Ep. 503 — Rep. Adam Kinzinger – The Axe Files with David Axelrod

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And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.

I caught up with Adam Kinzinger this week. The Republican congressman from Illinois was last on The Axe Files in January of 2021, shortly after the insurrection that rocked our democracy. But so much has happened since then, including his vote to impeach President Trump and his service on the January 6th Select Committee probing the insurrection that it was time to speak with him again. Here’s that conversation. Adam Kinzinger, it’s good to see you again. You know, I don’t have repeat guests on this podcast a lot. This is your third time in part because you always manage to end up in the middle of everything. So I always want, I always have more questions for you. And I do want to talk about your journey from regular Republican to hated apostate within the Republican ranks. But before we get to that, there’s, you’re back. The January 6th committee is back in business. I know you guys were working all summer behind the scenes. So tell me, first of all, tell me you had eight hearings, I think eight hearings before the summer and during the summer. What, in the broadest terms, what do you think that we learned and where do you go from here?

Yeah. Hey, by the way, it’s great to be with you for the third time. I enjoy it, fellow Chicagoan you know, but look on the committee I, we all when, when I went into this whole process you know I didn’t know what to expect. Obviously, there was a lot of information we had to learn. There was, you know, so much going on. But one of the things that I came out, I hope we were able to put that out in our different hearings and we’ll be able to surmise that when we have another one, is that Donald Trump wasn’t a hapless bystander in all of this. He wasn’t just along for the ride and other people were kind of doing these things on his behalf and he was just golfing. I do think it’s kind of interesting how people try to say that, you know, Trump sometimes is so he’s such a strong leader, but then they also defend them by saying he doesn’t know what’s going on. What I’ve come to realize through those hearings and I hope the American people can see this is each one of those areas, whether it’s pressure on state officials, pressure on the vice president, pressure on DOJ, you know, 187 minutes of actively resisting for the first time in his life, peer pressure to stop the violence, you know, actively making that decision. He was deeply involved in this. He knew what he was doing. He knew what the pressure would do to the vice president. He knew when he told the DOJ officials to just say if the election was crap. Look, I don’t I don’t the DOJ to go out and prosecute this for me, I just need you to put the stamp of corruption on it. And then me and the Republican congressmen will do the rest to undermine democracy.

Can I just interrupt you for one second on this? Because it struck me when I was listening to that testimony, which was stunning testimony in a way that I had heard something like this somewhere once before. And it was during the first impeachment of Donald Trump and the message that he gave to President Zelensky, which was just announce a probe and we’ll take care of the rest. Just announce a probe and we’ll take care of the rest. And I actually thought of you because you voted against that impeachment. Was that a sign of something that you should have paid more attention to? And do you regret that?

Oh, yeah. I mean, look, I you can always look back 12 years and say there’s different regrets, different votes. That’s my biggest. And, you know, at the time it was I’ll say to my shame, I guess, you know, you’re looking for a way out, right? It is tough to take on your party. It is tough to know you’re going to get kicked out of the tribe. And it’s tough to make a decision that you know will cost you your reelection. And so I was looking for a reason out. I mean, to be quite honest, there were moments where I’m like, I may end up voting for this first impeachment. And then I found a reason out. But looking back on it and seeing that pattern that exists, you know, his greatest strength is to be able to sow doubt. That’s what Donald Trump does really well. Yeah, if I could go back in time, I’d vote for it. And I probably would not have gotten reelected to this term. But yeah, that’s one of my biggest kind of moments where I look back and wish I could have done things differently.

I always say this about Trump. I mean, I disagree and, probably far more than you with some of his policies. But this isn’t about policy. It’s about the complete disregard and disdain for rules and laws and norms and institutions that really characterized his whole life, not just his career in politics, but when the president of the United States does it, it has graver implications for the country. And this has been a long term pattern of his of his behavior. So that’s what we and by the way, when you learn these things during the, you talked about this as kind of an exercise in discovery on your part when you were on this committee, were you surprised at times about what you learned? Did you or did you say, aha? I knew all along that he was behind this thing.

I was surprised a lot. I think most of the committee members were surprised a lot. Obviously, I knew he bore responsibility from day one. But to learn just some of the conversations, what again, what he knew, what his allies around him were willing to do and accept and, a little off what we’re just talking about with Donald Trump and sowing doubt. And then also with this moment, the only thing you need really for a democracy or self-governance to exist. You don’t have to agree on really absolutely anything except this basic compact that you’re going to vote and the votes are going to be counted and you’re going to live with the consequences. Right? When you start to undermine that and that’s what Donald Trump was doing his whole time, but especially leading up to the election and post, to convince half of the country that there is a deep state that’s not counting their vote, to take away that trust in whatever institution trust still exists. That is dangerous and that is not something that’s easily restored. And it’s in those moments that democracies fail.

Here is a reflection of how difficult it is, you know, I and I think many others found your hearings compelling and well-constructed and eye opening. I looked at a poll just this morning that was taken within the last or released within the last few days. And still 72% of Republicans say they think Biden is an illegitimate president. Despite everything that you have done, despite all of the acknowledgments among his aides that they told him that he had lost, you know, despite everything that’s happened, that is still the case. And, you know, I want to talk to you in a second about the chapter that happened while you guys were out, which was this FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in which all these documents were removed. I just saw a poll from Arizona where more people said they were more likely to vote for Trump in the future because of that search than people who said they were less likely. So what do you make of it? I know you’ve you know, you’ve created a PAC to combat tribalism, but, boy, tribalism seems pretty deeply ingrained.

