Sen. Tim Kaine tackles tough questions

Sen. Tim Kaine tackles tough questions
By Christina Dimeo, editor 

Close to 100 people packed Lake Monticello’s Fairway Clubhouse Monday (June 10) to hear Sen. Tim Kaine tackle tough questions ranging from President Donald Trump’s mental health to Russian interference in recent elections.  

Su Wolff of Lefty Lunch Ladies introduced Kaine, who has been one of Virginia’s two Democratic senators since 2013. He immediately began a blunt talk that lasted over an hour and left little doubt as to his opinion on most of the questions his listeners raised.   

“It’s a very, very challenging time to be in public life right now,” Kaine said. “We’re living in a time where the most visible American in the world is a guy who is incredibly selfish and doesn’t have a public service bone in his body. He worries first, last and always about himself. That has a whole series of flow-down effects and consequences that are very, very challenging.”  

Kaine then described his two-pronged governing philosophy: “Advance everywhere we can and defend everything we must.”  

As an example of advancement, Kaine talked about his success as governor in banning smoking in all public buildings, restaurants and bars. “When I was governor we celebrated when the Virginia youth smoking rate went below the national average, because we’ve been a tobacco state [and] often our smoking rate was above,” he said. “We have been making huge progress as a nation in reducing youth smoking in the last 25 or 30 years – but guess what? All of our progress – all of it – has been wiped out in the last three years.”  

Kaine said that 1.7 million more young people took up smoking last year, almost all due to vaping, e-cigarettes and Juul devices. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) worked together to submit a bill to raise the federal tobacco level to 21 years of age. “We think it has a very, very good chance of passing,” he said.  

Kaine then discussed defending what he feels he must, such as American lives and congressional authority to authorize war.  

“Of the variety of worries that I have about President Trump, my most significant one is that he will get us into a war we shouldn’t be in,” he said. “I do believe that much of what a president does, if we don’t like it, can be corrected… But the thing that strikes me as hard to correct is getting into a war we should be in. The cost in lives. The cost in reputation. The damaging of relationships… If you get into one that’s unnecessary, the consequences are catastrophic and very long-lasting. President Trump has a mercurial and emotional nature that often leads him to want to do things to show how macho he is, and that’s a dangerous attitude to have in somebody with a massive arsenal of weapons.”  

“President Trump ignored the advice of all of his national security team last year and, for the first time that I’m aware of in the history of this country, the U.S. decided to tear up a diplomatic deal,” Kaine said regarding the Iran nuclear agreement. “When you walk away from diplomacy, you make war more likely… President Trump has traded out a national security team…for people who are warmongers… The president is bypassing Congress to give nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia…[and] missile systems… Everything we do to beef up Saudi Arabia’s nuclear capacity or their missile capacity is provocation to Iran.  

“And so this president is destabilizing the Middle East. He’s making it more dangerous. He’s making it more likely that American interests could be challenged, and this is all getting us closer and closer to what would be an unnecessary war,” Kaine said. “We should never be at war in this country unless Congress is willing to vote on it.”  

Kaine said he held that stance even when a Democrat was president. “I argued with President Obama when he put U.S. military support behind toppling [Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya, or going after Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” he continued. “I said, ‘You make a good case, but unless you’re willing to put it up to a vote in Congress and Congress votes on it, we shouldn’t be doing it.’ If Congress doesn’t have the guts to vote ‘yes’ on military action, how dare we order our troops into harm’s way?”  

Kaine then opened the floor for questions. Below are several of the questions asked and Kaine’s responses, edited for length and clarity.  

Why are the influential Republicans in Congress not doing much to control, influence or rein in the president? 

One-third of them are not because they completely agree with everything he does.  

But two-thirds are deeply worried about the president. They’re worried about his character, judgment; they’re worried about his mental condition; they’re worried about the decisions he makes and then unmakes the next day. But they’re afraid to say it. They’re not afraid of President Trump; they’re afraid of President Trump’s voters, who are their voters. The GOP voters are very loyal to the president. 

