Rep. John Katko on the Campbell Conversations

Dec 20, 2019

This week, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump. The vote was mostly along partly lines. Central New York Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) voted against the articles of impeachement. While the House was debating the articles Wednesday, Katko sat down for this week's edition of the Campbell Conversations. Katko explains why he voted against impeachment, and other issues. 

Full Transcript

Reeher: I want to talk to you about the rational for your upcoming impeachment vote which you set forward in a public statement last week. First, just let me alert our listeners that we are speaking on Wednesday afternoon during the house debate which is going on prior to the vote, in case something important happens or changes between now and when this airs. Also, thank you again for being willing to speak to us during that and secondly in order to set the stage, what I’d like to do is to read part of the public statement that you issued regarding your upcoming vote, and then I’ll ask some questions off of that, along with some other questions.

Katko: Sure

Reeher: Okay so here’s the piece of your statement that I want to read, “after thoroughly studying the arguments for and against impeachment, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that while I believe some of the president’s actions were wrong and inappropriate, they do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Never in the history of our country have we impeached a president without articulating specific crimes. I firmly believe, doing so now, would set a dangerous precedent. For these reasons, I will be voting no on the articles of impeachment for the house next week.”

Okay, so my first question is a simple one, was this a hard decision for you?

Katko: Listen, any time you’re weighing whether or not to take on a president, yeah, of course it’s a hard decision, it’s hard because you want to make sure you do your homework. The ultimate conclusion I reached was not a difficult one based on what I reviewed and based on the ultimate charges, the two counts against him, but yeah, it’s hard because you’ve got to take it serious and in that regard, it was very hard.

Reeher: I have a couple questions about the reference you made to the lack of articulating specific crimes. One could argue back, against you there, that instead of listing specific criminal actions the founders were deliberately vague on what specific impeachable offenses would be and that the broader problem, introduced by this president, of the abuse of presidential power and the obstruction of Congress are actually more significant charges because they get to the core of American democracy and the checks and balances between the institutions. So, I’m curious why did you pull out and focus on criminal charges in your statement?

Katko: Well, put it this way, I’m a dyed in the wool, hard core trained, federal prosecutor to organized crime cases so what drives me always is, what is the charge and what is the evidence to support the charge. I took it from a very clinical look that way. It wasn’t dispositive for me that they didn’t have criminal charges, but in the total mix of things it really impacted me greatly. So let’s start with the evidence first. I analyzed the evidence and I didn’t think the evidence, while his comments were problematic, I just don’t think they rise to the level of taking someone out of office and removing him from office, someone that was duly elected. I viewed what I think the founding fathers viewed, impeachment is a very high bar, not some kind of amorphous bar, you’re more likely to ponder the evidence and get him out. I think it’s a very high bar and I think it was done so on purpose. I looked at the evidence in nature and in quality and then I looked at the charging itself, and I am also a student of precedent, and from a precedential stand point, there has never been a president removed on noncriminal conduct and that’s something that really impacted me as well so those two things together are what drove me.

Reeher: Just another question on this point, the House Judiciary Committee report on the articles of impeachment, that report does claim that President Trump committed multiple federal crimes, specifically, bribery and wire fraud are listed even though as you pointed out the articles don’t include them. Does that help or matter in that conversation about that?

Katko: I think it makes my case because if they felt those charges were strong enough to stand on their own then they would have charged him. I mean look at what Bill Clinton faced. He faced eleven different recommended charges of impeachment, they whittled it down to four including criminal conduct and he was impeached on his criminal conduct. The same with Andrew Johnson, and that’s exactly what they were going to do with Richard Nixon. I looked from a precedential standpoint and I said you know, the fact that they are putting these in for grounds for abuse of power, and I thought to myself moving forward if abuse of power is what’s going to get someone knocked out. So I thought back to President Obama, whom I supported when I shouldn’t have and went against him when I shouldn’t, and when you put literally billions of dollars on a pallet in the dead of night and have them flown over to Iran to help seal the Iran nuclear deal, one could argue that was an abuse of power. If abuse of power was a standard then and now, then my God, what president couldn’t get impeached based on articulated facts and they don’t like what a President is doing so I think it’s a slippery slope we’re going down if we start widening and broadening the breath length of impeachment standards. Maybe I’m a strict constructionist in that regard.