Tribalism is deeply ingrained. And I’ve come to believe, because I’ve kind of lived it, that people and I think this is part of what goes to explain why some of the leaders out here, not the crazy ones, but the ones that are just silent are so silent. I think people in many cases fear, more than they fear death, they fear being kicked out of their tribe. You know, we’re tribal people by nature anyway. It’s evolutionary. But when all of a sudden the people that you love lose respect for you or basically divorce you over text message or whatever that is, that’s a that’s a terrible feeling. I’ve lived it. And and I think when you look at that kind of stuff, it explains why leaders don’t lead. And when leaders don’t lead and tell people the truth, you can’t imagine that the people that follow them, that actually look to them for guidance, that aren’t hearing the truth, are going to believe anything different. You know, if you watch Fox News and Fox News says the election was stolen and all the people you trust in Republican politics say the election was stolen, it’s very it actually says a lot more about the person that doesn’t believe it to then not believe it. And so that’s one thing. And I think the other thing that goes into that 72% number you’re talking about is if you come around and say, yes, Donald Trump was a bad leader, he was corrupt, all that stuff, in a way, you have to kind of come to terms with the fact that you acquiesced to that corruption in your support. And I think every one of those 72% of people that still think, you know what they believe, I don’t believe their kids will believe that. I believe that generation will be embarrassed by what their parents did. But it is hard to come to terms with the fact that you for five years supported a man that was absolutely, utterly unfit for the office. Because what does that say about you? And that’s where I’m not one of these, it’s like we need to have, we need to sit around, understand those that are undermining democracy. But I also think there’s got to be a way to just provide them an out, leadership, mental- I don’t know what that is because obviously I haven’t been able to, but we’re in a really bad place with that.

Yeah, well, I mean, I think that is one of the issues is how do you separate out people, how do you condemn Trump without sounding like and actually thinking that you’re condemning every single person who’s who voted for him? And that I mean, that’s a real challenge. That was, you know, one of the challenges for the in the speech that President Biden made on democracy and I think you probably commented on it, but, you know, it was, I think, easily cast among the people you’re talking about, sort of rank and file voters, as it was a condemnation of them, even with the disclaimers, the president included and it just speaks to the danger of this. One of the things you didn’t say, which is interesting to me, I think you’re quite right about, and you’ve lived it, as you point out, tribalism and how hard it is to break with the tribe. But you didn’t talk about power and the desire to stay in power, because you’re right that your colleagues and I think people in both parties, they don’t, they don’t want to be out of step with their their tribe, but they also don’t want to be out of a job. And and I think that becomes a very strong rationale for- I mean, look at look at your leader, Kevin McCarthy, who in the private councils of the Republican caucus was willing to say the president did a bad thing. And very quickly he was on a, hightailing it down to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring and make up because he understood that his power depended on on the tribe supporting him and individual members on whether voters support them in their primaries. So power has to be part of this as well, doesn’t it?

Yeah, I think power is a huge part of it and I think so. It’s a couple of things. Number one, when you get divorced from recognizing that your actions have a real impact and it becomes about the job, it’s easy to do that and I’ll get to that in a second. But the other point is, when your identity, particularly in politics, we, and this is a major flaw of people in politics, your identity becomes based on your job. Your identity is based on, I am a Congressman, not I’m you know I have the job of a Congressman, or I am a political analyst or whatever that is. And when you’re faced with losing that identity if that identical stripped from you, that’s that’s fearful and on the on the power side. So I got back from Iraq in 2009 and that’s, I basically announced I was running for Congress when I returned and I said this a few times in a speech and I, but I think about it constantly, which is we were asking 18 to whatever, you know, anybody in the war to be willing to die for their country. And we need that. We need people willing to die for their country. But if I, as a legislator am going to be willing to vote to send people to combat or to ask people to die, to be willing to die for their country, the basic thing I have to be willing to do is give up a career for the same cause. You have like, look at Iraq, look in Afghanistan, and you see legislators that are assassinated. We may have that threat soon, but we don’t have necessarily that, they’re taking brave stances. But how in the world can I worry about my job at the cost of democracy and the future of this country? We’re not talking about a vote on marginal tax rates. We’re talking about an existential vote and then at the same time shed a tear when I salute the flag because somebody gave their life for this country. And that has stayed with me from the very beginning. I don’t think what I do or what Liz has done is courageous at all. I think there is just so much cowardice out here that it looks like courage, you know, by default.

Yeah. You mentioned Liz Cheney, your colleague, who lost her her her battle for reelection by a very wide margin, which which tells you exactly how embedded Trumpism is in the base of the party. But she, apropos to what you said, you know, she had spent years in the State Department, and she said her job was to go and talk about democracy, to promote democracy around the world. And her point was, how how can you straight face promote democracy around the world if you’re not willing to stand up and fight for it at home? And I thought that was compelling. So the Justice Department has really accelerated its own probe of January 6th. We’ll get to the Mar-a-Lago papers in a second. And they seem to be zeroing in on two things. There may be more that we don’t know about, but one of them is the fake electors and the scheme to send fake electors to Washington on January 6th to help gum up the works and create a contest that would throw the election into the into the House. And the second one is about the fundraising that Trump did. And, you know, it’s not exactly new to Trump to, I mean, he’s been he’s had fundraising schemes long before he was in politics that were that were questionable, including Trump University and so on.

Exactly. But he raised a tremendous amount of money under the pretense that the money was going to go to support his legal efforts to undo the election. And most of them went into his pocket and still sitting there in his PAC. How much, based on what you’ve seen of what you know, how much exposure do you think he personally has on these two issues?

