Lifelong Republican Richard Painter: Trump's conduct is "very dangerous for the United States"

Former George W. Bush lawyer Richard Painter is running for Senate — as a Democrat: "I had to try to do something"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 2, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Richard Painter (
Richard Painter (

President Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party. He is also not a true conservative, at least as previously understood in the American political tradition. Trump is an agent of political destruction who appears to have total contempt for existing political norms, the rule of law, the Constitution and democracy. His brand of "conservatism" involves creating an atmosphere of chaos that he either lies about or brags about, as desired, or blames the Democrats and his other political opponents for actually creating.

Yet the Republican Party and its voters have embraced Donald Trump as their leader and champion. Republican elected officials and other leaders are overwhelmingly loyal to him as well. Ultimately, Trump's presidency has laid bare the true face of the American conservative movement: It has become radical in the worst possible sense -- a threat to American progress, the common good, and now the country's democracy and standing in the world.

When faced with the power of Trump's movement, what have "principled" Republicans and "traditional" conservatives chosen to do?

Most have surrendered. Some who vociferously opposed Trump as a primary candidate have now embraced him, finally admitting that winning and holding power has always been more important than their supposed core principles.

Then there are the "Never Trumpers," who for their own reasons remain married to the shambling corpse of the old Republican Party in what is clearly an abusive relationship. They appear to believe their love and loyalty can somehow render the party and its politics respectable again. This is delusional; love is not always a healthy emotion.

But there are a few longtime Republicans and conservatives who have decided that Trump's Republican Party and all the social pathologies it represents must be brought down for the good of the United States. These Americans value true patriotism and deeper principles of right and wrong over loyalty to a given political party. Richard Painter is one such person.

Painter was White House chief ethics counsel under George W. Bush and is a frequent political commentator and analyst on CNN, MSNBC and other news networks. He is also a professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books, including "Getting the Government America Deserves."

Although he has been a Republican nearly all his life, Painter is now running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat recently vacated by Al Franken. I recently spoke with him about how and why his former party went so wrong, Trump's embrace of authoritarianism and threat to democracy, why he decided to run for office as a Democrat, and the mistakes the Democratic Party must avoid in order to win a House majority in 2018 and then eject Donald Trump from the White House in 2020.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version can be heard on my podcast.

Trump admires dictators and authoritarians. His loyalty to Vladimir Putin is clear and he now has a bromance with Kim Jong Un. This is a truly dire situation, but the American people still seem asleep to what is really happening. Where is the outrage? How is Trump able to get away with this? 

It's the same strongman mentality. To have a president who shares such beliefs is very dangerous for the United States in the long term. He may be able to work a peace deal with North Korea more effectively than some other leader. More power to him, but he talks and acts in a way that’s very dangerous to the United States. I think it's reached a point where the House and Senate need to convene hearings in the Judiciary Committees to determine if Trump is abusing his power or conducting himself in a way that is in accordance with the Constitution.

How do you think Donald Trump was able to win the White House?

I think the Russians certainly helped. Voters are also frustrated and angry at the system. They're angry at both political parties and the money that impacts politics. Trump offered cheap solutions. He said he wasn't corrupt because he had enough money. It turns out Trump's just corrupting everybody else. But people go for cheap solutions when they're angry at how the system works. I think that was a large part of what happened, but the Russian interference was substantial.

We also have to include what Director James Comey did at the FBI. That letter to Congress, that whole Clinton email investigation was very badly handled. There was never significant evidence of a crime by Hillary Clinton. That should have been dismissed right out of the starting gate by the FBI, or they should have hurried up that part of the investigation and then just focused on whether there was compromised classified data involved.

Hillary Clinton made a stupid mistake using that email server, but it was just that. It was a stupid mistake. It was not a crime. Director Comey certainly shouldn't have been talking to Congress about it a week before the election.

Comey and company went out of their way to protect Donald Trump. They gave him cover and helped him steal the White House.

Everything Comey did helped Trump. I don't know if Comey was motivated politically. I think Comey was probably just trying to cover his own ass. He thought that Hillary was going to win, and therefore he and his team bent over backwards to appear to be impartial. But being impartial doesn't mean letting a so-called criminal investigation proceed that should have been long over.

That was just ridiculous. Then letting it be revived right before the election. And the House Oversight Committee is not entitled to updates on the FBI regarding investigations -- especially involving their political opponents. I think it was extraordinarily bad judgment on Comey’s part. The bottom line is that the FBI helped Trump, not Clinton.

That having been said, once Trump won, Comey decided to continue with the Russia investigation. Comey did start to do his job, and I admire him for that. He did the right thing there. Trump and his administration fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. They cooked up this memo saying it was because of the Clinton stuff. The real reason Comey is fired is because of the Russia investigation.

What is your assessment of Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump and his inner circle's collusion with the Russians, obstruction of justice and related matters? 

Mueller is charged with finding out about criminal conduct that he believes he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt in connection with Russia. There's going to be a bunch of stuff that might be borderline as to whether it's criminal that involves collaboration with the Russians. The public certainly ought to know about such things, but they may not be impeachable. Remember, you can impeach a president for things that aren't criminal or matters that wouldn't necessarily involve criminal charges. Clinton was never charged with perjury, but he was impeached.

