McConnell Splits From Trump on Voter Fraud, Russia Sanctions

The Republican leader tells National Journal he doesn’t see “any evidence” that millions voted illegally—contradicting a repeated claim by the president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is interviewed in his Capitol office on Friday.
Chet Susslin
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Jan. 27, 2017, 7:45 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell said on Fri­day that voter fraud should be dealt with at the state level and that he doesn’t see “any evid­ence” that mil­lions of people il­leg­ally voted in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, as Pres­id­ent Trump has claimed.

“I don’t be­lieve the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs to look at this,” said Mc­Con­nell in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al in his of­fice at the Cap­it­ol. “Our whole elec­tion sys­tem is state-based. There are a num­ber of states who have been con­cerned about bal­lot se­cur­ity that have done something about it.”

In the wide-ran­ging ses­sion, Mc­Con­nell also urged the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion not to roll back sanc­tions on Rus­sia, hours after Trump ad­viser Kel­ly­anne Con­way said that do­ing so was “un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.” Trump is sched­uled to speak with Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin on Sat­urday.

“I’d be op­posed to that,” said Mc­Con­nell. “The sanc­tions I as­sume you were re­fer­ring to [came] as a res­ult of the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the in­cur­sion in­to east­ern Ukraine. And you can now add to that mess­ing around in the U.S. elec­tion. I would be vig­or­ously op­posed to any re­duc­tion of those sanc­tions.

“I think the first step is to en­cour­age the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to use any kind of waiver that may be in the ex­ist­ing law,” Mc­Con­nell ad­ded. “If there’s any coun­try in the world that doesn’t de­serve any kind of sanc­tions re­lief, it’s the Rus­si­ans.”

Mc­Con­nell’s com­ments echoed con­cerns shared by Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors, par­tic­u­larly Armed Ser­vices Chair­man John Mc­Cain, who said in a state­ment Fri­day that he would work to “co­di­fy sanc­tions against Rus­sia in­to law” if ne­ces­sary.

The in­ter­view with Mc­Con­nell also touched on his three mo­ment­ous goals this year: con­firm­ing the pres­id­ent’s Su­preme Court justice nom­in­ee, re­pla­cing Obama­care, and passing com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form.

While ef­forts to fun­da­ment­ally re­form the coun­try’s health care sys­tem and tax code have only be­gun, what does ap­pear cer­tain is that Trump will get his Su­preme Court justice, who is ex­pec­ted to be an­nounced on Thursday. When asked wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans would change the fili­buster rules if Demo­crats at­tempt to block the pick, Mc­Con­nell said in no un­cer­tain terms, “We’re go­ing to get the nom­in­ee con­firmed.”

The Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an seemed less en­thu­si­ast­ic on di­vert­ing con­gres­sion­al at­ten­tion to­wards a rumored $1 tril­lion in­fra­struc­ture pack­age, an­oth­er top pri­or­ity for the pres­id­ent. Mc­Con­nell said trans­port­a­tion pro­jects are bet­ter left to the states.

But first, Na­tion­al Journ­al began by ask­ing Mc­Con­nell, a his­tory buff, what he’s read­ing. Here’s a tran­script:

I wanted to start off, be­fore get­ting in­to the top­ics of today—I know that you’re a his­tory buff. At the end of last year, I saw that you had The Gen­er­al vs. the Pres­id­ent: Ma­cAr­thur and Tru­man at the Brink of Nuc­le­ar War on your [read­ing] list.

Yeah, I’m in­to Brands’ The Gen­er­al and the Pres­id­ent. One of my kids gave it to me for Christ­mas. I’m a big fan of H.W. Brands any­way, but I’m sort of end­lessly fas­cin­ated by the Korean War. My dad fought in World War II, and he came back home and a bunch of his bud­dies said, “You know, why don’t you join the Na­tion­al Guard? It meets once a month. A little ex­tra pay.” My dad said, “Well, you know, I’ve had my war, I’ll take a pass.” All those guys ended up go­ing to Korea. He had been at the thick of the fight in World War II. In fact, they lost two-thirds of the com­pany in one night.

I think he prob­ably felt like he had done his part. And, as it turned out, they all ended up go­ing to Korea. Some of them didn’t come back. [Dav­id] Hal­ber­stam’s The Cold­est Winter is the best book on—every­body thinks it’s the best book on the Korean War. I’m not through with Brands’ book, but it’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see his take on all of that be­cause it’s also about the Korean War, ob­vi­ously, which is the biggest feud between Ma­cAr­thur and Tru­man.

