Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Michael Steele

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele who says President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Flynn transcripts reveal plenty except crime or collusion 50 people arrested in Minneapolis as hundreds more National Guard troops deployed Missouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' MORE's statement that anyone who wants a test can get one is not true, and he lauds Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries Don't move the COVID-19 goalpost Overnight Health Care: Sewage testing gives clues of coronavirus | White House says Trump would take hydroxychloroquine again | Trump marks 'very sad milestone' of 100K virus deaths MORE for weighing in on health decisions.

Read excerpts from the interview below.

 

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Clemons: What are your biggest concerns right now with the direction the White House is going regarding reopening the economy.

Steele: I think the largest concern is the rush to make this something that it is not and that is putting this and shoving this it into a political context. Yes, we have a national election coming up in November, and we are, you know, in the midst of a primary season that's had its fits and starts, but the reality of it is 80,000 Americans are dead. Well, over a million have suffered with this virus, and we still don't have adequate testing in place across the country. Two percent of the American population has been tested. So, the narrative, again put into a political context, is what we hear out of out of the White House is, "oh, you know, anybody who wants a test can get a test." No, that's not true. You can only get a test under these guidelines — if you're sick or suffering from some form of the virus, you have evidence of that. But if you wanted to leave your home and go to a medical space to get a test because you have concerns, that's not the reality. And so keeping it real is important from my perspective, particularly when others seem to be wanting to contextualize this around how well the president is doing or not doing versus how well the American people are doing.

 

Clemons: What's happening inside the network of people around the president that the message that we need to be testing those who are not ill isn't penetrating?

Steele: Well, not only is it a powerful message, it is a correct message, because this is about how we go about testing the well. Remember, you're talking about a virus with a two week gestation period, a window in which over those 14 days you can infect a number of people. You may not show symptoms, but you are highly infectious. You can pass it on. So, to be able to test people to see exactly how this virus is affecting the body, and how it is mutating as we're beginning to see, as scientists are beginning to speak to, that it is changing given the environment that it is in. That is important information to get in front of the president. The problem is the president has his own mind of what this is and what it isn’t, and how it is functioning and how it is not functioning that goes beyond the science. Remember, this is the guy who somehow either read or was told something about disinfectants, and the next thing we know, the president is out there saying, yeah, we could probably inject people with disinfectant to deal with this. So if that's the mindset you're working with, when others come to the table with reasonable science and reasonable approaches, the president is not necessarily going to be inclined to follow that because, you know, it lends itself more to the outrageous than the normal. And that's a competing interest inside this White House right now, and it shouldn't be.

 

Clemons: If you were chairman of the Republican National Committee today, and the president said, "Hey, all we need is a little bit of Lysol and Clorox," and you were in a position of responsibility within the party, how do you navigate that?

Steele: Well, yeah, not easily. Not easily. Because my initial response would be oh, hell, no. We’re not going out supporting that. I'm not going to advise that I'm not even going to go out and give credence to it. So there would be instantly a loggerhead confrontation between the RNC that I ran and the White House that puts something like that out on the street. But it also speaks to the challenge that the current chairwoman has. You know her organization has been subsumed by the White House political operations and now the presidential campaign, so she has no latitude. Ms. Romney is not going to come out, McDaniel because she is not allowed to use Romney, is not going to come out and say what she believes in a political context is good versus bad advice to the American people. She's gonna take her marching orders from the White House, from the president's lead, and she's going to stick very closely to that. Remember, during the impeachment trial, she had to go out and condemn her own uncle because that was the marching order from the White House. She was not going to give Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats broaden probe into firing of State Department watchdog Coronavirus and America's economic miracle Former Romney strategist joins anti-Trump Lincoln Project MORE the latitude that any other senator would have in that situation to follow his own course. She hewed very much to the line and stayed true to that. And that would be the case here.

 

Clemons: What price is that? Because if you see things like that, people are willing to just sort of overlook reality, hasn't that created a real tension with how Americans are being asked to look at science and public health? How do you unravel that or get it back to a healthy place so that we're talking not to Democratic Americans and Republican Americans. We’re talking to all Americans about public safety.

