Rep. Mark Pocan tells Salon: "We're looking at doing everything we can to remove this president"

Wisconsin progressive Democrat talks to Salon about impeachment, the Cohen hearing and blue wave 2.0 in 2020

Published March 1, 2019 11:54AM (EST)

Mark Pocan (Courtesy: Office of Congressman Mark Pocan)
Mark Pocan (Courtesy: Office of Congressman Mark Pocan)

Over the past few days we’ve seen Republican members of Congress give a master class in defending Donald Trump at all costs, even against the U.S. Constitution. I had an opportunity to discuss this with Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who visited "Salon Talks" this week.

Pocan, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, explained that we saw two separate examples this week of the GOP putting Trump before our own Constitution. The first was the House vote on Tuesday to nullify Trump’s manufactured “national emergency,” a blatant attempt to undermine Article I of the Constitution, which gives Congress the sole authority to appropriate funds. The president wants to divert billions of our taxpayer dollars from other programs to build his beloved border wall, despite Congress expressly rejecting such funding.

While Pocan was pleased that two Republican members from his state joined with Democrats in voting to overturn Trump’s “emergency” -- in a motion that passed the House by a vote of 245 to 182 -- he was stunned that overall only 13 other Republicans followed suit. Many of those same Republicans had accused Barack Obama of overreaching his authority with executive orders, such as the one creating the DACA program. Now they've decided to side with Trump’s power grab.

The second and even more visible example of the House GOP publicly choosing to defend Trump over pursing the truth, protecting the rule of law or standing up for our Constitution came Wednesday with the congressional testimony of Trump’s former longtime lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen.

GOP members of the House Oversight Committee focused nearly all their energy on defending Trump by attacking Cohen's credibility of Cohen. Certainly Cohen's admitted record of lying to Congress, among other criminal acts, was a relevant topic. But as Cohen himself expressed in amazement, mid-hearing, “not one question so far has been asked about Mr. Trump” by Republicans.

We saw Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., defend Trump against Cohen’s assertion that Trump was a racist, with Meadows and other members arguing they had never heard the president utter a racist comment. As Pocan laid out, the evidence of Trump’s history in this regard could not be clearer.

"I don't think a week goes by, and I might argue even a day or two goes by, that the president doesn't say something that I would consider racist," Pocan told me. "He's a racist in public when he fights for the wall over and over and over again, and has all kinds of dog whistles at his rallies for that base of his support. None of this doesn't ring true."

On the positive side, Pocan reminded us that the only reason Americans had the opportunity to watch Cohen testify about Trump’s wrongdoing, or that the House could vote to overturn Trump’s “emergency,” is because Democrats won control of the lower chamber in the 2018 midterms. Now we will finally see some genuine congressional oversight over the Trump regime, which was entirely lacking under the previous Republican majority.

You can watch my full interview with Rep. Mark Pocan here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

We're in the midst of a spectacle on Capitol Hill right now. You have the Michael Cohen testimony going forward. Would this have happened if the Republicans stayed in power, or is the fact that we're actually having oversight of the Trump Administration a testament to all the hard work that all of us did to win the House back in 2018?

Yes, this is one of the big side effects of changing the majority of Congress. My last two years, I was so frustrated with Paul Ryan for completely giving up his responsibility as a co-equal, but separate branch of government to do oversight. There was none, zero, that was done by the Republicans, from a president who clearly was flailing in a lot of different areas.

Now that the Democrats are in charge, not only can we put legislation on the floor this week on gun violence prevention, and overturning a national emergency, and we have bills coming up in the next couple weeks on pay equity, and cleaning up the mess in Washington, and so many other issues.

We're also able to do the proper oversight that has not happened for the last two years, so having Michael Cohen testify is one of the great side effects of people coming out and voting last November.

