"I had been just horrified by the two options that our country is facing": Evan McMullin on his dark horse presidential campaign

The former CIA officer joined Salon to discuss his independent presidential bid

Published August 24, 2016 2:31PM (EDT)

Evan McMullin   (Salon/Peter Cooper)
Evan McMullin (Salon/Peter Cooper)

In a year filled with political oddities, Evan McMullin's late-breaking independent presidential bid, announced Aug. 10, represents yet another curiosity. But the former CIA counterterrorism officer and chief policy director of the House Republican Conference hopes that he can bring a measure of normalcy to the electoral proceedings as a conservative alternative to major party nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“Like millions of Americans, I had hoped this year would bring us better nominees who, despite party differences, could offer compelling visions of a better future," McMullin said in a statement announcing his candidacy. "Instead, we have been left with two candidates who are fundamentally unfit for the profound responsibilities they seek... With the stakes so high for our nation and at this late stage in the process, I can no longer stand on the sidelines."

McMullin's campaign is employing a novel electoral strategy. Rather than aiming to win the 270 electoral votes necessary to secure the White House outright, McMullin's hopes rest on the (relatively) less-daunting task of winning enough electoral votes to deny both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump an Electoral College majority. Theoretically, McMullin could prevent Trump or Clinton from winning 270 electoral votes by emerging victorious in a single state. If no candidate reaches 270, the House of Representatives would choose the next president from among the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, opening the door for House members, horrified by both major party candidates, to hand the White House to former House employee McMullin.

To be sure, McMullin is the darkest of dark horses, but his dream scenario is not inconceivable. As others have pointed out, any plausible path to victory for McMullin likely involves winning in Utah. Donald Trump finished third in the state's Republican caucuses in March, and McMullin, a Mormon, hopes to build support among Utah's Trump-skeptical conservatives and LDS Church community.

In a survey of Utah voters released Tuesday, Public Policy Polling found that while McMullin trails both major party candidates and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, nine percent of voters said they support McMullin — a not-insignificant showing for a candidacy that is less than two weeks old. 

McMullin, 40, visited Salon's New York office Tuesday for a Facebook Live discussion and Q&A on his campaign:

What is your reaction to the latest polling from Utah?

I think it's phenomenal news. I'm sort of surprised by it, I guess. We've only been in this for two weeks, I've only spent a couple of days in Utah. We've done no advertising, we just did a small event with some volunteers, so to know that we're already at nine percent is just tremendous news.

Is it accurate to say that your electoral strategy will hinge heavily on winning in Utah?

Well Utah is important to us, but it's important to us for so many reasons. Part of it is that Utah handed Donald Trump his largest defeat in the primaries. The people of Utah are rejecting Donald Trump's divisive rhetoric and his lack of decency and what they understand to be his dangerous policy proposals. So obviously that's going to be a place where we hope to have a strong base of support, and where we already do and we will.

But we'll be in other states too. We're already on the ballot in Colorado, as well; I think we'll be on the ballot soon in Idaho, we're on the ballot in Iowa, we're pursuing Minnesota, we've got Louisiana. We're pursuing other states and we're moving as quickly as we can on a variety of fronts to be available to as many voters as possible.

In terms of denying Trump and Clinton an Electoral College majority, you could potentially benefit from Gary Johnson emerging victorious in one or more of the Western states where he hopes to be competitive. Could you foresee a scenario in which your campaign coordinates with Johnson's to your mutual benefit? Obviously only one of you could eventually advance to the House, but limited coordination could conceivably open things up for that possibility say, your laying off in New Mexico in exchange for his laying off in Utah?

That's an interesting question. We're committed to offering the American people a better option between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, especially. I also don't believe Gary Johnson is adequately prepared for the challenges we face in this country. But certainly we'll have to consider a prioritization of things as we go, and I guess I wouldn't take anything off the table.

Let's say the perfect storm happens on November 8 and no candidate wins 270 electoral votes, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. What makes you confident that you'll be able to muster the support in the House necessary to give you the presidency?

Well, I hope that I would. I'm not counting anything before it's there. But I just came from the House. I understand what members of the House want, especially on the Republican side, on the conservative side. Some of these things I think are also friendly to Democratic representatives and senators.

