In his own words: A conversation with Sen. Mike Lee
Editor’s note: The Standard-Examiner and Daily Herald editorial boards sat down with U.S. Sen. Mike Lee on Wednesday. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
JIM KONIG, publisher: Would you like to express anything about your family or anything or make an opening statement?
MIKE LEE: Love my family, married, got three kids — all three of them are married. No grandkids yet, but we’re expecting our first grandchild in January, a little boy.
KONIG: Congratulations. That’s great. Any any opening statement about your campaign or anything?
LEE: Oh, I’m meant to say I ran for the Senate the first time because I believe the federal government’s become too big and too expensive. In part because it’s doing too many things that it wasn’t designed to do. When it does things that it wasn’t designed to do that are outside of the enumerated powers granted to the federal government, it becomes less well-equipped to do the things that only it can do. And those problems persist. In many respects, many meaningful respects, they’ve gotten worse since I’ve been there. Running again because I’ve learned a thing or two about how to unravel this mess and I’d like to have the chance to continue to do so.
KONIG: Very good. Appreciate that. The first question is a very simple, straightforward question. If Donald Trump gets the nomination from the party are you going to vote for him?
LEE: Yeah, absolutely.
TIM VANDENACK, reporter: So, enthusiastic yes?
LEE: Yeah, look. The economy was strong while he was present. The border was secure while he was president. Inflation was under control while he was president. And I didn’t agree with everything he did. But he runs and he gets the nomination, you talking presumably about a rematch, absolutely I’m gonna vote for him.
VANDENACK: Next question, on a topic you may be tired of talking about, the email situation. I’ve … heard a lot of it, read the emails. I guess the question I have, when you were looking into this, when you were messaging back and forth, was it a matter of looking for a mechanism, some legal sort of provision that would allow electors and states to change, presumably, to be more a pro-Trump slate of electors? You’ve kind of said you were looking into rumors. … But was there an element of trying to find some sort of legal mechanism?
LEE: No. So here’s what was happening. I have said all this before, we’re not plowing new ground. Go over this again. So, shortly after the election, within a few days afterwards, I had a conversation with the president. I told him what the important thing here is to realize — this was, well, … there were some states that still hadn’t finalized their counts — and I told him, look, it’s it’s important for you to make sure everything was done thoroughly. Ask for whatever recounts or audits or whatever you think, exhaust whatever legal remedies that your team wants to explore. … But I said, the important thing here is you’ve got a limited window. You got a very narrow window. And I think it’s important now that you express now your willingness to accept the results of the election, whatever they may turn out to be, because you’ve got a very narrow window in which to litigate or recount or whatever it is that you’re going to do. I didn’t purport to tell him what his chances of success were … to do that. It’s beyond my purview. And (I’m) not on his campaign team. But I said, just for the sake of continuity of government and rule of law, it’s important for you to acknowledge now that you’ll accept the results of the election. Weeks passed, we didn’t hear much from the White House. And then starting in, I don’t know whether it was late November or sometime in December, rumors started circulating to the effect that … some in the Trump team were advocating a plan in which this could somehow be resolved on Jan. 6, the date that we were scheduled to open and count the vote. And I thought, well, that’s strange. I wonder what that’s about? The rumors persisted. I did my best to investigate the the rumors that this — we’re accelerating now several weeks to where I sort of felt that would die down, because they seemed incredulous to me once the electorate met. I don’t remember what the date was, but it was Dec. 14, Dec. 16, something like that, the electorate convened, they cast their votes. Joe Biden won the electoral vote count and I immediately issued a statement saying something to the effect of, OK, barring something really unusual at this point, President Biden’s now going to become the president. By really unusual meaning a court intervening and invalidating something or a state legislature stepping in and stripping it out. But the rumors continue to persist for the last couple of weeks in December, and I thought this was odd. So anyway, as we got closer to the New Year, several of my colleagues were starting to talk about this and several of them were starting to talk about objecting to the slate of electors. And it’s where I did a lot more research and concluded it’s not appropriate to do, you can’t object. … It’s not appropriate, in my view, to raise an objection just because you don’t like the outcome of the election. It’s not even appropriate, in my view, to raise an objection just because you think a state was sloppy in the way it counted, or even because you think that there may have been fraud in that state’s presidential election. The only scenario … that, in my view, could be legally and constitutionally justifiable would be if you had a state official, the state official empowered to do it. So typically, that might be the secretary of state, in other states the lieutenant governor. I assume there are other states where it’s the governor, but I don’t know. Constitutionally, in theory, it could even be a state legislature making a decision. “We screwed up. Candidate A is not the correct winner of the election. The true winner of the election was Candidate B, not Candidate A.” I based that off of a combination of the text, looked at the text of the 12th Amendment and the text of Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2, coupled with the history and tradition of the way these things have been handled. The closest analogue I could come up with was the Hawaii presidential election, the