Senator John Thune joined me this morning to discuss the Senate’s August schedule (and a new circuit judge nominee for the Eighth Circuit):
HH: Joined now by United States Senator John Thune from the great state of South Dakota. He along with John Cornyn, Mitch McConnell, lead the Republicans in the Senate. John Thune is the chair of the Senate Conference. Senator Thune, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you.
JT: Always great to be with you. Thanks, Hugh.
HH: Is the Senate staying in session in August?
JT: We will if necessary. If there are things we can do, and you know, judges we can clear, and if we can actually get the Democrats to cooperate on some appropriations bills, there are, if there are things that we can get done, yes. Our members are committed to keeping the agenda moving forward.
HH: Now let’s get more specific, because there are obviously going to be judge nominees if Judiciary does its job every two weeks and hold hearings and they’re requiring 30 hours. There are going to be a lot of nominees to work on.
HH: Are you saying that you’re going to stay there all August if there is any nominee out of the Judiciary Committee that could be acted on?
JT: Well, you know, we’re keeping, as long as the administration will keep filling the pipeline, we’re going to keep processing them. And you know, there may be some cooperation from Democrats. I think that Senator Schumer is going to be very interested in getting his vulnerable Democrats who are running this year back home into their states. And so we’re going to be interested to see whether or not they’ll work with us to clear nominees, both judicial and executive, and whether or not they’ll help us move funding bills. And I think the next couple of months, we’ll know the answer to that. But if they don’t, and if that’s what it takes to get some of this stuff done, yeah. Our folks are committed to doing it.
HH: And so that would mean around the clock, or just three days a week in August?
JT: Well, I mean, I think whatever, again, whatever it takes. And sometimes, you know, if they drag the clock out, the clock runs, you know, sometimes 30 hours after cloture’s invoked, and so we’ll use it. And again, whatever it takes. I mean, I think if we could, by being here through weekends, get more of that stuff done, a lot of times, that’s when the 30 hours goes, and so you know, you don’t, you can’t, there’s not much you can do during that time period anyway. But we’ll, I mean, I think our commitment from our members, and they realize what’s at stake here, is that if there are things that we can be doing that will further advance our agenda, either legislatively or through the nomination process, then we’re prepared to do that. And that entails, you know, the month of August. So again, I’ve talked with, and I think it’s fair to say, that these, some of these Democrats who really do want to be home, because they have, they’ve got more seats in play this year. We’ll see how much cooperation we get out of the Democrat leadership. And if they want to help us get some of these things done, then maybe it means less time in August. But we’re willing to do what it takes.
HH: Now Senator Thune, Senator Grassley came on, and the chairman was ebullient and very candid, as per usual. And he told me that they meet every two weeks to hold five district court judge hearings and one or two Circuit Court judge hearings. I didn’t think to ask him, so I’ll ask you, and maybe you know the answer, maybe you can ask him. Why not meet every Wednesday? Why not meet every day to clear these nominees? These are lifetime appointments. The bench is empty. We’ve got 150 vacancies. We’ve got 10 nominees for the Circuit Courts who’ve been nominated. 10 more will be nominated shortly. Why not go to battle stations?
JT: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a good question. And of course, Senator Grassley knows the schedule and the timing of all that better than I would, because he chairs the committee. But my guess is, I know that how committed he is to try and get as many of these judges across the finish line. And so I think he’s doing whatever he can. Now in some cases, of course, you’ve got background checks, and there’s only so much that you can process, you know, and to allow for all the necessary vetting that has to be done. But most of these folks, once they send them up here, are pretty well ready to go. And I think once we get them, and the chairman can kind of have a confirmation hearing and move them forward, we’re going to do that. So I know that Chairman Grassley is very committed to try and fill the bench, and make sure that we’re keeping the pipeline, that the pipeline’s full, but then he’s processing these as quickly as possible and getting them confirmed.
HH: Are there any vacancies for South Dakota right now, Senator? You and Senator Rounds, obviously, would be in constant communication with Don McGahn if there were. I just don’t know if there are any district court vacancies.
JT: We’ve got one on the circuit, the 8th. We don’t have any at the lower court level, but we’ve got an 8th Circuit vacancy, and yes, we are working on it.
HH: Do you have a nominee for that, yet?
JT: There is, yes. There are, well, I shouldn’t say that. The White House is processing names, and we think they’re going to be sending somebody up here soon. I’m not, I’m hoping that it’ll happen very quickly.
HH: Do you have a preference?
JT: (laughing) Well, we gave them some names of people. And they’ve interviewed some folks, and we, we’re going to be, I think, very happy with whatever they send up.
HH: Would you explain, I mean, the audience, this is something I don’t know that the senators understand. My audience and the conservative movement generally follows this like a hawk.
HH: I wrote about this in the Post yesterday.
HH: This is a base issue.
JT: Great piece, by the way.
HH: Thank you. They want to know what kind of consultation goes on, and then what about poor California and any state where there are two Democratic senators, do we never get a district court judge again because they don’t get blue slips?
JT: Yeah, see, I think that process is changing, too. As you know, the Democrats, of course, changed it all in 2013 when we went to 51 on judges, which obviously, you know, we are now, that’s the standard practice, and that’s, we’re going to take full advantage of that. But the blue slip process, too, is one that’s very dated, antiquated, and a lot of our members, you know, although it did, it empowers individual senators, it makes it very, very difficult in some cases to get qualified people on the bench. So I think you’re going to see increasingly loosening, I would say, of the use of those in terms of trying to block good, qualified nominees from getting on the bench.