I’ve heard my colleagues say this often: “I don’t want to be Jeff Flake. I don’t want to be Bob Corker,” two moderate Republicans. If Trump did something that they didn’t like or they thought was unpresidential, they would speak out. What happened was their Republican voters in their states got furious at them. They were both going to be up for reelection in 2018, but they made comments about President Trump and they soon realized that they were going to lose their primary. They might have been able to win the general election, but they couldn’t get nominated by their own party. And so I have a lot of colleagues who are afraid that their voters will throw them overboard if they speak out against the president.  

There are starting to be some cracks. We’re going to get some Republican votes on trade issues. The trade actions of this president have absolutely blitzed Republican states, rural voters, manufacturing, folks who trusted – this president said he’ll be better than the other guys. They have been the ones that have been the most hit. So you’re going to start to see some votes on trade issues where Republicans start peeling off. But while they may vote against him here or there, you generally won’t see them saying negative things about him because they’re just too afraid of their own voters.  

What can senators do to reassure foreign leaders this is a passing phase and not who America is? 

Whether it’s our adversaries, or whether it’s our allies who are needing some assurance, I will tell you we are doing that. I think they’re starting to realize that. Now, they have some skepticism. A French reporter from Le Monde said to me, “You know what? We’re not worried about the president. He’s going to be president for four or eight years and he’s going to be gone. What we’re worried about is the American public. If the American public elects a guy like this… Presidents can come and go. We’re worried about the American public.”  

Do Democrats have any appetite to try to abolish the Electoral College? 

Probably not, because it’s so hard to do constitutionally.  

How do you abolish the Electoral College? You have to get both houses of Congress by supermajority to pass a resolution saying we should change the Constitution. Then you have to put it up for ratification by a huge supermajority of the states: three-quarters. The problem is: Small states love the Electoral College. Any small state has outsized power because of the Electoral College, so small states are not going to vote to do it.  

Now, there is one alternate strategy that you can use to change the Electoral College. Every state gets a number of electoral votes that are the equivalent of their number of House members plus their two senators. So Virginia has 13 electors. The Constitution does not say how the states choose the electors. It allows the state to determine how the electors vote. In most states, I think in 48, the state legislature says the electors vote winner-takes-all, so whoever wins Virginia gets all 13. Two states, Nebraska and Maine, by their own state law, have allocated their electoral votes such that whoever wins the congressional districts gets that electoral vote, and whoever wins statewide gets the two senator electoral votes. So they allocate; they split.  

A number of states right now are joining something called the National Popular Vote movement, where they’re passing legislation that says, “As soon as 35 states do this, we all join together, we will pledge our electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. That’s still probably a ways out, again because the small states don’t want to support the national popular vote. That gives them less power.  

Reflections on Trump and Obama 

President Trump is incredibly insecure about President Obama. President Obama accomplished the Paris deal? Let’s get out of that. The Iran deal? Let’s get out of that. Higher fuel standards for American automakers? President Obama did that. Let’s get out of that. President Trump is so insecure about President Obama that an Obama achievement, even when he doesn’t understand it, well, we’ve got to get out of it.  

The Iran deal is a perfect example. President Trump has never shown a single awareness of anything in that deal. He completely misunderstands the deal. The U.S. gave a lot of money to Iran? No, we had frozen Iranian money in U.S. banks that was not our money. It was their money that we froze, and in making an agreement to denuclearize we allowed them to have access and get their money back. The president doesn’t understand any of this stuff. If Obama did it, that’s good enough for him to back out. It’s not about his supporters out there, it’s about his own insecurity about President Obama. It’s a bizarre psychological thing.  

A lot of what we have to do right now is think about President Trump’s psychology, and then think how to pitch things in a way that will work with his particular psychology. For example, on him getting us closer and closer to war, here’s something we know about President Trump: He doesn’t like people around him who get too big for their britches. Whether they’re doing right or doing wrong, if they’re getting news and attention he starts to get nervous about them. So as he’s doing things that are getting closer to potential war, we started saying things like, “President Trump said he wanted to get us out of the Middle East. What’s that John Bolton doing? That John Bolton has got an agenda of his own. That John Bolton, he’s trying to maneuver the president into a place the president doesn’t want to be.” You start to see a bunch of Democrats say that on TV, President Trump sees that on TV, he’s going to start thinking, “Yeah, what is it about that John Bolton?”  