U.S. presidential election in 1960. Hawaii identity actually impaneled two different slates of electors. The first panel voted to certify, they cast their electoral votes for Richard Nixon. Later that same day, it concluded, whatever state official or group of state officials, I don’t know whether it was their legislature or what, they concluded that they had made an error in certifying Richard Nixon as the winner of the presidential election in Hawaii that year. So they impaneled the Kennedy electors, they convened, they cast their votes and mailed them out I think later that same day. So when the time came for Congress to receive them and open and count the votes, 1960 or 1961’s version of of Jan. 6, whatever that was, Congress had a decision to make. Do we count the Nixon electors? Do we count Kennedy electors? And they concluded that the Hawaii state government, perhaps the legislature who certified this, had identified … that the true results of the election revealed Kennedy as the victor. So that’s the only, it has to be something analogous to that that would work. That’s what I concluded. I was using that as an argument primarily with colleagues of mine who kept asking me, “Should we be objecting to slates of electors from one or more states where there’s been fraud alleged or the issues?” I had a lot of colleagues coming to me, ask me that. I had some colleagues coming to me saying, “Hey, I’m going to object and here’s why.” So that’s, that’s what prompted me to do this research and it was a fair amount of work, but that was the conclusion I emphatically came to at that point. I wanted to figure out where these rumors were coming from and whether they were true. As much as anything I wanted to set the framework correctly with my colleagues, those who were in favor of objecting and those who were undecided. I wanted to set the table, the conversation, correctly so that they understood we have no role unless there are competing slates of electors and we have to figure out which one is the correct one. That is the only way we have a role. And I got together with a few of my House counterparts and compared notes on our own research and reached that conclusion. Anyway, so as we got closer to Jan. 6, the rumors continued. President Trump had gotten word of the fact that I was sending this message, which was — one of my talking points, which I gave to, basically, every one of my Republican colleagues, any who asked plus most who didn’t ask, was we have no more authority than the queen of England when it comes to deciding the presidential election because the founding fathers took that out of Congress’ hands. It didn’t want the president, except in very rare circumstances not present here, it didn’t want Congress deciding the presidency. They wanted to leave that in the hands of the states. So we have no more authority than the queen of England to decide the outcome of the presidential election in any state, except in this very narrow circumstance where you’ve got dueling slates of … electors that appear on their face to be valid and that we have to figure out which one is the authentic one. So anyway, I was trying to to establish the framework. The president apparently got wind of that at a rally on the evening of either Jan. 3 or 4, I don’t remember which one. My wife and I went down to Georgia. We’d gone down there twice after the November election, between the November election and the Jan. 5 runoff. We went down to Georgia twice to campaign for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. At one of these rallies, President Trump made an appearance and spoke in the middle of it. He started taking shots at me … in the middle of his speech, saying, “Good to be here in Georgia,” and he looks over, sees me and says, “Hey, Mike.” And then a few minutes later, “I see my friend Mike Lee here.” This is all on videotape somewhere. And a few minutes later, he talked about something else. “I’m a little bit angry with my friend Mike Lee.” And anyways, so a lot of those texts that people were pointing to were texts I exchanged with Mark Meadows immediately after that rally. I was unhappy because I felt like I had been treated unfairly and … I was pretty hot while texting him, angry at how I’d been treated. And so, I was saying things like, “Look, I’ve been trying 14 hours a day to try to figure out how to unravel this for him or for you or for all of us,” or whatever the wording was. The point I was trying to communicate was you’ve created a gigantic mess and someone has to unravel this. So yeah, I did spend an enormous amount of time calling secretaries of state, House speakers, Senate presidents and rank-and-file state lawmakers from a bunch of the states in question, just cold-calling. I didn’t even know any of these people. I would start usually with calling somebody I knew in that state who was connected to politics. And I’d say, “Can you give me the names and phone numbers of a few state lawmakers, ideally your Senate president and/or your your House speaker?” And I just cold-called them. In no circumstance, in no way shape or form, did I advocate for them replacing slates of electors, nor would I have done so. I think that would have been inappropriate. It’d also just be wrong. It’s not my place.
VANDENACK: You were just asking what’s going on, is there something going on?
LEE: Yes, it’s strictly an information gathering exercise. Because I believed, I was quite certain what I was facing was the need to give a very persuasive speech, a compelling speech on Jan. 6, so that my colleagues would know what was happening. But in order to do that, I needed to have all the facts. The facts were not available through the news media because the news media appeared not to know either. But a lot of my colleagues believed that there were going to be circumstances allowing us to decide this and a lot of them weren’t giving it more thought than that. Sorry, that’s the longest two-minute answer I’ll ever give.
KONIG: It was thorough, so thank you.
HARRISON EPSTEIN, community editor: You’ve been very clear about your views on the roles of the federal government. Your father was solicitor general. How did that upbringing kind of color your view of the federal government and how do you take those lessons into effect as a senator?
