CNN "State of the Union" - Transcript: Interview with Rep. Justin Amash

Interview

Date: July 7, 2019

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

TAPPER: Hello. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington, where the State of the Union celebrating our nation's independence.

We have a lot to get to this morning, including a new expression of regret from 2020 front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden. But we begin this week with a new declaration of independence, a sitting Republican congressman announcing he is leaving the Republican Party.

In an op-ed released on the Fourth of July, Congressman Justin Amash writes -- quote -- "I have become disenchanted with party politics and frightened by what I see from it. The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions."

Amash had been the most outspoken Republican critic of President Trump, becoming the first and only Republican lawmaker to call for impeachment proceedings after reading the Mueller report.

The president, unsurprisingly, shared his feelings about Amash's decision Twitter, calling him a total loser and calling his decision great news for the Republican Party.

And newly minted independent Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan joins us now exclusively live for his first national interview since making the decision.

Thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

AMASH: Thanks, Jake. Appreciate it.

TAPPER: So you didn't mention President Trump in your op-ed in "The Post." But you did say you believe the GOP stood for limited government and economic freedom until recent years.

Do you think you would be leaving the Republican Party if Donald Trump were not president?

AMASH: Yes, I do.

And I have had concerns with the Republican Party for several years. I have had concerns with the party system generally. When I first got to Congress, I thought I could change things from the inside. But, as I have spent time there, I have seen that, not only me -- I don't think there's anyone in there who can change the system.

It's pretty rigid. It's top-down. It comes down from leadership to the bottom. And, over the years, it's gotten more rigid. So it's more difficult now to actually change the process than it was even a few years ago.

TAPPER: Do you think it's fair to say that President Trump and your fellow Republicans' unblinking support for President Trump was the straw that broke the camel's back?

AMASH: I think this term in Congress has really shown how bad it can get.

When I started the House Freedom Caucus -- I was one of the founding members -- what we were fighting for was better process. We were fighting for a more open government, a more accountable government. We wanted members to have a voice in the process, so that we'd have a deliberative body and we'd be able to represent people back home, whatever the outcome.

Sometimes, the outcomes would be more conservative. Sometimes, the outcomes would be more progressive. But whatever the outcome, we wanted to open it up.

But, over the years, I have seen that people are just falling in line behind the leaders, including people in my own caucus, you know, which I left. So it's gotten worse and worse.

And I think this was the term that really broke it for me.

TAPPER: The president lashed out on you on Twitter Thursday, after your announcement that you were leaving the Republican Party, saying -- quote -- "Great news for the Republican Party, as one of the dumbest and most disloyal men in Congress is -- quote -- 'quitting the party." No collusion, no obstruction. Knew he couldn't get the nomination to run again in the great state of Michigan, already being challenged for his seat. A total loser."

I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond.

AMASH: I mean, I don't have a response to it. It's -- it's what the president does. It's what he says.

And I think most people understand that's not how people are supposed to talk about each other and to each other. And I think he's really identified what I talked about in my op-ed, which is, he thinks that people owe loyalty to him.

But people are -- people are elected to Congress with an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath to support and defend one person, the president, who happens to be from your own party.

TAPPER: Do you think that kind of attack, personal -- personal, nasty name-calling, do you think fearing that kind of attack is why more of your Republican colleagues don't speak out when they see things they don't like from the president?

[09:05:11]

AMASH: Yes, it's a big part of it.

They're afraid they will be attacked. They're afraid that people back home who are listening to certain forms of media will say, well, the president's right, this guy's a terrible person, and we need to go after him.

So it's a combination of things. I don't think a lot of the partisan discord and the rest started with President Trump. It's been going on for years, and it's gotten worse in recent years. But he's helping to fuel it, and he's making it worse, and he's making it more difficult for people to be independent in Congress.

TAPPER: You stand to lose some political power by leaving the Republican Party. The vice chair of the Republican Conference, Congressman Mark Walker,

tweeted -- quote -- "Amash left the Freedom Caucus. Now he's leaving the GOP. The House GOP never left Justin Amash. We simply ran out of space for his ego. However, we should make sure he leaves the Republican Conference and his committee."