Is there any­thing that relates to today when you’re read­ing this book? Are you mak­ing any com­par­is­ons?

No, he’s just fo­cus­ing more on the re­la­tion­ship between Tru­man and Ma­cAr­thur. … But you can’t write about the Korean War without deal­ing with that.

I know Pres­id­ent Trump talks about Ma­cAr­thur…

Trump? Is he a Ma­cAr­thur ad­mirer?

I think so. He talks about it at some of his ral­lies.

I’m not. [Laughs] I think Ma­cAr­thur was kind of a mixed bag.

Why’s that?

Well, I think his mis­cal­cu­la­tion about the pos­sib­il­ity of Chinese in­volve­ment was a pretty ser­i­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tion. Wheth­er they would’ve come over the Yalu River and done what they did no mat­ter what, I don’t know—no one will ever know. But I think he thought that the Chinese would not come over. And it turned out we were lucky to fight to a stale­mate.

But if you look at the Korean War writ large, it ended up be­ing a huge suc­cess be­cause of what South Korea has be­come. It gave us a mod­el, right on one pen­in­sula, of what works and what doesn’t, and the trans­form­a­tion of South Korea from a mil­it­ary dic­tat­or­ship to a Peace Corps re­cip­i­ent, a for­eign aid re­cip­i­ent, to what they are today—their own Peace Corps, their own for­eign as­sist­ance, something like the 13th-largest eco­nomy in the world. Any Amer­ic­an sol­diers who came back from Korea’s wars and said, “Did it make a dif­fer­ence?”—the Korean sol­diers, I think, could look back and say, “Hey man, that al­lowed something really in­cred­ibly im­port­ant to hap­pen.”

Well, I’d like to pivot to for­eign policy today. Kel­ly­anne Con­way said on Fox that elim­in­at­ing sanc­tions on Rus­sia is un­der con­sid­er­a­tion. I was won­der­ing if you would sup­port or op­pose elim­in­at­ing sanc­tions on Rus­sia.

I’d be op­posed to that. The sanc­tions I as­sume you were re­fer­ring to [came] as a res­ult of the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the in­cur­sion in­to east­ern Ukraine. And you can now add to that mess­ing around in the U.S. elec­tion. I would be vig­or­ously op­posed to any re­duc­tion of those sanc­tions.

I know Sen­at­or Mc­Cain said today that he’s go­ing to try to co­di­fy sanc­tions in­to law.

I think the first step is to en­cour­age the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to use any kind of waiver that may be in the ex­ist­ing law. If there’s any coun­try in the world that doesn’t de­serve any kind of sanc­tions re­lief, it’s the Rus­si­ans.

On the Su­preme Court, on Thursday Pres­id­ent Trump is ex­pec­ted to make his nom­in­a­tion to fill that va­cancy. … Will Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans do whatever is ne­ces­sary to con­firm the nom­in­ee?

Well, we’re go­ing to con­firm the nom­in­ee. I’m op­tim­ist­ic we’re go­ing to get an out­stand­ing nom­in­ee, one who’s ex­tremely well qual­i­fied. Wheth­er we would have to get clo­ture or not re­mains to be seen. What I would hope is that we’d be treated the same way as Bill Clin­ton was treated in his first ad­min­is­tra­tion. Gins­burg and Brey­er—clo­ture was not re­quired. Barack Obama: So­to­may­or and Kagan—clo­ture not re­quired.

If clo­ture is re­quired, we’ll have a clo­ture vote. And if we have a clo­ture vote like we had with Sam Alito, hope­fully clo­ture will be in­voked. Those are the pos­sible scen­ari­os that we’ve ex­per­i­enced in the past. All I can tell you—and all I will tell you no mat­ter times you ask me—is that we in­tend to get the nom­in­ee con­firmed.

I in­ter­viewed Sen­at­or Schu­mer a few weeks back and he still re­grets the Alito con­firm­a­tion. He still thinks he should’ve done more per­son­ally to block that.

He op­posed clo­ture. … Well, you’re go­ing to have to ask him what he in­tends to do. What I’m telling you is that we’re go­ing to get the nom­in­ee con­firmed.

Even if chan­ging the fili­buster rules [is re­quired]?

We’re go­ing to get the nom­in­ee con­firmed.

Onto health care. Your top goal this year is to re­peal and re­place Obama­care. I’m curi­ous what that meant for the Medi­caid ex­pan­sion.