Congress and the Senate get to define "high crimes and misdemeanors." [The constitutional standard for impeachment.] Mueller could come out with something that is not charged criminally but that would be sufficient grounds for impeachment. There's the problem. The Democrats aren't really willing to do this because they just get stuck with [Mike] Pence.

The Democrats politically are better off with Trump than Pence because they can get things out of him and they have him vulnerable for the next two years. The Democrats also look good for showing restraint. Whereas if Pence gets in there, Pence will play like a breath of fresh air for a lot of people compared to Trump, even though Pence has some serious problems. To get to Pence, you really need a House and Senate Judiciary Committee that asks far-reaching questions, and that's going to be more of a challenge.

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have done everything they can to prevent an investigation into Trump's likely collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. What do you think went so wrong with the Republicans that partisanship became more important than patriotism and loyalty to the United States?

Yes, they are in it for themselves. There has always been that element in politics. The real problem with the Republican Party is that for decades it has shifted constantly to the right politically. Consequently, the Republican Party is picking up a very different demographic than it used to, a less well-educated demographic of people who are more prone to authoritarianism. The Republican Party is losing well-educated voters. The party isn't doing well in traditional Republican circles, but they are doing well with groups of people who would have been George Wallace supporters or the like.

That's a big problem with the Republican Party, because their voters and leaders are not getting the real facts. They just get the facts from Fox News or, as I call it, the "Fox Fiction Channel." These are made-up facts that Republicans believe. Sadly, people can't even agree on what the facts are anymore. Tucker Carlson made up a nonsense story about Obama having the FBI put a spy in the Trump campaign. That’s just ridiculous. It's all made up.

Fox News is a very effective right-wing propaganda machine. What has been your strategy when you go on Fox News? Where many have failed, you seem to do quite well sparring with Carlson, for example.

I go on all the channels, mostly CNN and MSNBC. I have gone on Fox every couple of months. A lot of the time with Tucker, one time with Jason Waters. They just shovel the bullshit and I push back. The reason I go on there is that if I can convince their audience that they've got a problem on their hands it would be more effective than preaching to the choir over at MSNBC. Yes, I think I can go toe-to-toe with Tucker well enough.

In terms of going on Fox, I try to hit some themes that would be attractive to conservatives. I point out that the Russians have been trying to destabilize Western democracies for a hundred years, since the Russian Revolution. The Russians did it for most of those decades by working with Communists abroad -- but they didn't get anywhere in the United States doing that.

The Russians then discovered our far right wing and they've been having a field day. But ultimately it's the same old Russian interference with Western democracies. It's a serious threat to our democracy now. It wasn't in the 1950s, when Republicans would rant and rave and go way too far with McCarthyism. That's going to be the tragedy of the Republican Party. It has a history of either overreacting to Russian interference in elections or completely underreacting, based on political convenience.

When you see Trump's consigliere Rudy Giuliani on television threatening violence against James Comey -- and by implication Robert Mueller -- what are your thoughts? Likewise, how did you respond when Trump's attorneys recently tried to claim that he is a de facto king or emperor who is above the law?

Giuliani talks the way they do in a banana republic or a military dictatorship. We'll just take out people we don’t like. [R.e. the] idea of going and shooting a prosecutor? To have a former United States attorney talking that way is disgusting. These Trump lawyers are making a ridiculous case. First of all, they’re private lawyers. I don't think the Justice Department has gone as far.

These are private criminal defense lawyers trying to describe Trump's presidential powers in the broadest terms possible to interfere with a criminal investigation. All they're doing is setting their client up for an obstruction of justice charge. There is also the difference between the power to do something and the legal right to do something. The president has the power to sign or veto a bill. If he signs it, it becomes law. If he vetoes it, it does not become law. That's pretty much an absolute power, but if he signs a bill or vetoes a bill in return for a $100,000 payment, he's guilty of bribery and he can go to jail.

You can have the power to do something, but that's not a right. For example, if you're holding a loaded gun and you point it at somebody, do you have the power to pull the trigger? Yes. Do you have the right? No. If you do it, you go to jail.

That's a very important distinction. Trump's lawyers, of course, may say, well, he has the power to pardon anybody he wants. But I would suggest that a self-pardon is illegal. If Trump pardons people in order to obstruct justice, he's guilty of obstruction of justice. Using the pardon power to buy off witnesses -- Trump can go to jail for that too. If he offers a pardon in return for no testimony or false testimony, he can go to jail for that as well.

What is the status of the emoluments-clause lawsuits and other investigations into Trump's administration? Like other authoritarians and demagogues, Trump appears to be running the White House as a personal ATM for himself and his family.

Now remember, emoluments rules only apply to foreign government profits or benefits. You've got a lot of corruption going on in the Trump business empire that will not be covered by the emoluments clause. The emoluments lawsuits can only get at part of what is going on, but it is a very important part of the bigger picture, particularly if Trump has financial relationships with Putin or other authoritarian leaders around the world. That's why it's critically important for those lawsuits to go forward.

