Political Wire Conversations








February 2018
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If you’re going to read one book on politics this summer vacation, the word is out: Devil’s Bargain – Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency is the one.

The book is by Josh Green, Senior National Correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, and if you believe what Politico reports, the book has President Trump livid.

To be clear, as you’ll hear, Josh is just fine with that.

You’ll love this conversation. Josh is a great storyteller and a funny guy – Back stories on Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign, Jeff Sessions, Rebekah Mercer. We talked about all of them.

Before we begin with Josh, a quick ask from me to you: I hope you like these conversations. If so, I’d appreciate if you’d take a moment, go to iTunes, and, if you’re so moved, leave a 5-star review. The ratings really matter. As always though, if you don’t like the conversations, please forget I ever mentioned it.

And one last word about the conversation – when I caught Josh, he was on a cell phone in a Washington D.C. area garage, so the audio is mostly good, but the content is excellent. I forgot to ask Josh if he was in the garage meeting a new Deep Throat.

Direct download: PWC_Josh_Green.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:18am EST

That’s the provocative, timely, and somewhat scary question posed by one of America’s great authorities on international affairs: Harvard’s Graham Allison.

Allison looks at the rising tensions between the two global competitors through a 2500-year lens in his new, important book: “Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap.” Don’t worry, Allison explains it very clearly, but it’s centered on a central principal that has resulted in 12 wars over the last 500 years: Situations when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one.

Indeed, on the one hand, from trade to North Korea and beyond, the U.S. and China seem to need each other. And yet on the other hand, from trade to North Korea and beyond, the two powers often seem at each others throats. Remember President Trump’s tweet from just a few weeks ago, and just months after the two leaders met and dined on chocolate  cake at Mar-a-Lago: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!”

Prof. Allison and I had a terrific, really interesting conversation. We talked about China, the U.S., North Korea, each country’s leader, the Peloponnesian War, and, simply because I couldn’t pass up the chance, a tongue-in-cheek beef I’ve had with the professor for many years. Suffice to say – we’re all good.

As background, and in case you don’t know, Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Former Director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration and Special Advisor to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan.

Professor Allison also has sole distinction of having twice been awarded the Department of Defense's highest civilian award, the Distinguished Public Service Medal, first by Secretary Cap Weinberger and second by Secretary Bill Perry.  He served as a member of the Defense Policy Board for Secretaries Weinberger, Carlucci, Cheney, Aspin, Perry, Cohen, and Carter. He currently serves on the Advisory boards of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the Director of the CIA.

And he’s written four books. Believe me, I could keep going on about Prof. Allison’s biography, but that’s enough.

One last note: An ask, from me to you. I hope you like these conversations. If so, I’d appreciate if you’d take a moment, go to iTunes, and, if you’re so moved, leave a 5-star review. The ratings really matter. Of course, if you don’t like the conversations, please forget I ever mentioned it.

Ok, no more bios or asks. Here’s my conversation with Graham Allison. I really think you’ll like it.

Direct download: PWC20Graham20Allison.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:23am EST

So where do you start a conversation with U.S. Senator Al Franken? There’s so much to discuss. Russia investigations? President Trump? Congressional Hearings? Health Care?

Which is why we started with the obvious: The Grateful Dead. He’s a big fan.

But don’t worry. We quickly moved off the Dead and to the policies and politics that matter today. As Sen. Franken makes clear: That’s why he says this is the best job he’s ever had.

You surely know some or all of Sen. Franken’s biography. You know he was an original and long-standing member of Saturday Night Live. You know he made a living for decades by being one of the funniest people in America. You likely know he became – by the smallest of margins and several months after everyone else got sworn in – a U.S. Senator in 2009.

And you may know that he’s written a new book titled the way any modest kid from Minnesota would title it: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.

But even if you know all of Sen. Franken’s background or just a small part or, somehow, none at all – read the book. Unless you’re Ted Cruz. Then don’t read the book, because there’s stuff in there about you that you might not enjoy.

But if you’re not Ted Cruz, read it. It’s really good. It’s moving. It’s funny. And it tells the traditional American tale of the kid who wanted to be a comedian and did. And then he became a Senator. Cliched, I realize, but give it a chance.

Here’s my conversation with Al Franken.

Direct download: PWC20Al20Franken.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:34am EST

I just finished talking with Sidney Blumenthal, and I know, depending on which cable network you prefer, he’s someone you already likely either love or hate.

But I’m telling you, regardless of where you fall, you’re really going to like this conversation.

We spoke because Sidney has a new book, and it’s excellent – It’s “Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856.” He has two more volumes to go, and wait until you hear about his process. It was not what I thought it would be.

