Former NBC news veteran still fears for democracy -- here's why

When it comes to politics, Chris Matthews has just about seen it seen it all. His career has taken him to the White House, as speechwriter for Jimmy Carter to hosting "Hardball" on MSNBC for more than 20 years. He even served as a U.S. Capitol Police officer in the 1970's. But he says he's never witnessed anything close to what we are seeing with today's Republican Party.

In our Salon Talks conversation about his new book, "This Country: My Life in Politics and History," Matthews didn't hold back on Donald Trump or the Republicans, arguing that the former president has consistently "been trying to undermine democracy," and that a swath of his party no longer believes in it. "I do believe there are a number of Americans, I don't know whether it's 10% or 25%," Matthews told me, "who do not believe in majority rule."

Over the last few months, we've seen Republicans openly waging an assault on voting access in state after state. Their goal is straightforward, Matthews explained: to ensure that the GOP's opponents — minorities, the young, etc. — can "never vote," which is the only realistic way Republicans can win.

Matthews also made the important point that in the past, when the GOP saw extremists seek to join its ranks — such as anti-Semites or white nationalists — Republican leaders would publicly condemn them, as Ronald Reagan did when he was endorsed by the KKK during his 1984 re-election campaign. With today's GOP we don't see that, which as Matthews notes should concern us all.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we touched on everything from Matthews' teenage past as a Nixon Republican to his resignation from MSNBC after women came forward to say that he had made inappropriate comments about their appearance — which he admits to, and apologizes for again. Watch our interview below or read the following transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.

It's a great book. First of all, you were a 15-year-old young Republican? You rooted for Nixon over Kennedy? You, Chris Matthews?

Well, it was complicated. I was for Nixon because my family was Republican and I was going along with that. And then I fell completely in love with the glamour of the Kennedy crowd. I also rooted for Nixon because he wasn't glamorous like the Kennedys. He didn't have all the money and the charm and the social confidence. He seemed more like my dad or somebody, a regular guy. And I guess I rooted for the underdog.

I think my book "Bobby Kennedy" is the most popular because Bobby hits the right chord today. He's a progressive, and also he's tough. He wants people to meet their responsibilities. It's not just about entitlement, it's about duty. One of the things I pointed out in my book is that he was the only one of the liberal Democratic senators back in the '60s and '70s who made a point of saying hello to the Capitol policemen, showing a little dignity, a little, "Yeah, we're in this together. You're protecting me. And I agree with you, what you're doing, protecting the Capitol."

Most people don't know that about you: You began working on Capitol Hill with the Capitol Police?

I was working in the senator's office for four or five hours in the morning, at least four hours. And then I'd go over and put on my uniform and my gun at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and work until 11 o'clock at night. So I was putting in a full day and I was learning a lot in both jobs. I was very proud to be a Capitol policeman. I learned a lot of life lessons from these guys. A lot of country guys from West Virginia who didn't get to go to college, didn't get a lot of the breaks we got in life. I learned from them and I was rooting for them, especially when I found out how good a job they did trying to stop the insurrection on Jan. 6. When I got a clearer picture of it and could see that they risked their lives, in some cases lost their lives. And I will never forget that African-American officer who was leading the mob in the wrong direction to save Mitt Romney. Come on. That's a great story.

Your life has been a remarkable journey.

Isn't it? Aren't you impressed? Isn't it something? Air Force One, back rooms with Tip O'Neill, Berlin Wall when it's coming down, Cape Town when they're voting the first time, Belfast and the Good Friday Accords, then to the Pope's funeral. I got to see history as it was happening from inside politics in America. And, I'll be romantic here, people in the world who wanted what we have, which is democracy, which we better hang onto. Nelson Mandela, you know what he did for South Africa? He said to the Black majority, "We're going to get to the voting booth. We're going to take over this country with the vote. That's how we're going to do it, by long election lines, not through a war. We're going to do it the right way."

There's also something else people might not know. You ran for Congress in 1974?

I was running to get the big politics away from dirty money and all this money and buying everything. I could see it on the Hill and you can see it's just going to be with us until we got a better system, but it wasn't so bad 30 or 40 years ago. You had guys like Gale McGee. He was a professor at University of Wyoming who ran for the Senate. You had people like Mike Mansfield, who were academics. Try that today. The self-funders own this process. Except for the really skilled people like Bobby Casey, because of his family name, and Sherrod Brown, because he's so darn good at it, at being a good working-class politician and knowing how to talk to Trump people really.

Why didn't you ever run again?

Because I didn't have a career in Philadelphia. I had to have a law degree. That's why it's great to be a lawyer. Everybody listening, if you're 22 years old and you want to have a political career, get that law, get that sheepskin. Because then when you lose, and you will lose at some point, you can fall back in that law firm and run the next time.

But it's very hard to do that if you don't have that parachute. My dad was pushing me to pay my bills for the campaign. He wasn't going to pay the bills. It wasn't a lot. It was $1,500 bucks for the literature we had. But he wanted me out of the house basically. He wanted me to go back to Washington. He put up with the campaign. He was all for me. He even switched registration for me. But I think he was happier with me in Washington. He thought that was where I belonged. He said, "That's your city." And he was right. I got to the White House after that.

Well, the reason I went to law school was because I was going to run for office. I ended up not doing it. If you come on the campaign trail, you'll have the fun with the honking and holding the signs up.

Oh, I love that stuff. It gets back to my romance about politics, that you can actually campaign with little money like Ed Markey did up in Massachusetts against Joe Kennedy. A lot of young people, they're excited about issues. You got to get them excited about you and the issues and social media makes a lot of things possible. I'll tell you one thing I know. If I were running, I'd go home at night, I'd sit up in bed or at my desk, and I'd start typing out a message to the campaign workers and the people I know adore me, the No. 1's. I'd be talking to them every night. My dad once taught me, he said, "Get people involved. Tell them what your strategy is. Tell them why you need their help, what their enemy's up to. Bring them in, mentally and emotionally. Share." That's what you can do on social media. You couldn't do that 20 years ago.

In your book, you talk about working for Frank Moss. He was a Democratic senator from Utah. But he lost in 1976, after three terms, to Orrin Hatch. We all try to figure out when the hyper-polarization began in this country. It could be Goldwater in '64. It could be Orrin Hatch winning in '76. You've traced this?

I'm going to say something that cuts across me. I think we all agreed on foreign policy when it was fighting communists globally, because we saw what was going on. It may not have been a right metaphor, but when we saw Yalta and we saw Eastern Europe, we saw China, we saw Ben Bella up in Algeria. We saw countries in Latin America, Castro, and some other countries. You could see them moving toward that red part of the map. And we go, "This looks like World War II coming. This looks like the same spread of the enemy. And appeasement is not the right answer. We got to stop them somewhere."

So Harry Truman tried to stop them, somewhat effectively, in Korea. And then looking at that same model of stopping them in their tracks, our government tried to stop the communists in North Vietnam. But the trouble is nationalism was working on the side of the communists in Vietnam, just like nationalism was working on the side of the countries of Eastern Europe. They saw communism as an enemy of their nationalism. Whereas in Vietnam, communism was the friend of nationalism and we were on the outside.

We should have realized that the people are still going to be in that country when we come home, and we will come home eventually, and they will be calling the shots. And we should have understood that when we went into Afghanistan. You can only temporarily control a country with military force. Eventually you leave and the natural spirit of the country takes over and we got to deal with the Taliban. The only example I can think of was that the Brits did a darn good job of selling democracy in India. Whatever else they did in their history, the Indian people are a democracy and they learned it from the Brits, the idea of Westminster-style democracy, parliaments built by different political parties, coalitions that lead to cabinets and prime ministerships. Find another example. We've never been good at it. Maybe the Philippines, I don't know. But it's very hard to sell a form of government.

We have a hard time right now keeping the democratic spirit in this country. I do believe there are a number of Americans, I don't know whether it's 10% or 25%, maybe in that range, who do not believe in majority rule. They want to reduce the size of the electorate. They don't want everyone voting. In fact, it used to be in the good days of politics, and we did it on MSNBC, you spend months saying to people, "Get out and vote. Get out and vote. Everybody." Vote, vote, vote. We always said, the more the merrier to vote.

Only lately has a political party pretty openly said, "No, not the more the merrier. The less the merrier. The fewer people, the fewer minorities, the fewer young people. Just have the older usual white voters show up and that'll be good for us." I think it's the first time a party has so openly said that, as they're saying right now in politics. The party was the segregationist party under Roosevelt. Let's face it. That was the deal. The New Deal was for white people, right?

Yes, exactly. The policies actually matched that. Home loans to the GI Bill, Black veterans coming back from World War II did not get the same benefits as white veterans.