I think quite a bit. On the fundraising side, I, you know, I don’t know enough about, you know, specific- if you break a fundraising law, what are the penalties, those kinds of things. And I think, by the way, it’s a whole, I have come so far in terms of the idea of campaign finance, in terms of what this country needs to do, rules, all that kind of stuff. I’d love to have that conversation someday. But in terms of Trump’s exposure, look, the one thing I would tell you 100% we know is they extorted money. A lot of these are from senior citizens on a fixed income and Social Security, $10 at a time. By the way, those emails that you get are as doing as much to radicalize people as any news station to him.

He extorted money. Yeah, the extorted money under those false pretenses. And then on the area of the fake electors, this didn’t get a lot of attention. And we’re going to explore this a little more in the in the future, in the hearings I hope, Donald Trump I forget who was that actually testified to- is Romney McDaniel, I’d make sure to include Romney in there.

Oh I’m sure Mitt appreciates that.

I’m sure he does. I’m sure she appreciates me doing that. But, you know, she admitted that Donald Trump was on the call when there was a discussion of these fake electors. That gives some real exposure. Here’s the thing with the fake electors, it’s not just some harebrained scheme. The whole point of this was to basically give an impetus for the vice president for, you know, think about arguably to say, well, we have two electors, slates, we have a contested election. Therefore, this either goes back to the states which throws us into a constitutional chaos or it goes to the House because according to the Constitution, we don’t have 270. And of course, the House would vote for Trump because it was, we had like 26 states. That is real exposure for President Trump, I think, particularly because we now know he was on that call.

Mm hmm. He is conspicuously one of the people who you have not invited to testify before your committee. The vice president has not testified before your committee. There are members of the House who were involved in the machinations around January 6th who have not testified before your committee and have refused to testify before your committee. What are you guys going to do about any of that? Is that, is that going to, are you going to take any more action to try and compel testimony?

Well, it really comes down, so let’s take the members of the House first. There’s not a ton you can do. In theory we can refer contempt to the Justice Department. I’ll tell you, the Justice Department will not indict members of the House for refusing a House subpoena because they’ll say, as pretty much the courts have always held, the House has to deal with it own business.

That’s your problem, yeah.

Yep. And so they’ll be referred to ethics. That’ll be an ethics fight. Who knows what that turns into? I don’t expect those members of Congress to come in. I never did. In terms of the vice president, the president, it’s something we’re still grappling with in terms of, we know the president won’t come in. He may say he will, but then we’re going to end up in these back and forth with lawyers and maybe the same with the vice president. But we’ll have more, we’ll have a decision on that fairly soon. We’re going through these discussions, particularly with Mike Pence. But I’ll tell you, regardless of whether he comes in or not, we pretty much because of his team around him that has actually come forward. We know a lot.

Do you think they would have come forward if he hadn’t if he had encouraged them to?

I think they would have probably been less willing to. But a lot of these folks were are honorable. I mean, I disagree with that they, you know, propped up Trump for long enough. And by the way, look, I think the vice president did his job on that day. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him heroic. And I think I’ve been very disappointed in how he’s been completely unwilling. He could have been like the face of kind of the opposition in the Republican Party against Trump. And now he’s nobody. He’s going to be somebody that will not get the nomination and has not taken really a strong stand against Donald Trump. I don’t have a lot of respect for Mike Pence even after January 6th.

So what can we expect, Adam, from the next couple of I guess you’re going to do two more hearings is the plan. One in maybe this month and one in October.

What I think is logical to say at this point that even though it’s not been completely finalized, is something at the end of this month and then probably something when it comes to the final report being out to discuss about it. We’re still trying to decide on the next hearing exactly what the parameters of that. But I think it’s going to be important to both remind people what we already discussed, but also then to show Trump’s culpability and his knowledge in that, you know, those were eight very interesting hearings. Not everybody watched all of them. We need to remind them of what was in it, but also remind them that Donald Trump knew what he was doing. I think, you know, the tough thing about doing stuff like this, you ultimately hit a point where there’s information that you just won’t know. Dan Scavino is basically the Trump whisperer when it comes to social media. He refused to come in. The Justice Department, refused to, you know, indict him on that. So there’ll be information we don’t know. But I think what we put forward is more compelling than people ever expected, including us when this whole thing started.

Are you concerned about people, you coming in to summarize what you’ve learned and people saying, well, we saw this movie before. This is just a rerun. This is, and hence you open yourself up to the notion that this is a essentially a political exercise to try and influence the midterms.

Yeah, every time we go into a hearing, I’m concerned with those kinds of things. I don’t think it’s going to be just a restatement of what’s going on. I think it’ll have a unique flavor, an important flavor to it. But yeah, I mean, look, I obviously our detractors are going to say that no matter what we do. I do find it interesting, though, when we started this whole group of hearings in the summer, the Republicans had this whole plan of like a rapid response force for everything we said, and it immediately fizzled out because there was just nothing they could do to push back on it.

Yeah. Let me ask you a question. With the hearings have been different, did McCarthy make a mistake by not sending members to these hearings? Because honestly, you guys have basically produced and I don’t say this in a pejorative way, I think it’s been brilliant and I think it’s been foundation, it’s been founded in in in compelling testimony and so on. But you’ve basically been able to produce a bunch of two hour TV shows. You know, you hear Republicans say, well, that’s just partisan. And that was, of course, why they didn’t want to participate. They thought that would be a powerful retort. But you do wonder what it would have been like if they actually had had members who were there who were supporting Trump and were asking more oppositional questions.