Reeher: Let me broaden the discussion from here. First of all, it’s inevitable, I think that many are going to see this vote of yours as siding with or supporting the president, so what do you say to those folks?

Katko: Well I mean I just look at my record. I have since the moment I stepped into Congress been committed to bipartisanship and independence. Every term in Congress I’m rated one of the most, if not the most bipartisan member of all of Congress. Last term again was that, and last term they also found me to be one of the most effective members in all of Congress or the Senate because of the way I conduct myself and the way I cosponsor bills with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I didn’t vote for the president to start with and no one can say I’m in lock step with him. If you look at my voting record this term, I continue my independence and actually to a much greater extend this time because the Democrats are in power. I continue to do exactly what I’ve always done, and quite frankly, if you want to boil it down to, I call balls and strikes and no one is going to influence me. I mean I’ve faced  death threats, I’ve had to move my family out of my house several times because of my job as a prosecutor. I don’t think anyone would say that I’m pushed around or intimidated by anybody and I’m just calling balls and strikes. I analyzed the evidence and made a call.

Reeher: You’ve obviously thought of this and I think you intimated this when you were talking about whether this decision was a hard one for you but this is also obviously going to be the vote that you are going to be most remembered for, I think, and all of your colleagues as well.

So can you talk a little bit about what role that fact played in your thinking and decision making on this vote?

Katko: From a historical perspective, not at all. I think, yes, it’s very important but it didn’t take any heightened importance over anything else. It just took a lot more studying, obviously, because there’s a lot more to it, but I took the same approach here as I do for every bill I vote on. And there’s a lot of bills I vote on that are very, very controversial for my base, my party, and the equality act, for example, this term is an example of that and I still hold strong. My feeling is - what is the issue, is it the right thing to do, if it is I’m going to do it, and politics be damned.

Reeher: I’m curious to know, did you do any kind of polling in your district on this question?

Katko: No, because quite frankly, it’s a very fluid thing and you could poll one day and spend a lot of money on a poll and then two days later the sentiment could change. I mean look how much the national polling has changed on this from the beginning of the investigation to the end. So, no, I haven’t done that and again, it’s not a political question for me, it’s what are the facts, what are the allegations and do the facts support the allegations adequately.

Reeher: Have you been contacted by the Republican parties campaign apparatus, the National Republican Congressional Committee about your vote?

Katko: No, I’m a vice chair of the NRCC for Patriot’s which are the vulnerable members of the Republican Party. I work to help get them reelected but, basically everyone knows me. Early on I did something in Congress, and they knew from that point forward that yes is yes with me and no is no, and you’re not going to change my mind. I had a rather, how shall I say, strong encounter with the whip team early on when I first got to Congress. They were trying to change my mind on something and they were trying to get in my face and I just looked at them and said, here’s the deal, when I say yes, I say yes, and when I say no, I say no. You’re not going to change my mind so don’t bother me, don’t do this again or you’re going to get me really upset. Let me do what I’ve got to do for my constituents, my district. From that point forward, they’ve never tried to push me around and they’re not going to, they know they can’t.

Reeher: The NRCC didn’t contact you and say, look if you’re not with us on this, you’re on your own next fall?

Katko: Oh, God, no. I think that would probably be borderline illegal to do that. They can’t do that. I would never let them push me around. I’ve had contracts on my life and those people didn’t intimidate me, I’m not going to have somebody threaten me, I don’t have to have this job and if they want to pull their support from me well then God bless them, and I’ll move on. I’m going to hold my head high and have my integrity high and say what I think is right no matter what.

