Before his hiatus in January, Steve Schmidt was a fan favorite for many MSNBC viewers. As a lifelong Republican, his screeds on the political and constitutional morass of the Trump era had a special credibility for many MSNBC viewers. As a strategist, Schmidt advised the campaigns of George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John McCain. He was as famous as a political strategist could be, thanks to Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of him in Game Change.
Schmidt was a charter member of the Never Trumpers and officially renounced his membership in the Republican Party last year, calling it “fully the party of Trump” and saying the GOP had become “corrupt, indecent, and immoral.”
Last week, Schmidt returned to MSNBC after an eight-month hiatus, which included a stint as an advisor to Howard Schultz’s brief and inglorious flirtation with a third-party run. Intelligencer caught up with Schmidt on the phone this week and asked him about impeachment, the Schultz debacle, and the Democratic field.
A few days ago you said that we’ve entered the “consequences stage” of the presidency. What are the consequences you foresee?
I think what’s missing from the coverage in the middle of all of the chaos that Trump produces, and the daily drama that emanates from this White House, is the degree to which Trump has been an extremely consequential president. There is an argument to be made that he is the most consequential president since FDR, because he is systematically unraveling, at an extremely fast pace, the U.S.-led global order that was architected by FDR, built by Harry Truman, and maintained from Eisenhower through Obama. And everywhere around the world, all of the countries and all of the groups that we don’t want to see winning on the field of geopolitics — Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Russia, Turkey — are advancing while American interests are retreating.
He has completely remade the American presidency through his debasements of its traditions. He has pitted the country against each other in a cold civil war and he is the first president purposefully who, with each and every utterance, he seeks to incite and divide as opposed to unifying around core principles. He is attacking and degrading our institutions and the concepts of the rule of law that are necessary for the maintenance of the constitutional republic from within. He is utterly infidelitous to his oath to preserve, protect, and strengthen the Constitution of the United States. That makes him, not a clown and a joke, but a dangerous and profoundly consequential figure. I caveat “consequential” by saying it’s not a celebratory statement — it’s one of alarm.
There are people out there who make the argument that his presidency, so far, is also proof that the framework or system is working. Whether it’s his attempt to roll back health care or even backing down from the G7 at Doral, but from your perspective his presidency is proof it’s cracking. Where is the weakness?
The Doral example is a singular instance of retreat amongst hundreds of examples of heretofore unacceptable acts of corruption and self-dealing and enrichment in the use of the office. He has thoroughly remade the presidency. He has shattered the systems and the boundaries and the protections that exist within the system around the president and he has made the country weaker and more isolated and assaulted the values that the country at its best stands for.
Is he going to face consequences?
If you read Federalist 65 and 66 — what the Founders wrote, what Alexander Hamilton wrote, about the importance of impeachment, which he advocated for — it was a protection against a president who is described in perfect detail by Hamilton: Someone who abuses the public trust. The standard isn’t criminal, it’s political. It’s high crimes and misdemeanors. It’s about abuse of power. So Trump has forced a question. And the question is: Does Donald Trump get to ride above the law? Does he get to do whatever he wants? Can he target, through the power of his office, Americans for persecution for political reasons because of political differences? Or is the co-equal branch of government constitutionally obligated to begin a process to correct the abuse of power that was built into the system by the geniuses who established the American republic?
I think that Nancy Pelosi is exactly correct. She said that Donald Trump had left them no choice but to move forward with the impeachment inquiry. Whether that leads to an impeachment should be done on the facts and the basis of evidence and should accord Trump every due process protection that he’s entitled to.
But there’s certainly a scenario where Trump could be impeached, acquitted in the Senate, and reelected. And an impeached, acquitted, and then reelected Donald Trump is a Donald Trump without any constraints on him. I think that would be extremely dangerous. I think that one thing that’s missing from all the coverage is the possibility that Donald Trump could be reelected. It’s not talked a great deal about speculatively. You look at the standings right now, he has a historic cash advantage. Republicans have a significant technology advantage. Most Americans have made their minds up and this will be a very narrowly decided election.
