President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway joined me today to discuss all things #Transition:
HH: So pleased to welcome back on my first day back Kellyanne Conway, strategist, campaign manager for President-Elect Donald Trump. Kellyanne, welcome and congratulations. I haven’t had a chance to tell you that in person, yet. Congratulations.
KC: Hugh, that’s very kind of you. Thank you. Five weeks ago tomorrow, so it never gets old to us. We’re just happy to be part of the transition, the peaceful transition in our great democracy to the next administration. You see with the President-Elect, the Vice President-Elect, meeting with about 85 men and women of diverse backgrounds trying to fill this cabinet and the broader administration, and talking to over 50 heads of state now. So it’s a very exciting time.
HH: I must say as a conservative, it’s the most conservative cabinet stand up of my lifetime. And when you look at Andy Puzder and Scott Pruitt and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, these are extraordinary five-star appointments up and down the ranks. Has any conservative said anything other than bravo to you?
KC: Oh, well, there will always be some dissenting voices. That’s how they get on TV and get huge speaking fees, but that’s okay. We believe in the 1st Amendment right to dissent and right to free speech. But they really should give a chance to this President-Elect to go ahead and form his cabinet and his senior team in his broader administration. What you say is empirically true that it’s a conservative cabinet taking form, Hugh, but it’s also one where you find the first and foremost criterions for each of these men and women is that they’re capable and qualified to do the job they’re being asked to do on day one. They also understand that this is President Trump’s vision. He wants our secretary of State and others, for example, our homeland security chief and others, to advance U.S. interests around the globe. We do not have good relationships across the world as we need to and as we could. And so that’s an incredibly important priority. The other thing is he’s assemble people that have just been at the top of their game in industry or in government, certainly in the military. These are folks who are going to be making an enormous sacrifice of time and treasure to go and serve in the highest levels of government. I think that’s something that’s truly struck me is how many men and women have come forward at times when they could be making much more money or have a quieter, less busy life. They truly want to serve the United States of America in these high level capacities.
HH: Yeah, we have to underscore that. Andy Puzder is going to make an enormous sacrifice to be the secretary of Labor, because he is an evangelist for the franchise and for free markets, and ditto Scott Pruitt, ditto Betsy DeVos. You’re absolutely right. Let me ask you about the most important appointment of all, Kellyanne Conway, to the vacancy created by the untimely death of Antonin Scalia. Has President-Elect Trump conducted any interviews for that position, yet?
KC: He’s very focused on that vacancy, and of course, the President-Elect has said all along that he will nominate jurists to the United States Supreme Court, and to the federal courts, where there are many, many, dozens of vacancies, Hugh, in the likeness of Antonin Scalia. And he came forward with a list of 20 or 21 potential nominees to the United States Supreme Court. He has committed to nominating his first choice at the very least from that list. So I think it also goes to this transparency and with openness that he’s been trying to, he’s been trying to set the table on that. If you look at that list, you see men and women from diverse background, but who all believe in strict construction. They all believe in, that the Constitution is a document that should be respected. You should not make up the laws you go along to fit your politically-correct agenda, or fit with popular opinion or what lobbyists or donors think that you should do, or what Hollywood thinks you should do. That’s incredibly important to the President-Elect when he selects his jurists. He has had meetings about that recently. I think when we have an Attorney General that is confirmed, and of course, when the President himself is in inaugurated, he’ll turn his attention more earnestly toward that particular vacancy.
HH: Now Kellyanne Conway, the Court accepted cert on some very important redistricting cases. If the nominee is there in time and confirmed, that new justice can participate in those very important decisions. If we wait for AG Sessions, that might not be the case. Is that figuring into the President-Elect’s logic?
KC: Well, we are well aware of the timing at hand for cases like that, and the nomination confirmation process here, Hugh. But you’re right to point out how important cases like the redistricting cases truly are. I think the types of matters before the United States Supreme Court that get most attention are ones that deal with gay marriage or abortion or things of that ilk. But cases like this go to the very heart of our democracy, go to the very heart of fairness in the electorate. And so you’re absolutely correct to point those out. We of course are discussing many different things privately and confidentially, internally, but I can assure everyone that just as when he was a candidate, President-Elect Trump and indeed President Trump very focused on the federal judiciary. We have a great concern that people talk about legislating from the bench. Essentially what that means to your listeners is people just making stuff up as they go along, having a conclusion in search of evidence. That’s not the way our law is supposed to work. He also, the President-Elect is somebody who respects federalism and understands the separation of powers that is so precious to our nation’s history and continuing prosperity, Hugh, so he is somebody who understands his important role in nominating these individuals to the Supreme Court and elsewise, and the importance of the Senate, of course, in confirming those men or women. But at the same time, we will not interfere in what the judiciary is trying to do in these cases.