Yeah. So two things. I like to tell my Republican friends that it is a very partisan set of hearings. We’ve only had a Republican witness that’s come in, you know, and I think that’s important. No, but I’ll tell you, the two best allies of this committee have been Mark Meadows, who turned over a treasure trove of text messages. And the second is Kevin McCarthy. So if you wonder what this would be like if Kevin had left his members, even if he appointed two new members or just left the three in after the two were pulled off. Think of the Benghazi hearings. That’s what this would have been. I mean, every subpoena has to go through a vote in a debate. Every, you know, this and that. It would have been it would have been a mess on television. So this moment, this hearing, this kind of committee probably has never existed like this before in history, probably, unfortunately, will never exist again. But this is so imperative. Kevin McCarthy did a great favor to the American people by pulling those folks off to allow us to just tell the truth.

Probably at the behest of Donald Trump, right.

Right. And then it’s funny because, as always, Trump threw him under the bus, if you remember, because he said we should have members, you know, besides Kinzinger and Cheney on this committee. And yes, I guarantee Donald Trump said, pull your members off, Kevin.

And you you’ve sort of indicated that you think Trump may throw McCarthy under the bus again if there’s a narrow Republican majority, you think it may be that Kevin McCarthy won’t be the speaker of the House come January?

I would actually love to see that.

No, I’m asking you to separate out your.

Yeah. Look, I think it’s quite possible, because here’s the thing I have learned about Donald Trump is he respects people, even if he won’t say it, that, like stick to what they believe. Like, I guarantee probably has a great deal of respect for Liz Cheney. He does not respect people that suck up to him. And you see that because everybody that sucks up to him at some point gets thrown out by Donald Trump. He just doesn’t have respect for them. And I think that’s his feeling on Kevin McCarthy. And I think if there’s particularly if there’s a narrow Republican majority, let’s say there’s five, a five seat Republican majority, it only takes five Republicans or six Republicans to come together, deny Kevin the speakership because they weren’t, let’s say, Jim Jordan, where they have this idea that Donald Trump can sit as speaker. Any of them can do that. And I know these Freedom Caucus members fairly well, and I know that they have no problem turning their back on him and they will.

What’s your relationship with your colleagues generally, I mean do you go to, I know Liz doesn’t go to the caucus hearings, caucus meetings. Do you go to the caucus meetings?

I haven’t been to a caucus meeting since they deposed her. And so my relationship with my, you know, I’ve I have my friends out here, generally behind the scenes still get along with everyone fairly well. I notice that a lot of members, I’ll call them more the mainstream members. They certainly they they have a, they bear a weight of shame, I think, by not speaking out. But I there is it’s definitely a little more strained than it has been.

Do you go out with, I mean, do they do they meet you places and come in with paper bags over their heads so people know who they are? I mean, do you maintain a sort of social relationships with people within your caucus?

Yeah, to an extent. We have we have a close relationship with all of us devoted to impeach Trump. You know, we’re kind of like birds of a feather, outcasts of sorts. In terms of everybody else, not as much.

Birds who are about to hibernate, I guess.

That’s right, that’s right.

Because most of you are leaving. But beyond the people who voted to impeach, which is a small group. Ten people. Do you have other relationships?

I do. You know, they’re more strained. There are some that it’s not strained at all. Right. It’s recognized this is kind of a professional point on this. But I don’t go out as much, for instance, in D.C. just because now with the security situation and everything and now I have a kid so I’m less likely to go out drinking as I was. But yeah, that’s definitely a little more strained relationship for sure. You know, I’m not going to come back here and lobby my colleagues, that’s for sure.

Let me ask you about the security situation, because, you know, we’ve all seen the reports. There was this horrific, oh, it was a Twitter death threat. Now, you shared it on Twitter. But the, that’s Sophia. That’s your wife. “You are one stupid” and the word was redacted. “That pimp you married,” that’s you. I assume, “not only broke his oath, he sold his soul. Yours and Christians too.” That your son. “Adam’s activities have hurt not only this country, but countless patriotic and God fearing families. Therefore, although it may take time, he will be executed. But don’t worry, you and Christian will be joining Adam in hell too. We find it blasphemous that you name the son of the devil Christian.” I mean, how much of a volume of these do you get and how big a worry is it not just for you, but your your family?

So we get an overwhelming volume in this. I you know, the ones that I’ve shared are the ones that basically I can share. I had one fairly recently that said he hopes my, keep in mind at the time six month old who’s now eight months, that he hopes he ends up in traffic and gets squashed by someone. I mean, these are the kind of things that my child. Right. Yeah, the people that call in threats are not the ones I typically worry about. What I worry about is those that don’t, right. If, when you have tens of millions of people that truly believe, I am, me and Liz really, are trying to deny the rightful heir to the throne, who’s God’s gift to the country, to the world, you know, his rightful place. You can understand why there’s real violent threats. And so I have security now, which I don’t like having. You know, if I don’t have security around, I’m usually armed where I can be I’m, you know, licensed to carry. So, yeah, it’s a it’s a concern. I don’t live in fear of it. My my wife is obviously a little more fearful than I am on it.

She didn’t sign up for this.