Well, people like me and my family lived entirely on the fact that my dad got to come back and went to engineering school on the GI Bill and became middle-class. That's how we grew up middle class as opposed to working class. That's the fact. The GI bill created the large American middle class. That was wonderful. That was Roosevelt's wonderfulness, that he thought of that as being a No. 1 priority coming out of the war.

You have people right now who don't view each other as fellow Americans. They're enemies almost. How concerned are you for the future?

I am very concerned about Michael Flynn. But you can see the pattern. And back in the '60s the pattern was the antiwar movement was getting more bitter from '68 to '70, much more bitter than it was when I was marching around the Pentagon. Right now you can see that, first off, Trump wins the presidency by losing by almost 3 million votes. It doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, he thinks it's cute. It's neat. I would think that if I got elected president, or somebody I cared about got elected president, and lost by 3 million votes, I'd feel a little humiliated by it, a little humbled. I'd be saying things, "I got to be careful here. A lot of people voted against me. I don't quite have a mandate yet." And then this time he loses the Electoral College and says he didn't lose, like he's in Zimbabwe or Pakistan. "No, no, it was rigged. It was rigged."

No it wasn't. We have honest elections in this country. Usually elections are decided by 20,000 or 30,000 people anyway, so luckily there's room for a little margin of minimal corruption here and there, but very little. And the margins are always well beyond any hanky-panky that went on. For him to walk around and say, "These elections are rigged," that's rotten. That's anti-American. And he knows it. He knows he lost. Look at him. The Democrats didn't like Trump, but they knew he was damn well president. You know how they knew it? They tried to impeach him twice.

How do you think Democrats should be framing Jan. 6, to be effective? You've got some Republicans now literally saying, "Oh, it's a tourist visit."

They came in to kill. They came in to kill. I used to say about Watergate, suppose Nixon got away with it. That would have been much worse, if he'd gotten away with it. What would the second term had been like with his secret operatives and all this stuff he was pulling? It wasn't just screwing around. Some of the idiots with their clown costumes on and hanging from the rafters. There was some menace in that crowd that was stopped by law enforcement.

You faced early retirement last year because of some comments you had made. You don't defend them, you've been very clear about that. How much do you think we are learning, you are learning, from the MeToo movement?

Well, there was a great line in a cult film years ago. I watch movies, I love cult films. "We only truly believe what we discover ourselves." You can hear about a rule. You can generally obey the law. But you don't have a personal connection to it. And when you get involved like I did, by making too many comments about appearance on and off the air — I made too many, certainly one too many, and I was wrong. When I think back on it, and I did give a lot of thought to this over the last year and a half, why should an average looking person, a woman, have to put up with somebody talking about how somebody else is good-looking? Why do they put up with this walking Miss America contest? Why should anybody put up with it? Men don't generally have to put up with it. "Joe McGee and his lovely wife have just arrived." Why do we talk like that? We don't say, "Mary McGee and her lovely husband."

I have a granddaughter. She's very smart. She just turned nine, Juliette, very smart. And a friend of mine came by the house and said, "Your granddaughter's so pretty." So I went up to Juliette and said, "That guy came by in the car just said how pretty you are." And she said to me, right to my face, "Grandpa, I'd rather he said how intelligent I was." And then she said it to me in French. There's a real cultural change about this among young people. They don't want to hear it anymore. It's not just the rules at work that are ascribed to them by their bosses. People don't like it. I was wrong. What used to be seen as a compliment is not taken that way. I can go on on this because I've been thinking about this, Dean, for so many months.

You finish the book by talking about your hope for America. What is your hope for this country going forward?

Well, I've been lucky to have had a life where I have been on the political inside. I've been up there in Air Force One with a president fighting for his second term. I've been up with Tip every morning, with the legendary speaker fighting with Ronald Reagan, trying to get things done and trying to beat him politically. I've been overseas watching people at the Berlin Wall, waiting for the wall to come down and asking them about freedom. And they said, "Talking to you is freedom." I've been in South Africa watching people get to vote for the first time in their own country. I've seen people that want democracy. They really want it, and they know that it's better than anything else. Nothing's perfect, but they want to be able to decide whether we have capitalism. East Germans said, a lot of people I interviewed there at the time in '89 said, "We want capitalism. We want socialism. Let us decide. Let us make these decisions." They weren't able to make them under the communist rule.

But I worry now, as we were talking about a few moments ago, I do worry about Americans because they think their side, especially if they're conservative white people, they feel their side's losing demographically. So, oh, we're going to change the rules. We're going to make it harder for other people besides white people to vote, we're going to make it harder for young people to vote. We don't like the way young people are thinking. But you can't change the rules of democracy.

We talked about the founding fathers because even though that's hundreds of years ago, we believed they were right. We're all created equal and being able to speak freely and being able to vote freely are tied together. If we lose the ability to speak, like you don't have in Cuba today, for example — I don't mind bashing the communists because I don't like them — but if you can't speak, you're unlikely to win the vote. And if you don't control the vote, you're unlikely to keep your rights because the vote guarantees your rights.

You can knock people down like Nixon when they blow it on rights and undermining people's democratic freedoms. I think freedom and democracy are intertwined. I think we've got to be vigilant, and we got to call these conservatives out. God, how do you say "Put on your big boy pants" to Kevin McCarthy? OK buddy, are you a leader or are you a front man? If you're a front man, we get it. But if you want to be a leader, say, "Biden won." Say it loud. Say it every morning when you go to the House. You want to be speaker, act like the speaker. Say, "We have a constitutional system."

If you're Michael Flynn, remember your oath to the Constitution and remember what you owe, loyalty to this country and its Constitution. It's what you sign up for when you become an officer. And he was a flag officer.

Anyway, I do worry. Steve Scalise ought to stand up. I have talked to these guys. They're normal people. They're Americans. They're one of us. They should be able to say, "Here's where I draw the line." Back in the old days, when the Republican Party was joined by the John Birch Society and the antisemitic stuff, people like William F. Buckley said, "No, you're not here. You don't belong here if you have those attitudes. Go away." The John Birch Society was a real bad shadow of the Republican party. They should clean it up today and hope they can win some elections positively.

How Democrats avoided disaster — and beat Donald Trump

Even if you follow politics closely, there are numerous moments in Edward-Isaac Dovere's new book, "Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns to Defeat Trump," that will make your jaw drop. His book conjures up the classic politics series of books by Theodore White, "The Making of the President" but with Dovere, the story doesn't start on the campaign trial but right after Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016.

The detail in the book is simply remarkable from the list of comfort items that Sen. Bernie Sanders requests for his speaking engagements (none are truly that demanding) to a nervous Andrew Yang before the first Democratic presidential debate throwing up so loudly in the dressing room bathroom that other campaign staffers could hear it.

But it's the substantive issues that stand out. On top of the list is that Barack Obama, after leaving office, expressed concern that Donald Trump would potentially come after him or his family personally, such as by ending Secret Service protection for his daughters. As Dovere explained, people have "a sense of Obama being cool and detached … he was not." In fact, as Dovere shared in our conversation for "Salon Talks," the working title of the book was a line Obama said to Democratic donors in 2018, "You are right to be concerned."

Dovere also details how Joe Biden's team was fully aware that Trump might try not only to litigate the election if he lost, but also in essence try to steal it. They had a legion of attorneys across the nation prepared for various "doomsday scenarios." But not even these stable of lawyers could have predicted that Trump would incite a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the election results.

Some of this book is things we've lived through, if you follow politics closely. Some will be completely brand new. It begins with 2016, and I just want you to remind people, to give them a sense of where we were then.

It was a devastating election, 2016. People can think about it as Trump winning and beating Hillary Clinton, which was a big surprise in every way. If you're a Democrat, that was terrible. But what was also terrible for Democrats was that there were Senate races, all over the country, that Democrats thought they were going to win and they didn't. From North Carolina to Wisconsin, right? And House races too, governors' races. There were not that many governors races on the ballot in 2016. But when you look at what happened, I traced some of this during the Obama presidency: Almost a thousand state legislature seats that were held by Democrats when Obama won in 2008, were held by Republicans by the time he finished. There was a decimation of the Democratic Party.

And most of the book starts from 2016 forward, but there's a chapter at the beginning that cast back a little bit. So how is it that the Democratic Party got into this terrible state? It's about those dynamics happening. It's about Obama not really investing in the Democratic Party and not doing things to build the party up. Some of this he can't be blamed for. He didn't realize it, or he was struggling with how to grapple with it. But the issue of wages, of how people were feeling, the real economy in their lives, which obviously was very important for Trump to be able to key into in 2016 and use that as an argument that pushed him forward, that's all going on. And those were the circumstance that the Democrats found themselves in, even before the devastating loss of 2016.