You have to figure out the psychology to try to figure him out, so that you can communicate to the White House in a way that makes it less likely that they’ll do things that are dangerous.  

Regarding Russian interference in the past presidential election, what is the Senate or administration planning to curtail these Russian activities? 

The Mueller report lays out in very frightening detail, as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said: There are more than 100 documented instances of Russia and Trump campaign connection before the election. 

Virginia was one of the states that they tried to cyberattack. They tried to attack Virginia in 2016 but Virginia, even before we knew what Russia was doing, was able to repel the attack. They were able to get into the databases of some other states, such as Illinois and Arizona.  

A plus: The Russians really went after the 2018 elections. We did a much better job in 2018 than actually you know, because the agencies of the government, primarily the cyberdefense part of the Department of Defense, really did good work.  

What I can tell you is this: It’s not enough if somebody attacks you for you to say, Well, I have to figure out how to repel that attack. If all you do is repel attacks, and you don’t impose a cost for attacking you, then they’ll attack you 10 times more tomorrow. There has to be a cost. In 2016 we were sort of defending, but sadly, the Obama administration was unwilling to impose a cost in 2016. The U.S. now imposes a cost when nations attack us.  

When we were being attacked in 2018 they were taking affirmative cyberactions against the Russian actors that were doing it, and imposed sort of an asymmetric cost on them, like, “Are you sure you want to do this? Because you’re going to bring your own system down if you do this.” I think the key has to be both protection and a willingness to go on offense when you know who the bad actors are.  

What are your thoughts on impeachment? 

There have been three near-impeachments in the U.S. 

Andrew Johnson: That clearly was they just were mad at him politically because he was doing dumb stuff – might have been corrupt, might have been someone incompetent. But what they tried to impeach him for was really not an impeachable offense. And members of the Senate ultimately stood up and by a narrow vote he was not impeached. But it was using impeachment for the wrong ends, for: “We don’t like that guy.”  

Bill Clinton: Again, might not like the behavior, but it wasn’t an impeachable offense, so that’s why it fell apart. 

Richard Nixon didn’t get impeached he resigned but it was clear he resigned because he was going to be impeached by Democrats and Republicans. 

So there are three instances in our history: two where the impeachment issue was raised kind of illegitimately and with insufficient evidence, and one where there clearly was sufficient evidence. 

Look at the Mueller report: Is it closer to Johnson and Clinton, or closer to Nixon? There’s no question it is much closer to the Nixon situation and in some instances it’s worse, because the Nixon situation was not working with a foreign adversary, having a level of engagement with a foreign adversary. Nixon’s case was about an attack on democracy. Republicans said, “We’ve got to protect the integrity of our Congress. So the Trump case is much closer to the Nixon situation than it is to Johnson and Clinton. 

So what should we do? I’m in the Senate. I’m a juror if it comes to me. The House has got to make a decision on what they think they ought to do. I’m not spending a lot of time over there telling the House what to do, because I’m spending time doing things that a senator can do. I have a little bit of the serenity prayer: There are things I can do something about that I absolutely have to, and there are things that I don’t necessarily have a role in, at least right yet.  

I’ll tell you my opinion. Just read that Mueller reportand there are issues outside the Mueller report too, emoluments clause and all kinds of other things, refusing to submit to traditional congressional oversight. There’s a whole series of areas right now where Congress is seeking oversight. The administration won’t respond to document requests, and it’s not just about his taxes. When you authorize transfers of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, and in the past every administration that has done that has given Congress notice, and you didn’t give us notice, and when we found out about it and asked you for information, and you stonewall us for months and months. That is really serious stuff. 

We just have to see where the House lands on this and if it lands where something comes over to the Senate, well, it’s very, very serious. 

What can we do to stop the “concentration camps in this country where immigrants are in disgusting conditions, children are separated from their parents and kids are dying in custody? 

At the nexus of cruelty and incompetence, when they did the separations, they didn’t even keep good records to be able to comply with court orders to get kids back together with their parents. When they were doing this family separation policy, they were so sure Americans would completely support this that they just did it in an incompetent way. They didn’t keep good records. So they’re under a court order now to reunite families, and they’re six months, or even longer, past the reunification date and they still can’t find the families. What cruelty; what incompetence.  