She didn’t sign up. Yeah, I probably should be more fearful. But the reality is there is, you know, I think it’s just a matter of time till we have a really bad situation. Think of the guy that shot up the, you know, Republican baseball game. You think of the people that have constantly said they’re going to hang me and other traitors and stuff. It’s not going to be long until we see a real issue in this country. And I tell you, to my fellow Americans particularly, let me say this to my believer friends, Christians out there that believe that somehow the Bible says, you know, you can love this guy that’s a complete disaster in terms of that that says he’s never had to ask for forgiveness and it’s okay to threaten death against somebody that stands in your way. You know a very different God than I do. And I certainly pray that your God’s not the real one.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. Talk to me about yourself. And I know you’ve started a PAC and this PACs been active. So tell me what your objective is with that, but also how you’re thinking about your life moving forward after January?

Yeah, I mean, in terms of moving forward, it’s I I’m actually pretty excited to get out of the house. It’s been 12 years now. As you well know, the Democrats gave me no choice to run again anyway. But that said, you know, after 12 years, I do think it’s time, like I was ready to go anyway. That doesn’t mean that my passion for politics has gone away, or for the country. So that’s where- country first kind of happened organically after January 6th. But now we have hundreds of thousands of members. And what we’ve been able to do on the political activation side, we came in against Madison Cawthorn. We came in on behalf of Brad Raffensperger, and we played in some state level races in Michigan. And what we say to people, because I think this is, if you look at Utah, for instance, and the Evan McMullin Mike Lee race.

Which is quite competitive.

Evan McMullin, for people who don’t know is is an independent running against Mike Lee, a Republican. There is no real Democrat, there is no Democratic candidate. And this is a nip and tuck race.

It really is. And the Democrats made the wise decision, mature decision to say we’re not we can put up a Democratic candidate. He’s not going to win. So let’s support the better, I’ll call him Republican, he’s an independent, he’s more conservative. And that’s what we were doing for instance in the Madison Cawthorn race? We said to these Democratic voters in his district, look, you are going to have a Republican congressman, period. You can either not vote in the primary or this is your chance to be part of the 11% of the country that picks their representatives. And so we got thousands to turn out and actually kept him from winning by a margin even less than what we turned out. We did the same thing with Brad Raffensperger in terms of avoiding a runoff, and that’s where I want to take this, too. On the broader sense, restoring conversations, doing politics again doesn’t mean you have to be in the squishy middle. Still believe what you believe. Do it respectfully. On the political side is getting people engaged where they can actually make a difference. And my new focus is secretary of state races, local county recorders, county clerks, those kinds of things to protect election systems.

So in the primaries, according to what’s online, at least, all of the money that you’ve spent has been spent for or against Republican candidates in primaries. We’re in a general now. You mentioned secretaries of state around the country. There are several states, Michigan and Minnesota and Nevada and Arizona, critical states where you have election deniers running on the Republican ticket. Will you actively support their opponent in those campaigns?

Yeah, and I’m going to do it in a rifle shot way. So one of the things I never wanted to do was get to a point where, you know, some of these organizations that they just pick a thousand people, raise money on it, maybe are successful. I want to find the areas we can be successful. And so if that’s a county clerk race in Maricopa County or it’s a secretary of state race in Georgia or elsewhere, yes, I will endorse a Democrat over a Republican without thinking twice about it. And even in some of the what, I would call ideologically partisan areas, if you have, you know, an election denier running for governor, I’m not, personally I am not going to do it in all the races because then it’s kind of meaningless. But finding the areas where you can make that impact. Yes, absolutely. Because democracy is at threat. And frankly, we can continue to argue these issues for the next hundred years that we’ve been arguing for a hundred years. But we have a limited window to defend this republic.

Let me ask you, you know, it’s interesting. Polling shows large numbers of Americans believe what you said, democracy is at threat, but then you divide, when you look inside the poll, there are people who believe what you just said and then there are people who believe that the last election was fraudulent because of, you know, massive cheating across the country. And that is a threat to democracy. And because of that, by the way, states where there are Republican legislatures have passed a whole raft of voting laws, some of which, you know, are clearly intended to restrict participation. How do you, I know you’ve in the past, you’ve you’ve probably sided with your party on some of these election issues. How do you view what’s going on around the country using the last election as a impetus to tighten voting laws because of fraud that didn’t happen?

Yeah. So in terms of kind of where I stand with the party, I’ve evolved particularly in the last year because it’s like, look, some of them some of the things Democrats may be pushing I don’t agree with necessarily in terms of federal control or this or that, but in seeing what’s being done elsewhere, it’s like, okay, well, this is the best option then to be able to defend- so let’s take like, you know, for instance the Georgia laws there were some bad things, some of it was overhyped, some was legitimate concerns. What bothers me as much as anything is the fact that those were done, yes to restrict voting, but also as a wink and a nod to their base to say, yes, the election was stolen. And here in the state of you name it, we’re going to do something about it, even if they don’t say it outright, further undermines trust in the election, further intimidates people from showing up to vote. And and so, yes, I mean, I think it’s been it’s been disgusting to see if you have large amounts of voter fraud, go after it. But I haven’t seen evidence of large amounts of voter fraud. Frankly, the only evidence I’ve seen of voter fraud have typically been Republicans that have pulled two ballots and voted.

Yeah, and it isn’t for lack of trying to find it. This is probably the most scrutinized election in American history. Part of the, you mentioned the Georgia law. And, you know, to me, one of the most egregious pieces of it was not so much the voter suppression elements of it, but voter nullification elements of it, the ability for the legislature to essentially discharge local election officials. And this, you know, when you think of it in the context of the 2020 election, what happened after is is is really concerning. And now you have the Supreme Court about to decide a case about whether state courts can provide any relief or whether the legislature rules supreme in cases of elections. Given what you saw in 2020, are you concerned about that?