LEE: It’s hard for me to imagine me approaching the Constitution without that backdrop, just because that’s my world. That’s the world in which I was raised. Maybe the easiest way to describe it is I grew up with a natural respect and reverence for the law and for the Constitution, and was raised by parents, both my mother and my father, who taught me that the Constitution was written by wise men raised up by God for that very purpose and that it’s there to secure our liberty and we need to respect it, we need to protect it, we’re better off as a result of it. My dad was very good about explaining the relationship between the different features of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, and other thou shalt not-type protections contain a number of affirmative commands, permanent prohibitions, thou-shalt-nots for government. But for those to mean anything, my dad also was keen on explaining that it’s significant, needs to be remembered, that with only one exception, every provision of the Constitution limits the power of government. It’s a limitation on government, not on individuals. The one exception is in the case of the 13th Amendment, which (ended) slavery, which involves actions by private parties. But even that itself is a type of restriction on government because it understands that slavery can’t exist without laws in place facilitating slavery. The constitution is best understood as a limitation on government — in every instance but that one that’s all it is — and that the structural protections of the Constitution are every bit as important as, and in fact they’re upstream from, the affirmative prohibitions. In other words, the vertical protection of federalism and the horizontal protection of separation of powers are elemental toward understanding the Constitution and elemental parts of what it does. We have drifted significantly from the vertical protection of federalism. It is sort of a pyramid, if you will. At the top of the pyramid, at the federal level, we’ve got the power to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, regulate commerce between the states, with foreign nations and with the Indian tribes for money and regulate the value of thereof, protect trademarks, copyrights and patents, establish a system with postal roads, immigration, naturalization laws and so forth. Everything else is supposed to be down here at the state level. By state level I mean the states and their political subdivisions, including localities. In many respects, we’ve inverted that pyramid over the last 85 years. And as we’ve done that, we’ve also messed up the horizontal protection of separation of powers. We’ve seen more power shift away from what was supposed to be the most powerful, most dangerous branch, which is Congress, over to the executive branch, to a degree to the presidency itself, which has caused problems, and to a significant degree to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats within the executive branch, which is also problematic.
RYAN CHRISTNER, managing editor: Senator, you were on Fox News this past Sunday. One of the topics that came up was abortion. Specifically, the conversation steered toward a federal abortion ban, a nationwide abortion ban, something I believe its Sen. Lindsey Graham who’s proposing or advocating for. You came out against that, using the argument that was often made before the Roe v. Wade ruling was overturned, that abortion is an issue that should be left to the states. So I wanted to get your thoughts. Currently, Utah’s abortion rules were put on hold. But I wanted to ask what limits you feel are most appropriate for the state of Utah to have in place?
LEE: Well look, almost as a routine practice, I tend not to weigh in on matters before the Legislature because it’s unseemly for federal authorities to do that. But I will say here, I support Utah’s law. I support the the law that Utah has on the books and yeah, it’s in litigation right now. That legislation is going to be upheld. I don’t think one can credibly maintain that the Utah constitution of 1896 prohibits protection of unborn human life in a way that would render that statute unconstitutional under the state constitution. So it’s going to be upheld and I support Utah’s law. … It contains appropriate exceptions for cases of rape, incest and life of the mother. I support Utah’s law and it’s a good example of what I was talking about on Shannon (Bream). And look, I appreciate Lindsey Graham’s efforts to protect unborn human life. I do. He and I have a respectful difference of opinion on the appropriate level to do that. But to use his bill as an example, Utah’s law is more protective of unborn human life than the Graham bill is. If the Graham bill were to pass, which it won’t, the Congress is under the control of the Democrats in both houses, and so is the White House under the control of Democrats. It would never pass right now. But imagine a hypothetical world in which it did pass today. If that passed, all of a sudden states like Utah that have more aggressive protections of unborn human life might be, I believe inevitably would be, inclined to allow that to be both the floor and the ceiling of what was to be protected. And you’d have less protection of unborn human life as a result. So both as a constitutional matter and as a pro-life matter, I think we’re better off with the state’s doing it, except in cases where we’re dealing with federal funding or other instances where federal power is indisputably present: federal property, things like that.
CRAIG CONOVER, retail advertising manager: There’s been a dramatic push to move us to greener, electrical energy, however you want to look at that, by the year 2030. I’d like to know your thoughts on that and how we’re going to feasibly accomplish that.
LEE: I don’t think anyone would disagree that it would be nice if we had a source of energy that could run our cars, power our electric power grid and otherwise provides for our needs without any form of combustion. … If you could do that without combustion, you’re not emitting stuff into the air, whether it’s greenhouse gases or something else. So, I don’t think I know anyone who wouldn’t prefer that, if we had that option. And we don’t really have that option right now. We’re certainly nowhere near there. I mean, there are low-emission and a number of zero-emission options when it comes to electric power generation. But very few of them, some of the exceptions being nuclear power, which we’re not creating to a significant degree new nuclear power-generating capacity right now. I do have some hope for this small modular reactor technology that could make a difference here. But we don’t have that, with a few exceptions like nuclear power, geothermal, hydroelectric — we don’t have that many options. And we don’t have enough of that right now, anywhere near enough to power our electric power grid. We don’t have anywhere near what we would need to power automobiles and trucks and trains and other things that currently run on liquid fuels and for the foreseeable future will need to run on on liquid fuels. So it’s nice to dream of those things and to live in a country where resources are available for research and development that could lead to those technologies. But serious discussions of phasing out use of fossil fuels by 2030, or anything even close to that soon, is folly and it’s doing the American people a grave disservice and could even undermine the very environmental aspirations that purport to underlie that effort.