We're actually seeing Article I of the Constitution come to life, the way the framers of the Constitution wanted as opposed to what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have been doing for the last two years. Let's talk a little bit about what happened with Michael Cohen this week. A common theme among the Republicans today was to attack Chairman Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight Committee, and other Democrats and Hillary Clinton, somehow, involved because Lanny Davis, the lawyer for Michael Cohen, was a close Clinton friend. Somehow, they found Michael Cohen, but isn't the truth that Donald Trump in 2007 actually found Michael Cohen when he hired him to be executive vice president of the Trump Organization?

Yes, I mean Donald Trump is the one who told us he only has the best people around him, and then he brings in Roger Stone and Michael Cohen, and go down the list of the cast, that got rejected by the Addams Family, and that's the group that he surrounds himself with.

Michael Cohen is probably a bit of a sketchy character, but the fact that he's telling this stuff that totally relates to other things we've heard, tells me how much more true this testimony is. This is just one more person that the president surrounded himself with that now is more than willing to blow the whistle, and the Republicans just don't even know how to handle that.

In reality, people who are criminals tend to surround themselves with criminals. We see that in the real world, and I think potentially we're seeing that with Donald Trump. You've mentioned some, and you go through the list, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates. It's not a coincidence when you have these people. During the testimony, I did not hear one Republican probe questions about the actual allegations of criminality that Michael Cohen's laid out about Donald Trump, like specifically paying hush money in violation of Federal Election Campaign laws. Everything was just attacking Michael Cohen's credibility. If this is “oversight,” shouldn't they at least ask a few questions about the actual substance to see if a person in the White House is a criminal, as opposed to just toeing the party line?

I think the Republicans are afraid they'll actually get answers, and they don't want to do that because clearly, the things that have been highlighted. When you start getting in checks that show payments from the president, when he's president, to Michael Cohen, or you hear about the president being a racist in private, well he's a racist in public when he fights for the wall over and over, and over again, and has all kinds of dog whistles at his rallies for that base of his support. None of this doesn't ring true.

Nothing is necessarily ringing out of the ordinary, but I think to hear it first-hand, from someone's who's close to him, just really emphasizes how strange of a time in history this is. I can't think of another president in modern history, Democrat or Republican, that you'd be going, "Oh yeah, he did that. OK, I believe it." I mean this is stuff that really is novel-worthy.

The closest I would think in modern day would be John Dean testifying during Watergate against Richard Nixon, but this is even more stunning. I mean because you have Michael Cohen opening with saying Donald Trump is a racist, and a cheat, and then he goes through the criminality. I'm going to speculate here, Congressman, that you're going to begin to get more pressure from the Democratic base, not just Tom Steyer, who is my friend, but other Democrats, to push for impeachment, because Michael Cohen testified under oath that Donald Trump has committed various crimes, including one in office. What are you going to say to those people in Democratic base who say that you should start impeachment hearings now.

Well, I voted for impeachment last session, so I know where I'm at already on this. I've seen plenty of things, but to be totally pragmatic, you're going to need Republican support to do something like this, which is why I think many in Democratic leadership have said, wait for the Mueller report. But let's remember, a lot of this oversight that now is happening because of the November elections is in areas that the Mueller report wasn't looking at, so you may even have more ammunition.

I think what we're doing is getting to the bottom of the truth in a whole bunch of different areas. The Mueller report will be a very significant part of that, but in order to actually deal with impeachment, you're going to have to bring in Republican support, and as you can see, either from the sycophants today, or the vote yesterday where only 13 Republicans showed that they were born with a spine, on the vote on the national emergency, it's not going to be easy. I think that's what we keep trying to tell the people who want to make sure that we're looking at doing everything we can to remove this president.

When you do get the Mueller report, do you think that's when the real push will be for impeachment potentially, depending on what the Mueller report says? And, we really don't know, but is that potentially when you'll have formal impeachment hearings, like they will not happen before that report? I'm asking, not just you personally, but Democratic leadership in the House.

I don't think leadership will do anything until that report's released, and even then, we may be fighting to make sure it's publicly released. There could be a lot of fights we're going to have in between now and getting to the point of even having the next discussion, but I do understand this.

