South Dakota Senator John Thune joined me today to discuss all of the above:
HH: Unlike Meryl Streep, I actually have things to say and people to talk with, including United States Senator John Thune of the great state of South Dakota. Follow him on Twitter, @SenJohnThune. He is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate conference as the conference leader. Senator Thune, Happy New Year, great to have you back.
JT: Thanks, great to be with you, Hugh, and how about Deshaun Watson to the Browns? What do you say?
HH: No, I’m a Mitch Trubisky guy.
HH: I want the Mentor native to come home just like Bernie Kosar, but that’s, I’ll take Deshaun, either, whoever they grade out best. I want a quarterback. Hey, Senator Thune, I want to begin with the breaking news that your colleague, Tim Scott, has endorsed Jeff Sessions. Now today, we’re going to see a lot of dirt thrown at Jeff Sessions, an honorable man, and maybe the most qualified man to be attorney general in the last 60 years. And I served Bill Smith and Ed Meese, but he as an assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney, state attorney general. He’s been elected four times to the Senate. He served on the Judiciary Committee. He’s a man of complete integrity, and I think Tim Scott helps him. Do you expect any problems getting Jeff Sessions confirmed?
JT: I don’t, but I think the Democrats, as you pointed out, Hugh, are going to, I think it’s going to be an ugly confirmation hearing, and I think there will be a lot of attacks launched. But Tim Scott’s endorsement is very important, but as you mentioned, Jeff is just enormously qualified for the job, a record of service, tremendous respect for the rule of law, and will be a great attorney general. And I, he will be confirmed.
HH: At this point, I do not believe any nominee will not be confirmed. I know two of them pretty well – Andy Puzder and Attorney General Scott Pruitt, and they’re just terrific guys. But everyone seems to me to be very well qualified, without personal foibles that would result. None at least have come to light, yet, in their disqualification on grounds of character. Are you agreeing with me at this point it looks like everybody will be nominated, who has been nominated will be confirmed?
JT: I do. I mean, I think I’ve looked at, I think these are strong picks all the way around. They’re people of great experience and quality, and I think bring resumes to these positions that are going to be very difficult for Democrats to attack. But I’m sure they’ll try, but these people, I haven’t seen anybody that has any characteristics or anything yet that would disqualify them. I think they’re all going to be confirmed.
HH: Let me play for you your colleague, Chris Murphy, was kind enough to come on the show yesterday, Democrats. I’m glad that he did, and we had a conversation about the Reid Rule. Here is the key takeaway from that conversation.
HH: So Harry Reid changed it vis-à-vis the nominee. Straightforward question, Senator Murphy, that precedent has not yet been applied to a Supreme Court nominee, but it is clearly applicable, is it not?
CM: The precedent, yeah, I mean, I think the precedent of changing the rules in the middle of the Congress, right, was, you know, was the basis on changing the number from 60 to 50 for presidential appointees, so I assume that precedent still holds. You can argue against it for policy grounds, but I’m not sure that the precedent changes in this Congress.
HH: So Senator Thune, there was a pause there, but I appreciate Senator Murphy’s candor. The Reid Rule is about changing the rules. And if they obstruct a Supreme Court nominee you guys can do that. Do you disagree with Senator Murphy?
JT: Well, I mean, there are going to be people, Hugh, who have a different understanding of what that rules change entailed. It’s interesting to me that he would concede that point.
HH: Oh, yeah.
JT: Because I think the Democrats are going to fight tooth and nail to stop whoever President Trump puts forward. But we’re going to confirm his nominee to the Supreme Court. And I hope that the Democrats decide to help with that, but that’s, we are committed to that. We’re going to fill that seat on the Court.
HH: Now let’s talk about some other issues. That means, I interpret that as meaning, and I’ve heard it from a few Republicans, that we’ll break the 60 vote filibuster if we have to, we prefer not to have to do that, but…
JT: I didn’t say that.
HH: You didn’t say that, but that’s what I’m hearing.