KONIG: Your position on funding and backing the Ukraine war?
LEE: I voted for the first Ukraine funding package, which was about $13 (billion) or $14 billion, voted against the second package. Second package was very large, and I probably would have voted for the second package — not withstanding the fact that it was really, really big — had they been willing to give us an opportunity to amend out, or at least amend the problems out, of Title V of that bill? As I recall, that second Ukraine aid package had either six or seven titles, I think it was seven. I was OK with Title I, Title II, Title III, Title IV, Title VI and I think there was a Title VII in it. But Title V was a mess. It gave all sorts of stuff to USAID and State Department … some of which appeared to be thinly veiled Green New Deal efforts. I thought if we’re gonna be doing — we don’t need to enact Green New Deal in connection with Ukraine aid. They refused to allow us even to debate and vote on those amendments. And so I couldn’t in good conscience vote for it in that condition.
KONIG: Follow up with that. How should we handle Russia?
LEE: Very carefully. Vladimir Putin is a bad man. He is a vile dictator. He will stop at — well, he doesn’t have much, he doesn’t have restraint. What I can tell he doesn’t have much of a conscience. I don’t think he has a conscience. Russia is a nuclear-armed geopolitical adversary. The word I almost had but struggled with is near peer. They’re not a near peer in terms of our economy. They’re not a near peer in terms of our overall military capabilities. But their nuclear arsenal is really, really powerful. And when under the control of a vile dictator without a conscience, you gotta tread very carefully.
VANDENACK: Well, and just regarding Ukraine, you mentioned here your reservations with that bill. I guess more generally speaking, should the United States have a role in Ukraine?
LEE: Well, it has a role … and I think there is a legitimate role for us to play, given that — so, although Ukraine is not a NATO ally, the fear has been, which is a legitimate one, to the degree that Russia enjoys success in Ukraine, and that serves as the first domino in a series of dominoes to fall in other parts of Europe, other parts of the region, Ukraine is very, very close to a whole bunch of NATO allies. And if they become part of the the series of dominoes to fall, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands because of our NATO Article V obligations. And so yeah, there is a legitimate reason for us to help push back there. It’s just that there’s no easy way to do it. It’s not a simple question of saying, “Well, stop him.” OK. The question is how. In my view, in addition to the military aid that that we have appropriated … well, even separate and apart from, in addition to, I believe none of this would have happened if we were exporting significant quantities of (liquid natural gas) to Europe. We’ve got more natural gas than anybody. We’ve got really good natural gas; it burns cleaner, it’s produced in a more environmentally sensitive fashion. If we were producing — if we had spent the same amount of effort, resources to fast-tracking LNG hubs and LNG delivery mechanisms to get more LNG over to Europe? This would never have happened. This could never have happened. And I base this on a couple of things. I was on the Armed Services Committee at the time Putin undertook this effort last time when he invaded Crimea. And I started asking all the admirals and the generals and the intel experts and the State Department personnel, everybody came before our committee — a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds — so I asked them, “Could he have ever done this if we were supplying significant quantities of natural gas to the European market?” And I don’t remember a single notable exception of this. They all said yes. I mean, I’m sorry. They all said no, he could never have done this. The whole invasion could never have happened if that were occurring, because Putin fuels his entire war machine through energy. And I’m quite certain that the same is true today. I’ve started asking the same thing in connection with this effort. And I’m getting similar answers. People are more reluctant to talk about it now because energy production and distribution have become a little bit more politically charged, but no one has refuted it. According to one estimate, Germany alone spends a billion dollars a day on Russian natural gas — $365 billion a year. If they had another source for that, and we could be a source of at least a significant chunk of that, Putin couldn’t do this. And so there are other ways that we could do this that would be more effective than what we’re doing.
KONIG: Staying on the international (theme) with China and Taiwan. It’s another interesting topic.