Then there's a sort of a parallel process that starts to happen between a small group of Democratic leaders — most people wouldn't even know who they were, except if you're really an insider Democrat — who have meetings, start to plan things. There's a dinner at the beginning of the book that I described happening at John Podesta's house. People may know about Podesta, because he was Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, and they start to plot things and think about how to change what the Democrats are doing.

But at the same time, this activism blossomed that nobody was expecting, the biggest example obviously was the Women's March. I was there in D.C. covering it. One of the people that I talked to for the book is Cecile Richards, who was then at Planned Parenthood. She told to me something to the effect of, "If an organization had tried to plan the Women's March to be what it actually was, it would have taken millions of dollars and years." And it just happened on its own. Those things are happening simultaneously and help create the atmosphere for Democratic primary campaign and the Democrats sorting out who they wanted to be their nominee.

It's interesting when you talked about the meeting with these Democrats getting together after the election in 2016. Living through it and covering it on my show, it was a grassroots movement that led the party, it was not leaders that did it. What's your reaction to that?

Look, I think it was both those things happening, right? The airport protests that you're talking about, remember part of the reason those got elevated was because members of Congress were showing up, governors were showing up at the airports and demanding to see the people who were being detained, and that helped drive the news coverage. But of course that wouldn't have happened if the protests weren't happening to begin with. So there's this back and forth that's going on. At the Women's March, there were leaders that I talked to at the time and then reflected on it, who were aghast that there weren't people walking around with clipboards and getting the names of all these tens of thousands of people who were there. And you know what, those people didn't need to get activated in the traditional way that Democratic leadership thinks about it.

But it was really hard to predict how this was going to go. And part of what the book aims to do is to trace how those two streams were happening and then how they started to intersect. And what happened when it became a question of like, well, what role does the Bernie Sanders movement that was obviously very powerful in 2016, what does that have in the Democratic Party now? How much is it the Bernie Sanders thing, or how much of it is just grassroots energy? How much does it split off to Elizabeth Warren? How much it was interested in just beating Trump, no matter what? Those are all things that are happening and playing out in the primary campaign.

Share a little bit about what the goal of that meeting was and what really happened? Did reality land on them, that we can have an impact? They raise a lot of money, they can do different things. But to think that the party was controllable, then or now, is ridiculous to me.

That dinner sort of has all the hallmarks of what people think happens, right? It was at the Four Seasons in Washington, right on the edge of Georgetown. It was in December of 2018. It was the night that Nancy Pelosi had been elected speaker, after Democrats won the House. It was organized by a big Democratic donor who sends out these invitations, you got to come. And it's this strange collection of people, some Democratic donors, some group leaders. Pelosi is there, Schumer is there. A bunch of others: Pete Buttigieg is there, Eric Swalwell is there, Chris Coons is there. Nobody's quite sure how this guest list exactly was the one that they landed on.

And they're sitting around a table. And yeah, the whole question was how do we keep the primary campaign from getting too crowded? The not-very-subtle subtext was that if it's crowded, Bernie Sanders is going to be the nominee and we don't want that. And they're having this debate around this big table in the Four Seasons private room, and that's another element to it. Not only is it at the Four Seasons, but in a private room. They say like, "How do we put some guardrails on this process?"

Guy Cecil, who runs the Priorities USA super PAC, said to me, "That was the last moment when the people who thought that they could control things thought that was going to keep going." Because within a couple of weeks of that meeting, all the candidates start announcing. Biden was the last major candidate to announce. But within a couple of weeks, Elizabeth Warren announces, Kamala Harris announces. They're popping up everywhere. Kirsten Gillibrand announces on the Colbert "Late Show." right? It's all over the place. This idea that the primary campaign is going to be kept in control by the leaders, that's ridiculous.

Obama had plans for his post-presidency, and they changed because of Trump. Share a bit, what was going on? There were concerns about what Trump might do?

Yeah. When Obama thought Trump was going to lose, he felt a little uncomfortable in the final days of the campaign. I think most people, Donald Trump included, never thought he'd actually win. And then he had a plan for his post-presidency: OK, Hillary Clinton's going to be president and I'll build my foundation, my library. I'll make some money, I'll write a book, it'll be fine. I'll enjoy myself, I'll go have nice vacations. And everything changes, obviously very quickly. He had never thought he'd have to be involved with picking the next DNC chair as he then was, and got very involved making sure that Tom Perez was the DNC chair instead of Keith Ellison.

He couldn't talk about things publicly, about issues, because he knew that every time he did it, he might trigger Trump and give Trump fodder to attack him and make news cycles out of it, and he didn't want to do that. When Trump tweeted accusing Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, Obama was very upset by that, and disconcerted about it. Not just because "This is an attack on me," but because he thought that was just so outside the bounds of what a president should accuse another president of doing. And then there are other things, like Trump attacking Susan Rice and Obama thinking about standing up for her.

I have a moment in the book that's right after Election Day 2018, when the Democrats win the midterms. Trump fires Jeff Sessions as attorney general. And there had already been a lot of concern in the Obama post-presidency world of, okay, what do we have to get prepared for? What's going to happen? And they had drafted some statements, because who knows, we've got to have this ready to go, rather than something wild happening. At that point, the wiretapping accusation happened, all these things were going on. And when Trump fires Sessions, of course, Robert Mueller is already deep into his work. They think maybe he's going to fire Mueller now. What do we do?

And they're talking about it back and forth. And this idea starts getting talked about, well, maybe what we should do is try to do something like a statement with George W. Bush and Barack Obama together. And the idea of it in their minds would have been that Bush had hired Mueller as FBI director and Obama extended his term. So they would say, here's a Republican, here's a Democrat. We're both presidents. You don't agree on much, but we both hired Bob Mueller. He's good, protect him. And put that up preemptively to stop Trump from getting to Mueller. This idea never actually got broached with Bush directly, but there was a a feeler put out to his staff to see what they thought about it, and there was not a lot of interest. Bush has been very committed to staying far away from politics.

You just see the level of concern there. There was this sense of [Obama] as cool and detached and away from things. He was not, he was really worried about it. The working title of this book, I should say, was "You Are Right to be Concerned," which was a line I heard Obama say at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills in 2018. He was sitting and talking to Democrats and he said, "Look, if you're looking around the country, you are right to be concerned with what's happening." Right? And that carried through.

And then "Battle for the Soul" is where we landed. The story that I've told about that is that when I was speaking to Biden at the end — I talked to him in February, so the interview with him is at the end of the book. And I said to him, "So we're calling it 'Battle for the Soul.' that's title of the book." Of course that was drawn from what he had talked about. And he said to me, "Yeah, the difference between you and me, pal, is I actually believe it." And I said to him, "No, I think you may have actually been onto something here with how it all turned out."

There were other things in your book that are riveting, and I'm not sure how much reporting there has been on this. I'm talking about the post-election period, when the Biden team actually had these doomsday scenarios. Take us through a little bit of that. I've not heard that talked about in detail.

Yeah. I mean, it's funny. I was reporting this book for four years and there were a lot of conversations that I was having with people that were embargoed until the book came out. The Obama conversation — why isn't he doing more? Why isn't he more worried? And I would say, like, I know actually some of what's happening. This was another piece of it that I had heard a little bit about before the election, but it wasn't until after the election that the people involved were willing to talk to me more about it. Starting from not long after Biden sealed the nomination, and certainly from about this point last year, there was a lot of work going on, about 600 lawyers around the country who were secretly putting together essentially template briefs.

They had war-gamed all the scenarios that, OK, what happens if there's this close result in Arizona, or they try to make this kind of claim in Georgia or wherever. All the different things that Trump's lawyers, whether it's his Justice Department or his allies and state parties could try to bring to court. They also had done a war-gaming of what the election certification process would look like and had been talking about it, Biden's lawyers with Nancy Pelosi's and Chuck Schumer's lawyers leading up to Jan. 6.

And they had gotten as far as like, what happens if in the middle of it, Mike Pence, because he's presiding over this, pulls out a separate slate of electors from his pocket? Literally. And what if he refuses to recognize people from the floor, one of the parliamentary procedures? They had that all mapped out. What they didn't have mapped out is that there would be thousands of violent protesters storming the Capitol. They did not anticipate that. There's this moment in the book where Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, all the leaders are together, Kevin McCarthy is there too. But the three of them say, OK, we've got to make this happen now — that's why they move so quickly that night to get everything certified. And McCarthy is not part of that conversation. They kind of don't invite him in because they think he's off on his own place on it. But they had the basis from all these preparations that they'd done. Again, everything short of a violent mob storming the Capitol.

You close the book with Joe Biden, talking about making his late son proud. Share a little bit about who Joe Biden is as a person, his humanity, his empathy?

