Senator James Lankford joined me this morning:
HH: So pleased to welcome back Senator James Lankford. Good morning, Senator, how are you?
JL: I’m doing very well. Good morning to you.
HH: I thought this morning, I began with Sam Nunberg, because you used to be a pastor. And I wonder, you’ve seen people hit bottom before. I was traveling all day yesterday and following this meltdown on Twitter. What did you make of that?
JL: (laughing) I never want to second guess someone else’s emotional state on stuff, but I would tell you it’s one of the remarkable things about anybody at any point at any time. When you get a chance to do a meltdown, it’s painful when it’s public.
HH: Amen. That’s all I’m going to say is that I just thought it was a meltdown. Now let’s talk about politics. I was again on vacation when the President announced the tariff. I was surprised that we had a worldwide tariff. Were you?
JL: Yes, I was surprised, and he probably did it just because you were on vacation and thought he could slide it by.
JL: I would say I’m surprised it’s about a worldwide. I am still convinced that this is a negotiating tactic to try to get somebody to the table, whether it’s NAFTA, whether it’s some other nation or something, because it doesn’t make sense, because it’s been something that’s been tried before and failed. I don’t think it’s going to work again. When you talk about trying to bring jobs to America, there are a lot of great steel jobs in America, but a lot of other jobs are dependent on buying steel from all over the world, including American steel. And so it doesn’t gain us jobs to be able to do that.
HH: Did you get any notice it was coming, as a senator, as a member of the President’s party? Did you see any word that a worldwide tariff on aluminum and steel was coming Thursday?
JL: No, we had all the same hints and all the same everything that came out to everybody else. Now there have been a lot of meeting that I’ve been in where the President’s asked us directly, when we’ve been in small group meetings, what do you think about this. We’ve been able to share our opinion in private. But all of those, he has said I have still got to make the decision. There was never a hint of what direction that he was going to lean one way or the other. Whether it was NAFTA, whether it was about steel, I’ve been in those conversations to be able to help say here’s how it affects Oklahoma. Here’s how I think it affects our global economy. But again, he’s got to make the decision. I hadn’t seen that before it actually came out.
HH: And last question on this, Senator. I go back to the campaign. He talked a lot about China, about NAFTA, about pulling out of TPP. I never heard anything about a worldwide tariff on steel that would impact Australia and Canada and all of our allies and our downstream producers. I’m just stunned. Did anyone say to you ever there could be this kind of an attack on trade?
JL: No, no, never saw that, and when, especially when you talk about the tariffs being placed because of national security issues, to say about half of our steel that comes in from Canada is a national security issue is an unusual way to be able to define that.
HH: Now let’s talk about a genuine national security issue, the, also on vacation, it comes out that Russia attacked some of our election machinery, 21 different states. I am still uncertain whether they changed any votes. Do you, you’re a member of the Senate Intel Committee. Do you have any indication that it did?
JL: No, I don’t have any indication they changed any votes. What Russia was trying to do was not necessarily change votes. They were trying to explore what type of election equipment that we use. If you explore what type of election equipment that we use, by trying to get into systems and to be able to determine how did they use it, how do they update it, then that is information they could use at some point. That’s why it becomes such a big issue. So they were first going after election rolls, how many people are registered, how do they do the process, where do they store that information, and then how do they use the actual election equipment, because as you know, states use different equipment. There’s not a federal machine, which actually helps us in a cyberattack like this, to know it’s not a national attack, because there’s so many different types.
HH: Now given all this, the potential for this to sow discord, and of course, the long term strategic interest of Russia is to paralyze the United States with political division.
HH: Anyone who’s followed the Soviet Union and its transition to Russia understands that. What do we do about it? You’ve sponsored the Secure Elections Act. What would that actually do?
JL: So there are a couple of things that I think where weakness is that we need to be aware of. Number one is we’ve got to be aware that there are outside entities trying to attack us. The Russians did it last time. It may be the North Koreans. It may be the Iranians next time. It could be just some activist group that decides they want to be able to attack a local election. We need to be aware of that. So information sharing has to be streamlined These 21 states that were attacked the last time, many of them, the Russians did not penetrate those states, but they tried to. But some of those states, it was a year before they found out that there were individuals trying to be able to attack their system. The federal government was aware of it. The states weren’t aware of it. We’ve got to streamline that communication. That means identifying individuals in that state, getting them security clearances, knowing that when the attack happens who’s going to be called, and so they can start that process. Thankfully, the Department of Homeland Security has already started that even before a bill is done. But I’d like to get that required so that we know that’s just a standard part of it. The second part of it is there are election systems in about 12 states that still cannot audit their elections. That means if there’s something that happens during the election time, they can’t go back and check the veracity of those machines, were they actually getting an accurate account. If the Russians were to get into one of the software pieces, because they’re not hooked up to the internet the day of the election, but they do get an update, a software update, before they head to that election time. So if they get into that software update, and they, all they have to do is just to be able to change the machines where randomly they put out different results, there’s no way to be able to verify it. So I think states should have some way to be able to audit those machines so that we can trust the election when it’s over.
HH: All right. Let me turn to Mr. Mueller and your Intel Committee work. Are you surprised by the breadth and width of the latest round of Mueller subpoenas?
JL: You know, I am. He is taking a pretty broad look as you go through it. It’s the difficulty of any special counsel that when you start the process, you can really go anywhere where you want to go, look at anything. So you take a situation like Paul Manifort. That’s not an election-related prosecution that he’s currently going through in the indictments. Those are things that were in his private business and in his private world separate from that. But he can go as many places as he wants to go and as many people as he wants to be able to go through that process. What I don’t want to see, and what’s been my challenge all along is the reason I’m always nervous about a special counsel is the length of time that they can take to resolve it. As you know, it was six years on the Iran Contra investigation. President Reagan was out of office, and the special counsel is still working and going through the process. So I’d like for them to be able to quickly wrap up the pertinent issues and say these are the key points of interest. These areas are closed and resolved. Now there still may be other areas, but it would certainly help the American people if they would resolve the key areas.