Again, looking at that vote yesterday, there should have been more than 13 Republicans who don't want any president, Democrat or Republican, to declare a national emergency when no emergency occurs, or to steal money from defense. I mean think about that. Almost every single Republican was okay with stealing money from defense to pay for this imaginary wall, this campaign promise he made.

Some of that money was going to housing in Wisconsin, for example. Two Republicans from Wisconsin did stand up, out of the 13. My state delivered pretty well, but what about the other three? Sean Duffy's fine with pulling money out of the state, Bryan Steil, Glenn Grothman, and that's just Wisconsin. We've got our work to do yet.

We heard your colleague on other side of the aisle, congressman Mark Meadows, who is very conservative, attacked Michael Cohen's framing of Donald Trump as a racist. In fact, it wasn't framing, it was very specific because Donald Trump is a racist, and he went through examples. Mark Meadows said that he’d met with Donald Trump over 300 times, and never heard him say a racist thing. Maybe we're hearing different things, congressman, but I've heard Donald Trump call Africa s-hole countries. I've seen him re-tweet white supremacists. I've heard him call, after Charlottesville, white supremacists, very fine people. I've heard him demonize Mexican as rapists, racists, and Judge Curiel, during the campaign, as being unable to be the judge on his case because of his Mexican heritage, even though he was born here. Are we missing something? Is this gaslighting? Is Congressman Meadows just gaslighting us, or do they have different definitions of racism on the other side than we have?

Don't forget the Muslim ban. Just go down the list, right? There's plenty of things that this president does. I don't think a week goes by, and I might argue even a day or two goes by, that the president doesn't say something that I would consider racist.

I mean quite honestly, the wall, we know drugs aren't coming across the border. They're coming in through points of entry. We know he's lying about all these things, but the only reason he wants a wall is because on the other side there are people who have a little browner skin than him. He’s appealing to the racists in this country, so if Mark Meadows doesn't hear it, I would say Mark Meadows may have a problem, not the rest of us.

I just always abhor when the president goes to that level, because we are such, I think, a great country and he may have 35 percent support, but the good news, Dean, is every time I subtract 35 from 100, I get 65 percent, and all you need is 50 percent plus one, so I still have a lot of faith in the country, but this president certainly plays race more than anyone I've seen.

To any of my fellow progressives who get nervous about 2020, I mean 2018 is a lesson for us, that if we come out, we win. We won in record numbers. The House. We flipped seven governorships including your home state of Wisconsin. If we come out, we can win in 2020 the same way, despite Donald Trump's tweet saying he's going to win big.

Yeah, and you know, one of the things I'm encouraged about is when you look at all the 2020 candidates, they're fighting over who can get out for Medicare for All first, or debt-free college first, or a green deal, new green deal, and it's great. They're all fighting on progressive issues, and I think that's a good thing because we know that the public supports all of those issues, so I'm very encouraged by what I see heading into 2020, and I think we just have to realize we took the House, we can take the Senate. We can take the White House in 2020.

We're in the midst of this right now. The first debate's a few months away. Accidentally, I turn on Fox News sometimes, or I'll see clips online, and everything about the Democrats is that we are socialists. We're even communists now! Do you recommend that Democrats running for president even address what socialism is, because what we want is not socialism. Is there a way to push back, or should we just ignore it?

You know, right now I would say ignore it. I hope they're doing some focus groups on this because clearly the Republicans, because they don't really stand for much, they try to find words, right?

Frank Luntz gets the little dials on Fox, and they try to scare people on things. Personally, I don't think they're winning on this, especially among younger voters. They're certainly not winning on these issues, but you're right. There's a theme from when Congresswoman Cheney, on the day we got sworn in, brought up socialism. The president's bringing it up. They're trying to find an issue.