I started covering Joe Biden when he was vice president. I spent a lot of time with him, interviewed him on a couple of occasions. Two of those interviews are in the book. One of those was one of his final interviews as vice president. There was a week before Trump's inauguration, and he's sitting in his office in the West Wing. The second one is where the book ends. It's two weeks into his presidency, at the beginning of February. For that one, he was in the Oval Office. It was still COVID restrictions, so I was on the phone talking to him. I've been around the country with him on the campaign trail, and when he was VP. There is no more human person, I would say, than Joe Biden who has been elected president in modern history.

The sense of loss that he carries with him always is really, really important. Of course, there's the tragedy in 1972, when he was not even sworn in as a senator, that car crash that killed his wife and his baby daughter, and that put his two sons in the hospital. And then what happened with Beau Biden, who died in 2015 of brain cancer. That devastated Biden. I was there covering the funeral. Every time I talk about it, I get goosebumps because there was this moment where everybody was in the church and the Biden family — it's like a clan, it's so many people and they're very close. The hearse pulls up and they're all walking together and Biden is at the center of it, leading them.

There's an interview with Beau Biden that I did in 2012. I knew him just a little bit. But there was a general feeling that Beau Biden was kind of like Joe Biden. He'd gone and served in the National Guard and done all these things. And Joe Biden had definitely wanted to be president of the United States for a long time. There's this quick story in the book when he's leaving a job in the early '70s. He gives somebody a stapler and he says, "Oh, I'm going to be president one day. Hold on to that."

He ran for president in 1988. He almost ran a couple of other times. He ran in 2008. He had kind of given up running and had thought, "I'm transferring the dreams to Beau, to my son. It'll be President Beau Biden." By the way, Beau's full name was Joseph R. Biden III. Joe Biden is Joe Biden Jr. And then the cancer hit Beau and he died. In the summer of 2015, Biden was thinking about running, in part as a coping mechanism for himself, and in part to carry Beau's legacy. He was too overcome with grief, in part, that was why he didn't run in 2016. Through 2020, Beau is always with him in every way. He's always thinking about him. In one of the debates with Trump, they saw something on his sleeve. It was Beau's rosary that he was wearing. When there was that article that ran in the Atlantic about Trump calling the military suckers and losers, Biden carries a gold star with him that the Delaware National Guard gave him.

Beau was in the Delaware National Guard. He was not killed in battle, so in this case it's an honorary thing. Biden took it out of his pocket because he was so mad that day. And then at the end, in that final interview, I said to him, "Well, what do you think Beau would think about this?" And that's the way the book ends. I'm reluctant to do a spoiler here, but you see all of that really building with him and this deep emotional connection that runs through family and politics and blood and legacy and everything.

He 'threw more gasoline on the flames': The first Asian-American woman in the Senate explains how Trump fueled violence

When you read Sen. Mazie Hirono's beautiful new book, "Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter's Story," you understand that the Hawaii Democrat's strength to speak truth to power comes from one place: Her mother. Hirono was born in Japan and came to Hawaii with her mom as a child of 7. From her mother she learned a tireless work ethic, the need to stand up for herself and the fact that life can put many obstacles in your way but you can't let them defeat you.

I discussed both the book and politics of the day with the senator from Hawaii in our recent "Salon Talks" conversation. You can't help but be moved by her book, which is a love letter to her mother intertwined with her own memoir. Hirono, who was the first Asian-American woman in the Senate and the only immigrant currently serving in that chamber, shared details about her father's abusive treatment of her mother, which led her mother to take her children from on the long sea voyage from Japan to Hawaii, where her own mother had been born. From there we learn how Hirono's mother worked numerous jobs to make ends meet and later in life played a key role in Hirono's various political campaigns.

"Heart of Fire" also addresses today's politics, including the oversized role Donald Trump played in inciting anti-Asian hatred, which looms especially large at the moment. In fact, Hirono was the primary sponsor of the anti-Asian hate crimes law that recently passed the Senate, which became necessary in large part because of Trump continually drawing specious links between COVID and the Asian community.

Hirono also shares an experience that I imagine many women in politics have confronted: being told by men that she wasn't ready to run for higher office. But despite the naysayers and challenges, Hirono rose from being an immigrant child living in a boarding house to the U.S. Senate. And if you ask her how she did it, the senator will gladly tell you it was because of her mother.

Watch the "Salon Talks" interview with Sen. Hirono here or read the transcript below, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Share a little bit about your mom and how she helped shape you and inspire you.

My mother changed my life by bringing me to this country. Back then, for a young wife to decide that she had to leave my father, who I never got to know, and taking three of her children with her, that took tremendous courage. So that is my mother's heart of fire. And as you know, your fire can burn like an ember, it can last for a long time. It can pass from one generation to the next. This book is truly about my mother's story and my grandmother, who also raised me when I was a child and her heart of fire and the risks she took also.

Your mom worked multiple jobs. My immigrant dad, same thing. How much do you have of your mom's immigrant work ethic?

A lot. Because I watched my mother struggle. She never complained. She just was so determined. And it's not as though she had time to sit us down and say, "Here's what I want to teach you." She just went about her life and showed me that determination and focus and getting control of your life, those are hugely important aspects of my mother's story.

Over the years I really came to appreciate my mother even more. And so I have said that there's nothing in my life that I can do, in all the races that I've had, that comes nearly as hard as what she did to change our lives.

It was really the anti-war movement that sort of lit the candle for you to get involved. What was it about that that made you say, "You know what? I've got to do more than just ignore this stuff and live my life and have fun?"

At a pretty early age, Dean, I decided that I wasn't put on this earth just to make my little self happy. I said that to my mother. And when I was pretty young, I said and thought that I was going to do something that was going to give back to a country and a state that gave me opportunities I never would have had. I just didn't look at politics as the way that I was going to express that desire. However, it was protesting the Vietnam War, and the first time I ever questioned our government. The first time I sang, "We Shall Overcome" and marched with others was an awakening for me. We have all kinds of awakenings for a lot of us, but that was my political awakening. And I thought, here's a way that we can make some changes through politics. But it also took me a long time to run for office myself.

You mention in your book that every time you aspired to something bigger, like lieutenant governor, the men would be like, "No, no, no. You're not ready. Wait your turn." What's your message to women who are told, "Wait your turn. This is not your time"?

I think that now there are more women who are not going to be diverted from where they're going by people saying to them, "It's not your turn. Wait your turn." In my generation, it was still somewhat unusual for a woman to run for office. So pretty much when I was running for higher office, particularly for lieutenant governor and clearly for governor, these kinds of notions come up: "Are you sure you can do it?" All of that. And this is not unique to me. There are all kinds of studies that show that women are more likely than not to think that we are not as prepared as we should be for elected office. One of my employees told me — and he's a guy — he said, "Yeah, we've got guys who think it's their God-given right to run for office." Women don't think that way.

It took me 10 years after I ran my first campaign for other people to kind of think about, "Oh, I should run for office myself." And this was after somebody came to me and said, "You've been encouraging all of us, younger people, advocates, to run for office. Don't you think it's time you did it?" And I thought, "Oh!"

You ran for governor and you lost. And I think there's a lesson there. What do you tell people about losing a race?

That you can survive it. You can live to tell the tale. The governor's race was the toughest race. And even after I lost that race that night, my mother told me, "Another door will open." I said to both my mother and my husband, "I think I have one big race left in me. I don't know if I'll ever get another chance. But I think I have one big race left in me." As I said in the book, that's when my husband began to set aside money for me to be able to take that shot when it came. And it did come.

It didn't take me long when that opening came, to decide that I would run, because that was the one big race left in me. And I thought I either had to win that race or not. There's a lot that you can learn from losing a big race. I had never lost a race up to that point. And I learned from that how to win the next one. Because people asked me, "How are you going to win?" I said, "Well, I learned how to win." Especially when I ran for the Senate against the same person who beat me for governor.

What do you learn about yourself when you lose an election? What did it make you do in reassessing your choices, your priorities and what you wanted to do with your life?

I had already said that I thought I had one big race left in me. And I spent that time, basically about three years before I ran for U.S. House, just restoring myself and getting back into the art that I loved. I had taken a lot of art history courses. I took all kinds of applied art courses, drawing and painting ceramics, everything. Basket weaving, I took. I love art. So I was able to get back to it in a way that I continue to this day. I gave myself that time to restore myself, and I got to travel with my husband where I could be the spouse that didn't work. It was really nice.

But at some point I thought, "Well, I should be working." So after three years, I thought I should become an arbitrator or something like that. But right around that time, my husband said, "I don't think you're going to be happy doing all that. You should just do what makes you happy." That is my husband. He's very precious, unique. Uniquely supportive and totally unthreatened by me, to the point where my friends ask if he has any brothers.