We’ll see. That’s part of the whole pack­age—and go­ing for­ward to re­place what Bill Clin­ton called the cra­zi­est thing you’ve ever seen, what 8 out of 10 Amer­ic­ans say ought to be re­placed en­tirely or dra­mat­ic­ally changed.

If Hil­lary Clin­ton had been elec­ted, we’d be re­vis­it­ing Obama­care. We prob­ably would be re­vis­it­ing it in a dif­fer­ent way than what we had in mind, but the status quo is un­sus­tain­able. We were not elec­ted to con­tin­ue with the status quo on Obama­care. Ex­actly all the de­tails of what re­place­ment will look like, I couldn’t tell you right now, but we’re fully in­tend­ing to go for­ward.

There’s a few dif­fer­ent con­ser­vat­ive op­tions—provid­ing tax cred­its to en­cour­age [people to buy] health in­sur­ance, block grants, chan­ging [Medi­caid] to a per cap­ita al­lot­ment—are any of those the most at­tract­ive to you?

All of the vari­ous pos­sib­il­it­ies are un­der dis­cus­sion. And I’m not go­ing to sit here and ne­go­ti­ate with you. [Laughs]

There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of people in Ken­tucky who have got­ten health in­sur­ance through the ex­pan­sion.

It’s over­whelm­ingly un­pop­u­lar in Ken­tucky. In fact, it was a big factor in my reelec­tion in 2014 and the gov­ernor’s elec­tion in 2015. I think our mem­bers know that the Amer­ic­an people think we can do bet­ter.

On tax re­form—the oth­er big thing that you’re look­ing to get done this year with a pretty ag­gress­ive, bold agenda—the bor­der ad­just­ment tax is what people are really talk­ing about now. Mem­bers were talk­ing about it in Phil­adelphia. Do you sup­port a bor­der tax in a broad­er com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form?

What I sup­port is do­ing com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form. I had just got­ten here when we did it the last time. I was just a back­bench­er, but I was very much fa­mil­i­ar with how chal­len­ging it is. And it is really chal­len­ging.

It was ac­tu­ally easi­er then, be­cause you had a Demo­crat­ic House. Re­agan and O’Neill had agreed that it would be rev­en­ue-neut­ral to the gov­ern­ment. And Bill Brad­ley, a prom­in­ent lib­er­al Demo­crat in the Sen­ate, was ac­tu­ally on our side. I don’t an­ti­cip­ate that’s go­ing to hap­pen this time. So this will prob­ably be a Re­pub­lic­ans-only ex­er­cise, us­ing the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess, and we’re talk­ing about all the things that you’d like for me to han­di­cap or eval­u­ate—I don’t blame you for ask­ing the ques­tion, but I’m not go­ing to cri­tique each of the pro­pos­als that could al­low us to have com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form.

But you won’t come out in sup­port of it either?

I’m not go­ing to take a po­s­i­tion on any of the mov­ing parts right now. I do think it ought to be rev­en­ue-neut­ral. I think it prob­ably will have to be rev­en­ue-neut­ral us­ing the re­con­cili­ation ap­proach. With a $21 tril­lion debt, I don’t think we ought to blow a hole in that. And so with­in those para­met­ers, if the goal is to get the rates down, the ques­tion is: Whose pref­er­ences are lost? How do you make up for it?

I think Sen­at­or Lind­sey Gra­ham said that it would be “mucho sad” to do tar­iffs so mar­gar­itas are more ex­pens­ive today.

[Laughs] Well, you know, I’m will­ing to listen to the ar­gu­ments. We talked about the thing you raised—the bor­der ad­just­ment—we talked about cor­por­ate in­terest de­duct­ib­il­ity and the im­pacts of los­ing that. … Rev­en­ue-neut­ral tax re­form is not rev­en­ue-neut­ral to every­body. It may be rev­en­ue-neut­ral to the gov­ern­ment. But when pref­er­ences start go­ing away, it’s not rev­en­ue-neut­ral to that par­tic­u­lar pref­er­ence or those people who be­ne­fit from that par­tic­u­lar pref­er­ence. What we hope is that over­all when you get the rates down as dra­mat­ic­ally as the speak­er’s pro­pos­al would like to do, it com­pensates for a lot of that.

And we also think a more ra­tion­al code will help us have eco­nom­ic growth. The growth has been tep­id throughout the Obama years. And I think the stat­ute of lim­it­a­tions is run [out] on blam­ing that on Bush. This was the worst re­cov­ery after a deep re­ces­sion since World War II. And I think I saw a stat­ist­ic today that the growth rate for last year was 1.6 or something like that. I mean that’s really un­der­per­form­ing.