HH: Let’s talk about the attacks on Donald Trump for ethics. Laurence Tribe and a couple of other law professors wrote a piece for Brookings on the Emoluments Clause. Now the Emoluments Clause was originally applied to Ben Franklin and people like that getting snuff boxes. And they want to argue that having a drink at a Trump hotel is a violation of the Emoluments Clause. I think all the early framers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, traded internationally at fair market at arm’s length. Isn’t this going crazy here that they’re trying to criminalize the President-Elect’s business when everyone knew he had properties all over the world? I mean, he’s not going to run them day to day, but he doesn’t have to sell them.
JT: No. No, it is. I mean, the lengths that they’re going to, to try and discredit some of these nominees, I think, are unprecedented. I mean, you’re basically saying that anybody who has had any amount of success in business, and in the international marketplace, is no longer able to hold an office, you know, at a cabinet level in this country, which I think is just, on its face, absurd. So I mean, they are, they’re going to make all their launch on all these attacks, and they’re going to try and drag this process out. But because of the 51 vote threshold, these people are going to get confirmed, and they are. As I said, they’re quality people who have real world experience, and I think that’s what Donald Trump ran on. And I don’t think any American would be surprised that he’s nominating people to these positions who bring that kind of background and experience to the job, and frankly, I think they value that.
HH: As of yet, do you see any particular charge against the President-Elect personally, or against Jared Kushner or any member of his staff, that sticks?
JT: I don’t. I mean, I think that other than, again, these people have had vast dealings, and they’re, the Democrats are going to consistently, and the media will probably be an accomplice in this, try and find areas of perceived conflict. But no, I mean, this is a guy who ran for president as a businessman. The American people elected him because that’s what they wanted. And I don’t think it should come as any surprise that you’ve got somebody in office who has some pretty extensive dealings, and I believe they’ll do everything that they can to ensure that there’s a sufficient level of separation, insulation there in any form of conflict.
HH: Now let’s move on to policy – repeal and replace. I’ve been talking this morning with your colleagues Ron Johnson, Steve Daines and Tom Cotton, and with House members Mark Walker and Jim Jordan from the conservative side. I hate the idea of repeal and delay. I think we’ve got to put the roadmap out there and tell people where we’re going. What does John Thune think?
JT: I think we have to have a strategy, Hugh, for how we do that, and a plan about what types, what we’re going to roll out in terms of replacement alternatives. The timing, to me, is probably less of a factor. I think it’s going to take, no question, some amount of phase in and phase out. I mean, it took them eight years to break it to this level, and it’s going to take a little while for us to put it back together. But I do think that we’ve got to, it starts with repeal. And so the resolution for repeal, or repeal resolution is on the floor this week. I hope it gets a sufficient level of votes. And I agree then we should move as quickly, expeditiously as possible to begin the process of replacing it, because I don’t think it does anybody, it doesn’t do anybody any good to drag this out and create any kind of uncertainty in the marketplace.
HH: Now the centerpiece of this, to me, Senator Thune, is what President-Elect Trump ran on – a national marketplace, a national website where if you’re offering an individual policy anywhere in the country, anyone can buy it. Now no one from Vermont’s going to buy a New Mexico policy. But there shouldn’t be any preexisting conditions, and there should be one website, and it ought to be easy to use as opposed to the disastrous things that rolled out under President Obama. Is that going to be a part of the Republican proposal going forward, a national marketplace?
JT: I believe that there will be interstate purchase of insurance, allowing people to go across state lines. You know, it is, this is something where if you have more competition, it drives prices down.
JT: And what we have now, of course, is central planning. This is the classic failure of liberal economics where you have Washington define what health insurance coverage is, and it just hasn’t worked. And so more competition, more choices, lower prices.
HH: I also wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about tax reform, because I’m afraid purists, ideologues of the right, want to get rid of every deduction, and that’s a political and actually a moral nightmare, because people have relied upon the state income tax deduction, the home mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction in building their lives. Do we see tax reform early on? And are we going to save the big three as they are saved in 1986?