Is it as simple as that it brings you joy to help others as an elected official? Does it bring you self fulfillment?

It's a purpose, to be able to help other people. I feel really grateful, who would've thunk it! I have classmates now who say, "We didn't know you were interested in politics." In high school, it was not as though that manifested itself. This is one of my other little sayings, that one should not peak in high school.

You became very outspoken during the Trump administration. In your book you talk about Trump's cruel family separation policy, and it made you reflect on your own brother who passed, and how he was separated from your family. Share a little bit about that and why it so pained you, what Trump was doing, taking children away from their mothers.

I had a younger brother who was left in Japan when my mother brought the two older kids. And she explained to me why she did that. My younger brother would be too young to go to school. So she brought the two older kids.

We didn't know at that time the trauma of that separation from his mother for two whole years. And that trauma stayed with him for his whole life. So I really understood from my own family's experience what family separation, how traumatic that is. To watch Trump separating thousands of little kids with no thought and no record as to how to reunite these children with their parents, it was just so painful that I spoke up. But I've been speaking out against his mindless cruelty from practically very soon after he got elected. He was terrible during the campaign, and he did not get any better. There were all these people who thought, "Well, he's going to grow into the presidency." Are you kidding me?

You introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act along with Congresswoman Grace Meng of New York. From your point of view and from being part of the community, the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, how much do Trump's words, in your view, play a role in this uptick we're seeing in hate crimes?

Of course it played a role. When the president of the United States starts calling the virus, "the China virus" and members of his administration called it the "kung flu," it just created an environment where people who have those kinds of discriminatory attitudes to begin with, and toss in some sadism, violence and everything else, to act out in this way to randomly have unprovoked attacks against Asian-Americans.

Trump just threw more gasoline on the flames by his discriminatory language. It's very harmful, to say the least. So my bill is, in my view, not controversial. It just calls for the DOJ to appoint someone to pay attention, to review these kinds of hate crimes, to work with state and county law enforcement and advocacy groups, to make sure that we get the kind of information and reporting that we need to find out the extent of this problem and to be able to do something about it. President Biden is already putting that in place, thank goodness.

Has Trump been held accountable, in your view? If he's not held accountable, are you concerned for the future of our nation, that we'll see more similar events to Jan. 6, from Trump or Trump-like figures in the future?

Trump has not been held accountable by the Senate, that's for sure. And they had two chances to do it. So the House impeached him, twice, and the Senate did not convict him, twice. And I say that we all lived through Jan. 6. It's not like the first impeachment. Jan. 6 was an experience we all had.

In your book, "Heart of Fire," at the end, you talk about the crane. And in fact, before we started the interview, you mentioned there are cranes behind you. And that they are about healing and hope. Does America need some cranes right now?

So people began to send me cranes when I got my cancer diagnosis. So people who come to my office, they will fold cranes. I now have thousands of cranes. I decided to install them in my office, on the branches of cherry trees that I literally find walking around in D.C. I don't cut off the cherry branches, but they fall during the windy times. It has to be cherry blossom branches. So I've collected all these branches, which I have installed, and I put on them the cranes that people have folded. I usually ask them to sign the wing of the crane and date. Generals, ambassadors, people who know nothing about Japanese culture will fold the cranes.

'There is no going back': Former GOP chair explains why America needs more than 2 political parties

Michael Steele is a man without a political party. True, Steele served as chair of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and still considers himself a Republican. But as he discussed recently on "Salon Talks," unless things change, Steele and other more moderate Republicans grasp that they don't belong in this iteration of the GOP, which is increasingly embracing white nationalism and appears untroubled by the use of violence to achieve its political goals.

I asked Steele a simple question he's heard many times before: What is the future of the Republican Party? The MSNBC political analyst bluntly analogized the current GOP to a cancer patient. If the patient wants to get better and seeks treatment, that's one thing. But as Steele put it, today's GOP appears to be rejecting "treatment," and instead allowing the "cancer" of bigotry to metastasize throughout the party.

The only course correction Steele sees happening will come after GOP suffers horrific political defeats. Then perhaps it will be reborn and led by Republicans like him, who still believe in the core conservative principles that attracted him as a young man to the party of Lincoln. He seemed deeply troubled, in our conversation, by his apparent powerlessness to prevent the party he still loves from slipping into white nationalism, conspiracy theory and flat-out grift, citing the ascent of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as an obvious example.

This should be of concern to all Americans. We only have two major political parties, and it impacts all of us, regardless of our political views, if one of these two parties fully morphs into a white nationalist movement that uses the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6 as a tactic to acquire and retain power. Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with the former RNC chair below or read the following transcript, lightly edited as usual for clarity and length.

Years ago, when you were RNC chair, if I asked you what the GOP stood for, you could tell me. I say this sincerely: From your point of view, what does today's Republican Party stand for?

Right now it stands for whatever Trump wants it to stand for. The party leadership has given itself over to a very small faction of the base, that sort of drives the overall narrative. When you look at it from a policy side, you see how we've walked away from long-term alliances, our friends and allies abroad. We've turned our enemies into our buddies and our buddies into our enemies. When you look at domestically what we've done on the economic front, a party that once stood for some level of fiscal balance and conservatism has now gone hog-wild.

That's kind of been the narrative for some time. This is nothing necessarily new with Donald Trump, in terms of government spending. We saw it under the Bush years, and of course the backdrop for that was terrorism and 9/11. In this instance, it's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. I like a good tax cut, but I prefer that tax cut be placed in the hands of people who actually need it, and can make the most of it, which of course is the middle class. We've walked away from the middle class. We beat our chest with great bravado about being out there for workers, but that's not necessarily our narrative.

The party right now is all over the map. It has no central moorings, no foundational idea. In fact, it has no platform that we can put out in front of the country and says, "This is what we philosophically orient toward. These are the things that matter and what we want to pursue." I think it makes it very difficult to engage the country around governing principles when you have not governed, and you have no principles that you can really put in front of them that don't sound like Donald Trump.

I can sense the rudderlessness of the party, as it goes from Dr. Seuss to immigration and back to cancel culture. In the past month we've seen things that perhaps, with different Republican leadership, would have led to a pushback. We saw Rep. Paul Gosar from Arizona as a keynote speaker at a white nationalist conference. We saw Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin tell us point blank that he was not worried about the Trump supporters who were carrying Confederate flags and other images of Nazis and white supremacy, and then Rep. Chip Roy from Texas waxed poetically about lynchings. He may or may not have said something inappropriately, that he didn't mean it that way, but we saw little pushback from the leadership of the GOP. There was a time when Paul Ryan would at least push back a little on Donald Trump. Now I don't hear it.

Even through the three examples that you gave, I wouldn't even mitigate against those. Those were consistent with what we've seen — the party's recent embrace of white nationalism, sort of this fake populism that's born out of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon in the 1960s. Ken Mehlman when he was chairman, myself when I was chairman, declared that was an anathema to the party's basic philosophy and ideas. What we've been pushing has been pushed aside for an embrace of this. So having those members of Congress and senators go out and say these things, it's just an affirmation of that.

To your point about the broader response of the party leaders, no, they're not going to push back against that, because they don't want to get primaried. They don't want a nasty soundbite from Donald Trump, or a member of the Trump family or Lindsey Graham or somebody who's going to side against them. They don't want to see what happened to Liz Cheney and others who stood on principle and supported taking down the insurrectionist acts of certain members of our community and leaders in our party. They find themselves in this very uncomfortable space where you have a Marjorie Taylor Greene and you've got a Gosar. You've got others out there saying and doing things, and the leadership is feckless. They're inept. They have been emasculated in many ways because they are not willing to risk that leadership, nor are they willing to risk their elective position, to go against those who are undermining the very fabric of who we are as a country, because there's more value in grifting off of that, raising money.

You look at the moment Ron Johnson says this stuff, he goes out and plays the victim, and he sends out a fundraising letter. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the same thing. The party has become one big grift in many respects. That's unfortunate, because that's not who we are. But we've been in that space for 21 years now. This goes back to the 2000 election. You can almost pinpoint those transformative moments in the '80s and '90s, as well. So, there's a history here that is in many respects an ongoing march by the party, and it's going to end in a not so happy place. When it does, it will resolve itself, and out of that will be born a new effort, a new party or something different. We will terraform the party in such a way that we free ourselves of this ugliness and right ourselves, or we give into it completely.

I wonder what the legacy of Trump is going to be. Is it the idea that if you're a Republican you can say whatever pigheaded thing you want, because there's really no penalty in your party? In fact, it might make some in your base, the more extreme ones, send you money. You might get more Twitter followers. You might get booked on Fox News or Newsmax. It seems that's potentially the legacy that Trump left us. Do you agree with that, or was that there before Trump?

