CNN "State of the Union" - Transcript: Interview With Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse





SASSE: The legislature is impotent. The legislature is weak. And most people here want their jobs more than they really want to do legislative work. And so they punt most of the work to the next branch.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse at the Kavanaugh hearings this week ripping into his fellow members of the Senate for ducking their responsibility to make laws.

Sasse's opinion of the president is not much better. In 2016, he called Trump -- quote -- "creepy." He refused to vote for him. And since then, he's been a frequent critic of the president's, though, as one of the most conservative members of the Senate, he has also voted with the president more than 80 percent of the time.

And Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, is joining us now from his beautiful home state.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

I have to start. Yesterday, you retweeted someone who said that they switched their party registration from Democrat to no party. And you replied by saying you -- quote -- "regularly consider" switching from the Republican Party to becoming an independent as well.

Why? And what's stopping you from doing so?

SASSE: Yes, so I'm one of about eight people in the U.S. Senate who has never been a politician before.

And I think I have been saying for three years that I conceive of myself as an independent conservative who caucuses with the Republicans. But, frankly, neither of these parties have a long-term vision for the future of the country.

You know, 10 years from now, where are we going to be in the future of work, when young people are disrupted out of jobs three times a decade, future war and cyber, the collapse of community? Like, there's massive stuff happening in America. And these parties are really pretty content to do 24-hour news cycle screaming at each other.

The main thing that the Democrats are for is being anti-Republican and anti-Trump, and the main thing Republicans are for is being anti- Democrat and anti-CNN. And neither of these things are really worth getting out of bed in the morning for.

I think we should be talking about where the country is going to be in 10 years. So, I have been saying for a long time that these parties need to reform and have a future-focused vision. And we're not there yet.

TAPPER: Why stay a Republican? And when is the last time you thought about becoming an independent?

SASSE: I probably think about it every morning when I wake up and I figure out, why -- why am I flying away from Nebraska to go to D.C. this week? Are we going to get real stuff done?

So I'm committed to the party of Lincoln and Reagan, as long as there's a chance to reform it. But this party used to be for some pretty definable stuff. And, frankly, neither of these parties are for very much more than being anti.

And anti, or anti-anti, or anti-anti-anti, it's pretty boring stuff.


SASSE: We should be focused on the long term. And I would love to see the party of Lincoln and Reagan get back to its roots.

TAPPER: It also is the party of Trump, of course. Does that have anything to do with your ambivalence about the party?

SASSE: The president has done some good things.

This week, we got to do the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. I sit on the Judiciary Committee, and Brett Kavanaugh's a really strong nominee. He's the kind of person -- pardon me -- that Republican presidents would have nominated for decades. And so I applaud the president for that pick.

But I think it's pretty obvious, when you are engaging the White House, as I do many, many times a week, that there's just a lot of chaos and a lot of reality TV circus. And that's a little bit different than a long-term view.

I think, when I -- yesterday, I'm vending in the Nebraska football stadium during the game, when Nebraskans talk to me about politics, which is a distant second to talking about football, what they want is a Washington that does a small number of things with a lot of urgency and not a lot of drama.

And, right now, we do a whole bunch of things in a frenzied circus. And we should do better than that.

TAPPER: I want to get to Brett Kavanaugh in a sec.

But I do want to ask you about that anonymous "New York Times" from a -- quote -- "senior administration official."

This person, this is what they had to say about day-to-day life in the White House -- quote -- "Meetings with him," the president, "veer off topic and off the rails. He engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions. Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment" -- unquote.

Now, you told Hugh Hewitt just a couple days ago that you have heard similar comments from people close to the White House or in the White House.

Let's be precise. Have you heard from senior administration officials that the president makes reckless decisions and that Cabinet secretaries have talked about the 25th Amendment?

SASSE: No, I have not heard anything about the 25th Amendment.

But, obviously, it's an impulsive White House, right? I mean, there -- there are a lot of really good people around the president. He has done a good job, frankly, in a lot of the people that he's hired, but I think they'd like to be focused on a long-term agenda.

I think Donald Trump, in the campaign of 2015-2016, was obviously right that Washington, D.C., doesn't work and does need to be disrupted. But then the question is, the disruption toward what end?

I mean, truly, cyber is going to be the center of warfare for the next decade and for the next century. What are we doing about it? There's some really good people the president's put in place. General Paul Nakasone at NSA and Cyber Command, wonderful guy.

But is the White House using its power and its convening power and its focus to help the American people understand the future of warfare, or do we do the drama of Omarosa today and Cohen tomorrow and Manafort the next day?



TAPPER: Yes. Yes. I get what you're saying. And you're talking about a very serious and, if I can inject an editorial opinion here, a very appropriate concern that you have about cyber-attacks on this country.

But I guess the question that some people might have is, what are you doing about it? Other than coming on the show right now and talking about it and going to the Senate floor and talking about it, what more could or should someone like you, who is concerned that the president, that -- of all the chaos going on there, and the fact that there is this lack of focus on serious national security issues, what more could you be doing?


Well, so, first of all, I'm pretty proud that last month we got past the Cyber Solarium Commission as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act, a piece of legislation that I lead-authored.