What would you say to a supporter or constituent who says, by leaving the party, you are hurting your congressional district because you no longer are going to have potentially -- I mean, do you anticipate you're going to be kicked off the Oversight Committee?

AMASH: I anticipate that I may be kicked off. And that's OK. I understand the consequences of doing what I'm doing.

At the end of the day, though, I have done this for several years. I have worked within the Republican Party. I have tried to make changes from within. My colleagues have tried to make changes from within. It hasn't worked. It's not working for anyone.

And I'm not the only one trying. I have colleagues who are trying every day, and who are frustrated. But they are not speaking out the same way.

I hope they will speak out.

But it's time to try something different. It's time to be a committed independent representative for my district, so that everyone back home knows where I stand, because, right now, when you go back home, you hear Republicans who don't trust you because you're not aligned with the president. You hear Democrats who don't trust you because you're a Republican.

And most of the people in my district do trust me, they respect me, they support me. And I want those people to know that I'm there for them. I'm there to represent every single person in the community.

TAPPER: But not having any power on a committee, doesn't that hurt your ability to serve your constituents?

AMASH: In today's politics, the committees have almost no power.

And I want people at home to understand that. Everything is really run top-down. When I say that, I mean it very literally. The speaker of the House very much controls the entire process. The speaker decides what comes out of committee.

When Speaker Ryan, our Republican speaker, was there, the -- I was on several committees, and nothing ever came out of the committees that wasn't approved by Speaker Ryan.

TAPPER: So, let me ask you about that, because I talked to Brendan Buck, who was a senior adviser to both Speaker Paul Ryan and to Speaker Boehner.

And he says one of the reasons why Congress isn't functioning as it should is because of the Freedom Caucus. That's the perspective of a lot of people in Republican leadership, as I'm sure you know.

Specifically, Buck said: "You can't have an honest conversation about partisanship and polarization in the last five years without acknowledging the role the Freedom Caucus played. They insisted on loyalty to their own tribe above all else, and drove this toxic notion that compromise is treason."

As you mentioned, you're a founding member of the Freedom Caucus. What's your response to that? Do you -- do you think that the Freedom Caucus deserves any blame for how things are going in Congress right now?

AMASH: So I don't want to speak for the Freedom Caucus today, since I'm no longer a member.

But I will say, when the Freedom Caucus was founded, the purpose was to open up the process. And the speaker of the House and his spokespeople have it totally backward. They were closing down the entire system. And members of the Freedom Caucus said, well, we need to band together to ensure that we open this up. We want to be able to offer amendments on the House floor.

Under Speaker Ryan, for example, for the first time in congressional history, we had a whole Congress where not a single member of Congress was able to go to the House floor and offer an amendment. It was the first time in history. It was the most closed Congress in history.

And now, under Speaker Pelosi, we have the same problem, where we're not allowed to go to the House floor and offer amendments.

So, the thing is closed down. We need to open it up. And, sometimes, you have to form a group like the Freedom Caucus to stand up to the establishment in Washington.

TAPPER: So, just to give their perspective, for instance, the Senate passed immigration reform during the Obama years. It was a bipartisan bill. It passed with 60-something votes, mostly Democrats, but some Republicans as well.

Speaker Boehner wouldn't even bring it up. And they say it's because the House Freedom Caucus would insist on, you can't bring up any legislation unless you know that a majority of Republicans are going to support it. And, for that reason, there wasn't a free and open process. And...

AMASH: Well, that was never the philosophy of the Freedom Caucus.

The Freedom Caucus was about opening up the process. I can't speak for individual members who may have felt that way. But the speaker -- the Freedom Caucus was about opening up the process and ensuring that the speaker allowed us to offer amendments, allowed us to offer suggestions, because it's supposed to be a deliberative body.

[09:10:03]

We're not just supposed to take things and pass them. We're supposed to debate and represent the American people.

TAPPER: You have said that people turn to -- into -- quote -- "zombies" when they come to Washington, because they're telling you things privately that are different than what they say publicly.

What are you hearing from fellow Republicans privately -- obviously, you don't have to mention their names -- about your decision and about being a Republican member of Congress in the Trump era?

AMASH: Well, I get people sending me text messages, people calling me, saying, "Thank you for what you're doing, great op-ed."

When I was discussing impeachment, I had fellow colleagues and other Republicans, high-level officials, contacting me, saying, "Thank you for what you're doing."

