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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Dan Balz of the Washington Post Talkin’ Transition

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The audio:

11-21hhs-balz

The Transcript:

HH: Joined now by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz on transition week, Thanksgiving week. Dan, how are you? Happy Thanksgiving in advance.

DB: I’m good, thanks. How are you, Hugh? Happy Thanksgiving to you.

HH: I am great. I have one question I have been dying to ask you.

DB: Yes.

HH: You and Philip Rucker put together this amazing oral history of the election, which if anyone didn’t read it, they ought to go back and look up Balz-Rucker oral history. And I was pleased to participate in it. When I talked to you before the election, I was quite certain Trump would lose. And I am wondering, did anyone you talk to in that vast effort think Trump would win?

DB: I would say no.

HH: (laughing)

DB: I think that there were a few Trump people who, you know, we finished most of the reporting on just the weekend before and then we did a little clean up on Election night. But I think nobody really thought, the Trump people thought it had clearly tightened, and they had some opportunities, and they were going after them. I give them credit for that. But I don’t think at the time we talked to them they really thought. I think it really took until, for some of them, Monday when they thought we really actually do have an opportunity. But all the way through that, there was no question that the Clinton people clearly believed they were going to win, and the Trump people were, you know, were at best hopeful that they could create a path.

HH: Okay, now I have been involved in campaigns since 1976 when I ran the youth campaign for Ford in Massachusetts. How long have you been covering the, Dan Balz?

DB: Well, I came to the Post in ’78, and basically have been doing politics ever since. I mean, I was political editor for two cycles, and a reporter for all the other cycles. So it’s a long time.

HH: Okay, so we both have a lot of observation under our belt. Here’s my question do you. I have seen campaigns where one team was surprised, where neither team was surprised. I’ve never seen one where both were edified, where both were just gobsmacked. Have you?

DB: No, I can’t recall one. And frankly, I mean, we, you know, as we’ve said a hundred times, Hugh, we’ve never seen an election like the one we went through. I mean, we saw that, we believed that as we were living it, but even then, I think there was a sense, a broad consensus of how it was going to turn out, and it turned out the opposite way. And so I think both sides were clearly, you know, four years ago, the Romney people thought they were going to win. But the Obama people didn’t think Romney was going to win.

HH: Right.

DB: They were absolutely certain that they were going to win. And that’s pretty much the case in almost every election I’ve covered.

HH: Yeah, everyone, you either know it’s going to be a blowout, Dole in 1996, or you know it’s going to be close. But you don’t expect a blowout to be reversed.

DB: Right.

HH: I think a lot of people are needing additional time to absorb and process this result, because it’s unique in American political history. Dan Balz, I keep citing to my Christian friends Romans 11:33, The Ways of the Lord are simply beyond us. But let me ask you about the ways of the transition. Very surprising, first it’s faster than any previous transition to make a major cabinet appointment by a lot. Mike Pompeo was on my show on Thursday, totally head-faking me as befits a good spy. I was asking him about Devin Nunes. What did you make of Session, Pompeo and Flynn?

DB: Well, I mean, right, I think it’s, I mean, I think it signals what people have written, which is that this is going to be, in those positions, a pretty hard line team, and one that’s going to go after both the things that Trump talked about on immigration, but also on ISIS, and that it’s going to be a sort of leaning in on that. Now the question that we have, and that we’ve always had about Donald Trump is exactly what does he want to do about ISIS? I mean, he has spoken with muscular rhetoric, but the things he has said specifically about what he would or wouldn’t do has suggested a certain tentativeness about the application of force. So I think it remains to be seen whether his appointees will ultimately shape him, or whether he has as sense of what he wants to do and they’ll execute it.

HH: Dan Balz, let’s talk about a surprising fact about both of them. Mike Pompeo, number one in his class at West Point. That tells me way smart. Do you think, does intelligence of that level matter at the CIA? Or does operational experience of the sort that Porter Goss once had but failed to make relevant in his tenure as director? Which would you rather have going in?

DB: I would rather have somebody with judgment and somebody who is shrewdly smart rather than simply having a high IQ. I mean, I think that you know, I think in government jobs at that level, and probably particularly in the national security area, you just need people who have really good judgment. And that’s a hard, you know, that’s a hard thing to identify in advance, because people haven’t held those kinds of jobs. I mean, the job that he’s going to have now is different than anything he’s probably ever done, and more challenging in this environment. So I think that’s it. I mean, you want smart people, but you know, go back to the Kennedy in the best and the brightest. I mean, you know, smart people make mistakes, as a professor once told me years and years ago. The history of the world is the history of very smart people doing very dumb things.