It was there before Trump, in many respects. Trump just knew how to animate it, to bring it to life, to make use of it. But, actually, I'll take it one step further. I think in order for us to get to a different level of discussion, I'm prepared to set Trump aside. I'm tired of talking about him. I'm tired of talking about the future of the party. You can talk about the future of a cancer patient. If that cancer patient, wants to have a future free of cancer, then all right. But if they give up and give in to the thing that is killing them, there's not much more you can do. There is no further conversation you can have.

In many respects, all of us, particularly those inside the party, have to wait and see how this plays itself out. It will define itself. It will tell you what it is or what it wants to be. Then, as Maya Angelou says, accept it. Don't try to fight against it. Don't try to change it, if it doesn't want to be changed. I am past the point in the discussion of trying to figure out the future. I don't have that crystal ball. The only thing I can do is wait and see what the leadership does, what the base does, such as it is, what actions Trump takes, how people respond to it, and to see exactly what this party is going to be. In the meantime, what I and many others will continue to do, is put in front of it those Lincoln ideals that drew me in as a 17-year-old kid, many years ago, to this principle, understanding that the words in our Constitution apply to everyone. As a party, what we conserve is that fight, that power, those rights. All the other stuff is just ancillary, whether you're pro-this or anti-that, whether you're up or down on this policy.

If you're not about the foundational idea — what we're seeing happening in the voting space, by states like Georgia and Arizona. where Republicans in those states are trying to disenfranchise people. That's antithetical to the very founding ideas and principles laid out in the Constitution, even though they were written by men who did not include me in that conversation at the time. Well guess what? I'm in it now, and dammit, you're not going to take me out of it, Republicans in Georgia and Arizona — that's the fight. I'm waiting to see how that plays out, because that will tell you whether or not this party is of a mind to move off this or they just embrace it and go deeper into it, in which case then we know what we've got in front of us.

There was a new Monmouth Poll last week that asked Americans if they think white nationalism is a problem in the United States. Sixty-four percent of all Americans said yes. That actual number was actually dragged down by Republicans, because only 38 percent of Republicans thought it was a problem. When you just put independents and Democrats, you're way over 70 percent of Americans who think it's a problem. Sixty-two percent of Republicans don't think white nationalism is a problem. Either they don't believe it exists — like Tucker Carlson, who calls it a hoax — or they're down with it, or whatever, they don't really care. Everything's fine with their life.

That's because a lot of them are white. A lot of them have embraced this, and look, the thread that's kind of driving this narrative is this decision that was made at some point in this evolution to just stick it to Democrats. If the Democrats are for something, they're going to be against it, because they want to stick it. They want to screw Democrats. They want to defeat Democrats. This, for me, kind of goes back to how our politics devolved into a red versus blue, us versus them, "They're our enemy," with Democrats going from being our opponents to being our enemies.

When you have that kind of transformation in the political dialogue, you've now gone to a level of ugliness. That kind of poll makes sense, in that regard, because a lot of that is this idea that, well, you're just pushing back on white folks, because you don't want to recognize how we've been disadvantaged. This whole mindset is just turned upside down and that's what makes this discussion that much harder, because we want to inject our political biases into the conversation. When you do that, you're going to see this kind of result. It's just reflective of how broken the politics have become.

I don't know how you get around that, other than to go through it. You just got to go through it, and the country has to state declaratively — and this could mean the end of the party, in one sense, that we don't want you governing anything until you get on the page with 70 to 80 percent of the American people, who see white nationalism as a problem. You send us Marjorie Taylor Greene as your nominee, guess what? You're not getting elected. I think that's the space we're kind of moving into now, which sets up 2022, as a particularly interesting battleground, I would say almost on par with 2020. Which was important for a whole lot of reasons That we know.

While 2020 was about the election of one man, 2022 is about the election of an idea, an ideology, because there are a lot of candidates carrying this particular water into those fights. How does the nation respond on a congressional level, on a statewide level, on a state legislative level, to candidates who espouse that white nationalism is OK, white people are victims, Black lives don't matter? In fact, Blacks shouldn't even be allowed to vote in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc., because we don't like the way they vote. To help make that point, we're going to pull back on the privilege, on the right to vote in these areas. So that's going to be an interesting narrative for the Republicans to defend, and an interesting one for the country to decide that they reject it or not.

I'm not as optimistic that white nationalism isn't a winning strategy, given the demographic change happening in this country. There might be more white people who don't admit it in polls.

I agree.

That's what concerns me, that the GOP is not going to fade away and die. It's going to grow. Polls have even showed some Republicans and numbers I've never believed to be true. There was an AEI poll, from the American Enterprise Institute, which is right wing, that showed 56 percent of Republicans said it's OK to use force to stop the decline of the traditional American way of life. Where are we going?

What is the "traditional American way of life"? See, that's what we need to peel back because the traditional way of American life is very different for me and you than it is for some white guy from Alabama, who is hearkening back to a time that, quite honestly, was not good for any Americans. This idea of, "We want to return to the way America used to be," well, when I hear that, what that says to me is what you want to return to segregation. You want to return to lynching. We've heard a member of Congress say, "Hey, that's OK, because that's how we enforce the rule of law." What are you saying when you hear that and when you say that? That's what we need to drill down on, because when you just ask that question generically, people have this red, white and blue, star-spangled kind of view of America. Well, America has never been that. It's an idea on a postcard, but it has never been the lived experience of Asians, African-Americans, Jews, lesbians and gays, etc., in this country.

If Donald Trump were criminally charged, prosecuted and went to jail before 2022, how do you think that impacts the midterm election? Because it could happen. In New York, he's being investigated. In Georgia, he's being investigated. We've heard they are looking into him on the federal level. Do you think it helps the GOP if Trump is in prison. Does he become this martyr?

I think anything that happens to Donald Trump, by the system, by the "deep state," sets him up to be a martyr and he'll make himself to be a martyr. Look, the man is out there trying to create his own social media platform. Let us not fool ourselves. There will be a bazillion people who will sign onto that platform. Let's not act surprised when it happens. Let's not start wringing our hands again because, like you've just said, there are a whole lot of people who line up with Donald Trump and are down with what he says and what he's done. How do we know that? Well, 7 million more of them voted for him in 2020 [than in 2016].

You can't sit back and pretend that somehow this is an aberration. It is not. It is part of the natural course of things, and so to your point about anything, legally or otherwise, that befalls Donald Trump: He will wear it like the best victim could ever wear it. He will milk it and make the most of it, and he will drive dollars and drive supporters and ultimately drive votes behind it.

Mitch McConnell is threatening scorched earth against Democrats if they end the filibuster. What do you think?

You better listen to McConnell.

You think he's being sincere?

Of course he is. I mean, he was sincere after they got control of the Senate and Merrick Garland's nomination came up. He warned Harry Reid that's what he was going to do. He made it very clear. "I'm all about the judiciary, and I'm going to do everything I can to reshape it for conservatives and undermine it for Democrats." Now he's just broadened the warning. He's saying, not only is it not just the judiciary, it's going to be everything else.

That's not to say, however, that Democrats don't have a strategy they can employ, and that they should cower in the corner and fear the man who presumably should have no power, but does. They can still go in and play the game in a way that — look, pick and choose your battles. You don't have to eliminate the filibuster, period. You can just eliminate it on certain votes.

Stacey Abrams has talked about an exception for voting rights or civil rights.

Yeah, exactly. So, there's a way to do it, and then use that to pivot off to build the narrative for why you need to have more than 50 votes in the Senate in 2022. Give us a Senate that will support the policies that 70 percent of the American people want. We're not the party saying no. We're not the party saying, "You can't recover from COVID." We're not the party saying, "You can't have shovel-ready jobs in your community." We're the party that's trying to work with workers in unions, so America can rebuild itself. We're not the party standing in the way of those things. So give us the Senate that will allow this president to do the things that clearly you like him doing, Republicans, independents and Democrats out there across the country. Make the case.

When you talk to Republicans who are not Trumpists, where do you see yourselves in the future? Do you have a decent chance of fighting and changing this party and pulling it back?

It's a good question. It's one that a lot of us are grappling with. There are a lot of conversations being had in that regard. You fight the battle in front of you. Can't fight the one that's behind, that's done. We either won or lost. In some cases, we won, and in others we lost and we lost big. Right now the battle in front of us is over what this party will be. Is it the party of Lincoln, or is it the party of Trump? For me, it's a very straightforward question to ask. I'd like it to be the party of Lincoln. But if others prevail, and say, "No, we want Trump and Trumpism," then guess what? Brother picks up his bag and moves on. Look, you can only stay so long in a place you're not wanted.