The NDAA is the piece of legislation that every year reauthorizes what the Department of Defense priorities should be for the next year. And Eisenhower in the early 1950s recognized that we were well into the nuclear era, and yet we didn't have an offensive strategy or a defensive strategy. We didn't have a long-term human capital strategy.

We're in the same place, actually worse position in cyber now, 26 years into the cyber era, and no definable doctrine? And so I got a piece of legislation passed that's now going to set up a commission that takes the right people in the executive branch...


SASSE: ... plus some experts outside of government and reports back in a year. So that's one example.

But I want to say one more thing about the phrase "just talk."

TAPPER: Right.

SASSE: Frankly, in a democracy, one of the most basic, most important things we do is, we talk together about who we are as a people.

Basic civic norms, deliberation and dialogue, reflection on universal human dignity and why the First Amendment is the beating heart of American life, those are all ways of saying we talk, so that we don't have violence as the way to figure out how to use the levers of government power.

TAPPER: I guess the...

SASSE: So, if we're not talking together about who we are as a people, we're going to lose a republic.


SASSE: And, right now, a lot of our kids wonder if there's anything you can trust in the future.

TAPPER: Your fellow Republican Senator Flake said that the Republican Party made a Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil, by supporting President Trump in exchange for tax cuts, deregulation, two Supreme Court justices. Flake says it wasn't worth it.

You are arguing that it has been worth it?

SASSE: No, I'm arguing that the 2016 election was a dumpster fire, and that both of these candidates went into the election mostly being against the other one, and the American people basically said, pox on all your houses.

And then they decided who to vote for that was the less bad, in their view. And we shouldn't be having elections like that in the future. We should have two good parties that have a long-term vision for the country, competing to be better than the other one, not competing to be less bad or better at the quick putdown on Twitter.

And so I think that, again, President Trump has done a bunch of good things. The deregulation packages he's put through, the judicial nominees have been really good. But as far as focusing the country on a long-term agenda around the future of work and the future of war and helping kids understand the First Amendment again, which is something that's clearly in crisis on campus...


SASSE: ... we're not focused on any of those things. And they're more important than the day-to-day legislating we are doing.

TAPPER: Let's talk about Kavanaugh, because Senator Dianne Feinstein who isn't known to make these charges lightly, although she is involved in a reelection fight, she said that Brett Kavanaugh -- quote -- "misled the Senate" and his -- quote -- "answers were not true."

She's not the only one suggesting that Kavanaugh has committed perjury.

An example that they cite is his 2006 testimony saying he wasn't involved in policy regarding warrantless wiretapping.

But do you -- what do you make of this criticism from the Democrats that Brett Kavanaugh did not give honest answers before the committee?

SASSE: Yes, it's not true.

So, two distinctions that we need. First of all, this week was good for some things in American civics, in that Brett Kavanaugh did a good job of showing judicial temperament, judicial restraint, and he explained what the job of a judge is. He explained that a judge puts on a black robe to cloak his personal policy preferences. A judge is not a Republican or a Democrat.

He's somebody who rules based on the written law, on the facts before them in the particular case. And so I think that was useful.

What wasn't useful was the chaos of that confirmation hearing, which was mostly grandstanding for people, some of them running for reelection right now, but a whole bunch of them looking at 2020 and how they energize a primary electorate on the Democratic side.

And so there were all sorts of charges thrown around that really aren't based in reality.

So, one really important fact the American people should have in common, more paper was submitted for Brett Kavanaugh's nomination than the last five Supreme Court nominees combined. There's never been paper handed over like this.

But it is true that not every piece of paper that ever had Brett Kavanaugh CC'ed on it was handed over. That's because Brett Kavanaugh was the staff secretary to George W. Bush, and not every George W. Bush paper was handed over.


SASSE: But because Brett Kavanaugh was the president's secretary for three years doesn't mean he was a policy-maker on most of those matters.

TAPPER: Just a very quick one.

You mentioned 2020. I would be remiss if I did not ask, what are the odds that you will launch a primary challenge to President Trump or run as an independent and run for president yourself in 2020?


SASSE: I think the odds are a lot higher that I run for the Noxious Weed Control Board of Dodge County, Nebraska, than that.

I -- I lived on a campaign bus for a year, about 16 months five years ago. And, in my mind, I still have flashbacks of a lot of kid puke on the -- on the floor of a bus.

So, for me, I don't really think a lot about what job I have. I think a lot about the country's challenges and what we should be focused on. I'm pretty happy living in Nebraska and going to D.C. five days a week trying to serve the best I can.


TAPPER: The odds for me are zero percent.

SASSE: What D.C. needs to be focused on is helping the public recover some trust.

TAPPER: The odds that I'm going to run for president in 2020 are zero percent. So I can say that. That's not what you just said.

SASSE: Yes, Jake, I think we're -- right now, we spend way too much time talking about campaigning in this country and way little time -- too little time talking about governing.

So, in the next week-and-a-half, I'm going to be introducing a piece legislation for ethics reform in D.C. And I think that's a better place to spend our time and energy.

TAPPER: All right. We'd love to have you on the show this week to talk about that ethics reform bill, which I know is important to you and I know you want to do in the memory of John McCain.

Thanks so much for being with us, Senator.

SASSE: Thanks, Jake. Good to be with you.