The second thing is that the broader conflicts of interest are a big problem. The criminal conflict of interest statute of United States Code 208 applies to every other executive branch employee other than the president and the vice president. It makes it a crime to participate in a matter in which you have a personal financial interest or if you own stock in a company where your decisions may impact the company.

For example, you can't become Treasury secretary and hold stock in Goldman Sachs. You're going to have to sell the stock. That law does not apply to the president, the vice president or members of Congress. We have Trump taking advantage of the fact that that law doesn't apply to him to basically refuse to sell his businesses while his kids go around cutting business deals all over the world.

Now, if there's quid prod quo in those business deals then there could be a bribery charge. But quid pro quo is hard to prove. It's a very bad situation. But I also have to point out that there are members of Congress who also have highly concentrated financial holdings. It's going to be a little hard to stand up against Trump if we have members of Congress who won't sell their own financial holdings before they weigh in on important policy decisions.

The whole system of interest groups and campaign finance, in the wake of Citizens United, is corrupt. Trump is just so obvious and clumsy and unapologetic about how he is making money off of his presidency.

Trump is so in-your-face that the problem becomes that the public will just get used to it as the norm. The narrative becomes "Everybody's doing it." Trump says, "Look at Clinton!" and gets away with all sorts of stuff because he points out real or imagined stories about Clinton. The whole system needs to be cleaned up. We're not going to tolerate presidents who are violating the emoluments clause. We’re not going to tolerate presidents, vice presidents or members of Congress who have large scale, multi-billion-dollar financial conflicts. We'll make them sell the stocks, sell the businesses. We've got to move toward a zero tolerance approach to these issues.

Donald Trump has utter contempt for democracy and the country's standing political norms and institutions. Where did all the "traditional Republicans" and "principled conservatives" disappear to? 

It preceded Trump. It was a long process. Nixon wanted the Southern Democrats to take those George Wallace votes. Nixon then did the "Southern strategy." You've got all the white Southerners in there and that brought in certain attitudes towards race that were very different than the traditional Republican Party under Eisenhower. Bringing in the white Southerners was an excellent strategy in that it worked to assemble a majority. But there was a price to be paid for that, as a group of very conservative white Southerners has started to take over the party.

That was a big problem and it created serious issues on race. Then the next step was Reagan deciding to solidify that Southern hold and then also bring in the conservative Catholics. That changed the party's position on abortion and created a big gender gap, at least with the traditional mainline Protestant voters. It also made it difficult to bring more Jewish voters into the Republican Party, once you started to kowtow to the religious right.

Once the religious right got their beachhead in the Republican Party in 1980, they expanded it. Even Barry Goldwater was extremely hostile to the religious right, but Reagan catered to them. The religious right then expanded their base and that drove the moderates out.

You don't have anyone to moderate views along religious lines. Protestants, Jews and secular voters just started leaving the Republican Party in droves. Then the Republican Party's leaders had to do more to appease the religious right. They got more and more dependent on the Southerners and the religious right. Then the Republican Party started to try to get a small segment of the Jewish voters by going extremely hawkish on Israel. They figured they could try to  divide Jewish voters or get those far to the right of the Democrats on Israel like the Christian Zionists and Christians United for Israel types who believe in creating Armageddon and the end times.

You are a prominent, lifelong Republican who is now running for the Senate as a Democrat. How did that happen?

I decided there's only so much I could do to keep going after this. At a certain point, I had to try to do something.

How would you explain to the average American who may still be supporting Donald Trump and the Republican Party, or who may feel indifferent or undecided, the serious danger the United States faces with him as president?

I would just say, "Listen to the way that Trump is talking like a dictator. You can bet he would do it, and you are going to be in a boatload of trouble." That's the bottom line. You've got a big, broad middle of people in the United States where some people are better educated than others.

They could be duped by a lot of stuff. A lot of people voted for Trump who were not ideologically committed to the right-wing agenda. They probably recognize they got screwed and that Trump is a fake. I think, on the whole, that people want to learn from this and make some intelligent decisions in 2018 onward. Unless the Democrats go completely haywire, and nominate somebody completely unacceptable, I can't see Trump winning again. There will likely be  Russian interference, but people are onto it.

The Democrats need to be a little careful, however. What does concern me is there are elements in the party who could drive the party toward the fringes. That's not good. I think if the Democrats run on issues such as single-payer health care, I think you've got a vast majority to support that. That's not fringe. I think environmental protection isn't fringe.

If you get a lot of identity politics, where you're identifying with certain groups and sort of attacking other groups? The Republicans are just going to try to get every white male in the country to vote for Trump if the Democrats play that game. Whereas if the Democrats can focus on health care, the environment, some issues that concern everybody -- and yes, racial justice, but not in a way that demonizes any groups of people but says this is what we need to do to have a fairer society, and we're all in this together -- they will be OK. But Democrats do need to be careful. There are a lot of good candidates, but they should run on their good ideas and not emphasize their race or gender.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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