At the end of the day, they've made it very clear. There is no going back to Lincoln-style philosophies and policies that are oriented around the freedom of individuals, and the rights of citizens. Instead it's sort of this hodgepodge of whatever Donald Trump feels on the day he wakes up. So, OK, that's the choice you've made as a party. It will fracture. It will break. It will re-shatter and reform, or shatter and reform into something else, and the rest of us will move on. Some have already moved on. I may have told you, well over a year ago, that I look at it as someone coming into my house and breaking my furniture, writing on my walls, and threatening my family. So, do I leave or do I stay? I stay as long as I can, and to the extent that they get the upper hand, OK, I collect my family and I go.

In a nation where we only have two major parties, all of us have to be concerned about where the GOP is going because it impacts our entire nation. If it becomes truly a white nationalist party embracing violence going forward, that affects all of us.

Yeah, it does. And I think an important thing about that, Dean, is the fact that more and more Americans are now open to the idea of expanding and broadening the opportunities for the creation of more than two parties. I think more and more Americans need to embrace that. I have advocated that since I was a county chairman. Why? Because I love the idea of competition. It gives you a chance to hone your thinking and reasoning skills around the philosophy that you articulate for, and it gives you a chance to declaratively say, "This is what we stand for. This is what we believe." When you can no longer do that with the embrace of the American people, then it's time for the American people to look at other alternatives, and those alternatives are there. Now it's just a matter of how they take shape and form.

There are Republicans who are actively pursuing those alternatives. I've been in those conversations and will remain in those conversations. There are Republicans who are also actively trying to do what I call terraforming the current party. That is tearing up this old dirt, that has grown incapable of bearing good fruit, and laying down some new seeds. If we are unsuccessful in that, then we will have someplace else to go. There is a lot of traction and traffic going on right now in this space, and I think that's a good thing for the country in the long run.

Trump impeachment: Legal expert explains what the hell happens now

Thanks to Donald Trump's presidency, I think we've all become amateur experts on constitutional law — at least to a certain degree. But in search of more nuanced (and legally accurate) answers a few days before Trump's unprecedented second impeachment, I asked Corey Brettschneider, a professor of political science at Brown University and author of "The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents," to join me on Salon Talks.

Brettschneider has zero doubt that the framers of the Constitution would support impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office for inciting an insurrection. As Brettschneider explained, the framers specifically feared that a dangerous demagogue like Trump might come to power, which was the very reason they included the impeachment provision in the Constitution. Brettschneider also made a compelling case that Trump absolutely must be barred by the U.S. Senate from ever seeking federal office again. (If he is convicted, the Senate can add that provision on a straight majority vote. "What's really at stake here is the defense of democracy," he explained, adding that if Trump is not disqualified from future campaigns, he could do "an enormous amount of damage even just running for office."

Brettschneider also argues that now that Trump has been impeached, his ability to pardon anyone involved in conduct related to the impeachable offense is restricted, even before his Senate trial. That issue has not yet been tested in our federal courts, but Brettschneider believes that the Framers would support this view and would adamantly oppose the idea that Trump, or any other president, can effectively pardon himself.

Watch my Salon Talks episode with Brettschneider here, or read a transcript of our conversation below to learn more about what may become of our 45th president in the weeks ahead — and even beyond — and why his actions, and their consequences, will be studied by constitutional law scholars for years to come.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Corey, you have been very outspoken in saying the second Trump impeachment is necessary, regardless of what plays out in the Senate and regardless of the fact that he's about to leave office. Tell us why it's so important for you, as a constitutional scholar.

I was for the first impeachment. I thought that Trump had not just violated the Constitution but a fundamental idea of the rule of law when it came to using his foreign policy power in order to gain political favor and seeking to get dirt on Joe Biden by offering a carrot to the president of Ukraine — and a stick too, in withholding aid. In that instance it was clearly about removal, about protecting us from basically what had just happened — a president so opposed to the rule of law that he could threaten the whole system.

What we're doing now is different because in the immediate future, Joe Biden will take over. We're not really focused on removal. It's unlikely the Senate trial would be complete before the end of his term. [Indeed, that now appears impossible.] There's one real focus, I think, and that's the issue of what the Constitution calls disqualification — to disqualify him specifically from ever holding a federal office again.

The way that this works is the House majority will vote to impeach [as happened Wednesday] and will then send the article or articles of impeachment over to the Senate. There it's two-thirds to convict — usually to convict and remove, which won't be relevant. But it'll be two-thirds to convict followed by a majority vote to disqualify. That's really where it's crucial. What's really at stake here, Dean, is the defense of democracy itself. We don't want to allow this guy to come back from the dead, to come back to life as a political candidate. He could do enormous damage even running for office. That's why I'm focused on seeing this Senate trial happen.

In your book, "The Oath and the Office," you detail the debate at the Constitutional Convention about impeachment. If the framers could have seen what Donald Trump had done in two months of assaulting our democracy, building to that crescendo with his speech on Jan. 6, inciting this insurrection against our Capitol, how do you think they would have understood this?

I think they were really worried about a demagogue like this. Of course they didn't have a concept of fascism but they did have the idea of a demagogue, somebody who would use the worst instincts, the worst passions, of the people to benefit him or herself. That's what Trump is. One fundamental protection they gave us was exactly what you just said, impeachment and removal.

When they talked about high crimes and misdemeanors, that phrase the way the Framers meant it, is often misunderstood. It sounds like crime, something that you and I would have studied in our first year of law school in criminal law but that's not what it means. There is no category of criminal law called a high crime. Instead, what it refers to is an abuse of power. The thought was, look, you've got to call a president out who shows that he or she doesn't take the oath of office seriously. They took oaths seriously. The first seconds in office the new president has to promise to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. The thought is, if they don't take that seriously and you don't remove them, the whole system might collapse. That's what we've seen. We failed to remove him in the last impeachment and what did he do? He really lived up to our worst fears, by threatening the collapse of the entire system with a literal insurrection.

What's your view on the article of impeachment the Democrats have released, which is titled "Incitement of Insurrection"? It's focused on the events of Jan. 6, but it does reference the phone call a few days before that to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, when Trump said "Can you find me votes?" He appeared to threaten, at least implicitly, criminal prosecution if Raffensperger didn't do his bidding. Did you want to see more articles or is this fine?

I was very happy with the way this one article was drafted. I'll say something about a second article that I would still like to see or statements to the effect of a second article. I'll say why I think it's so expertly drafted, precisely as you say: It talks about the criminality in both the phone call and also in the incitement itself. The Constitution does offer protection of free speech but it doesn't include the incitement to violence, the willing or knowing incitement to violence or speech directed at inciting violence. That's what Trump did. If you look at that article, it's very carefully crafted.

Congressman [James] Clyburn has said that he thinks there's a second reason for impeachment, obviously aside from disqualification, and to my mind it's worth a second article of impeachment. That is to stop the illicit use of the pardon power by Trump on people involved in this incitement, like Donald Trump Jr., like Rudy Giuliani, possibly including himself. What that article would say, I think, is that the pardon power is revoked. There's a serious debate going on among scholars about whether or not the phrase "except in cases of impeachment" when it comes to the pardon power allows Congress to revoke the pardon power of the president related to this case of incitement. I think Congress, as Clyburn said, should clarify that, yes, they do think he should lose this pardon power as a way to protect himself.

The pardon power is extremely broad for a president, but it does have that one thing about "except in the case of impeachment." Can you explain what that really means?

What I call the traditional view is that it only meant a very minor thing, which is that a president can't stop an impeachment proceeding from happening or couldn't undo a penalty like disqualification. I call that the traditional view. I think many people in the legal establishment have thought that that's true. We think there's evidence [from the Constitutional Convention] that it really was about the ability to strip the power of the president to pardon not only himself but also co-conspirators involved in cases related to an impeachment.

If we're talking about the impeachment powers, about Congress' ability to defend the nation from a criminal president, they've got to be able to stop his use of the pardon to basically undermine what they're doing. It's a kind of structural argument about self-protection, a value-based argument that the pardon power is supposed to be for the public benefit or a "benign power prerogative," as Alexander Hamilton called it, not for basically getting away with crimes. It's a common sense argument of values. When we look at the history, we see nothing in the history that precludes it. When you look at the day that exception was put into the Constitution, it's unclear what was going on in the minds of the framers.

Is there a Supreme Court decision that decides this one way or another when it comes to that understanding of how the pardon powers are limited in the case of impeachment?

That's part of why it's a black box. There's definitely no final holding on this. There was a 19th-century case that mentions the traditional view in what lawyers call a "dicta," sort of an aside, but no, there's been no definitive Supreme Court case. One of the crazy things about the Trump administration is these are things that you and I in law school would have had a professor ask us about: "What if the president tried to use the pardon power to pardon a co-conspirator?" Now we're seeing this play out in real time. The Supreme Court will have to answer these questions.