I really am, yeah, I’m- so if you go two years ago when we thought our institutions and our elections were kind of invulnerable, like our concern was Russian disinformation, not bad actors within our own system. If I look back at that time, it’s like, yeah, I can see the point in saying, let’s keep state control, states supreme. But now I’ve seen what people’s intentions are. I’ve seen these legal experts like Eastman try to pick apart little pieces of the law and try to convince states to say, throw out the will of your voters. Because technically, yes, a state legislature could just decide to send all of Trump’s electors, if Illinois was run by Republicans, in theory, the Illinois legislature could say, we’re sending Trump’s electors, even though only 30% of states voted for it. So, yeah, I’m very concerned because we don’t we’re not dealing with honest actors all the time anymore. And that’s when something’s changed. When people have have now said it’s all about power and not that basic contract, we have to think of things very differently.

I was asking you about your relationships with with Democrats. I mean, with Republicans in the House. This is an unusual situation where you and Liz Cheney have been working closely with this panel of Democrats, some of whom I’m sure you’ve tussled with in the past in really serious ways. I mean, Schiff was a big target for Republicans and still is. I mean, McCarthy has pledged to throw him off of his committees if if Republicans take over the House. How’s that gone? How’s, what what what has that experience been like, working so closely in such a high pressured environment with colleagues with whom you have had significant differences in the past?

It’s been pretty amazing because, you know, I always, for the most part, got along, the people I don’t like in Congress are the ones that I just don’t like their personality or many members of the Freedom Caucus, but mainly because of their personality, too. You know, I get along with people that are nice and whatever. And so that’s been an interesting experience. Anybody from Zoe Lofgren to Adam Schiff, you know, to Stephanie Murphy, more moderate. We all get along well. We all have made it a very big effort to avoid the things that divide us and focus on at this moment, the things that unify us. I think that’s come through in our hearings. And I think, I hope it’s a broader lesson to people in general, which is, you know, one of the tough things about being in the position I am and I think one of the things that shows or somebody like, for instance, Elise Stefanik went off the rails. She used to be fairly independent, she does something to defend Donald Trump. She looks at Twitter. All the Democrats say, gee, we thought you were something, you’re no different than blah, blah, blah. Republicans praise her. She picks that tribe and picks that side.

Well, beyond which, isn’t it also true that she probably divined that she was in jeopardy in her own party primary if she didn’t, sort of the Lindsey Graham principle, you know, I’m going to survive by going for full-out Trump after having been a moderate. I mean, she literally sat outside the door of Josh Bolten, the chief of staff for George W. Bush, and was a young aide to him and came to Congress as someone who is viewed as a moderate. Now, she looks to me like someone who may be scheming to replace Kevin McCarthy. If if Trump and the Freedom Caucus decide that he’s expendable.

Yeah, 100%. And and I also, she fancies herself the potential vice presidential candidate for Trump. I think she’s probably right in that. I think there’s a good chance he picks her. And so it becomes all about that power. But to the broader extent, like, I mean, Twitter is not real life, but it has some reflections of real life. And if I go and I vote on the floor for something that’s Republican or conservative, all I have to do is look at Twitter and see the bajillion comments of, we thought you were something different, right? I didn’t get rid of what I believe. I’ve evolved in a lot of things, but I haven’t changed what I believed. And I think that’s what the committee, I hope, is a good lesson to people, which is, you know, for the sake of democracy, we put some of our differences aside.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about a couple of things here. One is, what did you think when you heard about the FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago and what they found? I mean, you’re someone who you’re not unfamiliar with classified documents. You’ve spent many years in the military. You know what what highly classified documents mean in terms of the lives in the field and and so on. Were, A) were were. Well, just tell me. I don’t even want to color it. Just tell me what you thought. And did you have any inkling, obviously, probably not, that this was a possibility?

No, I didn’t have an inkling. I, I think daily of the fact that if I would have done a quarter of what he did, I’d already be behind bars. Even as a member of Congress, I if I’m in a skiff, which is where you go, look at classified stuff, I don’t even take notes. And I think if you do take notes, you’re not allowed to take them out.

Not not to mention, of course, the material itself. So that was that. It was interesting when they raided his place, I said to a few friends and I was serious. I go, I wonder if he had some nuclear stuff there, because for them to take it as seriously like that. And it turns out whatever this is he did. And I think could it be, you know, what they’re trying to say, oh, he’s just hapless and caper. Maybe maybe it’s an exercise in narcissism. But I also think there is a real possibility he had that, as you know, leverage for the future. And unfortunately with how he is, it’s not an unthinkable possibility. And so I think he’s in real trouble.

When you say leverage for the future, that sounds like a euphemism. What is it a euphemism for? Did you think that he was would would sell them or. Well, I mean, what exactly do you think he would do with them?

Well, I don’t know. But I if you told me that, you know, and again, please be clear, I’m not leveling this accusation.

But if you told me that, look, Donald Trump intended to either sell that information or use that information with the Russians or with the Saudis or whatever. I wouldn’t find it that unbelievable. Knowing what I know about Donald Trump, because I have learned one thing about him. He literally is incapable, incapable of thinking of anything besides himself and how stuff impacts him, even when it comes to the greater good of the country. So if he thinks he can get some benefit, it’s not unthinkable. The best thing I can say for him is he kept it as an exercise of narcissism. But then when the government calls and says, you know, you have all this stuff, that’s a good time to give it back. And he didn’t. And I, maybe we’ll know exactly the motivation behind it, I don’t know.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. Let us talk about Ukraine, because you’ve been outspoken on that from the beginning. And I know it’s something you care deeply about. There’s been this very dramatic turn of fortunes there in the last week. How are you viewing this? And do you think that this is in fact, a turning point? And how do you think this unfolds from here?