HH: I look at the list that the President-Elect put out, and I see Justice Blackwell in Georgia, 42, Justice Larson in Michigan, 47, Justice David Strauss, who’s a superstar in Minnesota, 42, Don Willett, the justice of Texas who makes us all laugh, but is also a principles originalist, 50. They’re all state supreme court justices. If the one who doesn’t end up being the Supreme Court nominee, or Margaret Ryan, a Marine, 53, will you then move to put them on, do you expect the President-Elect to put them on the Circuit Courts vacancies there? I like to point to people those are almost as important as the Supreme Court vacancy.
KC: Well, that’s right, and they don’t get nearly as much attention. They’re obviously important at the Circuit level, Hugh, because that’s, the circuit system is right before the Supreme Court system. And of course, that’s, if there’s a split in the circuit, that’s how you get the Supreme Court to grant cert in a matter in the first place. If they’re qualified and they’re capable to do the job, then of course they would be considered, perhaps among others, for those federal judicial vacancies. And I’m glad you’re mentioning their ages, though, because these are lifetime appointments, particularly at the Supreme Court level. People focus on that. You can have this justice for 30, 40, 50 years in some cases. And it’s just incredibly important that the person be somebody who honors the Constitution, who does not insert themselves or popularity or public opinion into the process. We have the Constitution. Some people think it’s a living, breathing document. The President-Elect believes he follows in the likeness of Antonin Scalia in his approach to the Constitution, which many people, even his detractors, recognize is very consistent and quite brilliant. So the fact that people can go online, Hugh, and look up these jurists that have been nominated, look at these very qualified men and women, that should give people a lot of comfort, because, you’re seldom find very few people so transparent and open about their list.
HH: It’s a great list. It’s a terrific list, and I want to ask, though, about President George W. Bush waited a few months before he nominated his appellate justices, judges, and they got caught up in the filibuster when Jim Jeffords jumped, as you remember.
HH: Can we expect appellate court nominees early in the administration?
KC: The one thing I can assure you, and I think everyone can appreciate this, Hugh, is that the President-Elect is a man in a hurry to do great things very quickly.
KC: I mean, his 100 day plan doesn’t include one or two things. It includes ten or eleven. And he takes it very seriously. But on that list is certainly a focus on the judiciary. We’ve had vacancies for a very long time that have gone unfilled. We just can’t operate like this. We of course have had the Justice Scalia vacancy since last February or March. So yes, I think he’s somebody, you could look at the judicial appointments much the way you look at these cabinet appointments where he’s way ahead of schedule of any Republican or Democratic president in modern political history. You can rest assured that he’s somebody who’s very decisive after he takes that counsel, gives a wide berth of different considerations to individuals. He is somebody who is very decisive and implements very quickly. That’s what non-politicians do, frankly. That’s that brilliant, successful businessmen do. They’re transactional, they’re accountable for results and delivery, and he’s applying that already to his would-be administration. You can expect that to spill over into judicial appointments.
HH: Kellyanne Conway, you’re a lawyer, so I like to ask you this, one more in the weeds question. Harry Reid packed the DC Circuit. The DC Circuit is vital to roll back the administrative state that is killing growth. And the 9th Circuit is out of control. Do you expect that the President-Elect would move to expand the DC Circuit and to break up the 9th Circuit early, perhaps even in the budget, so that it could be in reconciliation?
KC: It certainly is possible. It is nothing that I’m willing to commit to on his behalf one way or the other. He is aware of those roiling debates, and he is aware of why people engage in those debates, Hugh. He’s aware of why someone like you, a prominent voice like you, would even mention that at this juncture. And I’m also very pleased that you would remind people or inform them in the first place what happened when people are trying to politicize the courts, and what happens when they try to pack the court with people who are politically or ideologically incompatible with them in their agenda. This is just not the way our great system that has separation of powers and three branches of government is intended to work. But at the same time, he’s aware of this, and this is somebody who said we all know he’s an unconventional president doing unconventional things, Hugh. At the same time, Donald Trump was elected on a mandate of change. You had over 70% of Americans saying all along that they want to take the country in a new and different direction. They want to change it and break from the past, the corrosiveness of Washington, D.C. And I think that corrosiveness and that over-politicization if not corruption that leads to situations on our courts that you just identified is precisely what Americans asked him to begin a departure from and to change it in a very meaningful way.