Reeher: I’ve got one last question in this particular vein that I have to ask and then I’ll move on to another topic related to the issue but were you individually contacted by the White House about your vote?

Katko: No, no.

Reeher: So your Congressional neighbor, Democrat Anthony Brindisi, he originally expressed doubts about impeachment but in the end, he has said he’s going to be voting in favor of it. It is really looking like, and again we’re talking on Wednesday afternoon here, but it’s certainly looking like this is going to be a party vote event in the end. I am only personally aware of one, and I’m not going to count the member of Congress who has said he is going to change parties so I’m not counting that as a vote against party, but there’s really only one member that I know of, as a democrat, that said he was going to vote no on one of the two articles of impeachment, so it really does seem to be a party line vote. Is that what you’re hearing?

Katko: Not completely and I think this is an important point though too that you raise here and I’ll talk about it in a minute. First of all Collin Peterson of Minnesota is almost certainly going to be a no. I think Jerry Golden of Maine is going to vote against one of the two articles or both. Jeff Van Drew is thinking about changing parties but hasn’t changed parties yet, he’s still a Democrat, he’s voting no. There’s a hand full of Democrats that are going to vote no on one or both of the two counts. What I think is really important from a historical perspective is this is the first impeachment that has pretty much gone along party lines, it’s never happened before. That to me is telling of the nature and quality of this evidence here. I think, you know, in Federalist paper number 65, Alexander Hamilton warned against if the party in power over-exerts its power and uses impeachment as a political tool that would be a very bad thing for our country. Quite frankly, I think that’s what’s happening and that’s why I’m very concerned about non-criminal conduct being alleged because you’re broadening the scope, in my opinion, what they’ve used in the past for impeachment and that’s a concern.

Reeher: I want to come back and talk to you a little more about the party line vote aspect of this and I’m wondering because it does seem to be, with a couple of exceptions there, so much of a party line vote, and you contrasted that with previous impeachments. I wonder whether the public, ultimately the take away is going to be that this is kind of a party thing. Do you think that’s going to be the ultimate way that a lot of folks, particularly in the middle, are going to see this?

Katko: No, I don’t know, but I will tell you this much, I wonder out loud without doing any polling, I wonder out loud how much has moved the needle either way. Both sides already dug in before this and has it really swayed both sides or has it hardened both sides more. That’s why I wonder about the real efficacy of this impeachment process that they’ve gone through. It’s the first time we’ve ever done an impeachment inquiry at the beginning of an investigation and not at the end. It’s the first time you have strictly party line except for defectors from the democratic side that are going to vote against it. I think that’s telling in that it wasn’t done with the precision and unanimity that it should have been, and I’ll remind you going back a few months ago, a few weeks ago even, they were using different terms repeatedly. First, it was quid pro quo and then it was extortion, and then it was bribery, and those are all crimes. In the end, they don’t allege any crimes. They have kitchen sink mentalities where they use this amorphous term of abuse of power and throw everything in, and then we’re going to say contempt of Congress despite the fact that’s not a crime number one, and number two, the president is litigating the parameters of executive privilege right as we speak in the courts including the Supreme Court. And of all people, Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed the case to hear some of those. So they didn’t get the information quick enough so now because of that they’re going to try and impeach a president because they didn’t get the information as fast as they wanted? Obviously, if turned around and the president violated a court who said you must turn this over and he says screw you, well that’s a different story, then you’ve got a problem. We’re not there, right, and so that’s the concern I have.

Reeher: One last question about this and then I’m going to move on to some other topics. It goes back to the beginning of our conversation about it and the sense that I get not so much from what the Democrats are saying, but what’s kind of between the lines. That is, in a way, that this case for impeachment is really about the totality of President Trump’s term and the specific instance here is what’s being alleged regarding Ukraine and the holding up of the aid. But really what is on the table is all of the things he has said, all of the groups that he has insulted, the inappropriate language, and previous issues that have been kind of run up against the edge and have been challenged in different ways. Does that factor into this. I know in the end you have to vote on something specific but it does seem like, in a sense, this is really the door opening in to what is being argued for the Democrats, a rejection for the entire presidency.