The book isn’t just a fascinating look back at our President to be living in one of the most compelling, dangerous times in our history The book also is incredibly, almost scarily, relevant today. A divided country. Intense fights over “popular sovereignty,” also known as states’ rights. Incredibly charged personalities – some of the most influential and divisive we’ve seen – people like Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster.

And then there is Lincoln himself. Blumenthal describes this as Lincoln’s time in the wilderness, where he reads and thinks and, yes, follows politics intensely. This is the time when the coming American icon develops an extraordinary level of self-discipline. You can hardly hear that description of a future U.S. President without thinking about today.

And as for Trump… yes, we talked about him, too. And about Hillary Clinton. And confidential information.

I came away from this book and conversation with an overwhelming thought. One for which we should not need reminding, but in case we do, here it is: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

As for Sidney Blumenthal’s biography. He’s been on the political scene for so long, that you might not know the details. He is or has been:

• Assistant & Senior Advisor to the President Bill Clinton
• Senior Advisor to Hillary Clinton
• Writer, journalist, editor at Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic
• Author of 11 books
• Executive producer of Academy Award and Emmy award winning Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary that explored the American military's use of torture by focusing on the unsolved murder of an Afhgani taxi driver.

But we started the conversation by talking about his book. Let’s get to it:


Direct download: PWC20Sidney20Blumnenthal.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:14pm EST

Today Tom Walker is going to set you straight on politics, liberalism, free speech, and more.

Who’s Tom Walker? You might know him better as Jonathan Pie, the liberal British “newscaster” – and that’s in quotes – who keeps getting surreptitiously filmed talking off-camera to his producer Tim, who’s back at the studio.
Here’s the YouTube video he posted 2 days after the Trump election. By Walker’s count it’s been shown in various formats more than 100MM times. A quick warning: This Jonathan Pie loves to curse:


As you clearly can tell from that clip, Walker is a classically trained actor whose sights were always set on Shakespeare rather than political satire. Truly.
Here’s the backstory: For years, Walker was a struggling actor right out of central casting. He waited tables. Worked odd jobs. Took the acting roles he could. Then about two years ago, it happened. A character, a fast-talking, foul-mouthed, frequently-frustrated newscaster named Jonathan Pie was born.

Pie – or Tom – takes on the right and the left, but generally the left. He comes at them as one of their own, as you’ll hear in our conversation. Pie – or Tom – is disappointed and angry at the hypocrisies he sees – such as, liberals who should fully support free speech, but instead try to shut down so-called offensive ideas and look to safe spaces for shelter.
For example, here was Pie on university students and the censoring of free speech:


So what makes Jonathan Pie work? We’re clearly in a new age of political satire. From Pie to John Oliver to Samantha Bee and beyond, this generation combines research, insight and cutting humor with the Internet and digital distribution to build huge audiences while revealing social ills and political truths.

It’s really good work, and really popular. Walker’s audiences are growing exponentially, and he just finished a big UK tour with a show at the Palladium. You can check it all out at jonathanpie.com or follow him on Twitter @jonathanpienews.

I caught up with Tom the other day as he was about to check out of his Los Angeles hotel room – his first trip to the states. You’re really going to like this conversation – a wonderful journey by a previously non-political actor from the English countryside who’s become the one thing he never imagined: One of the top political satirists around. 


Direct download: PWC20Tom20Walker.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:04pm EST

What went on – and is going on – with Russia and the U.S., or more specifically, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump?

DNC hacking; the President’s continually positive characterizations of Putin; former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; new questions around Attorney General Jeff Sessions – and calls for him to recuse himself from any investigations… the list goes on.

And while the facts continue to trickle out, the overall context becomes increasingly relevant – including Russia’s apparent goals to create chaos in various democracies around the world. And few people in the world are better positioned to analyze the context than Garry Kasparov.

Most of us know Kasparov, with Bobby Fischer of course – as the most famous, most significant person in chess history. Indeed, Kasparov broke Fischer’s rating record in 1990. Kasparov retired from chess in 2005 and moved into a new and certainly more dangerous arena – Russian politics.

He ran for president of his home country in 2008, and later was named chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, succeeding Vaclav Havel, a role he continues to hold.

Kasparov writes and speaks frequently on Russia, its internal dealings, and its relations with the West and indeed the rest of the world.

I don’t want to give away the heart of the conversation, because I think you’ll find it most powerful hearing Garry himself. But one of the most surprising insights: Kasparov’s explanation of why President Trump is good for democracy.