What can we do about it? There are lawsuits; there’s legislation we’re introducing; we can cast a fresh spotlight on activities of the administration. But this is not going to get fixed absent a new president, because this policy is a direct reflection of what this president wants. If we want a more humane policy it’s going to take a new president. 

I’ve been very involved in efforts to find bipartisan immigration reform under President Obama. Even a year ago we tried to find a simple deal – this was before the famous separation issue – permanent protection for dreamers, and giving President Trump the funding for border security, the exact amount he asked for, but we want it to be done right. The wall is foolish when 60 percent of people who are here unlawfully come in on visas and overstay their visas. A wall wouldn’t do anything about that. So let’s talk about the right way to protect our borders, the right way, the humane way, and protect dreamers too. We thought President Trump would accept that deal because he had asked for both halves of it. We called our deal the “Mr. President, can you take yes for an answer?” deal, and when we gave it to him he said, “That’s ridiculous; we can’t do it.”  

So we’re not going to find a step forward to a better set of immigration policies under this president. We’re going to have to change the president.  

Has there been discussion about the president‘s mental health? 

The answer is yes. I’m going to share an interaction that I had on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I’m going to leave names out. It was an interaction that was memorable because I remember thinking at that very moment: This is a conversation that has never been held on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I can’t remember what was the outrage of the day. 

When we vote in the Senate we basically have a 20-minute window to get there and cast a vote, and often you go there even after you’ve voted, you hang around because this is my chance to talk to this senator about this. So I go in to vote and there’s a group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, that are in a huddle, and I vote and I go up to one of the senators and I kind of join the conversation in progress. And as I join, a Republican said, “Okay, we’ve got to get Kaine in the betting.” And I said, “What’s the bet?” And they said, “Impeachment or impairment?” This was a Republican. It was an equally divided group of Republicans and Democrats. Now obviously, there was some humor about that. But even in a joking way, that conversation has never been held, not once, on the floor of the U.S. Senate. So yes, people are nervous.  

Does it make a difference to politicians when there are women’s marches, student marches and airport protests? 

Yes, it absolutely does. The Women’s March impacted women in Virginia who decided they were running for office. Activism like that excites people, energizes them. It also actually produces some results. 

The Parkland students are a good example. After that horrible shooting in the early winter of 2018 the Parkland students were going to come to Washington for the March for Our Lives. And it just so happened that the march was happening right about the time that Congress was about to go on recess. And I think a lot of members of Congress who had been voting against anything on the gun safety side felt like, “We can’t just leave town and do nothing. Now I’m not saying Congress has done enough. Congress has been a bystander just like the General Assembly and it’s time that we act. But with the Parkland kids coming in, Congress worked to drop the longstanding ban on using federal research dollars to research gun violence. That has been an atrocious limitation when we couldn’t use research money to research gun violence. That law was changed as the Parkland kids were coming in. 

There was another one dealing with the federal background check. It didn’t make it universal background checks, but it fixed the part of the background check system that had an impact on the Parkland shooting. Congress only did that because the Parkland kids were coming to march. 

It does have an effect on policy, but its bigger effect is empowering people, getting them engaged, convincing them, “Hey, maybe I should run for office, I have some good ideas.” It’s one of the things that gives us, who are kind of in the trenches battling every day, a bit of hope and optimism when we see people so engaged. 

After the speech the Fluvanna Review asked: What would you say to people here in Fluvanna who are disillusioned, disenchanted and disengaged? 

I lived in a military dictatorship in Honduras in 1980 and 1981 when I was working as a missionary, and nobody could vote. The government wouldn’t let you. And boy, I realized then we’re so lucky that we live in a country where we have the opportunity to participate. When people all over the world still today are not allowed to pick their leaders, there’s sort of no excuse for those of us who are Americans to not take it seriously. I do think it’s a civic responsibility and one that most people in the world would kill to have the opportunities that we have to participate. To go to a Board of Supervisors meeting and express an opinion without fear of retribution. We really have a very unique opportunity here that people around the world wish they had. I think there’s a real responsibility of being an American to participate. And if you’re not active you’re letting someone else pick your leaders for you. Why would you want someone else to pick your leaders for you? 

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