Katko: Totally, you’re absolutely right, 100 percent. That’s exactly what it is. I’ve had people come up to me and, I’m not kidding you, and more than a few say, you know what, I know the evidence may not be there but geez, he’s such a knucklehead, you have to get rid of him. To that I reply, well that is not the standard. I even had two people suggest to me that look, you’re a prosecutor and if you want to charge somebody you can always make up a crime and charge him with it. Why can’t you just do that here, get the job done and get rid of this guy he’s such a jerk? That’s troubling to me. I think you’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what happened, they just don’t like this guy, they don’t like his attitude, they don’t like his text, and the fiery rhetoric. They don’t like the way he carries and conducts himself, and that is a pretty scary standard to remove someone from office for because if that were the standard and they were to say you don’t like this guy – get rid of him. That’s why I keep saying based on everything I’ve seen to date, the best thing to do is to let the jury decide this matter next fall. Let all the Americans, not just a few people in Congress, decide this guy’s fate, and whatever the fate may be, your respect it and move on.

Reeher: There actually are other things going on in Congress in addition to impeachment.

Katko: There is indeed!

Reeher: Let me give some good news here, the government won’t be shutting down and there is a large, wide ranging spending bill that the house just passed recently and it looks like it will be signed in to law and it was significantly bipartisan. It had supporters and detractors from both parties. You voted to pass this spending bill so what in there did you most like.

Katko: Number one, we kept the lights on. I made a commitment from before I even got elected, that I would never vote to shut down the government. That means I’m going to vote for spending bills even if I’m not thrilled with them because I think that abdicator responsibility is what would turn the lights off and so I’m never going to that. Frankly, the people wondering about me balking the president - I voted eight times against the president during the shutdown, the latest shutdown from last year. He wanted to keep the shutdown going and I kept voting with Democrats to turn the lights back on because I felt so strongly about it. People can never accuse me of not going against this guy because I do it all the time. The nature and quality of this stuff, some of it was very bipartisan, very good stuff that we’ve been trying to get for a very long time. I’m going to just rattle off the things I remember noting at the onset that I am concerned about the level of spending. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that a short term Congressional resolutions, I’m sorry, continuing resolutions cost the government billions of dollars a month and that’s money you’ll never get back either. It’s a highly inefficient way to go about it, so here goes. I had some of my amendments passed in there, two water amendments, one of which was Delta Lake/Ontario shorelines and I’m trying to address the catastrophe that’s going on up there, and also an amendment on algae blooms, that is going to be very good. There’s also a lot of other great wins in there, as small as, not small but in the relative scheme of things, 501C’s are all of sudden having to pay tax on their parking lots. Vera House, for example, is paying $1000 a year for their parking lot and churches have to pay taxes on their parking lots, I got that taken out and then there’s a lot of other great things in there that we’ve been trying to get for a long time. The medical device tax for Welch Allyn is now permanent which is fantastic, now they can do long term planning. They are still waiting to see if they’re going to have a medical device tax next week, when the new year came, and now they know permanently it’s all good. We had the Cadillac tax which was really going to destroy the unions ability and business’s ability to provide high end health insurance as an attraction to come work there. That’s gone and health insurance tax. These things that were really gumming up the quality of health care are gone and they’re gone for good. We’ve been trying to get that from the beginning so that’s really good. There’s so many other things I can think of off the top of my head, but that’s just a few examples. There’s a lot of good things in there and it was amazing how for the first time in this term it seems like the Democrats came to the table and bent an awful lot. They even provided one and a half billion dollars or so of funding for the border wall and that is just unfathomable. This lead me to the conclusion that maybe they are looking at some numbers themselves.  Maybe they are looking at some internal numbers, and maybe that led them to the conclusion that this impeachment thing isn’t the greatest thing so they bracketed around some other things like the USMCA and the spending bill so they can say we’re getting things done and people are not going to be as upset. Maybe necessity is the mother of invention here and maybe that’s what happened but regardless I’m happy we did it, I’m happy we got some wins for my constituents and some stability for the American people.

