Ohio Senator Rob Portman joined me this AM:
HH: Joined now by our favorite Senator in the United States Senate, Rob Portman of the great state of Ohio, my home state. Senator Portman, good morning, great to have you.
RP: Hugh, thanks for having me on again.
HH: So many things to talk about. Let’s start with the very serious ones. You are the chairman of the Committee on Investigations for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. And in that capacity, will you have any role on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into the Russian interference with our election investigation?
RP: Well, we might, although right now, Hugh, that’s being done by the Intelligence Committee. And frankly, they have access to classified information that I don’t have access to, our committee doesn’t have access to. And so it’s probably the right place for it. And my understanding is that they’re pretty far along on the initial investigation. I do think now that investigation may be broadened.
HH: Now a number of interest groups like Common Cause, President Karen Hobart Flynn and some Democrat colleagues of yours want a select committee to investigate General Flynn and Russian ties generally with Team Trump. Do you support a select committee?
RP: I support allowing the Intelligence Committee to do its work, and I think that’s the appropriate place for it, because it is a matter that requires getting access to material that would not normally be available to a committee, and that includes, you know, classified information that staff needs certain clearances to have access to. So I think it’s probably in the right place.
HH: And I am holding judgment on reports that the intelligence community may have inappropriately leaked information relating to General Flynn. I’m open to being persuaded, but I’m also skeptical of it. What do you make of those reports?
RP: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think some of the information that apparently they had during the campaign, you know, was not provided at least to the media. And you and I didn’t have access to it. but more recently, it seems like more information has come out. I don’t know, either. This is one of the things that needs to be looked into, and frankly, we need a lot more information generally to know, you know, what conclusions to draw. So I think we’ve got to take our time and do it right.
HH: I’m very leery of the alt right and I’m very leery of some conversations about the so-called deep state, suggesting that there are an intelligence community rear guard waging war with the Trump administration. At the same time, you have to be open to anything. What do you make of those reports, Senator Portman?
RP: Well, you know, I thought when President Trump went to the CIA and he talked about the people who put their lives on the line in the intelligence services, and who just do the hard work of trying to keep the country safe, that that is the vast, vast majority of those individuals. And you know, I think they deserve our respect and frankly, as President Trump did, our thanks. So I think that is the better approach to take to the intelligence community. The new guy over there, Pompeo, who is the new director of the Central Intelligence Community, is smart, capable. I know him a little bit. The DNI is Dan Coats, who you and I both know from Indiana, a Senator, former member of the Intelligence Committee. So you’ve got some good people over there now. And you know, I think we’ve got to allow them to do their work. And look, it’s a dangerous world right now, and we need them to be able to provide us intelligence, and I would say better intelligence, frankly, than we’ve had in the past.
HH: I do know Mike Pompeo pretty well as well, I’m very comfortable with this national security team, and if it’s Admiral Harward or if it’s John Bolton, it’s going to make an amazing national security team.
HH: Part of the problem in our environment now is you have this peanut gallery of former President Obama staffers, Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, you’ve got Ben Rhodes, who oversaw the Iran deal and misled everyone and didn’t respond to the genocide in Aleppo. Now you’ve got Dan Shapiro criticizing, the former ambassador to Israel, criticizing President Trump for sitting down with Netanyahu. Is this appropriate in the first month of a presidency to have the peanut gallery of the old president throwing stones? And do you think the former president is urging them on?
RP: Well, I hope he’s not. I look at the last time we had a tradition, it was President George W. Bush and his team, and you didn’t see any of this. I mean, that there may have been individual instances, you know, over the next year or so where you had people speaking up, but you know Steve Hadley, you know, Condi Rice, you know the people who were involved there, and I think their kind of character, Colin Powell, George W. Bush himself, who insisted on not criticizing his successor, just as his father had not criticized President Clinton. And I think that’s the better role if you’re a patriot.
HH: Yeah, Vice President Cheney waited a long time. He eventually became the leading critic, but he waited a long time. And former President Bush had us back on the last Wednesday of his presidency, a half dozen talk show hosts, to urge us to go easy on the new guy. I’m just amazed at these staffers, and this sort of, I guess they consider themselves the opposition bench, but it’s self-appointed and not helpful. Let me turn to the White House. You’re a veteran of the White House staff at OMB and USTR as well as Congress and Senate. I think it would be a disaster. The alt right’s kind of after Reince Priebus right now. I think he’s doing a terrific job. I think it would be a disaster if the President lost confidence in him. What do you think, Rob Portman?