We need to get our foot off the brake and put it onto the ac­cel­er­at­or, and there’s two ways to do that: pro-growth, com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form and reg­u­lat­ory re­lief. And we’re go­ing to start the pro­cess of reg­u­lat­ory re­lief this week in the House. Those re­peals un­der the [Con­gres­sion­al Re­view Act] will come over to us, the ad­min­is­tra­tion will keep look­ing for ways to get reg­u­lat­ory changes [through the] ex­ec­ut­ive branch. … And we’re go­ing to try and get the coun­try grow­ing again.

Do you think that tax re­form could be tied to in­fra­struc­ture?

You’re ask­ing me all kinds of hy­po­thet­ic­als. We do have the chal­lenge, if we’re go­ing to do a big in­fra­struc­ture bill, of how do you pay for it? What I have said to the pres­id­ent and said pub­licly and say again to you now, I’m not in­ter­ested in do­ing any­thing like the stim­u­lus. $800 or $900 [bil­lion] of bor­rowed money and you can’t find a pro­ject al­most any­where in the coun­try that be­nefited from it. It’s like with­draw­ing the funds from the bank and light­ing a match to it and adding that much to the de­fi­cit.

So whatever we do needs to be cred­ibly paid for. And I think the way trans­port­a­tion pro­jects really, ac­tu­ally oc­cur is at the state level. They’re the ones who build roads, re­pair roads, and ac­tu­ally spend the gas-tax money that we col­lect and send down to them on a for­mula basis.

You wouldn’t want to in­crease that tax to pay for it.

That’s part of the whole dis­cus­sion. What is the ad­min­is­tra­tion go­ing—I’m open to hear­ing a re­com­mend­a­tion. What’re they go­ing to re­com­mend? How big is it? And how do we pay for it? And how’s it go­ing to be struc­tured?

I think those dis­cus­sions have just be­gun. I be­lieve there’s a task force with­in the ad­min­is­tra­tion. I think, for ex­ample, the per­son likely to be sec­ret­ary of Trans­port­a­tion [Elaine Chao, former Labor sec­ret­ary and Mc­Con­nell’s wife] is on [it]. They’re dis­cuss­ing ex­actly what I’m talk­ing about. We all love it—in­fra­struc­ture—Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans ab­so­lutely love in­fra­struc­ture. The is­sue is how are we go­ing to pay for it?

Do you think that there is enough? A tril­lion dol­lars worth?

I have no idea. We’re anxious to see what they re­com­mend.

On the bor­der wall—you said at the re­treat, [it is] go­ing to be $12 to $15 bil­lion, I be­lieve. Is that also go­ing to be off­set?

That’s also un­der dis­cus­sion. They have not sent the pro­pos­al up yet. We ex­pect the ad­min­is­tra­tion to send up a pro­pos­al. How much and how do you pay for it?

There are some people who noted that Re­pub­lic­ans his­tor­ic­ally wanted off­sets for Zika fund­ing or what-not. Do you think it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to do something like a bor­der wall, bor­der se­cur­ity that’s not off­set?

We haven’t got­ten a pro­pos­al.

The oth­er big thing that the pres­id­ent has con­tinu­ously talked about and tweeted re­cently is about the in­teg­rity of the bal­lot box. … This week, I be­lieve you said that fraud ex­ists. Speak­er Ry­an said that there wasn’t any evid­ence of mil­lions of people vot­ing il­leg­ally. I was in­ter­ested by the jux­ta­pos­i­tion of those two re­marks. I was won­der­ing why you think that is.

I think a lot of it de­pends on where you’re from. In Ken­tucky, we have a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of voter fraud. There are oth­er states where it’s al­most nonex­ist­ent. But what I can safely tell you is it’s a state mat­ter. In a num­ber of states where this has been an is­sue, they’ve gone to photo ID at the polls. That’s ac­tu­ally been up­held by the Su­preme Court—a 6-to-3 de­cision in a case arising out of In­di­ana. I don’t be­lieve the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs to look at this. Our whole elec­tion sys­tem is state-based. There are a num­ber of states who have been con­cerned about bal­lot se­cur­ity that have done something about it. One thing that happened to our state is that a num­ber of people got sent to jail. It had an in­ter­est­ing im­pact on the propensity to buy votes, which was ap­par­ently pre­val­ent in our state un­til a few years ago. I think it ought to be dealt with at the state level.

Do you see any evid­ence for those claims that mil­lions of people voted il­leg­ally in the 2016 elec­tion?

I don’t see any evid­ence of that, no.

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