Trump Challenger Bill Weld on Secret Senate Anti-Trumpers And AG Barr's Extreme Views on Executive Branch Power

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JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty

Everybody, well most everybody, knows former Massachusetts Governor William Weld has mounted a primary challenge against Donald Trump along with ex-Teaparty Congressman Joe Walsh from Illinois. And everybody knows he⁠—and Walsh—have a snowball's chance in hell of winning. Almost 90 percent of Republican voters are sticking with the president. More than half of them believe he is doing a better job than Abraham Lincoln. And to make matters worse, some state Republican parties have already responded by fending others off with cancelled primaries.

Weld has a lot to say⁠—and he isn't shy about saying it⁠—from Attorney General William Barr's extreme view of executive branch powers to the secret anti-Trumpers in the U.S. Senate.

He's still worth listening to, in other words.

Weld's long political career spans five decades, from Nixon's impeachment and includes stints in both houses of Congress and Reagan's Justice Department. Politically, Weld, 74, belongs to a species⁠—the moderate, country club Republican⁠—rarely seen in the wild in recent years, and presumed by many to have gone extinct or at least dormant. His combination of liberal positions on social issues (pro-choice) and pro-science views (believes climate change is a man-made emergency) and fiscal conservatism is a throwback to another era. He contends that once Trump is out of office, either by impeachment or by losing an election, Republicans will look on the Trump years as a bad fever dream. Even so, he thinks the GOP could be so badly divided by the Trump experience that it will not survive, but split into two new parties, similar to what happened to the Whig Party in the antebellum years.

Newsweek's Nina Burleigh sat down with Weld, on the eve of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings, to discuss, among other things, the state of modern America. Edited excerpts:

You have known Donald Trump for a while in New York. What was your impression of him before he became president?

We would run into Donald and Melania at various cocktail parties and occasionally a dinner party. I knew a bunch of people who did business with him, not too happily, over the years. My impression was, first, that he had a reputation for being the most dishonest businessman in New York or New Jersey. And second, he was not terribly offensive (yet). Matter of fact, he was kind of quiet when he and I would be talking at a cocktail party. The braggadocio hadn't quite yet set in.

Why do you think Republicans gathered round him in the first place?

Well, it was not a willing embrace. They resisted for quite a while⁠—and after he began to show in the polls I think they decided he was exciting. Also, the choice of the slogan, drain the swamp, was inspired. I think the reason his support has been so sticky is that people really do think that he has won against thieves so to speak. He's won against whatever's big and mysterious and in Washington, and they don't like it. I don't think it's going to last until November of 2020. I don't think he's going to win the election. Some international disaster or some disaster for him in the impeachment proceedings will happen. Or it could be just people getting tired of the antics. It's very clear that it's all about him and everything refers back to him. Voters are not stupid. They can pick that up, and over a period of time they may come to resent that.

Where are you picking up on that sentiment?

Wherever I go. Detroit, New Hampshire, Miami, Austin, Texas but mainly New Hampshire. I was marching in the Concord holiday parade with a big banner in front of me and crisscrossing from side to side of the street shaking hands the traditional way. People would run all the way across the street to clap me on the back and say, "Get that guy out of here. Get that guy out of here." They didn't want to say, "Let's talk about Trump. Isn't he awful?" They didn't want to say anything except, "Can you please get that guy out of here?" That to me is consistent with what I've found around the country, which is people don't want to talk about Trump. I think it's wearing thin.

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Weld, here with locals at the Airport Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, is campaigning hard in the state, hoping to pick up support from crossover voters in the Democartic party. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty

Has Trump re-branded the Republican Party with respect to the rule of law?

Certainly in the Senate, they are not comfortable with the idea that the rule of law is the enemy. The President has said a free press is the enemy of the people, which is a phrase out of every dictator's handbook as you know. And it's the mark of any would-be autocrat to try to breakdown any bulwark between his aims. A free press is a bulwark, judiciary is a bulwark. The investigative power of Congress is a bulwark. The fact that you have other people in the administration who are power centers, another bulwark, he has been very clever about how he's gone about it. I think that that's why he prefers to have acting secretaries rather than secretaries. As a veteran of three stints in Washington, one in the House, one in the Senate, one in the executive branch of main Justice, I can tell you that when you go in for Congregational hearings if you have the word "acting" in front of your title, you have no clout. The president is shrewd about a number of political things and one of them is understanding that that power vacuum at the top means that that power devolves back to the Oval Office, which is just where he wants it. He doesn't want independent thinking decision-makers out there even in Trumpland.

How do you explain consistent Republican support for him in Congress during the impeachment probe?

Even I was surprised by there being no Republican votes other than backing up the president in the House. Their report just said, "There is nothing here." It's like, "I'm happy, happy, happy and look at the emperor's wonderful new clothes." I attribute it to an obsession with getting re-elected. Mr. Trump is finally getting what he wants. Which is to rule by fear, and he's had some success calling people out and causing them to be defeated. I think members of both parties have been obsessed with re-election for a long time. It began in the '94 election and then with hyper-gerrymandering and a bunch of other developments it's just gotten worse every year since then. It was not invented by Trump, but it's now at it's worse because it's being stoked by the person in the Oval Office who's trying to engender that fear. What I can't understand is why they're so obsessed with being re-elected, but then I was national chairman of U.S. Term Limits.

Governor, what does the Republican party stand for right now?

Oh, it's a mess. It clearly does not stand for being an economic conservative. I think I could be demonstrably the only true economic conservative in that race and I'll stake my own ground on issues like climate change where I think the environmentally conscious position is the only reasonable position to take because if the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere rises by more than 1.5 degrees centigrade prior to the middle of the century the polar icecap is going to melt. Those are all real things and they're all going to happen if we continue in Mr. Trump's view that this whole thing is a hoax made up by 2,000 scientists who were probably all on the take anyway.