You look at Bernie Sanders, and I really give a lot of credit to Bernie, because when he ran for president four years ago, he ran on all these issues. People said, "Oh, those are kind of extreme issues." Those are the mainstream issues that people support in poll after poll, after poll. Maybe people who live in the beltway or work in the beltway, who spend time, way too much time with a bunch of K Street lobbyists, and maybe don't talk to real people around the country, don't realize that if you don't have healthcare for your family, that's your national emergency, right?

We're talking about issues that really connect with them, so I'm not too worried about the narrative they're using right now. I think we should just continue being out there on progressive issues that people agree with us on, and I think if we're authentic and honest, this is what people are desperate for, we're going to be best up.

I couldn't agree with you more. You touched on the vote Tuesday on the national emergency act, and the idea of nullifying Donald Trump's fake emergency. Thirteen Republicans did come across. Did you talk to other Republicans? Were you hopeful more were actually going to come over and say, I'm standing for the Constitution over Donald Trump?

There are Republicans generally, when you talk to them individually, who don't like what this administration's doing. They know it's divisive, they know it's not done for the reasons being presented.

I was really disappointed. I honestly thought 60 people might vote with us yesterday, because if they really care about this issue. In 2020, if we elect Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, or someone else who decides to declare a national emergency on healthcare or on gun violence prevention, or on the environment and climate change, then they're going to be all bent out of shape, and now they've allowed it to happen under this President, when there's nothing behind it. At least these other issues I mentioned, you could argue are really an emergency.

I was surprised that more people don't have the courage or their convictions. Maybe that's why as a party, they're losing so many seats, but I think people want that authenticity. If you just say, "Look, this isn't right no matter how he does it." Thirteen Republicans had courage, and another almost 200 did not.

Under the terms of the national emergency act, in the next 18 days the Senate is mandated. They have to vote on this. Mitch McConnell cannot stop it. So far, three Republican Senators have publicly said they're going to join with the Democrats. That means one more has to, to at least get it to Trump's desk. Have you heard anything more, or do you get a sense that perhaps we'll get that fourth, maybe even more Republicans, because many are on the fence. They're just not telling us how they're going to vote.

No, I have not. That just happened yesterday in the House. I would assume that if people are really voting from their conviction, you could find more, but who knows? These are weird times here these days.

Everyone's afraid of a Republican primary in the Tea Party, and you watch Mitch McConnell, like how afraid he is of his constituents, because he's up in 2020, that he sits and kowtows to the president. Look at Lindsey Graham, who once stood up and was clearly disgusted by the president. Now, you know, he's the lap dog for the president. Anyone who is up in 2020 seems to be afraid of their shadow.

You have the president Donald Trump, sending a whole bunch of National Guard troops down to the border. I saw though, you were touting your governor of Wisconsin, who's pulled the troops out, so why is that a good move? Why did you praise that?

I criticized Scott Walker when he did it, because it was stupid, but you know, I've come to expect that sometimes from Scott Walker. It was such a stupid show. You know National Guard have very important responsibilities, and potential responsibilities, and this was not one of them. To take people and separate them from their families, and from their jobs—don't forget most people in the National Guard, they're in the National Guard, but they work full-time jobs.

When you just put people down there for a political purpose, to try to justify the wall, you're hurting the employers, and you're hurting the families. There was really no justification, and yet they're not doing some of the jobs that need to be done, because that's not under their purview, and from the reports we had, I think it wasn't fair to use the National Guard in that way.

Congressman, we've been talking a lot about the progressive agenda of our party. One of the big things that you've been championing is a $15 minimum wage on a national level, and not state by state. Yesterday Ivanka Trump said that people want to work for what they get, so I think that the idea of a guaranteed minimum is not something most people want. What do you think?

 You could only be the daughter of a father, who got millions from his daddy, to be that out of touch with reality. I mean you know, almost every constituent, literally I think I'd be at 99.9 percent of my constituents wish they could make more money, and are willing to work hard to make more money.

In Madison, Wisconsin, in my district, I think you have to work 83 hours a week at minimum wage to afford an average, two bedroom apartment in Madison, much less all the other expenses that you might have. That's just the reality of someone who's so out of touch that, you know, when grandpas give daddies millions of dollars, and then you have your designer company, and all that kind of stuff, you're not living in a real world, right?