Let me first off say it is amazing to me to watch a country fighting for its land, fighting for freedom, and then to watch so many people here at home desperate to do everything they can to throw freedom out. Right. And to throw democracy out. In terms of Ukraine itself, in this particular counter-offensive. This is definitely a huge turning point in the war. You look back towards the end of the summer when they started to get HIMARS, which is like not even our best artillery system, by the way. But the Russians couldn’t counter it and they started blowing up these Russian supply depots. And you saw the Russian obviously attacks subside because they were running out of equipment. This I think, this counter-offensive surprised us in terms of how successful it is. I think it surprised the Ukrainians in terms of success. I think it surprised the Russians. It’s not the end of the war, but it is a much better position for Ukraine to be in. So where does it go from here? I think you’ll still see continued fighting, particularly in the south. You’ll see the Russians, see if they can, you know, respond and have a counter-offensive of their own. I think it’s a little harder. We’re going to see the intrigue of what happens with Vladimir Putin and Russia. But I think we also are going to potentially see Russia try to actually negotiate a solution. And the key here is they want to divide Europe from Ukraine and they want Europe to get to the point where they say, okay, good. You proved a point to Russia. Negotiate. Ukraine has to negotiate from the starting position of, get your military out of here, give us our land back and we’ll negotiate. And they have that position and that leverage. Now, it’s been amazing to watch, but we have to as a country, as a Congress, the president himself, not let up on being the arsenal of democracy because the 20 billion, 30 billion, 40 billion we end up spending in Ukraine is a drop in the bucket of what we would have to spend if we had to fight Russia and we would if they would have taken over Ukraine.

Do you see any indication of, other than the sort of Tucker Carlson caucus, do you see any indications of weakening of resolve in the Congress or on the part of the administration?

I don’t. I actually will say that I was critical-ish of the Biden administration at the start because I thought as Russia escalated, they were simply matching Russia. And I was like, we have to exceed Russia.

You wanted a no fly zone, correct?

I did, yeah. Yeah. I think, though over the summer, something happened in the Biden administration where they realized they had to exceed Russia’s escalation. They finally realized that, you know, the saber rattling of nukes wasn’t wasn’t as serious of a threat. And when they gave HIMARS and they started, you know, equipping with artillery, that was a massive turning point. There’s still more to do, but I don’t see a weakening of the resolve out here, at least yet. Now, let’s keep in mind, if the Republicans take Congress next year, you know, right now, 99% of Republican congressmen don’t believe the election was stolen. We’re going to have a lot of new Republican congressmen that actually truly believe it and they buy into this Tucker Carlson, Russia is somehow the defender of Christian values, even though they rape and murder people. So it’ll be a little concerning, but I don’t think you’ll ever see that bipartisan coalition in the near future break.

You mentioned the nuclear threat. You hear some people say they’re concerned that if if Putin feels cornered, that he could use a low-level tactical nuclear weapon. Is that a legitimate concern?

I think it’s a legitimate concern, but it’s a concern that if he uses it, typically Russia, Russia’s own military doctrine is they only use it if they fear that their homeland is actually on the verge of being invaded. The reason he would use it is with the belief that if he used it, the West would back off, would back off. If we make it clear that we won’t back off. He won’t use, look, he’s not suicidal. He also doesn’t want to provoke NATO because he can’t even beat Ukraine. So, yeah, the threat is there. I don’t want to minimize it. But what we learned during the Cold War is Russia threatens nuclear weapons a lot and they don’t use them. And we cannot we cannot wither in the fear of that because that only encourages future nuclear threats if it works.

Last question on this. Putin is meeting with Xi of China as we speak. How big a concern is that? You know, I had Henry Kissinger on this podcast was the last guest I had before we broke for a little summer hiatus. And no, I’m not working my way through the alphabet by going from Kissinger to Kinzinger. But, you know, he talked about the effort that he,3 and the reason that they opened up this dialog with China was because they wanted to keep China from forming a common cause with the Soviets. That that was a concern. How concerned are you about driving China and Russia together in an alliance? And what what what are the implications of that?

By the way, quickly, I’ll say, John McCain, I used to travel with him overseas one time in Hungary. He introduced me as Adam Kinzinger, Henry Kissinger’s nephew, jokingly. They all believed it. And after that meeting, I was more popular than John McCain anywhere. So I always thought that was funny. In terms of the alliance, I am concerned. I mean, I, I think it’s it’s it’s still a big threat, as it was even before Ukraine, Russia’s stature has been diminished. I would I would not want to be Vladimir Putin in that meeting because I’m sure Xi didn’t want him invading Ukraine. He’s going to try to get Xi to bail him out. I think right now Xi will be under pressure to do that because of that whole alliance. So yeah, I do worry that it drives them together, but I think despot’s are, you know, destined to be driven together anyway. And the best thing we can do is instead of acquiescing to some phantom fang out there we think may drive them apart is to actually unify the West in terms of our resolve and our streak. And I think President Biden, to his credit, has done that.

Let let’s finish up by coming back home here. We’ve got an election in eight weeks. What is your sense? You’re a pretty good gut level politician and you are working around the country. There’s been a lot of talk about the shifting fortunes of the Republican party from four, three, four months ago when you know this was going to be a walkover. What do you see happening out there?

Yeah, I mean, standard caveats, everything changes in 60 days.

Well, and if we if we haven’t learned that this year, then than we should we should be out of the prognostication business completely.