HH: All right, now let me switch over to the record. You’ve got Senate elections coming up that are very, I think, good for the Republicans. I think we’re ahead in West Virginia with Pat Morissey. I think Jim Renacci can win in Ohio. I think Mike Braun can win in Indiana. Josh Hawley can win in Missouri. I think we’re going to get potential winners in Montana and Wisconsin. I think Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, looks very good. I may have missed someone in my cataloguing here, but you’ve done this for a long time. How do you feel about the net? If Martha McSally is nominated, I think she will win Arizona. I think your colleague, Dean Heller, has a fighting shot, though he’s in a corner. How do you see the net net at the end of the day in November?
JT: Well, you know, I mean we’ve got 10 Democrat senators up for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016, you know, these are 2018 races, but states that he won in ’16. And you mentioned them all. And they are, fortunately, we have good, electable candidates coming through the primaries. You know, there were, there are some of them that were a little touch and go, but we have folks that are going to give voters in those states a very viable, electable alternative to the incumbent Democrat senator. And if we can continue to make progress on the agenda, which we are, I mean, if you look at the results in terms of legislation and on nominees, which as you said, your audience pays a lot of attention to, we’re making great headway. The only thing that’s keeping us from getting there faster is not having enough Republican senators. So we can get a few of those, win a few of those races, we can really make some serious headway. And I think as you point out, in all those states, these nominees that have come through the nominating process, at least so far, are very electable candidates. And given a decent environment and campaigns that are decently resourced, I think the numbers could be very positive for us. But we’re trying to stay out of the business of predicting exactly how that might, what that might look like.
HH: All right, let me go to the Special Counsel after one quick question. You’re on the committee on Ag. The Ag bill did not get out of the House. That’s not acceptable. Do you expect an agricultural bill to make it to the Senate before much longer?
JT: I think so. The Senate, the House has scheduled another vote over there, and I think they’ll work out their differences, and they’ll report it out. Everybody realizes it has to be done. And we’re going to mark ours up here in the Senate. Right now, it’s scheduled first week in June. And hopefully, we can get to conference with the House and get something in place before the current bill expires at the end of September. But you know, right now, the times are tough in farm country, and people are really looking to the next farm bill to provide some certainty and some predictability about what the rules are going to be as they head forward. So we’ve got to get it done.
HH: Now let’s talk generally. As someone, you’ve been rational, reasonable your entire career in the House and the Senate. What is your assessment of the Special Counsel? What is your assessment of the news about our Cambridge professor who may or may not have been an agent provocateur, an informant? I don’t know what to call him. I don’t even know if he was on the payroll. I don’t know anything. But what is John Thune’s take on all this?
JT: Well, I mean, I haven’t seen anything, yet, that confirms any of this, but I think it’s important that you know, one, that the Mueller investigation come to conclusion. I think that these things have a tendency to drag out and go down all kinds of rabbit trails which are not relevant to the reason for which they were created. We want to make sure that he’s thorough, and that he has the chance to finish the work. And I think it’s to the President’s benefit and to the American people’s benefit if the facts come out. But it shouldn’t drag on endlessly. And so I’m hoping this will start to wind down. And with respect to this other issue now, there are, you know, some folks are calling for another special counsel on this…
HH: I’m among them. I’m among them.
JT: Yeah, I know. I know. But I just, I hate to see another thing that drags on endlessly for months and perhaps years. But I do think we need to find out, there needs to be investigations. And right now, you know, there are some meetings going on with the so-called Gang of 8, and the intelligence committees are looking into this. And there’s going to be an IG investigation at Justice. I think there are a bunch of things that obviously need to happen so we can get to the truth. And if, in fact, what’s being alleged here actually happened, that has some serious repercussions and consequences for the country.
HH: Let me alert you, and you can listen to it. The President of the United States has tweeted. Not surprisingly, the President writes, the great men and women of the FBI are starting to speak out against Comey, McCabe, and all of the political corruption and poor leadership found within the top ranks of the FBI. Comey was a terrible and corrupt leader who inflicted great pain on the FBI. #Spygate. Your reaction, Senator Thune?
JT: Well, again, I mean, I haven’t seen any information confirming that there was any, that someone was embedded or planted within the campaign. But we need to follow the facts. And you know, my understanding is that an informant was involved after the FBI became suspicious of some of the contacts with Russia and Russian interference. And I think with these investigations that are underway, we need to trace this stuff to the ground and find out what actually happened, again, hopefully done in a timely manner, because I think for the most part, all this stuff is in the eyes and minds of the American people something that needs to be wrapped up, because they want to see this president and his team focusing on their agenda. And so I hope we can get it all behind us.
HH: All right, now the President is trying to brand this as Spygate. Maybe he will succeed, maybe he won’t. I wonder your reaction to seeing the former head of the CIA, Mr. Brennan, the former head of DNI, Mr. Clapper, in a lot of green rooms on a lot of shows with a lot of opinions. That’s new in America.
JT: It is, and I don’t know why they’re doing that other than I think those guys both have very political partisan agendas. And I think you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt, because in my view, at least, many of the statements they’ve made, in fact, including when they were in those positions, you can, there are always serious questions raised about the validity of statements they made then. And I think that needs to be, I think, carefully evaluated now when they go on these shows and start spilling things that frankly probably it would be better off if they just kept their mouth shut.
HH: Senator John Thune, always a pleasure, thank you. Talk to you after Memorial Day, and I hope I’ll be talking to you in August, because there are going to be judges to confirm.
JT: Yes, indeed. All right, sounds good, thanks, Hugh.
HH: Thanks, Senator.
End of interview.