Steele: Well, you're not going to expect that from a political party. That's just not how that's going to play out. You're not gonna have the party going against its president. We've seen too many times beforehand where a divergence was opportunistic and possible and they didn’t, going back to Charlottesville and then any number of instances subsequent to that, including what we've heard recently with respect to, you know, detergents. There was no pushback. And there won't be any pushback from the political establishment, and I wouldn't expect them so much to do that. What is expected, however, is other leadership, the senatorial and congressional leadership. They do have the means because they're a separate branch of government. And just because the president is of your party doesn't mean, as we've seen in the past, both Republicans and Democrats have taken a position different from their presidential leadership. ... The public needs their elected officials to be and remain honest brokers, particularly in a moment of crisis. In watching the testimony with Dr. Fauci yesterday, you know, and listening to this plaintive cry to open up the country from Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSecond senator tests positive for coronavirus antibodies Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Tim Kaine tests positive for COVID-19 antibodies MORE and others that, you know, somehow you're not an expert on everything, and Dr. Fauci had to respond I've never said I was an expert on everything, but I am an expert on the stuff I know, and that stuff is related to this virus. I'm not advising you to make economic decisions, I'm advising you to make health decisions. And so that is the difference here. And that is the expectation we, as the public Steve, have of our elected officials, regardless of their party, to set the partisan foolery aside, and to pay attention to what the scientists, and the researchers, and the doctors and the medicine are telling us we need to do at this time and injecting ourselves with detergent is not the prescription I think we need.

 

Clemons: Critique the Biden campaign. Are they adapting to the moment, or are they being confined by the moment?

Steele: Both. They are confined by virtue of the fact that there's no place to go. You can't have rallies. You can't go greet people at a subway stop. So, yeah, you're confined to a space, and they have adapted accordingly by reaching out through Zoom and other media to touch their base. The vice president is in an untenable situation in this moment, because he does not command and control the necessary instruments of government, where he can then speak to action and authority and taking steps. He can only react, like the rest of us in many instances, to what the administration does or fails to do. And so that puts him in a somewhat limited box. Now, to the extent that he is limited by those circumstances, as we've seen the public do still have high regard for him and his voice.

 

Clemons: I've got two questions for you. One, you're in favor of mail-in ballots and of seeing it roll out. I'd love to get the terrain, when you think that will happen. The second is, are the conventions going to happen? Are the Republican and Democratic national conventions gonna happen.

Steele: So, let's just do it on scale of importance. Holding a convention, mail-in ballots. Of the two, the most important thing that the government must do and must be concerned about, is making sure that everyone has unfettered access to the ballot box come November. Irrespective off the current state of play, as Dr. Fauci has reiterated over and over again, we don't know where we will be but what we do know is that when we get to the fall, we fully expect a reemergence of this virus, even if it scales downward over the summer, we expect a rescaling, a scale up in the fall. So governments, starting with the federal government, has to be serious about making sure we have access to the ballots this November. This election is not going to get postponed, folks. It is not going to be derailed. You can't sideline it. It is constitutionally mandated. So, it will happen. How it happens matters. And the states need the resources to make sure that every American can cast their ballot for the candidate of their choice this November. And that means putting in place the resources and the infrastructure necessary to do that. The Congress has allocated under ... the last stimulus package, $400 million of a requested $4 billion. Please when you’re looking at the next level of financing and stimulus four, please meet the financial burden that the states have to meet in order to make sure the personnel, the infrastructure and the ballots are there for voters to access. A convention can happen virtually. We can, you know, watch it from our Zoom screens. You don't need to show up in a big hall and stand shoulder to shoulder in order to urge on our candidate of choice. We, however, must have that availability in terms of the ballot this November. ... The president himself just received his absentee ballot, his stay-at-home ballot from Florida a few weeks ago. So, if it's good enough for the president to do it absentee, it is good enough for all Americans to be able to vote absentee this November.