Former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh sounds, by most measures, like a very Trumpian character. He snagged his one term in Congress not as a mainstream Republican but as a barnstorming Tea Partier, winning his seat in the massive GOP wave of 2010 before losing it two years later to future Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
Walsh parlayed those two years in Washington into a successful career as a nationally syndicated right-wing talk radio host who has made headlines with racially charged language or insinuations that heavily armed conservatives are on the verge of violence. Or both, as when he tweeted in response to the shooting of Dallas policemen at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016: "Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you." Walsh has also had a similarly messy personal life, as evidenced by a spray of news stories about his ex-wife suing him in 2011 over more than $100,000 in unpaid child support.
In recent weeks, Walsh has been getting attention for a different reason: His increasingly loud opposition to Donald Trump. Walsh, who voted for Trump in 2016 and has largely defended the former reality TV show star-turned-president, has recently turned sour on Trump, turned off by his trade war and, more importantly, the increasingly hard-to-ignore questions about why Trump has consistently sided with Russia against the U.S.
After Trump's dual press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Trump appeared to reject the U.S. intelligence consensus about the Russian hacking of Democratic officials in 2016, Walsh went on Twitter to declare that Trump was "a traitor" and that he would "never support Trump again." Salon reached out to Walsh to see if he's still feeling this way nearly two weeks after that fateful day.
You’ve been a strong critic of Donald Trump on this Russia issue, both on Twitter and elsewhere, even as most conservatives have stayed pretty quiet. Why is that?
Look, I guess Helsinki last week was the final straw. In my view, Trump, for the world to see, stood in front of the world and betrayed his country. Now, is it surprising? No, because really for 19 months he’s betrayed his country on this central issue of a foreign government attack on our country, and this president has never acknowledged it or done anything about it. As much as I support a hell of a lot of the agenda, because I’m still a Tea Party conservative, that’s like an ultimate betrayal. It’s unforgivable and it’s more important than any policy issues, as far as I’m concerned.
What is it specifically about the Russia allegations that is of greatest concern for you?
They attacked our country. They interfered in our election to try to get Trump elected, period. They did it at a scale that is unprecedented. What impact did it have on the election? Nobody knows, but it certainly didn’t help the Democrat candidate and it certainly helped Trump. The foreign government literally screwed our election process to help Trump become president.
That’s an attack on our country. That’s an attack on our institutions. Any president should rally the country around fighting back against that, and this president has never done it, from day one, because he’s always placed his own interest above the country’s interest. He doesn’t want anything to take away from his 2016 victory.
Before this issue came to a head, how did you feel about Donald Trump?
That’s a good question, Amanda. Just understand that from day one, this has been a real issue with me. The two biggest issues I’ve had from the get-go with Trump are that he’s not standing with the country and the fact that he lies all the time. I have a real problem with that.
What’s my overall opinion of Trump? I’ve generally done a good Trump/bad Trump thing. I think he’s a bad guy, but I’ve tried to balance that with his policy agenda.
Look, when I voted for him, I knew who he was, but I wanted the Supreme Court justice or two. I wanted the border security. I wanted Obamacare repeal. I wanted my taxes cut. I’ve been dancing this dance for 18 months, supporting some policies, balanced against the fact that I just don’t think he’s a very good guy at all.
Before November 2016 there was some information about Russian interference in the election, but the extent of it was not really understood by most of the public. But we did know that Donald Trump was gross. There was the "Access Hollywood" tape. How did you feel about all those things?
Look, I believed when I pulled the lever and voted for him: He’s that guy. I knew he was a dishonest guy. I knew he was a grifter. I knew he was a con man.
But understand, Amanda, that I’m a hardcore Tea Party conservative. I’m no fan of who Hillary is as a person. It was still a pretty easy vote, because I thought, these are two bad people. I don’t like either one, but at least with one I’m going to get some policy advances that I believe in. That’s all.
I think that was a calculation a lot of people made. What do you make of the way other Republicans have responded to this Russia issue? There are a handful of people like you, or Bob Corker or John McCain, who have spoken out. But by and large we’ve seen either minimal responses or support for Trump.
It’s really disappointing. Look, Amanda, virtually every one of my former Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate agree privately with everything I say about Trump, and they don’t say it publicly. Why? Well, 88 percent of the Republican Party supports him, so they want to get re-elected. They feel the exact same way [as I do] about Trump in private.
The position of conservative media -- I mean, this is a weird world, conservative talk radio and Fox News and conservative TV. These days, if you’re just going to be a dumb, stupid, sick sycophant or a cheerleader for Trump, that’s the safest place to be for ratings.
It's analogous to the politicians who just want to get re-elected, but a lot of these guys on conservative talk radio and TV, they know Trump is just a goof. But they would never say that publicly. Most have made calculations that it’s the safer place to be just to sing his praises every single day. I can’t do that.
It seems to me that you have a unique perspective since you’ve been both a talk radio host and a politician. Why do you think that these talk radio hosts feel that way? Why can’t they use the power they've amassed as pundits to shift the conversation in a different direction?
