts talking about Donald Trump. Well, are you kidding me? So, yeah, we got a lot to talk about on Monday.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations of WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reheer, and I'm talking with Michael Steele among his many political leadership positions. He was a lieutenant governor for Maryland and a chair of the National Republican Committee. So I want to pick up on what we were talking about before the break and ask you a question specifically directed to your experience as a national party chair. And that is so what means and levers does the party or its leaders have to limit the influence of someone like former President Donald Trump and his future success? What things can you draw on?

MS: It's a great question. And there is precedent for the right behavior versus the current wrong behavior. The lever that they have is first and foremost, foremost unity of purpose, where the leadership at all of its levels agree in principle that this individual, this behavior, this approach, whatever it happens to be, is inconsistent, incompatible with the underpinnings that define our party, with the underpinnings of the definition of who we are as Republicans, because Republicans are conservative, Republicans are moderate, some are liberal. So it's not about conservatism. And all of that is about Republicans. When Lincoln and others formed this party in 1856, 54, 56, there was not this oh, well, we are, you know, we're conservatives or you know, well, we're New England Republicans. It was about the principle of slavery and a general consensus that this was inconsistent with what the American experiment was about and that we would break away from the Whigs because the Whigs were too wishy-washy. You know, they wanted to compromise too much on something that was so fundamental and they said enough that we believe in the human dignity of every human being that falls under the red, white and blue. Right? And so that that that discipline of purpose, that unanimity of purpose is important when you are confronted with an existential threat to who you are. And I gave you the John Birch Society when the John Birch Society started and reared its head within the GOP. Right. What did they do? The party leadership said, OK, time out. Nope, nope. Not, not happening. That's not we're not going down that road. That's not who we are. That's not part of our legacy. That's not part of our mission. That's not part of our story. And they beat it back. They beat it down. They wouldn't allow it to take hold at the convention. They wouldn't allow it to take hold through the actions and words of their candidates. And they refuted it. Similarly, when and I know this firsthand from my watch as the party chairman in 2009 and 2010, with the emergence of the Tea Party, there was genuine discussion. And my approach was we're not about the business of co-opting this. We don't because the essence of it is rooted in the Constitution and in the legitimate concern about the direction of the party around these broader libertarian issues, if you will, principles of individual rights and liberties, so how do we work together? How do we and I remember having meetings with the Tea Party and saying, look, you all got to stop taking out our incumbent candidates because you're taking them out in places where only they can win. And I get the principle. So let's talk about how we can work together. And we did. We built a bridge sufficient enough to go out and win elections in 2010, we didn't have wholesale disruption. In fact, I remember having a conversation with Christine O'Donnell, who was our candidate out of Delaware, and telling her, no more witchcraft, we ain't talking about witchcraft. Stop that crazy. This is not. No, sorry. It's not happening. All right. You need to, you need to talk about what you're going to do as a U.S. Senator. No more press conferences declaring I'm not a witch. Stop it. Stupid. We're not doing that. Then you flash forward to Donald Trump in 2016 and Reince Priebus in the leadership of the RNC. What did they do? When Donald Trump came down that stairwell, that golden staircase or whatever it was up at Trump Tower and stood before the nation to declare his bid for the presidency by saying that Mexicans were rapists and murderers and that he was going to build the wall to keep Hispanics out of this country. What did we do? We capitulated. Nothing. There was you had a document, right? They had this great autopsy, which is a horrible name for a piece of work. But, OK. They had this autopsy in which they declared, we need the Hispanic vote. We are going to go out and feverishly compete for the Hispanic vote. We're going to defend, you know, the right of Hispanics to be citizens lawfully and legally here in the United States. And Donald Trump said, no, we're not. We're going to build a wall and keep them out. And the party said, OK.

GR: Well, let me ask you a question right on that point, that is. So how would you assess than the Republican Party brand right now? Where is it?

MS: Tell me what it is we don't have.

GR: You, you mentioned well, you mentioned on the one hand, the party is kind of poised to retake the House and the Senate.

MS: Not on its brand.

GR: That sounds good. But then, you know.