HH: Yeah, I agree with that. Let me ask you about standing up the departments, Kellyanne. Jeff Sessions, probably the most qualified AG nominee in 30 years given his time as U.S. Attorney, AUSA and in the Senate. But does the President-Elect sit with him, and did he delegate to him the selection of the Solicitor General? Or is the President-Elect saying look, John Eastman’s over here, or this great lawyer’s over here? Did he delegate the selection of the sub-cabinet to the cabinet appointees? Or is it iterative?
KC: It’s so collaborative, but the President-Elect respects very much that he’s nominating people for these cabinet positions who will obviously weight in and help make the decision as to whom the sub-cabinet appointees are. Incredibly important to have that collaboration from the beginning, because we respect these cabinet officials, Hugh, that they need to work with these people on a day to day basis as well. And I just am very struck. I was struck during the campaign and incredibly struck during this transition just how collaborative the President-Elect is when it comes to taking different people’s counsel. I mean, this is the way he’s been running his business, his very successful business, his entire career, for decades, which is taking counsel from other people, focusing on who’s in command and control ultimately. He and Jeff Sessions are very close. Senator Sessions and he have a great relationship. He has an enormous respect for the Attorney General-designate, and you can expect that type of approach to go into the other departments as well where if the President-Elect has a strong opinion about a particular sub-cabinet nominee or has met other people maybe for the top spot that could be a great deputy or under-secretary, of course he’ll weight in with that.
HH: Oh, I listened very closely yesterday to the President-Elect on Fox News, and he mentioned the permitting mess, which is actually holding back growth by a percent or two percent. And he brought up the fact we have to change that. Now Scott Pruitt at EPA and Cathy McMorris Rodgers at Interior, they will free up a lot. But there’s some sub-cabinet things like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources. They all collaborate to clear away this bureaucratic headlock on growth. Is that on the President-Elect’s radar, because I think I heard that yesterday, and I was clapping my hands when I did.
KC: It truly is, Hugh. This goes not only with the draining of the swamp promise he’s made, but it also goes with let’s stop settling for 1 ½ – 2% anemic growth. I mean, why do we settle for that? His entire tax plan and jobs growth and prosperity plan assumes 3-4% growth. It assumes unleashing energy in this country. I mean, these regulations are literally suffocating our ability to spur billions of dollars in economic development and create millions of jobs. And in the case of energy, to have that energy that is literally under our feet and off our shores, leveraged and developed in a way that benefits Americans, America, her allies and her interests here and abroad. We can be, our non-partisan experts say we can be energy independent in the next couple of years if not decades. We can create new jobs. People always complain, Hugh, they say that nothing’s made in America anymore. Well, energy is, so let’s go ahead and invest in coal and shale the way he has promised to do. That’s one good example. The other examples are just in his entire tax and regulatory framework. He wants to create a framework where we have fewer regulations. His 100 day plan includes for every new regulation that he puts forward, he will rescind and roll back two of them. There are hundreds of regulations that people have identified as having a stranglehold on entrepreneurs, on employers, on businesses. You start reducing the sheer burdens and suffocation of the regulatory framework and the taxation in this country, you know, we’ve got the second or third highest corporate tax in the world. And people say oh, go ahead and tax corporations. They’re employers, and they make stuff that you and I buy. So you make it easier for them, they will on their own keep their workers here. They will feel comfortable expanding here and selling their goods here.
HH: Since you brought up tax reform, let me, I’m keeping you a little bit long, Kellyanne, and I appreciate your patience. I heard the Secretary of the Treasury-designate, Mnuchin, come out of the box on the day after his nomination was announced and say they wanted to cap the home mortgage interest deduction. That’s a killer for home values across the United States. It puts the National Association of Realtors in the field against the President-Elect. Is that locked in? Can we have a debate about that, because that’s a bad idea.