JT: I actually saw your piece yesterday, Hugh. I pointed it out to my staff at our staff meeting yesterday afternoon, and said this guy makes sense. I think we have to be practical in how we approach this, and there are certain things in the tax code today that are important for a lot of reasons, and as a political matter, are going to be very, very difficult to yank out. And I think we have to approach it in that way. I mean, I think the, you know, your argument that people make decisions about, you know, housing and that sort of thing based on some of these incentives that we have in the code, unless you phase it out over 30 years, you, it’s going to be very, very difficult, I think. And if we don’t go about this in a thoughtful way, we will end up, it will cost us. And I think tax reform, there are ways you can do tax reform that preserve many of the features of the code that are very important to the American people.
HH: And 30 year phase outs work. We did that with the old guaranteed benefit program for the public employees in the federal government, and we switched to a guaranteed contribution with the thrift savings plan when I was in the government. It took 30 years to affect. It’s effective now. It just takes time, and people then don’t get screwed. I want to finish by talking to you about the Department of Defense. I expect General Mattis will be confirmed. There’s a report this morning, though, that he’s considering keeping Bob Work, who’s a fine man. He’s a Marine, he’s been a great Democrat. But General Mattis is himself a non-partisan man. He’s not a Republican or a Democrat. I’d like a Jim Talent or somebody like that who represents what the party voted for as his number two. What’s your position on bringing some Republican in at the senior level of the Department of Defense?
JT: I think it would be, it would be really good. And if you got somebody as credentialed and solid as a Jim Talent, he’s respected on both sides. I mean, not, he would be somebody who has got a background as a solid, principled conservative, but who brings a tremendous national security credentials to the table. So I like that pick. I’m sure there are others out there like that, but I would like to see him, yes, surround himself with some people who sort of understood and got what the 2016 election was all about.
HH: And let’s conclude by asking you about Rex Tillerson. Obviously, you and I and every one of your colleagues I’ve talked to know that Russia messed around with us. They ran active measures against us. They screwed around. They hacked. They’re bad guys. As Leader McConnell said, they are not our friends. Nevertheless, is this story just going to continue to obscure the real fact that the real work is about the legislation going forward? Donald Trump won. They didn’t win the election for him. He won the election.
JT: He did, and I think right now, it’s just, they can’t get over that fact. And we’re seeing it every single day here in the Senate. I mean, everything is going to be hard, because they are still in denial of that. But he gets to pick his team. You know, Rex Tillerson, again, he’s going to through a confirmation process and hearings, and answer lots of questions. But he’s a businessman, built relationships with leaders all over the world, respected decision maker and deal maker, and somebody I think that brings, again, some wealth of experience to this job that will serve our country in what are increasingly very dangerous times.
HH: And I just don’t think it’s fair to say he’s soft on the Russians. I mean, if we send Rick Grenell to NATO, which has been tipped, and you send Rex Tillerson to State, these are not soft on the Russians people. These are hard-headed, experienced people. Do you have any doubt in your mind that we will have a very clear-eyed view of Russia going forward?
JT: I don’t. I mean, I think that you know, and everybody up here, at least in Congress, we get what Russia is about, and it’s not any surprise to anybody here that they were trying to mess with our election. But I do think that Rex Tillerson, you know, if you look at his past experience, he was wearing a different hat. And his job was to go and negotiate the best deals for his company and for his shareholders, and this is a very different universe that he’s in now, and he’ll take the lead from the commander-in-chief, who I believe in a clear-eyed way will understand what’s at stake in the relationship with Russia.
HH: Senator John Thune, number three in the Republican conference, always good to talk to you. Congratulations on having the majority and making a lot of stuff happen in a hurry, and thanks. Keep coming back early and often in 2017.
JT: We’ll try to make the most of it. I hope your voice gets better. Thanks, Hugh.
HH: By tomorrow. Thank you, Senator.
End of interview.