MS: Right. Here's the problem. Mitch McConnell was asked directly, you take the take back the Senate in the House, what's your agenda? What are you going to do? What was his response? Well, you're just going to have to wait and see. Really? That's the answer you give the American people. Give us power back and wait and see what we do. With it. Give us power back and wait and see what policies we're going to advocate for. Well, are you going to you're going to now put the whole entire country under a CRT ban? We've got, you know, now that African-American, but in the same next breath, you're going to say to black people, we want your vote, but we don't believe your history. We don't believe your narrative, your lived narrative in history, despite the fact that little six-year, seven-year, eight-year-old Susie in her public school or even private school isn't learning CRT. But yeah, we're going to make that the brand. So what is our brand? We have no we have no platform. Right. So the party decided in 2020 we're just going to skip the whole platform idea about ideas. So we're not doing that, so we have nothing that we can go to the public even in this cycle and say this is what we believe and what we want to run on. There's been no articulation other than Joe Biden is old and senile and oh gee, you guys screwed up Afghanistan and we haven't decided will we love Putin or we really love Putin. But you know, we ok, Zelenskyy is cool, so I guess we should defend Ukraine and oh inflation is really high people. that's, that's Biden's fault and gas prices are high. That's his fault too. So what's your solution GOP? We'll tell you when you give us the power back. So that's the narrative. That's what we're going into this November. So the question to the American people is, is that enough? Is that all it takes? So your nose is so out of joint with 7% inflation, which began before Biden took office, by the way, we had we were, that was forecasted before this administration came in because we put $2 trillion of spending into the economy on top of the 8 trillion that the Republicans spent during the four years of Donald Trump. So you have to be honest about where we are and ask yourselves, OK, I may not have been happy. I may not be happy about this or that about the Biden administration. And they've got time to turn that around. And I'm going to give them the leeway, the runway to do that. All right. They've got the House and the Senate and they're sitting there sort of dickering around over filibustering all this other stuff. So you can see where they're not getting the cues from the American people. But is that really enough to give the power back to somebody who, you know, is going to sit up here and say that January 6 was just a bad tourist day at the Capitol?

GR: Let me take a minute and reintroduce you if you've just joined us. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele. Michael, I just want to give you a heads up. We got about 4 minutes left. I want to try to squeeze some other questions in.

MS: So one thing I want to say, I want to be clear and I know how people some people may hear what I'm saying. I'm still a Republican.

GR: I was beginning to wonder, by the way.

MS: No, no, there's no wondering here. I'm still a Republican. I say what I say and I'm fighting the way I fight because I know this isn't us. I mean, this is like a wild “Weekend at Bernie's.” And, you know, come Monday morning, there's a body somebody has got to account for, right? We've got to account for our behavior. We've got to account for the things that we've put out in the public. And I've tried to hold that up and say we got to do that. But at the same time, we should also be positioning ourselves to lay out in front of the American people what we do believe and what we will fight for, why we think this policy or that policy, whether it's health care, the environment, the economy is important. So we don't have that articulation right now, and that's frustrating.

GR: So let me jump in right on that. And again, we've got about 3 minutes left, but a couple of important questions here at the end. First of all, and this one, you can be pretty quick on the other one, maybe take a little more time. But are there any potential Republican candidates out there for president in 2024 who do excite you?

MS: None. None so far.

GR: None so far. OK, so and then this really gets at the heart, I think, of what you're talking about just a second ago. What would you say to a young adult who's not comfortable with a lot of the messaging that they're getting from the Democratic Party, but who also is really turned off by former President Trump and the kind of things that you've been talking about, what's your appeal to get them to consider becoming a Republican?

MS: Well, that's a difficult challenge right now because, again, it goes back to what I just said. What are we putting on the table that would draw you? And I think about when I joined the party at 17, what brought me into the party was this man named Ronald Reagan running for president. He talked about an America that even at the difficult time that we were going through after Vietnam, Watergate, all of that still for me, growing up in a still slightly segregated city known as Washington, D.C., he spoke to my future, a future that my mother saw from me and even me when in that '76 campaign for the presidency where he lost the primary, he did so with dignity. He did so with a sense of, you know before Schwarzenegger was sort of "I'll be back." Right. He's set out that four years later he would come back and he would have something to say to the American people. And he started with that. He led with that. So, you know, I don't I don't see that right now. I don't see that in the way some of our Republican governors have it. So back to your last question. If I'm looking at really where there's some potential. Yeah, I look at someone like a Governor Larry Hogan here in Maryland who's been able in a very blue state, create a relationship with voters who aren't necessarily supportive of the party, but supportive of his leadership. And that's the kind of leadership I'm looking for from the GOP going forward.

GR: So I'm only going to give you about 30 seconds for this. I apologize. But just you mentioned it at the beginning, but just give our listeners the briefest taste of what you're going to be talking about on Monday.

MS: You don't get away from your... the consequences of your service because your faith won't let you. And you've got to recognize that if you want to be any kind of leader.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. I wish we had more time. I feel like we could talk for hours. But that was MS. And again on Monday, April 4 at 7 p.m. he'll be delivering a public lecture at Syracuse University titled "Be Not Afraid: Faith as the Cornerstone of Public Service" and information on attending this lecture can be found on The Campbell Public Affairs Institute's web page. Mr. Steele, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. I really enjoy this.

MS: No, it's my pleasure. And I'm looking forward to seeing everybody. Y'all come out now. It's going to be fun.

GR: It will be. I can guarantee it. And you've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.