HH: (laughing) Let me give you one advantage Pompeo brings to this job. He has been on the House Intelligence Committee, obviously, but his best friend, and I think probably really one of his closest friends not just in the Congress, is Tom Cotton, who’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This telegraphs to me an easy relationship between DCIA and the intelligence committees than we have had for many a year, probably back to when Tenet came in from the Senate staff, I believe, when he came over.

DB: Well, that would be, I mean, that would be helpful if that’s the case, but you do have Democrats on that committee also, and so…

HH: Sure.

DB: We don’t know what their posture’s going to be vis-à-vis the Trump cabinet, and particularly the Trump national security team. So I think, you know, I think we just have to let this play out a bit. I mean, I know everybody’s, you know, the press in particular, everybody wants to try to sort of leap to conclusions as to what everything will mean, you know, two years from now. And you know, there’s just so much unknown about President-Elect Trump once he takes that oath of office. You know, we haven’t heard from him since the day he was in the Oval Office, right? I mean, normally by this time, the President-Elect has held a full-blown press conference, and usually, the President-Elect announces the appointments to his cabinet himself with those people at his side to take a few questions. We haven’t gotten that, yet. Maybe we will this week, but we haven’t. So what he’s actually thinking, we don’t know, other than the kinds of people he’s picking.

HH: A couple of other surprises have been baked into this cake. He does love surprise, and I think that’s contoured to the American media that we enjoy today. Mike Flynn’s book, Field of Fire, has a page devoted to an introductory blurb by none other than Joe Lieberman. Mike Flynn, until his last two years, was a widely-regarded strategic and tactical genius. He’s been very controversial in the last two years. But I am, I just reread his House testimony on Iran. There is no doubt, Dan Balz, he is a hard liner, and there is no doubt that in many respects, that’s what Donald Trump promised us.

DB: Well, that’s, I mean, that’s right. That’s what he promised us. But whenever he would talk about what he would do in the Middle East, it was less interventionist in terms of military force than in some cases, President Obama has been. That’s an overstatement, to some extent, but, so, you’re right about Flynn. I don’t know him, but you know, our national security folks have covered him in the past, and I think you’re right. Until the last couple of years, he was very highly-regarded. And then as a result of the last couple of years, he’s a more controversial figure. But you know, he’s going to have the President-Elect’s, or the President’s ear in that particular role. And the question is what, how will he define that role? I mean, we know that in times past, the national security advisor has warred with the secretary of State or the secretary of Defense. And there have been times when the secretary, the national security advisor is a real honest broker. And we don’t know what Trump wants him to do, and we don’t know what role he wants to play. So that has to shake out, and they have to finish, you know, finish the national security team and then begin to develop those relationships.

HH: What is your reporting say about the likelihood of Mitt Romney joining?

DB: I would be surprised if Mitt Romney ends up in the cabinet. I just think that’s a bridge too far in many ways. I think it was probably smart of Trump to invite him in to have a conversation. They, you know, they could share some things, and that was probably useful. But I think given everything that he has said, I think it would be tough for him to take, and I think it would be tough for Donald Trump to put him in the cabinet. I mean, if that happened, that would be quite a signal, wouldn’t you think?

HH: If he does, I will then have said successfully before anyone else, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about history, Team of Rivals, will have made history both with President Obama and President-Elect Trump, because it clearly would be a team of rivals, Seward into Lincoln’s cabinet. Those two threw hammers at each other every bit as harsh as these two did, but Lincoln though it necessary to do.

DB: Yes, well, I agree. I think it would be beyond what Obama did with Hillary Clinton. I mean, I think that, they were in a legitimate battle for votes. Mitt Romney went out of his way…

HH: Sure.

DB: …to disparage Trump from start to finish.

HH: But Dan, quick question before we run out of time. Quick question. Mitt Romney, I think, is the only one who could do to President Trump what Jimmy Carter had done to him by Ted Kennedy, meaning mount an intra-party challenge in four years. Isn’t that one reason he might do it?

DB: Well, I think that’s definitely right, but there are others who could do it, and you know, we’ll see what he does with them, also. How’s that?

HH: Dan, always a pleasure. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, a genuinely deserved rest and a great time to be with family for a guy who’s been a road warrior for a year. Dan Balz, thank you.

End of interview.

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