LEE: Yeah, that’s what’s really scary. I frequently talk to my friend, my former boss and longtime mentor of mine, John Huntsman. He was our ambassador to China. I was his general counsel when he was governor and we’ve remained friends ever since then. He served a mission to Taiwan and then he was the ambassador there, so he knows the language, the culture and everything. Talked to him, I visited Taiwan in the last about 10 or 11 months ago and talked to a lot of experts about this. There are a lot of people who do think Xi Jinping has aspirations to take it over. There are differences of opinion as to how imminent that will be and what it would look like. Some think it will be a dramatic, spectacular move, type of military takeover, commencing with a decapitation effort within the government in Taiwan. Others think it might be more of a slow burn, a cultural takeover that leads them naturally to start moving toward what they view as the motherland and what Beijing views as the country they belong to anyway. Until fairly recently, I’ve been very doubtful that they would undertake a full-scale military operation to do this in the near-term future, simply because the manufacturing and other economic interests between the two countries are such that it would harm a lot of important Chinese interests, Chinese interests of Beijing in mainland China, if they were to do that. Any type of military campaign into Taiwan would cause a number of supply chain disruptions including, and especially within chip-making and that that would be enough of a deterrent to keep China from doing that, at least for the time being. I still want to believe that that’s the case. But some recent events have me questioning that a little bit. The fact that we’re distracted in other places, the fact that we’ve got a president who’s behaving erratically and making weird comments, including weird comments specifically about China. It raises the risk, and if they view us as distracted right now, I’m not sure what they might do. But there again, in many ways, the best way to avoid that, the best way to prevent the harm that we want to avoid, doesn’t have to consist exclusively of military operations. We hope that it doesn’t. You backstop that with economic actions. So in the case of deterring Putin’s bad actions, a lot involves energy. In the case of Beijing’s actions relative to Taiwan, I tend to think that really good, strong trade relations with other Asian and Pacific Rim countries would help us there. China is very much dependent on strong trade with the United States. And if we ramp that down even a little bit, it’s going to hurt them a lot and it’s going to make it harder for them to do a lot of this stuff. And so that’s why I’ve advocated for a robust, bilateral free-trade agreement with India, with the Philippines, with a lot of other countries in the region. If we had those, I think you’d see China becoming less aggressive militarily.
VANDENACK: So the gridlock, partisan divide in Congress. How do you address that? I mean, that’s a big point of your opponent, you know, “I’m in the middle, I can negotiate with everybody.” You have kind of made the case. “We need to get a Republican Senate so that we can kind of get some things done.” I mean, is your view, get Republicans in there and we can kind of sort things out? … Do you work with the other side? …
LEE: I work with the other side constantly. I worked with the other side for nearly a decade to get criminal justice reform done. At the beginning, it was me. I had an idea when I first arrived in the Senate: We needed to overhaul our criminal justice system, including federal sentencing laws that were resulting in weird, just unconscionably disproportionate sentences. Like this guy, Weldon Angelos, sentenced in federal district court here in Utah — 55 years in prison for selling three dime bags of pot to what turned out to be a confidential informant. Because he had a gun on his person at the time of the transaction, a gun that was neither brandished nor discharged in connection with the offense, these three strikes laws — the way they have been interpreted, the way they interact with each other — resulted in a 55-year minimum mandatory prison sentence. I used that as probably the single most effective example of why we needed to overhaul some of this stuff. So I had this idea, I went to one of my liberal Democratic friends — I knew that was the best place to start. I went to Dick Durbin and said, “I think we need to fix this.” And we talked about it for a while. At the end of it, he said this, … “Might be political malpractice for both of us, but let’s do it anyway.” Because nobody wants to be perceived as soft on crime. And I dunno, maybe a year, year and a half later, Cory Booker came to the Senate, became a senator. And he had heard about the effort. He said, “I want in.” Rand Paul joined up with us. … At first it was only me and a bunch of Democrats and Rand Paul. We added, little by little, more Democrats than Republicans. We kept making steam. As time went on, they said we can still never get to 60 because we won’t have enough Republicans. And I made the prediction, I think we can get to 60, maybe even 65. They thought I was crazy. But I kept hammering it, based on ideas, based on the fact that this doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. We passed that thing with 87 votes — would have been 88 but Lindsey Graham up and went to Afghanistan at the last minute, and I nearly had a heart attack when he told me about this. Anyway, my point is, there are things like that that get done. I get things like that done all the time. I worked to undo domestic surveillance programs against the United States of America, against Americans, with Pat Leahy. It took a long time to get it done. It was me and a bunch of liberal Democrats at first; we eventually got it passed. What my opponent is talking about is, he’s wanting to somehow chart a third path. He’s saying he’ll go to the Senate to be detached from the two parties. It’s not possible to do that without cutting yourself out of the committee process. The last senator to try to do this in earnest was a guy named Wayne Morse, represented the state of Oregon in 1953. He left the Republican Party, left the Republican caucus in the Senate, decided to be an independent. He couldn’t get committee assignments. He eventually aligned with Democrats — as every independent in the Senate currently does. And Evan McMullin, I believe, will go the same direction. He’s either being naive in believing that he can get committee assignments, notwithstanding 177 years of tradition, whereby committee assignments have come through the two-party caucus structures, as we’ve done for 177 years. But if he’s not doing that, then he’s being deceptive. And because, look, he actively sought out, courted and obtained the Democratic Party’s endorsement, which he obtained by embracing a number of democratic policy viewpoints and focusing on the fact that he voted for Joe Biden, campaigned for Joe Biden and encouraged others to do the same. In the last quarter alone, he’s raised $2.5 million from Democratic donors, largely on the Democratic donor network called ActBlue. He then spent $1.6 million in the last quarter alone on Democratic consulting firms whose other clients are exclusively liberal and Democratic causes and candidates. Now look, as I’ve said before, if it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, has webbed like a duck, in this case, it is a Democrat. That’s what he is. …
VANDENACK: Yeah. And I guess he’ll … the tough issues. Obviously, there are some issues where it’s easy to reach accord. What about the …
LEE: Right? If what he’s saying is, on the whole, we just need — that nothing passes in Washington, because of the partisan gridlock — it’s funny because you can’t, with very few exceptions, exceptions being those things that go through a rare and difficult-to-use procedure known as budget reconciliation, but legislation outside of that narrow, privileged context literally has to be bipartisan, at least in today’s environment, because it takes 60 votes to bring debate to a close and you have to bring debate to a close to bring almost all legislation to the floor for a vote. So we pass legislation all the time; it’s inaccurate to describe it as absolute gridlock. The question is not whether to compromise between the parties. It’s where and where not to compromise. Right now, we’ve got a party that is in control of the Senate, this same party that he’s embraced and that’s embraced him and that’s funding his campaign and that’s running his campaign. That same party has rammed through, using budget reconciliation, an enormous amount of deficit spending. We brought in $4 trillion dollars last year — record breaking revenue, over $4 trillion, never brought that much in an entire year ever. But we spent almost ($7 trillion). That’s his party. So if that’s his idea of getting something done, that’s an idea of getting something done that’s been very costly to the people of Utah. We’re facing a disproportionate burden from inflation. You hear a lot of talk about inflation, annual inflation being at 8.2% or 8.3%, in Utah it’s much worse than that. And if you measure it relative to the day Joe Biden took office — the president he voted for and supported, the president supported by his new adopted party, the party that adopted him and that he adopted — that inflation in Utah relative to that day is 16%, costing the average Utah family $949 a month every single month for their basic monthly necessities.