So there are lots of Republicans out there who are saying these things privately. But they're not saying it publicly. And I think that's a problem for our -- for our country. It's a problem for the Republican Party. It's a problem for the Democratic Party, when people aren't allowed to speak out.

So I -- I think we really need the American people to stand up and say, hey, enough is enough. We have had it with these two parties trying to ram their partisan nonsense down our throats week after week. We want a person to go represent us and be open and represent the entire community.

TAPPER: Are you running for reelection as an independent to Congress?

AMASH: Yes, I am.

TAPPER: You are? And you think you can win as an independent?

AMASH: Yes. I'm very confident about that.

TAPPER: What about the possibility of your running for president as a libertarian or some under -- some -- under some other ticket? I asked you about that four or five months ago, and you didn't rule it out. Is it possible you would run for president?

AMASH: I still wouldn't rule anything like that out.

I believe that I have to use my skills, my public influence where it serves the country best. And I believe I have to defend the Constitution, which -- in whichever way works best. And if that means doing something else, then I do that.

But I feel confident about running in my district. I feel a close tie to my community. I feel -- I care a lot about my community. I want to represent them in Congress.

TAPPER: When do you think you will make a decision about a possible presidential run?

AMASH: Well, it's -- it's something people talk about all the time. It's not something that's right on my radar right now.

So I couldn't tell you.

TAPPER: What do you think about when -- what does it feel like when you have, first of all, when you -- I think you made your announcement about impeachment, and Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter basically threatened that he was going to support whoever primaried you.

Then you announced that you're not running as a Republican. President Trump issues the tweet that he issues. This is the most powerful family in the country right now, and they're gunning for you. What does that feel like just as a person?

AMASH: Well, it doesn't scare me.

I feel confident in what I do. I have people back home who support me. I have people back home who care about me. When I go back to my district, people are coming up to me and saying, "Thank you for what you're doing."

People want open, honest representation. They want people to come to Congress and work with integrity. And what the president is doing is actually lowering the tone across the country. He's harming civil discourse. He's creating a lot of partisan divide. He's enhancing it.

And I think that's very dangerous for our country. And I don't think a lot of people appreciate it. I think a lot of people put up with it because the economy is good right now. But I don't think they'd put up with it if things went south.

TAPPER: So you have come out in support of impeaching or at least beginning the proceedings of impeaching President Trump.

You said there's no point in formally bringing articles of impeachment right now because Speaker Pelosi doesn't support it. Is she making a mistake? Do you think that the Democrats should be starting impeachment proceedings, based on the Mueller report, what's in there about potential obstruction of justice, which is the case you laid out?

AMASH: Yes, from a principled, moral position, she's making a mistake.

From a strategic position, she's making a mistake. If she believes, as I do, that there's impeachable conduct in there, then she should say so. She should tell the American people, we're going to move forward with impeachment hearings and potentially articles of impeachment.

When she says things like, "Oh, I think that we need to have the strongest case before we go forward," what she's telling the American people is, she doesn't think there's a strong case. If she doesn't think that, then she shouldn't open her mouth in the first place and say she thinks there's impeachable conduct. I do believe there's a strong case. I believe she believes there's a

strong case. And, if so, she should move forward and make sure that the American people understand what's going on, because people at home aren't reading the Mueller report. Most people don't have time to read a 448-page report.

They expect their members of Congress to do the work for them. They want Speaker Pelosi to do the work. They want other members to do the work. And if she doesn't want to go forward, then we're going to have a big problem.

TAPPER: Last question.

How many of your Republican colleagues do you think have actually read the Mueller report?

AMASH: I think it's probably less than 15 percent.

And I would say that's probably the case on both sides of the aisle.

TAPPER: Do you think it's -- that, once anyone reads it, they would reach the same conclusion as you?

AMASH: I think a large number of them would reach the same conclusion.

There are some who would reach different conclusions. But when you look at the conduct in there, when you look at the evidence that's presented, I think basically anyone would be indicted for that conduct, anyone who is not the president of the United States.

[09:15:07]

TAPPER: Congressman Justin Amash, independent of Michigan, good to see you, sir.

AMASH: Thanks, Jake. Appreciate it.

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