I agree. Look, if I had to guess today, I still think the Republicans take the House. Not by a huge margin, I, just because it’s so close as it is right now and all those, you know, things out there and the president, the team in power, all that’s working against the Democrats. Obviously, the abortion issue is is going to do way more to motivate Democrats. That’s working in their favor. I think the Senate is going to be very tough for the Republicans to win because we put up election denying insane candidates. And so I think for Republicans, the best case scenario they can hope for is they have the House. They, if they have the Senate, they’re barely going to have it, won’t be a functional majority, but probably more than likely the Republicans’ll have the House Senate will be with the Democrats and the presidency will be with the Democrats. You’ll have divided government. That’s what I predict. But, you know, Democrats may end up surprising people. There’s a lot of energy right now.

And if the margins in the House are, we talked about the implications for McCarthy, but even if he is speaker, what is that caucus going to be like and how much is he actually going to be able to do?

Nothing. He’s not going to be able to do much. Look, back before we had all the crazies here, just some crazies. You know, every vote we took, we had to somehow defund Obamacare in a, you’ll remember, right when we took over it was we need to do the omnibus bill, but we’re not going to vote for it because it doesn’t defund Obamacare. That’s going to look like child’s play in terms of what Marjorie Taylor Greene is going to demand of Kevin McCarthy. They’re going to demand an impeachment vote on President Biden every week. They’re going to demand things like, you know, let’s make abortion illegal in all circumstances on this omnibus bill. I think it’ll be a very difficult majority for him to govern unless he just chooses to go absolutely crazy with them. In which case you may see the rise of the silent, non-existent moderate Republican that may still exist out there, but I don’t know.

And then we turn the corner in November to 2024. And right now, I looked this morning, I think that Trump was favored for the nomination by something well, certainly over 50% of Republicans with Governor DeSantis in the high teens and others trailing far behind. As you say, we shouldn’t forecast 60 days ahead. We certainly shouldn’t forecast two years ahead. But if people look at Mar-a-Lago and say, yeah, that makes me more apt to support him, isn’t it sort of logical to assume that Trump is the frontrunner now? And if you had to predict, you’d say he’s going to be the nominee of the Republican Party?

Yeah, I think so. I think, I don’t think Ron DeSantis runs against him because I think DeSantis goes, well, look, I can run in four years then I don’t want to tick everybody off. You’re going to watch all these people kissing Donald Trump’s backside like they did in 2016 on the debate stage because they thought he was going to be a flash in the pan. They wanted his endorsement. I think if Donald Trump decides to do it, he’ll be the nominee. Including probably if he’s indicted, for goodness sakes. So yeah, I think that’s where we’re at and that this is a lesson to the Democrats in 2024, whether it’s Joe Biden or whoever, put up somebody that is actually agreeable to most Americans and not a radical, because you may end up with President Trump again.

And do you see a third party, not a third party, but an independent candidacy because, you know, this is a big parlor game, kind of like, who would that favor? Would that help Trump or would it hurt Trump? And, you know, there’s a good body of thought that says you put in and Adam Kinzinger, for example, just to throw a name in at random as an independent candidate for president, you’re creating a waystation for a lot of Republicans and independent voters who would grudgingly vote for a Democrat against Trump, but there wouldn’t be enough of them to elect Adam Kinzinger president.

Yeah, we have a system that is so biased against third parties that I think we should have a long term project in how to get more parties involved, how to lower those barriers to entry. Because I do think we’re in a so divided moment that another party would be beneficial. I don’t think an independent candidate could win and I think an independent candidate. A look at the hardcore Trump supporters. You can’t pry them away. You may be able to pry away soft Democrats. I think it reelects Donald Trump.

Mm hmm. And when you say a third party, do you think that is something that could be organized between now and 2024?

I don’t think it can be organized between now and 2024, you know, short of lightning striking and some massive shift. But I do think if you look to ’28 or ’32 and you begin to actually do the process of how do we lower those barriers to entry? You know, in Illinois, you can run as a Republican or a Democrat with whatever. For Congress, for instance, with 800 petition signatures. If you want to run as an independent, you need like a quarter million in the district. It’s impossible. Those are the kinds of things that that, you know, people interested in working outside the two party system should be working on now.

Mm hmm. And is that where you’re going to devote some of your energy?

I think I’m going to certainly be looking at it because I still would love to repair the Republican Party. I don’t think that’s in the cards in the near future. So, yeah, it’s like, what is it going to be that is it going to be just teaching people to have uneasy coalitions in the center right and center left, whatever that is, something’s got to go.

Adam Kinzinger, it’s always a pleasure to chat with you. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you for your service. And even though you say it’s not courage to do the right thing, that’s not exactly true. This is a difficult environment, and you’ve exposed yourself and your family to a lot of heartache to do it. And I know you’ve spent a lot of years in uniform and you’ve taken an oath and you take that oath seriously. Thank you for that as well. But we’re at a very difficult time for this country. You’ve stood up and deserve a lot of credit for that. Well.

Thank you. And I want to say to you, too, you know, you’re obviously a Democrat, but you’re a you’re a fair player. And, you know, watching you now in this kind of part of your life, since you were like, you’ve always been good at understanding the conversations between the two sides. And you and I have been friends even before all this moment. So I thank you for that. And keep doing what you’re doing.

Will do. Thank you. We’ll talk soon. Thanks.

Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Allyson Siegal. The show is also produced by Miriam Fender Annenberg, Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN, including Rafeena Ahmad and Megan Marcus. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uchicago.edu.