VANDENACK: So yeah, how do you address that? I guess, another issue.
LEE: You put the other party in charge of both houses of Congress to stop this reckless runaway spending. He wants to perpetuate that majority. I would oppose it. When you’ve got a huge problem, The first step to turning it around is to stop doing what you’re doing that’s causing it. Milton Friedman said this back in the late 1970s, last time we had a comparably disturbing spike in inflation. He was speaking at a university somewhere in the Midwest, I believe, and someone asked him the question, “What’s causing all this inflation? Is it, you know, some some say, Dr. Friedman, that it’s speculative investing? Some say that it’s international trade, global trade patterns that are affecting. Others say it’s labor unions. What do you think?” And he said, “It’s none of those things. In the United States of America, inflation has one cause — it’s Congress spending too much money.” That’s what’s happening here.
VANDENACK: And that’s your view as well?
CHRISTNER: I just wanted to talk just real quickly about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Obviously, all the time, there’s all sorts of things circulating on social social media. One thing that I had noticed recently, some video of you, I believe, campaigning in 2010 had been revisited online where you had expressed the idea of dismantling those social programs. I just wondered if you could clarify your current position on what you see for the future?
LEE: I don’t recall ever having advocated for dismantling those — that’s sensitive stuff. And I don’t recall advocating for dismantling them. I vaguely remember a time in 2010 when we were talking about a bunch of things. And it was talking about, we need to end this pattern of the federal government occupying space that it wasn’t intended to occupy and spending too much money. Perhaps that was close in time and in proximity to another conversation about Social Security. But I don’t remember ever, in any time since I first became a candidate for the Senate, ever saying, “No, we just have to end Social Security and uproot all the expectations of those who’ve paid into it.” Quite to the contrary. As far as I can remember, every time I’ve spoken, I’ve said, “We do have problems with that,” in part because, when it was created in the 1930s, it was sold to the American people as something that would be their property — it’s theirs, they have it, it’s just held … in an account by the government in their name. It would always be their money. Became a weird issue because in a case called Helvering v. Davis, the Supreme Court, in upholding the legislation creating the Social Security program, it concluded that … those were just tax expenditures, it was a tax and therefore not private property, and on that basis, they upheld it. But regardless of that decision, it’s a commitment that we’ve made to people who’ve paid into the system, and in the case of those who were retirees or anywhere within a couple of decades even of retiring, you can’t pull that away. I have in the past of times offered up different solutions for what could make it solvent, including — been one or two bills that I’ve been involved in that would, over time, index the retirement age to life expectancy, because at the time it was created … the retirement age was developed based on life expectancy at the time. And so, over time, we’re going to have to do something to take that into account. You can’t create an abrupt adjustment to that without creating a lot of problems. But I’ve established a very slow transition toward increasing the retirement age and having it hover based on life expectancy at the time, but in a way that wouldn’t affect anyone who’s now retired or even within, I don’t know, a decade or two of retirement. I’ve talked about other ideas conceptually about dealing with this issue. One of the problems that I’ve seen, it’s been sort of proven, some of the concerns about this — Congress has raided the Social Security trust fund over and over again. I’ve seen it happen while I’ve been in the Senate. They take money out of it to pay for other government spending, knowing that it’s going to go insolvent. We’re contributing to its insolvency. So, over time and, I think, we oughta look to, after we get it solvent, look to the idea of allowing people, if they want to, to at least identify some portion of their social security payments to go into a private account, if they want to.
VANDENACK: So, um, prescription drugs. That’s a big point of debate, getting a control on health care costs, prescription drugs. … Should Medicare be able to negotiate? I think you’re not in favor of that.