It was a fascinating, thoughtful discussion, exactly what one might expect from a chess grandmaster. I think you’ll like it.

Direct download: PWC20Garry20Kasparov203_320revised.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:34am EST

It feels like every day we reach a new point of “well, this has never happened before” in American politics.

And I’m not just talking about the Tweets. Ok, the tweets are something. Incredible, really. We can and will have a conversation on when to ignore and when to react to them.

But let’s get past the Tweetstorms for a moment. I’m talking about actual questions about democracy and the Constitution and even America itself. Questions that take more than 140 characters to answer. Like this one:

Is the President above the law?

Ok, I guess that doesn’t take 140 characters to answer. It should only take two characters – three if you count the period.

Truly, this question had never previously occurred to me. Most of us thought it was asked and answered, initially in the Constitution, and subsequently through 240 years of democracy.

But in a time where things have never happened before, even that simple belief has come into question, most recently during that unbelievable first post-election press conference when Donald Trump said: “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.”

Could that possibly be true? In America? Could the President truly be above the law?

Say what you will about the Trump election – and regardless of where you sit, there’s plenty to say – if nothing else, he’s generated a national discussion on government ethics unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Somehow it seems, we’ve all been transported back to high school civics class.

And if it’s a class on government we’ve been taking, there’s no doubt that one of the lead professors – indeed, one of our country’s leading experts – is Ambassador Norm Eisen.

Ambassador Eisen is a bit like the Emoluments clause – many of us were not aware of him a few months ago, and now we wonder why we haven’t been following him for years.

Indeed, if you turn on the television or read any of our leading newspapers or journals or, yes, go on Twitter lately, you can’t miss Ambassador Eisen or his sometime partner Richard Painter. Eisen and Painter have become the bi-partisan truth squad of government ethics – a human Google search providing not only facts, but also analysis, interpretation, and precedent.

Now, as I discuss with Ambassador Eisen, even with the laws and clauses we have, there is plenty of gray area. He gets into that. But if you want to understand what issues President Trump could find himself addressing – and what that might mean for our politics, policy, and even democracy – you’re really going to like this conversation.

Some background: Eisen is a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Previously, Eisen worked in the Office of the White House Counsel under President Obama. He was Special Assistant to the President and Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform.

Importantly, and particularly timely for where we are today: Eisen worked on the Obama-Biden Transition Project in the Office of the President-Elect. In this role, according to his bio, he “provided ethics training for President-Elect, Vice-President Elect, their spouses and other senior officials, as well as all members of transition teams. [He] also trained and vetted Cabinet members and other nominees and appointees, and assisted with administration’s policy development process regarding ethics, transparency and reform issues, translating campaign promises into action.”

Sounds pretty relevant, doesn’t it?

Ambassador Eisen is also Co-Founder and Chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

But perhaps his most important title: He’s an optimist. This really comes across in what he says and how he says it. We talked about that, too.

Ambassador Eisen brings energy and humor and personality to an area that cynics may previously have called an oxymoron and even non-cynics may have thought was not particularly urgent.

That’s all changed, of course. Here’s my conversation with Ambassador Eisen.

Direct download: PWC20Norm20Eisen20good20ending.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:35pm EST

The Electoral College has voted. The next cabinet is essentially filled. And with the holiday season here, and our focus is turning to the little things like peace on earth and good will towards men.

And yet, even with the time passing, even with the new challenges – Russia hacking our democracy, Congress promising to hack healthcare, Navy drones in the South China Sea – nearly every Democrat I talk with still has the same singular question: What happened?

We know all the theories: The Democrats forgot to reinforce their blue wall. Fake news and foreign hacking combined to rig the system. Angry white males. The email server.

Celinda Lake has another theory: It’s the economy, stupid. And Democrats forgot about that.

Celinda is one of the one of the Democratic Party's leading political strategists – a senior advisor to the national party committees, dozens of Democratic incumbents, and challengers at all levels

Celinda also has shown that she can work across party lines. She’s author of What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live. Her co-author back in 2005? Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

I asked Celinda about Kellyanne Conway. I asked her about what she sees in her polls and hears from Democrats since the election.

I, too, have been curious about this question of what happened. Not so much from a political horse race point of view. And not so much from the question of Russian hacking. Yes, I’m hugely offended by that. It was an attack on our democracy. But here’s what’s really been on my mind:

·      How do we sustain as a country with our massive geographic split – the two coasts vs. the Heartland?

·      How do we fight a sense of disenfranchisement when the popular vote runs so counter to the Electoral vote?

·      What about the disenfranchisement that clearly existed before – why did we not hear that stronger? Say what you want about him, but Trump definitely did.