The people I represent are in the real world, and they're desperate to get a wage boost so that they can support their families better, and don't forget there's a ripple effect on minimum wage. When we, every time we raise the minimum wage in Wisconsin, more people entered the workforce.

We've seen that if you get some extra money in your paycheck, you're going to go to a movie, you're going to go to dinner. You might buy that new sofa. If you're one of those billionaires, that 1% that got all the money in the Republican tax cut, you can buy a hell of a nice sofa, but that doesn't counter a 1,000 people buying a sofa and what that does for the economy.

If you lift the wages, you literally are lifting the economy from the very bottom up, so there's many reasons why it makes sense. I would also argue for employers and other reasons. As an employer for over 30 years, when I don't have to constantly retrain new people, that's good for me and for my customers, and when you pay people better, they're less likely to leave. That's good for everyone, so there's so many reasons on this. You really have to be a U.S. chamber, paid lobbyist to actually truly think this is a bad idea.

You've been fighting with ICE, congressman. You sent a freedom of information act request. You actually went to ICE and handed out flyers. Tell us what's going on, what you want ICE to give you, and as a member of Congress why you still can't get them to respond.

Back in late September, ICE did a raid in Wisconsin, arrested 83 people, including about 20 in Dane County, the biggest county in my district. They didn't notify law enforcement properly, even though they knew how to. They purposely did it to not be honest, and they've not coordinated or cooperated with local, elected officials, including the mayor of Madison. They did these arrests and they put out a press release with four people—they were bad people, they should be deported. What about the other 79?

They clearly have the information, so all we said is, "Don't give us the names, because there's privacy reasons, but just tell us each offense of the other 79 people." They had it 24 hours after they arrested people, and I have now waited 138 days, I believe it is, for this. I made an open records request on October 12th. They asked for an extension. We gave it to them. They asked for a second extension. We gave it to them. They wanted more, we said, "No," and now I've been waiting and waiting.

About three or four weeks ago, I went there myself to go find the head of ICE, to see if I could get the info. He was not available. They told me they'd get back to me. I waited, I think, two more weeks, got no information, so I put up little handouts that said missing, and had my freedom of information request. I asked people if they could put it by the water cooler or the coffee machine, because maybe someone would find it and answer my freedom of information act request.

Obviously I did it, you know, for a little drama to emphasize the point. A federal agency cannot completely ignore lawmakers, much less a lawmaker on appropriations that provides their funding, because they just don't want to share it with us. That's not appropriate for the public, for the media, and certainly not for elected officials in Congress.

Think about it, ICE is not being responsive to you. You're a member of Congress. What about the average citizen, who might want to know what's going on with a family member, a loved one or a friend who ICE has taken into custody, and they can't find that information out? It's only troubling, and that adds the drumbeat of people on the left being concerned about ICE. Is there any way you can you subpoena it? You are appropriations, the Democrats do have the House now.

I mean we could definitely hire a lawyer. One of the things is, I'm trying not to waste tax dollars and resources, right?

Fair enough.

We're going to keep pushing this a little more and a little more, and we're going to find other creative ways. I guarantee I'm not going to be on the Christmas card list of the director of ICE by the time this is all done, but he can also just do his job, and get me the damn information, then we'll be fine.

I know of people that were arrested from attorneys in my community, who had no offenses, and we've always been told they go after MS-13 and bad players. ICE was created after 9/11 to protect us from domestic terrorism, and it's being misused by this president as his own personal police force in order to justify the wall.

If you're arresting people who've done nothing wrong in my community, I need to know that. They won't share it with the mayor of Madison. They told him he's not getting the info. They lied to our law enforcement, and I'm going to keep fighting it, because you cannot be a rouge agency and get away with it. I also happen to be able to maybe affect their purse strings, but we're going to keep doing lots on this, Dean. I'll keep you posted. I’m not letting go on this one.


By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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