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.
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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