What I'm talking about is a return to Article I authority. The Constitution clearly says that only Congress can make laws in this country — that's the first thing that the Constitution says after the preamble, it's Article I. It says only Congress can make laws, so that's one reform that I think is absolutely critical in this country, and I would work with Congress to advance it. There are bills and proposals that are already out there such as the REINS Act, which I would support. This is something I promoted while I was working in Congress and I continue to promote it now. As president, I would be eager to sign it as soon as possible. 

Do you plan to engage in any pre-election lobbying in the House in anticipation of this scenario?

We'll have to see how it plays out. It's such a short timeline and we've entered the race late. We need to focus on getting on as many ballots as possible, either as an actual candidate on the ballot or as a write-in, and then we need to focus on winning. We need to win a state or two or three or four. We'll see how things develop, and then after that I suppose we can think about engaging with the House. We're already engaging with members of the House in general, seeking their input and guidance as we go. So that will continue, and I think it's sort of a normal part of the conversations we already have.


As someone with extensive experience in counterterrorism, what is your reaction to the discourse on this topic from the two major party candidates?

We really do need to be serious about taking the fight to Islamist terrorists overseas. We're not doing that now. We need to be more serious about it. The other thing is that we do not have to violate our ideals in order to be successful in fighting terrorism. Donald Trump wants to torture people, he wants to kill the family members of terrorists who aren't involved in terrorism, he wants to bar all people of the Muslim faith from coming to the United States. All of these things are violations of the ideals that make us a strong country. We don't need to do that, and in fact, it impedes and impairs our ability to effectively fight terrorism if we follow his plan.

Hillary Clinton is making that argument, but I think it's not effectively made by her because I believe she allowed terrorists to reconstitute themselves under her watch as secretary of state. The important point is that neither of the two major party candidates — or any of the other candidates — have any direct experience having success against terrorism and in securing the country. I do. I have humble confidence that I can provide necessary leadership for our country, especially on this front.

You mention the importance of preserving our ideals in the fight against Islamist terrorism in reference to Donald Trump. But before Trump entered the picture, our government, and the CIA specifically, ran afoul of those ideals numerous times. How can we prevent future transgressions?

Strong congressional oversight and a robust press whose rights are protected.

How long were you considering your candidacy before finally deciding to jump in?

About 10 days. The reason for that is that for the better part of a year, I had been just horrified by the two options that our country is facing.

On one hand we have Hillary Clinton, who I believe is corrupt. I believe that she thinks her interests should be above those of the American people. You look at the Democratic nominating process, where it was clearly tilted in her advantage and against Bernie Sanders — we can't have that in this democracy. I think there's a level of corruption there that we should never have, but especially not now. 

Then on the Donald Trump side, I think that he truly poses a threat to our democracy. He's tearing our country apart. He's dividing us along racial and ethnic and religious lines, and we just can't allow that to happen. He's weakening us. People may not realize it entirely, but his rhetoric has tangibly negative impacts on our prosperity and our security, and we cannot allow him to be president of this great country.

What was the tipping point that made you decide to jump in? Was it the lack of conservative alternatives to Trump?

That was a big part of it. I had hoped all along this year that somebody else would get in. Ideally, it would be somebody who already had national name ID and some infrastructure in place — maybe they were a business leader or a politician already, somebody like that. That didn't happen.

So as I considered my decision in that 10-day period, I came to two driving thoughts. One was: someone must do this. I still believe that — I have more conviction around this than I've ever had, even before I made the decision —  but as I considered it over those 10 days I had increasing conviction around that idea. Secondly, conviction around the idea that if no one else was going to do it, and the opportunity had been given to me, that I needed to consider it, and in fact, ultimately needed to do it.

That's how it developed. I talked to a lot of people, I tested the idea with a lot of people. I sought the advice of a member of Congress, and he ultimately couldn't give me really strong advice on whether I should do it or not. What he said was that this is a deeply personal decision that no one can make for you. I was a little frustrated with that, actually, because I thought, surely, you're a member of Congress, you can help me make a wise decision. But what I realized was that no matter how much you think about it and test it and look at the data, ultimately you cannot predict what's going to happen. There are too many variables.

So what you're left with are your convictions. And in my case, I love this country very, very dearly; I believe that we're in a very difficult position on a number of levels, and that we need a new generation of leadership that puts the American people first. I have so much conviction around that, and that is ultimately what drove me to do this. 

Do you care to share the identity of the congressman who gave you that advice?

No, I probably shouldn't. If he wants to say who he is at some point, maybe he will. He's a good friend of mine, he opposes Donald Trump, and he is a patriot.

By Michael Garofalo

MORE FROM Michael Garofalo