KC: That is not locked in. And you’re right, there will be discussion and debate. There will be some dissent, I’m sure, from some corners, and it’s, look, no matter who is serving in the cabinet, the ultimate decision maker rests with the most brilliant negotiator and businessman I’ve ever met, Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States. But it’s good that most people who assume cabinet positions, many people who assume high level government positions, Hugh, what do they usually do? They play it safe. They hunker down. They don’t want to lift their head up and roil anybody and rankle anybody, and make any enemies on their way to getting these, to getting through confirmation. You have to appreciate the fact that you have cabinet nominees who are already trying to get out there and talk about the potential for changes in policy. But some of that is decided, and none of that will ever be decided without the input and command and control of President Trump.
HH: Have you discussed, yet, the size of the stimulus that the President-Elect would like? He’s committed to it. It can work. It can do great things, in fact, and the Defense rebuild needs to get underway in a hurry if we’re going to get to 350 ships like he’s promised. Does he have a number for the size of the stimulus, yet?
KC: There is no number that has been settled upon, but as you can imagine, the stimulus itself, and keeping good on his campaign promises, but also making sure that we produce more jobs, energy, infrastructure, all of that in line with what you’re talking about in terms of spending, and of course, you’re building our military, something he’s talked about at every turn, all of that is under consideration and discussion. And he will be consulting with what I think is becoming a very amazing economic team before any of these decisions are made. You know, Hugh, he has, the President-Elect has just, as you know, he’s high energy, a flurry of activity, a guy in a hurry to do great things very quickly. At the same time, he recognizes that we have about five more weeks or so as of tomorrow of this president. And he’s still the commander-in-chief. President Obama is still in charge of the domestic economy. We’re respectful of that so as not to announce changes in policy or overly, overreaching on certain areas where…but once he takes office, that’s why he’s planning and plotting now. Once he takes office, you’ll see many of these changes, and you’ll see many of these questions being answered.
HH: Do you expect the United States embassy to move to Jerusalem, Kellyanne Conway?
KC: That is a very big priority for this President-Elect, Donald Trump. He has made that, he made that very clear during the campaign, Hugh. And as President-Elect, I’ve heard him repeat it several times privately, if not publicly. It’s something that our friends in Israel, our great friend in the Middle East, Israel, would appreciate, and it’s something that a lot of Jewish-Americans also have expressed their preference for that. It’s a great move, and it’s an easy thing for him to do based on how much he talked about, I think, in the debates, out on the stump, why it’s important to do. It’s one of those…
HH: Yeah, I’m not Jewish, but I stand for it, because I’m for a strong Middle East and a democratic ally, yeah…
KC: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that’s the thing. That’s the thing. People scratch their heads and wonder why it wasn’t done, Hugh, if anything.
KC: And of course, you touched upon something incredibly important and it reminds all of us, including your listeners today, which is the Evangelical Christians always have, for example, always have Israel on the top of their list when you ask them what’s most important to them. People think it’s just marriage, it’s just abortion, it’s just religious liberty. Of course, it’s all of that, but it’s also, it’s also a strong Middle East and protecting Israel. And I talked to General Flynn, the national security advisor-designee very recently. He said his top three priorities as NSA director will be government reform, and will be peace and security. And also, he told me stabilization in the Middle East. And that’s important for us all to realize you’ve got an NSA director who pinpointed that as one of the top three priorities as he sees it. And it goes with what you’re saying about moving the capital, certainly, but also just sending that message and tone and content, substantively, that this commander-in-chief and this president of the United States wants strength around the globe, but he will always put Americans first.
HH: Let me close with two quick political questions, Kellyanne Conway. There are only 8 Republicans up in 2018 – Jeff Flake, Dean Heller, Roger Wicker, Deb Fischer, Bob Corker, Ted Cruz, Orrin Hatch and Senator Barrasso. Jeff Flake was not with Donald Trump. If Republicans oppose the President’s agenda, can we expect the President-Elect, soon to be the president, to go out and recruit someone to run against them in the primary?