Where will the Republican Party be ideologically after Trump in your imagination?

I think it'll be the same place it was before. I think the Paul Ryans of the world, maybe not the speaker personally, but his ilk, will come back into command of the affairs of the Republican party. I'm one of those who thinks when Trump goes⁠—whether it's by removal before November '20 or during the election of November 2020⁠—the next day Republicans in leadership positions all over the country are going to wake up and say, "Did that really happen? That four years? Holy cow. I really must've tied on one last night because I just can't imagine this. Was that a bad dream or did that really happen?"

Where will the party be demographically after Trump?

I don't know. I hope it's a little bit more dispersed than just in the deep south. Obviously, not if they continue the assault on women. These reproductive rights laws that give greater rights to rapists than they do to women are really way out there. And when you think about it, the two huge issues of the deficit and climate change are both guns aimed squarely at the heads of millennials.

Can the party survive without Donald Trump? Will it survive?

Well, no, I'm not sure it can survive. Among other things, if members of the House and Senate cling to Trump and all the issues and through the impeachment, and into the '20 election many, many of them are going to lose their seats. You'll have a Democratic majority in both houses. Maybe even a comfortable majority and then there will be much pointing of fingers, and I've been saying for some time that I think the Republican Party may split into two. That happened to their predecessor, the Whig Party, which split into two in the 1850s over the issue of slavery. But the southern pro-slavery faction became known as the know-nothing party and what characterized them were violent anti-immigrant protests, conspiracy theories, and violent rallies. They were forerunners of the Trump movement. And the other half joined John C. Fremont the Free Soilers in the election of 1856 and then went on four years later to elect Abraham Lincoln President of the United States. I think that could happen again and maybe the better angels of our nature wing, maybe it wouldn't even be called the Republican Party. Maybe it would be called the Unity Party, or the Liberty Party and I'm not saying that would be a bad thing for the country.

Now, let's move on to the Justice Department. You resigned in the 1980s, over Attorney General Ed Meese's issues with the Wedtech scandal and you were quoted as saying, a "poison gas" was spreading through the department from his legal troubles. What do you make of Attorney General Bill Barr right now, and his activist role as attorney general vis-a-vis this president under investigation?

Well, something has happened to Bill Barr. I knew him in the good old days. He was a strong lawyer in the private sector and a more than reputable attorney general. But the worm began to turn when he submitted that unsolicited memorandum in June of 2018 to the Justice Department plainly auditioning for the job of US Attorney General. In it, he said that the power of the president under article two of the constitution is absolute. The thesis and the theses expounded by or embraced by Bill Barr recently are nothing short of the divine right of kings, It's "this man can do anything" and the president picked this up soon after Bill Barr came to town saying, "I have an Article Two, which means I can do anything. I have an Article Two." He may not even know that the Article also describes the duties of the presidency. He didn't read the duties part because the duties part says, "The president shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed." I think Barr is way out there.

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Republican presidential candidate Bill Weld speaks during a visit to the Iowa State Fair on August 11, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Regarding impeachment, you have said that you think Republicans are quietly saying that they aren't against it. Can you be more specific?

I'm talking about the Senate and those numbers are still small. They're three, four, five. But as former Senator Flake of Arizona has said, if you put it to a secret ballot in the Senate in this GOP caucus you wouldn't have 20 votes for removal, you'd have 35. I don't think the caucus appreciates it, and I don't think Mitch McConnell appreciates being ordered to walk the plank. The question is how to get the practical effects of a secret ballot. One way would be let's just take a spot quiz. Everybody write down what they think on a piece of paper, give them to Mitch. The problem with that is then there are pieces of paper and people feel exposed just participating in the exercise. Mitch already damn well knows that what's on their minds. And I think if Leader McConnell had to pick, faced with widespread party dissatisfaction with what the President's doing to the Senate caucus, he would tilt toward the Senate before he would tilt to saving the president at all costs.

What happens if Trump wins in 2020?

It's going to get much, much worse. Steve Bannon has said publicly, "If Trump is re-elected you're going to see four years of unrequited payback." And one reason why I'm arguing now that the Senate should remove the president from office on the basis of evidence already produced is that if they don't⁠—and if he gets away with it so to speak⁠—he will be doing that with every foreign power in the world between now and November 2020, to make sure they all interfere in the 2020 election in his favor. It might be impossible to avoid that election being rigged.

Your strategy reportedly is all in New Hampshire. You're hoping the Democrats will register as undeclared (voters) and jump party.

I'm focusing on New Hampshire in particular, but in reality I'm focused on all 24 states that permit crossover voting. That's because it wouldn't serve me to spend all my time barking up the tree of the Republican state parties and the...Trump diehards. They're not going to come my way. But there's a universe of potential voters out there. I think all women, not just suburban moderate women, but all women. I think it's hard for the millennials and the Gen Xers to vote for someone who's policies so obviously fly right into the face of their interests. In New Hampshire, I moved 28 points in one month on Mr. Trump. I went up 11 and he went down 17. If that happens two more months in a row⁠—and I've got two months⁠—then I would be at 51%.

What do you think about Bloomberg jumping in with his $30 million to advertising?

I'm a big fan of Mike Bloomberg. Know him well from New York City. I wish him all the luck in the world in that primary.

Could you vote for him if he gets nominated against President Trump?

Oh, in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat. I would vote for virtually any Democrat in the final against Donald Trump.