HH: Have you seen any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?
JL: I have not, but again, the Special Counsel is going to be the point person on that. When you go through the Intelligence Committee, one of the key things that we’re looking at is policy areas, all the information, double checking, trying to be able to evaluate it. We don’t see everything the Special Counsel is trying to go through, but we do make sure that they have seen everything that we know of.
HH: Now Senator Lankford, there’s news breaking this morning that North Korea has said it has no reason to possess nuclear weapons, open to bilateral talks with the United States, and that it’s not going to attack the South Koreas. This is all from Kim Jong Un and a senior envoy from the president of South Korea. What do you make of this announcement?
JL: It’s a good first step. The issue’s going to be where it goes from here. It’s one thing for him to be able to talk about it. It’s another thing for them to actually change behavior. It was just a couple of weeks ago that he was talking about launching a nuclear weapon aimed at the United States and showing their capacity to be able to do it, launching missiles over Japan for their test missiles. So it’s, I’m not going to say this is an abject conversion that’s happening at this point. We’ve got to be able to back it up. But I’ll always take a good positive step. It’s a much better day when they’re saying hey, we think we can reach an agreement rather than tomorrow, we’re going to launch another nuclear test.
HH: Well said. All right, a couple of things, 139 Trump administration nominees are stuck in the Senate, including, I think, probably most prominently, Rick Grenell, who should be in Germany as they form a new government. You have been pushing for rules changes. We talk about it every time you are on. Are we ready to go nuclear, because they’re just not moving people, and honestly, we’ve got to get some ambassadors appointed, Senator Lankford.
JL: So first things first, and before we talk about doing what’s called the nuclear option. That’s what Harry Reid used in 2013. That’s what Republicans used last year working through the nominations. When nominations get stuck, the first thing you try to do is go through the regular order and do it all the best way through the normal rules process. In 2013, Democrats were frustrated with Republicans because we had held up about 20 nominations. Now, there’s over 100 nominations being held up by Democrats. But Republicans held up about 20 nominations. Democrats worked with Republicans and said let’s come to an agreement of accelerating the debate so we can find actually these nominations go through the process. Republicans agreed with that, agreed to make a rule change for two years during that term to accelerate the rules, or accelerate the debate time. This didn’t change anything. Every person still got debate. Every person still went through the committee. Every person still had background work. Everything was the same except the floor debate was shortened. Quite frankly, there’s 30 hours that’s allotted for each person. Typically, the actual debate on that person is about 15 or 20 minutes. The debate’s really in the committee process, not on the floor. And so what I’m proposing is the exact same thing that Democrats requested in 2013 that Republicans gave them to be able to bring that exact same proposal back up and to say let’s make this the rule and make it permanent. Whether Republican or Democrat in charge, here’s how we should do the debate time, and to be able to bring that up and to make that a permanent rule, that’s two hours for judges for debate, eight hours for everyone else except Supreme Court, Circuit Court and cabinet. They would still be 30 hours. But the vast majority of people would be eight hours of debate rather than 30 hours. I still would assume that even with an eight hour time period that’s given to that, we’ll still end up with about 20 minutes of actual debate on each person. So I would hope that we wouldn’t even use the eight hours.
HH: Well, where is Rick Grenell? Let’s be very specific. We’ve got a new government in Germany with new leadership arising, one of whom is a friend of Grenell. Why is he not in Berlin?
JL: Because everything’s being held up. Every time you bring somebody up and say let’s fast track this, this shouldn’t be controversial, whether it’s there or whether it’s in multiple other countries where we have ambassadors still pending, or whether it’s district court judges that are not controversial, yesterday we had a district court judge that passed 95-0 on the floor. But we still had to have this protracted process to actually get them into place. So again, when Democrats slow down the process, it does two things. It prevents obvious people like Grenell or like district court judges or others from being able to get into place. It prevents the administration from actually functioning, because there is no political leadership in each of these agencies, especially in the deputy assistant secretaries and such. And it also prevents us from getting on legislation. We can’t debate this on the floor.
HH: But Senator, if there is this problem, why does the leader let the Senate go home? Honestly, Republicans are asking this. You know, okay, just keep them there around the clock, 24/7. If the Democrats won’t do their work, don’t let the Democrats go home and campaign.
JL: Well, I have to tell you, you and I have talked about this before. I have no issue with that. This has to be able to come to a head to be able to actually resolve this. I think it needs to be resolved in a rule change, and to say our practice and our rules need to be able to line up. But even at that, eight hours a person, will still be something that will drag on forever. To be able to get it done, we have to press it. This has been historic in its slowdown, but again, it doesn’t have to be the future foretold as well. I have told my Democratic colleagues whatever is happening now, you’re doing four times as much to us as what we did to you five years ago. Just assume four times as much is going to happen to you when there’s the next Democrat president. That doesn’t help the country. We’ve got to be able to resolve this. So I am for every technique we want to put out there to say we’ve got to be able to fix this, to be able to break where we are.
HH: Well, Senator, I appreciate it. Come back and talk about budget reform another time, but I hope you get your nominee reform done. I hope you go talk to the leader about Rick as well. I just think it’s crazy for the most important country in the world that doesn’t have nuclear weapons not to have an ambassador from America there. I would put him on the floor today and keep them there until the end. Senator James Lankford, always a pleasure. Thank you, Senator.
End of interview.