KC: We’re not thinking about the politics of 2018 at the moment, and we certainly would love to support Republican incumbents. We also would ask in the case of Senators Heller and Senator Flake, neither one of them were particularly supportive, and I think Senator Flake went out of his way many times to be unsupportive, particularly if there was a Sunday show to get on. We certainly hope that they’ll look at this agenda and see how cohesive it is with the way Senator Jeff Flake has voted, and what he says is important to him as the junior Senator from Arizona. There’s tax reform. There’s energy investment. There’s draining the swamp. There is certainly defeating radical Islamic terrorism. There is more school choice and charters, more choice, whether it’s home schooling or charters or vouchers or private school, parochial school, better public schools, really one of the underappreciated tenets of Donald Trump’s campaign and now his positions as President-Elect. So I would ask these people, regardless of when they’re up for reelection to really give a chance to this President-Elect’s agenda. Take a really good look at it and see what they can live with. I guarantee you, Hugh, that it’s not just the eight Republicans who are up for reelection in 2018. I suspect that some of those Democrats who are up for reelection in 2018, including, if not especially, the ten who reside in states that Donald Trump just won, I suspect they’re going to have a lot of, make a lot of joyful noises if not affirmative votes on behalf of the President-Elect’s agenda.
HH: I hope so. Bob Casey had better be watching. Sherrod Brown had better pay attention.
HH: Let me close by asking you about polling. You started with the Worthland group. You went over to Luntz, and then your own polling company, among the best in the business. Why was polling so broken in this election?
KC: Well, we certainly saw different numbers internally. And I think a couple of things happened that people should really reflect upon beyond just this last month. So we need some real systemic changes. One is folks just assumed that the 2012 electorate would be the 2016 electorate. We saw early on that Secretary Clinton was just going to have a devil of a time attracting and keeping together, keeping enthused and together for her the Obama coalition, whether that were voters of color, millennials. It was just a really magical turnout for him, really helped propel him both times in 2008 and 2012. He tried very hard to get them to come out and like her and vote for her, but it wasn’t to be. So if 93% of one group is voting for you, Hugh, and their turnout was down 2-3% here and there, it’s going to hurt. Secondly, people had a conclusion in search of evidence. He could never win, and she could never lose. So let’s make sure that somehow, we structure this to always get that result. Third thing that happened is people were giving the undecided voters to Hillary Clinton. That was never to be, because she represents the status quo, and frankly, incumbency. And the undecided voters had decided a couple of things. They really wanted to take the country in a new and different direction, and they were very decided about how they felt on Hillary Clinton. They didn’t much like her, and they certainly didn’t trust her. Finally, we saw, I started talking about this in July under a hail of criticism, as you may recall. But this undercover Trump voter was real. And it was real and it was palpable. You could see it at the rallies. We had about an 8-9 point advantage in enthusiasm and momentum in his closing weeks, and it mattered. It mattered for those razor-thing victories in Michigan. It mattered in Wisconsin. It mattered to put us over the top in Pennsylvania, to manage our deficits in the collar counties, and to explode our gains in the T section of Pennsylvania, for example, and certainly in Western Pennsylvania. Undercover Trump voter, it’s not that they were embarrassed to say they were voting for Donald Trump. It’s that they didn’t look like Trump voters. If you’d seen who they were in the past, they were reliable Democratic voters. They were folks who had never voted before, or who had been lapsed voters. And they were coming out because of Donald Trump. They would not have been there for another Republican nominee.
HH: That’s true.
KC: They were there because of the messenger and the message.
HH: Trumbull County, Mahoning County, my home counties, absolutely. Kellyanne, let me close with this. The President-Elect is his own best spokesman. The Vice President-Elect is a terrific spokesman. But whoever is the press secretary carries on the battle every day. Are you considering that job? Has that job been decided, yet?
KC: I have politely declined that job, Hugh, and I completely agree. I think it’s an incredibly important position to fill. And I know that there will be a qualified man or woman who takes that position and does an excellent job for President Trump and Vice President Pence. As you can imagine, if it’s President Trump’s administration, communications will be a very important aspect of it. And there will be a number of people handling that. But you’re right, and we can also expect that, I think the skeptical, the hostile press will continue the way they have, frankly, in this last five weeks since he got elected. And I think many of them are election deniers still fighting the last war, still thinking we’re in the permanent campaign. So one thing we may not get the rest of the…
HH: There’s my headline.
KC: There you go.
HH: Kellyanne Conway, great to talk to you. Come back early and often, and we’ll convert those election deniers. That’s terrific.
KC: Thank you.
HH: Thank you, Kellyanne Conway.
End of interview.