Reeher: It’s interesting those things that you ticked off. I think in other times those things would be getting a lot more attention than they are and I imagine our listeners are just hearing about them for the first time now.

Katko: Oh God, yes. I can give you another example. For decades, we have been trying to revamp the H2A Visa program, and we did that last Friday and no one knows about it. The farmers are ecstatic about it. It stabilizes the workforce for the first time in a generation and we’re hoping it gets past the house, I mean the Senate. But that’s one big thing that we’ve been working on for years and all of a sudden that slipped through so amidst all this nastiness, it seems like a little bipartisanship has broken out and maybe a trend is starting in the other direction. I’m certainly hoping so.

Reeher: You mentioned you had been working on USMCA, I wanted to ask you about that too. That’s the new North American Trade Agreement that recently passed the House Ways and Means Committee and my understanding is it will go to the full house which is Thursday, the day after we’re talking now.

Katko: That’s correct.

Reeher: It’s expected to be approved there so first of all, how will you vote on that?

Katko: A definite yes. It’s a huge win for us and you’ve got to get past the presidents bombast and you’ve got to take a look at what he said he was going to do and what he’s been able to do and this is a big one. He said NAFTA stunk and he’s going to renegotiate it and he did and it’s far more favorable for us. I can go through provisions if you’d like but the overall arching thing is, and no one can deny this, it’s a huge win for the American workers and American economy. He’s followed that up with a tentative phase one deal with China which looks like it’s really going to open up the cultural markets. He’s on the verge with having a deal with UK, and Japan, and a lot of other places so he’s doing the trade stuff. We had tax reform. We’ve had regulatory reform and a lot of the things he said he was going to do, he’s doing. Israel’s stabilized again. The Middle East is far more stable. I think there’s a lot of things happening that if you just, look it’s hard with him because he is so caustic at times, but a lot of good things have happened and it’s undeniable. This trade deal is a very big deal for us.

Reeher: I want to give you the opportunity to speak on recent initiatives your office has taken on in recent months that you think our listeners need to know about.

Katko: Yes, I’m becoming one of the point persons in all of Congress on cyber security and I’m continuing to work on that and my work on the cyber security subcommittee and homeland. In fact, I had two big meetings today in the midst of all this chaos around here and I just left one to come here and talk to you. I’m going to continue to do all that. I’m going to continue to work on the antiterrorism front and there’s a lot of advances we’ve had there, but I do want to take this time to talk to my constituents on whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you like me or you don’t like me, that’s secondary to what I’m trying to tell you. We’re at a dark time in our nation’s history. There’s been many dark times in our nation’s history where people thought we wouldn’t recover from and we always seem to find a way to do it because that’s the American spirit. I truly believe that we will get past this and the dust will settle, the sun will come up tomorrow and people maybe, maybe this is a low point for a while, but maybe we can continue to do some bipartisan stuff like we’ve done in the last week and a half.  That’s why I stay in Congress. That’s why I stay in this fight and why I’m willing to put up with all the nonsense I put up with to do this job because I truly believe that being bipartisan, working with both sides and being friendly with the other side is productive. I’m not the guy on t.v. blowing horns and going nasty on the other side, that’s not productive to me. I’m hoping and praying we can get past this impeachment and move on for the betterment of the country.

Reeher: That was Congressman John Katko. Congressman Katko, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and again, especially taking the time out of this day to do it.

Katko: Well you’re more than welcome. I appreciate the discussion and I meant what I said. I’m going to continue to work for everybody, not just the people that voted for me, and that’s the way it’s always going to be for me.