At the same time, just yesterday there was a poll that said for the first time 50 percent of Americans believe in going forward with this impeachment hearing. So there is evidence of sentiment changing.
What the polling indicates is growing majority awareness that he crossed a line that he had not yet crossed and that his behavior warrants, if not impeachment, an impeachment inquiry. I think it’s a mistake to interpret that number as fixed, concretized, or that there’s a popular mandate to remove Donald Trump from office. Impeachment we know, even if you believe like I do, that it’s mandated, that it’s duty-required. A very careful examination of the facts, and what we understand to be true here. On the testimony, that none of this has been made public, accounts from behind closed doors, that is insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. All of this will need to play out at the appropriate time and the appropriate moment. The American people are extremely troubled by this behavior and understand this to be an abuse of power, but what it doesn’t mean is that Americans have reached the conclusion that he needs to be removed from office. It doesn’t account for the tremendous division that will accompany this.
What did you think of the news of the group of House GOP members storming the secure room?
It’s a stunt. It’s theatrics. It will be cast as a heroic act and communicated to half of the country who will buy into it. Nobody should underestimate the ability of Trump to articulate his message, his alternate-reality message, to roughly half the country. Matt Gaetz, Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, would have not too long ago been regarded as clowns and liars. We live in an era where the politics of the moment and the media coverage, particularly on the far right, incentivizes and rewards the behavior of the craziest, craziest people. They debase the institution that they represent, but it’s par for the course. There are two arguments that are playing out. Republicans are trying to make a process argument. Nobody is saying that what Trump did was right. There is considerable tension on Republicans, whether it’s on Doral, whether it’s on this, not knowing what the next person is going to disclose and say from a firsthand-information account from a diplomat. So they’re making a process argument. “This process is unfair,” right? Trying to say that this is about revenge. This is about trying to undo an election.
Part of the problem for Democrats in this is you had a substantial number of people within the party, within Congress, talking about impeaching Trump before he was inaugurated. At the end of the day, whether you like him or not, whether you thought he would do things that wound up getting him impeached, he hadn’t yet done them before he was inaugurated. So there’s substantial evidence of political malice toward him that could be exploited during this process argument. At the same time, Democrats are going to have to offset this with a truth-based, fact-based, reality-based approach which focuses on the oath, which focuses on this system. Members of Congress take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against enemies, foreign and domestic. So there’s this really important debate taking place right now between not just two parties, but between reality and alternate reality. We used to have strong partisan differences in the country, but not two realities. The force of Trump’s lying has ruptured the space-time continuum. We now exist in binary universes.
That’s what makes it scarier. It’s not necessarily Trump or GOP leadership living in that alternate reality. Voters are dealing with the same set of facts that their elected officials are dealing with. It’s all laid bare. We’re all working off the same information.
There’s no question that the country’s politics at some level are defined by the animus of two warring tribes. People who see their fellow Americans as the enemy, who are dogmatic, who hate each other. People are left to affiliate with the side that they think will protect them from the side they worry will help them the most. Voting in America for a substantial part of the population is no longer about affirming a belief in the future, it’s an act of aggression. It’s an action taken to choose someone to punish their enemies. And that more than anything is how Trump has redefined American politics. Not even the pretense of unity.
What’s going to happen to the GOP?