RP: Yeah, and look, I was involved in the first Bush White House as the director of legislative affairs, and kind of saw some of those interactions in the White House. It’s an intense place. Let’s face it. You’ve been there. You were in the Counsel’s office. So was I. You were in the Reagan years. I was in the Bush years. I think Reince offers two things. One is some stability and continuity right now, and let’s face it, we need it. We’ve got to get onto The Fourth Way, all the issue, I’ve got your book at my bedside.
HH: Thank you.
RP: And we’ve got a lot of work to do. So let’s not get distracted by these issues that don’t relate to moving ahead with the country’s agenda, including the kind of rebuilding the military and restoring our role in the world. So I think that continuity is important. Second, Reince understands and knows the Hill better than other people who are in senior positions in the White House. It’s very important, because we’ve got to get some things done here with the Republican majority in the House and Senate. You talk about this in your book, and the potential for squandering that opportunity as frankly, I think we did before. So we need somebody who actually understands how the Hill work, where the levers are, how do you get things done, how do you get things across the finish line that the American people are desperate for.
HH: Now I’ve also, I’ve been talking in recent days about my friend, Andy Puzder, and I’ve known Andy for ten years, and he is an apostle of opportunity, and evangelist of free enterprise. He believes in the franchise model. I love the guy. I saw him bring 3,000 franchisees to a standing ovation in Las Vegas not two months ago. I am surprised that he hasn’t been, you know, unanimously approved by any American who wants growth in this country. What do you think is happening? Why are people, I think you’re among them, that are reluctant to say I’m with Andy, I’m going with him, because I will be so deeply disappointed if he is not confirmed, because he is, I think, the Bill Bennett of this administration as Bennett was to Reagan I, the sleeper who will show up and turn everybody’s head. Why the reluctance?
RP: Yeah, well, my position is consistent with the other cabinet nominees, which is you know, I want to see the hearing and ask the questions. I haven’t met with him, yet. I haven’t had the chance to have that interaction. And I’ve said I want to see what happens in the hearing and how he answers questions and so on. So we’ll see. Look, I think he’s got, as I’ve said publicly, incredible business background as you said. I think he has the potential to be one of the thought leaders in the administration. But he does have some issues, and these are issues related to the Labor Department in the sense of hiring somebody who’s illegal and not paying the taxes. And you know, honestly, he has, I think he has said, he should have known better. And so those are the issues among others that I want to hear from, and then just on the substantive issues where I think he and I are going to be very similar.
HH: I hope he answers those to your satisfaction. I really, I think the country needs him. It’s so desperately there. Last question for you, Natural Resources Committee, Oroville Dam is a massive failure of government. It’s a failure of California government. It may be a failure of the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA. Will your committee be looking into, because this is a potential catastrophic failure, and it’s because government failed, and people aren’t focusing on that. Do you expect your Natural Resources Committee to look at Oroville, Senator Portman?
RP: Yeah, I think it would be appropriate. It’s the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and it has within its jurisdiction the Interior Department. It does not have the Army Corps, which is, of course, Defense Department issue, and therefore the Armed Services Committee. But I do think the issue ought to be looked into, both for the specifics of what happened, how it got this far, you know, why it wasn’t detected. But second is the broader issue of infrastructure, and a survey of, you know, do we have this crumbling infrastructure around the country in other areas, and I think when that’s, you know, properly looked into, you’ll see that we do need to have a reinvestment in our infrastructure. I’m not suggesting that the government step up and do it all, by the way. As you know, Hugh, I believe in public-private partnership. And I think there’s an opportunity here. But yeah, it’s an appropriate thing to look at. I think the Army Corps is probably the focus.
HH: Now I have made an argument in The Fourth Way about how to do infrastructure spending. Did I persuade you that this should be run by local people for local projects?
RP: Yeah, I think one of the things you point out in your book that happened with the stimulus package that I did not support is that Washington was making the decisions, and frankly, taking its cut. In other words, it was very inefficient rather than getting it down to local level. And that’s where decisions are made. In Ohio, we actually make decisions very much at the local level with our regional transportation groups. And there’s a process, we call it the Trac Process that prioritizes. We have a sophisticated system there. I’ve actually advocated, as you may know, Hugh, for taking the gas tax and sending it back to the states…
RP …because that’s where you’re going to have much more efficiency in getting these things done. We think in Ohio there could be a 20-25% increase in funding for infrastructure if we were to do that, so I do think there’s an opportunity there.
HH: Senator Rob Portman, always a pleasure. Hope you’re on the right side of Andy Puzder. I’d hate to have a falling out over that, and I hope he answers your questions on Thursday. Keep coming back, Senator Portman.
End of interview.