America could sit for the bar exam after what Trump has put us through. We've learned about the emoluments clause. Who knew about that? Questions about self-pardoning. We all learned a little Latin.

It's a terrible, tragic moment. This president is very dangerous. I would never underplay the threat and the seriousness of the moment, but one good thing that could come out of it is exactly that. I'm seeing on Twitter, Americans asking, "What does it mean, 'except in cases of impeachment?'" Pundits would say, "Oh, it means the traditional view." I would say, no, these people have insight, they have common sense, they're reading it in the right way. That's not just true for that, it's also true for the emoluments clause. Why are courts not stopping Trump from using the office? It's a really important clause with a terrible brand name. It's about not using the office for profit. It's the not for profit clause. I think it's great that Americans are engaged in that way.

When we bring up the word "pardon," what can't be lost in the conversation right now is that in the recent past Trump has talked about his ability to self-pardon. I've got to get your reaction to the possibility of the president, in the last few days of his term, pardoning himself.

This is another argument on both sides. There are people who say that basically the president's power in regard to the pardon is absolute. It's a prerogative power. It's absolute, and if it's really absolute then he can do it. That's one side. I don't agree with that. I think that during the Nixon administration, even Nixon's lawyers, Nixon's Office of Legal Counsel said that the president can't pardon himself. The argument they gave is that you can't be a judge in your own case. That's what would be involved here.

Common sense says no way. But there are people who have this absolutist idea of the presidency. To my mind, it goes to the deeper issue, which is that we need reform. This presidency is a loaded gun, and we've seen that crazies can get ahold of it. We've got to be able, as a nation, to protect ourselves from a crazy in power.

Let's take it to the practical world. If Donald Trump wants to make sure he's not going to spend his twilight years in a federal penitentiary, the only way to be sure is not a self-pardon, correct? He's got to get it from somebody else.

Yeah.

If he self-pardons, he's going to leave wondering if it's effective. Doesn't he have to get Mike Pence as president, either by using the 25th Amendment or by resigning hours before noon on Jan. 20? Look, he doesn't want to go to jail for the rest of his life. The only way he can know that he's safe from federal prosecution is to get Pence to do it.

That would be a good strategy. Thankfully, Pence doesn't seem to be in the mood, given that he was in the Senate chamber when it was attacked by Trump's insurrectionists, who were yelling they wanted to kill him. You know, certainly Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon was never successfully challenged. In fact, it was never challenged at all in court. So yes, if he was strategizing the best way to go he should have been nicer to Mike Pence.

But here's the wrinkle: In New York he's facing investigations by the Manhattan district attorney and by Letitia James, the state attorney general, and there's no way to pardon that. The governor of New York is not giving him a pardon and a federal pardon won't matter there. It might protect him from criminal charges in the District of Columbia. I've seen commentators say that because D.C. is federal, the pardon might cover that too. That's very worrying because in my mind he's got to be prosecuted for these crimes.

This goes back to another Nixon-era memo that says sitting presidents can't be indicted for crimes. I think that's ridiculous. Those memos were never tried in court. They betray common sense. Of course he should be indicted right now. In fact, I would like to see D.C. prosecutors challenge that policy by acting against a madman who tried to bring about an insurrection and incite a riot.

Do you think there's criminality in what you saw from Donald Trump during the speech on Jan. 6? To me, there was something that got lost a little in the media. The reason he had that rally on Jan. 6 is because the Electoral Count Act mandates that as the day for Congress to meet and count the electoral votes. He had it timed so they could finish that rally and go to the Capitol. It's not like he just held a normal weekend rally and people stuck around. He picked that day. In my mind, that was his backstop. If Pence wouldn't stop the certification of Biden's win, he hoped his people would prevent it. Do you think that adds to the potential argument of criminality?

Oh, absolutely. On the high crimes and misdemeanors front it certainly is fundamental. This isn't just an incitement to violence. That would be bad enough, and he did that, of course, when he was running for president during the rallies, very similar incitements on a smaller scale. But he was trying to undermine democracy to stop the count. That's what these people thought they were doing. He knew that's what they thought they were doing. He encouraged it rather than stopped it.

What's a more serious crime? We could talk about the technicalities but it seems to me to certainly be insurrection or treason — an attempt to undermine the most basic fundamental thing that makes us a democracy, a peaceful transition of power. So absolutely it matters. I'd love to see much more attention to this.

Let's talk about the 14th Amendment. Some Democrats are talking about it in the context of disqualifying Trump from ever holding office again, and maybe even expelling some members of Congress, not allowing them to run for reelection. Reuters actually wrote an article saying that for Trump to be barred from running for office you only need a majority vote. That doesn't seem like a correct reading of the Constitution to me. If they want to disqualify Donald Trump from running again, do they need a majority vote in the Senate or they need first the two-thirds vote to convict?

I think the most certain path, which is backed in precedent — there have been two incidents where this disqualification was used in the case of judges. The first story is incredible, the parallels. It's a Tennessee judge who incited insurrection in the context of the Civil War and the Confederacy. Congress said, hey, you can't have people in federal office who are inciting insurrection. The way they did it was through a majority in Congress. Two-thirds did convict him in the Senate to remove him, followed by a majority vote. That's been the sequence in the past.

Now, I have seen law professors say — and I think this is what the Reuters story was picking up on — that if you read the text of the Constitution, it doesn't specify the order. So although we've done it that way, maybe if there weren't the votes [for conviction] the Senate could try severing that. I don't really have a view on that. I think it's very interesting, because when you look at the constitutional text, we've never been in this position. We're not voting on removal, that definitely requires two-thirds. We're voting on disqualification. Can you sever the votes — in other words, have disqualification without conviction, without the two-thirds vote? I'm just not sure about that. I'm not sure that courts would uphold it.

Maybe they would, since they tend to defer in matters of impeachment. There's a case called Nixon v. United States that really emphasizes that the House has the sole power to impeach and that the Senate has the independent and sole power to try the case. Because of the deference in that case, maybe the courts would defer on that matter.

I wonder if they would ask the parliamentarian of the Senate for a ruling in advance, or will make their own ruling when Democrats control the chamber and Kamala Harris is vice president. Let's say they make their own rule saying they're going to formalize this: We only need a majority vote. Does it go to the courts? If the Constitution says it's within the purview of the Senate exclusively, we're not getting involved, then we have a new rule.

I would add to that, Dean, you only need a majority to change those rules. So it's possible they could try that. The parliamentarian might weigh in and [as Senate majority leader] Chuck Schumer might say, this is a unique circumstance, this is a threat to democracy, we're doing it.

Certain members of Congress are citing a provision in the 14th Amendment that says any president or representative involved in insurrection or rebellion, or giving aid or comfort, will not be allowed to hold office. Do you think there's a good faith basis to make an argument under there? Would tat be a majority vote scenario?

Going back to my example of the judge in Tennessee who was disqualified for insurrection, they used the impeachment process rather than the 14th Amendment, to be sure. I would say if you really want to get rid of Donald Trump's ability to run again, go through the process that's got the precedent that we know and that would be a majority in the House and two-thirds in the Senate to convict, followed by the majority to disqualify.

But if they don't have the votes, I think the thought could be, look, the country is desperate to make sure this guy doesn't run again. Who knows? We've got this provision there. Maybe it's a hail Mary. Maybe courts would overturn it if he tried to run, but let's try it and let's argue it out. Certainly it is there, as you say, in the text. I do think that this president threatened democracy. I don't think it was some minor act of violence. It's not out of the question.

In your view, what reforms are needed by Congress to rein in a future Trump like president?

Look, it's so deep. I've written this book "The Oath and the Office," and the idea is not just that the president takes an oath to preserve and protect and defend the Constitution, but courts are very rarely going to be there to make sure that a president complies. They're not going to force the president to say the right things.

I would have hoped they would have struck down that Muslim ban, which was definitely based in hatred and animus, and the court in a crucial moment failed to act. That was one of the worst moments of the last four years. I was deeply involved in that case. I drafted an amicus brief with colleagues. We were cited by the dissent, but not by the majority. It was about as textbook a case of animus as you can get.

Given that, it's up to us. It's up to "we, the people" to demand that a president be held to account. But we can't do that if we don't know the Constitution. I think that's the failure here. We've got to do something to educate America about why somebody like Donald Trump has no business running for office, holding office or being listened to in the public sphere.

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The Trump we see today was influenced and propelled by various characters, as Rothfeld notes, starting with the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn — once an associate of Sen. Joe McCarthy — who Trump grew close to in the 1970's.  There's a direct line between Cohn's merciless attack philosophy and Trump's propensity to never admit fault. Just look at Trump's Twitter feed for daily examples.

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