My perspective is that the Republican Party is profoundly corrupted by Donald Trump and it has been corrupted by a tolerance for all and any type of amoral and immoral behavior. Tolerance for astounding levels of corruption and exposure of hypocrisy from the religious far-right leaders like Falwell, to everybody who screamed and shouted about some perfidious act that Obama or the Clintons allegedly committed. Trump has remade the Republican Party into an isolationist, grievance-driven, resentment-driven political party. The party looks like what it might have looked like if George Wallace had captured its nomination and become president. But nobody should underestimate Trump’s capacity to destroy the Democratic Party as an institution. I think one of the most important things that is least discussed is that, how would you give consideration to the magnitude of the institutional failure of the Democratic Party should the party nominate someone who is defeated by Trump in the general election? And winning the popular vote doesn’t count. The rules are the rules. And this election will be decided by the Electoral College. What are the consequences, and how do you assess the magnitude of the institutional failure if Trump and Trumpism is validated? If the majority of the country, or an electoral majority of the country, says four more years of him versus the alternative. It raises a substantial question about this moment of time and what’s required. What has the first order of precedence? Is it to establish purity around an ideological agenda? Or is it to assemble the broadest possible political coalition around the broadest points of agreement and connection that unite people together who disagree on many issues for the purposes of repudiating Trump or Trumpism?
I did want to go back and ask you about an argument that is made a lot, that Trump’s judicial appointments make everything else about him worth it. As someone who worked on George W. Bush’s court appointments, what do you make of that argument?
It’s a compelling argument for people who are passionate about the federal judiciary. And so the conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton would be elected, that you would have 12 years of two Democratic administrations appointing justices — and the belief amongst conservatives and Republicans was that the judiciary would be remade. Instead what’s happened really, in our partnership of convenience between Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, is that the judiciary has been remade substantially through a conservative lens. So there’s deep satisfaction among conservatives like that and there’s no doubt that many conservatives fully recognize that their alliance with Trump is a devil’s bargain. But they view Trump despite all of his odiousness as a better alternative than, say, Elizabeth Warren. The imposition of what they see as the AOC–Sanders agenda. My personal belief is that Trump has every intention — and nobody should underestimate his ability to effectively directly communicate to his base — to portray the Democratic Party as a socialist party that believes in open borders, is soft on crime, is tolerant of open-air drug markets and homelessness, and will paint an apocalyptic caricature of the Democratic Party.
For example, he’s made it clear that he intends to brand the party as a socialist party. Proposals like Medicare for All help him accomplish that. I think in America, a sociopath will beat a socialist seven days a week and twice on Sunday. The primaries are unique and the loudest, most dogmatic voices who we hear from the most in politics typically don’t represent any majorities. But the idea that the Democratic nominee is going to carry into a general election against Trump? The position that anyone who has private health insurance is going to have it taken away and dumped into a pool is an extraordinarily unpopular position. I think some of the Democrats on the stage understand that. Not all of them do.
What have you been up to during your months away from the spotlight?
I advised somebody for the first months of the year who was thinking about running for president and in the end decided not to. And so you’re unable to be on TV as a political commentator while you’re doing something like that. That’s ended so I’m delighted to be back on MSNBC. I laugh, when you’re not appearing on television it’s like you’ve been in a deep coma. Life goes on, there’s the kids, activities, and everything else.
Since we’re talking about broad appeal, and you’re saying that a socialist can’t win: The alternative you’ve proposed is a billionaire coffee CEO. Is that really the better option?
Howard Schultz was not a candidate and he’s not going to be a candidate. I advised somebody who was thinking of being a candidate in the end decided not to be a candidate. The choice that will exist for the American people, going back to what we were talking about, is a binary choice. There’s going to be a Democratic nominee and there’s going to be Trump. My point is, that’s the most consequential election this country will face since the election of 1864 when really the issue was whether we were going to accept a slave state on North American soil and divide the country. This is the affirmation of Trump and Trumpism, which would result from his reelection and would be a profound event after four years of lawlessness and chaos. So the political question in this moment of time is to what degree is that important? Is this just another election or is this an election that requires an appeal to the broadest possible coalition of Americans who believe in the genius of the American system of government? No republic in history has ever endured. We’re the oldest one. Going back to what Benjamin Franklin said after the Constitutional Convention to a passerby on the streets of Philadelphia about what had been wrought inside. He said, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Trump asked the Ukrainian president for political purposes and advantage to attack his political opponents and investigate them — and if you can do that to Joe Biden, you can do that to anybody. That’s as un-American an action and as contrary to the constitutional requirements of the office as have ever played out.