LEE: Medicare being able to negotiate, that’s code that my opponent uses for price controls, for the government going in and establishing price controls. Price controls result in rationing, rationing results in market patterns that ultimately always harm hardworking Americans. And they don’t work. There are other things that we can do to bring down the price of drugs, OK. Drives pharma crazy, but I’m with Bernie Sanders and a number of other, sort of a land of misfit toys assortment of senators who agrees with this, but I think we ought to allow the importation of prescription drugs from certain countries, including Canada.
VANDENACK: That’s not allowed?
LEE: Right. And we need to streamline the approval process, some of the regulatory process, streamline it. These life-saving drugs are very often kept off the market, and when you keep them off the market, you discourage competition. It’s competition that improves quality and brings down price. Price controls, by contrast, will tend inevitably to protect market incumbents, not encourage more competition, and I think that’s just a huge mistake to assume that.
VANDENACK: Health care costs in general — are you of a mind that health care costs are out of sight?
LEE: Yeah, I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that.
VANDENACK: What do you do in that regard?
LEE: If increased federal spending and increased federal involvement in the health care industry would make health care cheaper, it would be evident right now that that were true. What’s evident now is that the opposite is true. Every time we’ve gotten involved more, every time we’ve further injected the federal government into the provision of health care, it gets more expensive. Let’s look at what’s happened over the last decade alone under Obamacare, since Obamacare has kicked in in earnest. It’s been really good for a small handful of health care monoliths, health care giants, who have seen their profits explode, increased astronomically. We’ve seen more consolidation in health care because the sheer Byzantine labyrinth of regulatory … heft that they have to deal with, the sheer weight of the regulatory structure that we’ve injected through the federal government on to the health care system has forced consolidation, and with that consolidation there’s been less competition. Prices have gone up, not down. I mean, they’ve gone up dramatically. So this is really good if you’re a health care company that can survive all that. So then you can gobble up competitors who are being crushed under the weight of them. It’s really bad for the consumer.
VANDENACK: So what can you do, or what do you do?
LEE: Well, I think we need to — I think we should have repealed Obamacare when we had the chance. And I think even within the structure of Obamacare, there are things we could do to reintroduce competition into the system. … By telling (people) you’ve got to purchase health insurance and if you buy health insurance it’s got to be this kind and it’s gotta look exactly like this, we have further diminished competition in the space. … This is not the full extent of it, but things like the short-term limited duration plans that could be offered outside of the very stringent regulatory requirements for health insurance could offer some relief. One of my favorite approaches would be to allow — expand the use of health savings accounts. Allow people to use health care savings accounts to pay for their own health care premiums and allow them more options to shop for and what they want to insure, including for things like catastrophic plans for people who want to pay out of pocket up to a certain amount, but have a catastrophic policy behind that in case something significant happens. I actually think that would introduce more competition into the marketplace at the provider level. One of the problems is that, over the years, a lot of this has happened kind of accidentally. I’m not sure anybody would have designed it like this, but during, I think it was during World War II, when we started attaching the tax benefit associated with health insurance to the employer rather than the employee. Think you need to allow the employee to have that at the employee’s discretion, if the employee is fine with it, staying with the employer, then whatever. But I think it’s much better going to the employee. Once we attach it to that, and then we have more and more people get involved in health plans and fewer people making the decisions of which health plan, then you’ve created several layers of insulation between the price point and the customer. And so the prices have gone sky high as a result. The health savings accounts allowing a more expanded use for that, allowing the worker to use HSA donations to, among other things, pay premiums on a health insurance plan and allowing them to use that for a health insurance plan that is more catastrophic in nature to where you’re using — and the analogy is that, when you buy a car, you buy insurance but it’s insurance on the car; you’re not buying car insurance that covers all of your fuel costs, all of your oil changes and everything like that. And, the indemnity model that I just described would produce more competition in the marketplace. Not just among health insurers, which it would, but it would also and especially increase competition among health care providers, because people would go to the doctor. … There’s no point-to-point competition. You see it evolve in some weird areas, like elective procedures, LASIK for example. For a long time, it was like, I don’t know, $2,000 per eye or something. And now it’s a small fraction of that because people tend to pay out of pocket for that. So there’s point-to-point competition. This would help with that.
KONIG: So last question. I know time is almost up here. If you’re to give the president a grade, what would it be?
LEE: President Biden?