I asked Celinda about all of this. I really enjoyed the conversation. I’m intent on using these podcasts to have meaningful conversations about where we are and where we are going next. There’s intense debate even within each party over what’s the best next step:

For Republicans, every day now is Christmas. Apparently, Santa really does exist, and he delivered on November 8. Now, some Republicans wonder, did we get what we bargained for? How do we act when so many of Trumps policies run counter to Conservative principles over the last decades.

For Democrats, they’re repeating the old Admiral Stockdale question: Who are we and what do we stand for? Should they find common ground where they can – or should they obstruct and block, essentially treat Trump they way Obama was treated?

And for people who just want to see the country move forward… well, where can they find inspiration?

I aim to find thoughtful responses to these questions. I started with Celinda Lake, and here’s what she said…

Direct download: PWC20Celinda20Lake.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:51pm EST

We’re down to the numbers game, folks. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll still have the name calling, threats, promises, rallies, commercials and more – I didn’t say the campaign is over – but all focus now turns to a single number: 270.

What’s the best path for both candidates to get there? And what’s it like inside the campaigns in the final days.

Few would know better than Neil Newhouse; because he’s been there. Neil was lead pollster four years ago for Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign. He is partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, which the New York Times once described as the country’s “leading Republican polling company.” Neil himself is 3-Time winner of “Pollster of the Year” by the American Association of Political Consultants. He has seen and done a lot.

And yet, as you might imagine, he’s never seen anything like this campaign. I know it’s naïve, but I keep getting amazed at how many political professionals I talk with who’ve been doing this for years – dozens of campaigns and so many Presidential elections – and yet to a person, they’ve never seen anything like this one.

Neil didn’t hold back. He outlines the path to 270 for each candidate – which states must they win. Which ones we should watch on Tuesday.

But he also calls this the Nose-Holder election. Trump and Clinton have some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any candidates in history. Among his really interesting points: Most of the time, you want your candidate in the news – you want the headlines. This go round, the only time Trump or Clinton gets attention is when something negative is happening. No news really might be good news in this campaign.

The other thing he says we should watch for? Enthusiasm. Turnout will be key in a vote where supporters aren’t so much enthusiastic for their candidate as they are disgusted with the other.

We talked as well about what’s next – no matter who wins, what will the political, social, and economic divides in our country look like. There’s no sugar-coating: While Neil sees a way out, he shares the view of so many others that we likely have dark days ahead – for the Republican and Democratic parties, and even for the country.

What I liked most about this conversation: Neil has given much – maybe all – of his professional life to politics and governing. This guy cares, and that comes through loud and clear in his ideas and his tone. Whichever side you’re on, I think you’ll appreciate his concern, and I think you’ll really like this conversation.

Direct download: PWC20Neil20Newhouse.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:05pm EST

It’s so hard to talk politics and not have the whole conversation be about Donald Trump. And with all of the coverage – even ours – seemingly centered on the Presidential race, it might be hard to remember that there’s another branch of government where the November 8 vote matters as well.

We didn’t forget, though. So today, let’s talk about the House.

You know the basics – the Republicans control it. And most people think Democrats would have to run a clean sweep of the so-called contested races to take back control. It seems unlikely. But what about this election season has been likely? Exactly.

Among the key issues: If the Presidential race becomes seen as a blowout, will Republicans stay away from the voting booth on Nov. 8, depressing turnout and votes for the House races?

Even if Republicans keep control of the House, what will that control look like? Will moderate Republicans fall in November, setting up a 115th Congress where sitting Republicans are dominated by the so-called Freedom Caucus?

And what about Paul Ryan? What kind of juice does he have left? Will Nov. 8 be a referendum on his leadership?

We knew the right person to ask about all of this. The hard part is tracking David Wasserman down.

What’s life like for someone covering 435 House races? Well, let’s just say you better like airplanes.

We caught up with David on a cell phone in Palm Springs, California. He just arrived from Washington, DC, and was to be on the ground for only a few hours before leaving for Chicago then Alabama then New York followed by who knows where? Apologies that the sound quality is our best, but at least David wasn’t literally running to a plane when we got him.

In case you don’t know, David is U.S. House editor of ‪Cook Political Report and a contributing writer at 538. Few know more about the House – and each of the 435 districts – than David. Seriously, don’t sit at a bar with David and try to get into a contest throwing darts at a U.S. map and trying to name that district’s U.S. representatives. I promise you’ll lose.

But we won – we got David, and if you only listen to one podcast on the House races, I think you’ll want it to be with David.

Direct download: PWC_David_Wasserman.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:52pm EST