What did you learn from your time advising Howard Schultz?
My perspective has always been that Donald Trump is a symptom, is the prima facie evidence, of the brokenness of the American political system. A healthy political system doesn’t produce Donald Trump as head of state. It’s evidence of profound failure and disconnect. It was an interesting opportunity to be able to observe and study the American electorate and theorize about the possibility of a disruptive act and an opportunity for me to sit back and observe the political process as opposed to participating in it day by day and think about this moment in time.
When you look at the structure of the argument that Admiral Bill McRaven advanced about Trump, where he talked about the American republic is under attack from within, that’s not a statement of paranoia, that’s a statement based on the facts of Trump’s degrading the institutions and systems that have been built up over 200-plus years — but he talked about the values and the importance of the systems and framed the danger that Trump presents in an argument that thus far we have not heard from the Democratic contenders, save occasionally from Biden. I understand the passion by which people have for various issues. There are Republicans who have great passion to privatize the Social Security system and the VA, both very unpopular issues with the broad voting general-election electorate. Just like there’s people on the progressive left who favor issues with great passion. I think that’s good. Diversity of opinion and thought is what makes this all work. Is it a package of policies that should be at the heart of the argument against Trump? Or should it be the very values that are at the heart of Republic? I think that choice, about how to engage the electorate against Trump, is a profound one.
Who in the field right now has the best shot at beating Trump?
I think it’s impossible to tell. There’s a handful of top-tier candidates that the nominee is likely to emerge from: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg. And maybe you put Klobuchar, Harris, and Booker outside that top tier. The candidate that is able to beat Trump is the candidate who is going to be able to best and most surgically and precisely define the stakes, define what this moment in time is, define the choice, speak to the aspirations of the country, and offer something better. I would submit that if Kamala Harris is hectoring Senator Warren on the stage to demand that Donald Trump be thrown off of Twitter, that falls well short of the mark required to be able to articulate something better. A debate about stupid things benefits Donald Trump.
But isn’t Biden really the only one who, at this point or a month ago, is running against Trump? Everyone else is running against each other or whoever is the perceived front-runner. They haven’t had a chance to make those arguments.
You made my spine shiver. Because it reminds me of the Republican primary when Christie is running against Rubio and Rubio against whoever. No one made an argument against Trump or Trumpism. If Donald Trump is going to be on the ballot — and he is — I would think that amongst the most important things that would play out over the primary process is who can make the most effective argument that has resonance amongst the broadest possible parts of the electorate against Trump and Trumpism. There may be an honest difference of opinion where someone says Trump and Trumpism isn’t the defining issue in the 2020 election, health-care policy is, or tax policy is, or something else is. I don’t believe that. I believe that as a predicate to be able to defeat Donald Trump, you have to have a sustained indictment of Trumpism and the ability to offer something better.
Do you think Biden’s messaging on that is on point?
It has been on point at times. But my larger point here is a lot of the coverage here is, “Donald Trump is on defense.” Donald Trump has more money on hand than any presidential candidate ever and disparity between him and his opponents is bigger than ever recorded. Republicans have a huge technology gap and a huge head start. An overwhelming majority of the country has already made up their minds about who they’re going to vote for. There’s an extremely small percentage of persuadable voters. So what should be the basis of the persuasion? It’s an important and open strategic question. The reaction to Doral is about the on-the-face issue, but rarely is there an articulation of the deeper meaning.
So the candidates need to be focusing on their anti-Trump messages right now?
They should focus on whatever they think their messages should be. I’m not advising any candidates. What I’m saying is that, as I have observed the race, there has been an absence of articulation about the nature of Trump and Trumpism and why it’s bad and how and why we can do better in a way that people can understand.