Because they’re afraid they’ll lose their radio shows and their TV shows, plain and simple. Again, it’s analogous to my former colleagues in the House who privately believe this guy is a nut, but they won’t say it publicly. It’s absolute fear. It’s fear of Trump. Look what he did to Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
These guys on the radio and TV, it’s absolute fear of losing their livelihood. I came down really hard on Trump last week with Helsinki, and believe me, I’ve gotten a backlash from tons of my listeners around the country. It’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous to say, “Look, he’s a bad guy, and this is a real concern.”
It seems to me that you’re saying that Republican politicians and pundits and thought leaders have these reservations, but as far as everyday Republican voters go, they're all in for Trump. What do you think accounts for the difference?
Well, I will tell you, I think that’s changing. Yeah, he’s got an 88 percent again, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll -- 88 percent approval rating among Republicans. But it’s soft support. Twenty percent to 29 percent strongly support him.
I think among the voters, Trump voters, who are my listeners, increasingly I’ve found — and maybe it won’t happen fast enough to save somebody like me — that the average Trump supporter out there more and more wants an honest appraisal of him.
They’re not totally there yet. Helsinki confused the hell out of them, because he’s branded himself as this big, strong, tough guy, and he looked [like] he was Putin's lapdog last week.
Still -- look, they placed a lot of faith in this guy. It's a lot easier to go turn on Sean Hannity every night, because Sean Hannity can tell you that Trump walks on water. The vast majority of Trump supporters still want to hear that.
What you're describing to me is this climate of fear, and I believe you. But why do you think Donald Trump is so powerful? Why can’t all of these people, including yourself, do more to stop him?
Amanda, that is a really, pardon my language, freaking great question, because I do believe that virtually every Republican in Congress feels that same way. I do believe that most of the conservative media people feel the same way, though some of them -- conservative media people aren’t the sharpest guys in the world and maybe they don’t totally get it.
But you would think, if we all rose up in unison and said, “Mr. Trump, these tariffs are a terrible idea,” there'd be more power in that.
Look, I’m not exaggerating when I say that because I’m a pretty profound right-wing critic of his, I don’t know how long I’ll have a TV or radio show. You’re talking about people’s livelihood.
I think there still are a lot of people who want to believe that this guy can be corralled. That somebody can knock some sense into Trump, and kind of control him. Some people still have that hope.
Where do you think that hope comes from?
What else are we going to do? We’ve got so much invested in this guy.
Trump doesn’t believe anything. I think that’s what a lot of the Republicans in the media and Congress know as well. It’s the truth. Trump has no core. He has no philosophy. I think there’s the hope that if we can just get him to put down his phone every now and then, we can get the policy agenda we want.
You saw that on the Supreme Court. Donald Trump doesn’t give a damn who the Supreme Court justice is. He farmed that out.
I know a lot of my Republican colleagues hope that he’ll just sort of sit in the White House and they can eventually get most of the policy they want.
What do you think is going on with Trump and Vladimir Putin? I'm going to ask you to speculate wildly here.
To me there are only two possibilities. We do know that Trump is an egomaniac. He's a needy, thin-skinned baby. It's believable that he cannot acknowledge Russia interfered with the election because he doesn’t want anything to take away from his victory.
But I think last week kind of convinced me that there’s something more, because, Amanda, all he had to say was, “Look, hey, we know Russia did it. Putin denied it, but we know it happened. We’re going to make sure it never happens again, next question.”
That was such a fucking softball. It got me thinking, you know what? Maybe Putin does have something on him. Or, at least maybe Trump really does know Russia helped get him elected and maybe that’s what Putin got on him.
I keep coming back to the fact that he keeps saying, “Oh, maybe it was the Chinese. Maybe it was some 400-pound man in the basement.” The notion that he’s just worried about the legitimacy of his election, I can’t square that with his comments. His election would be illegitimate no matter who hacked the system, right? Why is he specifically fixated on denying it was Russia?
Yeah, that no longer suffices, I guess. But no matter what the reason is, he decided from day one that his personal interests are more important than the country’s interest. He’s doing Russia’s bidding, for whatever reason, and that’s a real danger to this country.
What do you hope, after all is said and done, Republicans — both voters and politicians — learn from all of this?
My hope, Amanda, is -- and look, again, pardon my language -- how the hell did this guy get elected? He got elected because the Republican Party sucks. The Democrat Party sucks and pardon me, respectfully, most of the media sucks.
Almost half of the American people, a year and a half ago, said, “Screw you all, I’m going to put this ass in the White House.”
Look, I voted for him because I wanted some disruption. Washington, D.C., needs disruption. My hope is that everybody understands how the hell Donald Trump got elected.
My hope is this causes people, all of us, to reflect on what we’ve done wrong and on what needs to be done to salvage or fix our political system right now because if . . . Look, it’s broken. Trump didn’t break it. The fact that it’s broken is what got him elected. If this doesn’t wake people up, then nothing will.