LEE: Well, it would not be a good one. I will note that President Biden didn’t sign up for my class, meaning he didn’t submit himself to my grading rubric. I’m confident that in the eyes of many, if not most, who voted for him, he’s been a wild success. He has, in fact, increased federal spending. He’s increased the size, scope, reach and cost of the federal government. For those who believe in that sort of thing? I’m sure they’d give him an A. I don’t think that’s helpful to the country. I don’t know what the data is now, but a few years ago, I found a statistic that of our nation’s 10 wealthiest counties, six of them were suburbs of Washington, D.C. I need to update that, see whether it’s still true. I’m confident that there’s still some truth to it. Washington, D.C., while an interesting area, some great monuments, historical sites, is an area that produces nothing. There are no gold mines. There are no silver mines or coal mines or oil wells. It’s not a banking hub. It’s not a technological innovation hub, for the most part. Their business is government. The money is there because the power is there, concentrated in the hands of a few elites. So, by increasing the size, scope, reach and cost of the federal government, this has been really good for a handful of people. The inflation that it has caused, and it does cause inflation when you bring in $4 trillion and you spend ($7 trillion) in a year, that causes inflation. In fact, that’s what inflation is, when you’ve got too many dollars chasing too few goods. There are people, the very wealthy and well-connected can find ways in that type of environment to get even wealthier. And I know that they have. It’s been really hard for everyone else. I cannot give him a passing grade. Giving him an F sounds mean, maybe I’ll give him a D- just so he doesn’t feel bad, but I should give him an F. Because he’s got a few jobs. His job involves protecting the United States from those who are to harm us. It involves leading a government with a few basic responsibilities including enforcing immigration laws. He’s failed at that. Regulating trade or commerce between the states before nations as with the Indian tribes. He’s opened our borders to the point that we’ve got so much fentanyl coming in you could kill millions upon millions of Americans with the fentanyl flowing across our borders. We’ve enriched the drug cartels who are making billions and billions of dollars a year smuggling humans across the border and fentanyl and a bunch of other stuff. According to some estimates, it’s like 35% of the women and girls who come up with those caravans are sexually assaulted and/or subjected to the human sex trade. Other estimates have that as more like 60% or 65%. It’s a massive humanitarian crisis. I spent two years along our southern border as a missionary. I became fluent in Spanish. I lived and worked among the poorest of the poor along the border. A lot of people didn’t even have indoor plumbing, some had dirt floors. … Contrary to what a lot of people like to portray, there are a lot of people who, in America, a lot of people on the left who take the approach that almost anyone with an Hispanic surname, or anyone who is a recent immigrant or the child of an immigrant, wants open borders somehow. And in my experience, the opposite is true. There’s nothing like — this is 30-plus years ago — but even back then there was no group of people who was more fearful of uncontrolled waves of illegal immigration than recent immigrants living on or near the border, the poorest of the poor, because it’s their jobs, it’s their schools, it’s their children, it’s their neighborhoods that are most put in jeopardy by uncontrolled waves of illegal immigration. This has been a humanitarian not just crisis, but disaster.
VANDENACK: Immigration, I don’t have to belabor it, but immigration, Dreamers … how do you deal with the undocumented immigrants here in the U.S.?
LEE: I’ve made clear for a long time that I am not opposed to finding ways to accommodate those who are here illegally, starting with those brought here by no choice of their own as children or even infants, especially those who, you know, some of these people don’t even know the language of their home country or know anyone there. (This is) the only land they’ve ever known. … I don’t think I know a single member of the House or the Senate, Republican or Democratic, who thinks the solution to the Dreamers is to round them all up and send them back to the country where they were born. Maybe such people exist. I don’t know them if there are. Something … needs to be done. And I think there are ways that we can deal with others outside the category of the Dreamers who are here unlawfully, figure out who ought to be able to stay and under what circumstances. But as I’ve said for over a decade, that condition precedent to that happening is, and necessarily must be, as a matter of simple political math inside the Capitol and as a matter of sound public policy, you have to have as a condition precedent the securing of the southern border. It has to be to a place where we’ve achieved a degree of homeostasis where we know who’s coming in and who isn’t and they’re coming in lawfully and not unlawfully. Doesn’t mean, you know, has to be an illegal entry rate of zero, but it’s got to be something darn near close to that. We had achieved that at the end of the last administration. We’d achieved it in large measure because of the “Remain in Mexico” program, something that I personally helped to advocate for within our own government and within the United States and with our counterparts in Mexico. I’m still fluent in Spanish and I’ve gone down there from time to time and I’ve met with government authorities and advocated for that program at the time it was being contemplated. But the Remain in Mexico program, it was working. Then you added to that some of the things that happened with COVID and we finally had it secure. I was actually very optimistic about our ability to undertake a significant amount of immigration reform, including the ability to deal with those who are here illegally, starting with the Dreamers. No easy solutions there, but they become just not possibilities when the border isn’t secure. No sooner had President Biden taken office then you had just swarms — to my utter shock and dismay and horror, Alejandro Mayorkas, the then-newly confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security, whose job it is to oversee border security, was asked, I think by a reporter, “What would you say to those who were on a caravan, who were thinking about coming up through a caravan from, you know, Central America?” And he said, “I would tell them it’s going to take us a few weeks before we’re ready to receive all of you.” We basically, just give us a few weeks then you can come on up. There is no discouragement. No “this is a humanitarian disaster.” No “we want people coming in through the front door, not the back door. Don’t come in unlawfully.” And his policies and his actions have reflected that and the results have been disastrous. So yeah, I think we can and should get to those things. We can’t — I mean we literally can’t and we should not — we have no business doing those until we’ve got the border under control, which at long last it was and then Biden messed it up. The good news is if we did it then, could do it again. But it’s not easy.