CLEVELAND — Sen. Mike Lee is mystified that Republican delegates would vote to limit their own power.
The Utah senator, still not ready to endorse Donald Trump as his party's presidential nominee, was on the losing side Thursday of an effort to empower delegates to block the New York businessman on the convention floor.
Lee was the highest profile supporter of the proposal to change Republican Party rules that automatically bind delegates to the winner of their state's primary or caucus on first ballot on the convention floor, and allow them to vote their conscience.
Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh offered the measure in the convention rules committee, where Lee also served as a member. Its passage was a crucial element in the strategy to derail Trump's nomination being pursued by a cadre of rebel delegates.
The amendment was defeated overwhelmingly, while at the same time, proposals to strengthen binding rules were approved. Lee lamented that those twin results would weaken the party and not do any favors for Trump or future Republican nominees.
Following the vote, Lee spoke to the Washington Examiner about his continued apprehension about Trump and his concerns that delegates who opposed the conscience clause were damaging their own cause — not to mention the power of the party to chart its own course in future elections.
Lee, who made up his mind to vote for the conscience amendment a few days before arriving in Cleveland, said his email box continues to be inundated with delegates and others who agree with him on this issue. This interview, conducted Thursday evening, was edited for length and clarity.
Examiner: What was your reaction to the process? There wasn't much debate.
Lee: The process was very abrupt; very rushed, much more so than I anticipated; very, very little debate which I thought was unfortunate. The result, obviously, was one that I was disappointed in. I can't say that I was completely stunned by the ultimate result given what we'd seen throughout the day. But I was disappointed — I was disappointed because it was a missed opportunity.
Examiner: You came into the rules committee supportive of the conscience clause proposal. Why?
Lee: When I first started looking at it, I really wasn't sure how I'd turn out on it. I did not approach this from an anti-Trump standpoint, and so, heading into it, I wasn't sure at all how I would come out on it. My initial reaction was, we've got to be careful not to nullify the primary election process. I don't want to do that. And, my support of it is entirely consistent, I believe, with at least my understanding of the important role of the primary election process.
I see there being two hoops that a Republican presidential candidate needs to jump through in order to get the nomination. The first hoop involves winning the primaries, winning the requisite number of primaries. And, the second hoop involves the convention, and you have to jump through both hoops.
Examiner: You view the primaries and the convention as two separate but equal tasks the nominee needs to accomplish.
Lee: Yes, both equally important. And the convention is of course influenced by the primaries; the delegates should always be at least honor-bound, conscience-bound, to follow the outcome of their state's primary election. But I think they also ought to retain some voice, some right to go against that under extraordinary circumstances, if they think those are present. If they can't in good conscience cast that vote, they'll have to be prepared to face the people they represent back home and explain to them why they're going to go against the vote of their home state, and I think most delegates — the overwhelming majority of them — would view that as something that couldn't be undertaken for light and transient reasons.
So, most of the time, anyone who jumps through the first hoop is going to get through the second hoop. And in fact, in recent memory, for the last 50 years, it's been virtually automatic, almost every time other than maybe '76. This time it's not working out — by the time we get this close to the convention, most presumptive nominees have won over the delegates overwhelmingly, such that there's basically unanimity, or at least very strong consensus, supporting the presumptive nominee. We're not there yet. But that's an indication that he needs to work on it.
Examiner: What more does Trump need to do?
Lee: There are some grassroots activists out there, some conservative grassroots activists out there who would like to hear more about what he's going to do, who would like to hear more about more about his governing, political philosophy. They'd like to hear more about the role of government, how he views things like the Article I project. Somebody asked him about that last week in the House, and his answer is now famous — and that didn't exactly alleviate the kinds of concerns I'm talking about. He could alleviate those if he could just embrace federalism and separation of powers as pillars of his campaign. And I'm not talking about a one-off speech here.
I'm talking about a sustained effort, where he says, look, there are these twin, structural protections in the Constitution, one says govern locally, and we call that federalism. The other one says, each branch of government does its own thing, we call that separation of powers. But we've drifted dangerously from both of them in the last 80 years, and I, Donald Trump, if you elect me president, I will change that. I will fight every day I'm in office to restore these structural limitations on government.
[That] would at once win over grassroots conservatives, and it would also win over a whole lot of other people who are just freaked out by him partly because they don't know him and partly because he's got this larger than life personality and partly because he's made statements that cause people to wonder whether he's really familiar with constitutional limits on government and on presidential power. He could do it.
Examiner: Where are you at this point when it comes to endorsing Trump?
Lee: I still don't know him. I'd like to know more about what he stands for. I have to say, it didn't help me when somebody asked about the Article I Project and he came out with that answer the way it was. But look, I'd love to be proven wrong on that. I'd love to discover that Donald Trump is just this huge federalism and separation of powers fanatic. I feel strongly that those things are essential to who we are as Republicans and what we need as Americans.
Examiner: Would Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana being selected as Trump's running mate assuage some of your concerns?
Lee: Well, we'll have to see how that rolls out. Let's suppose that they make that announcement, they roll that out. I don't know. There's nothing about a VP pick itself that necessarily convinces anybody — that wins somebody over that hasn't been convinced. But it could lead to things that, themselves, could help.
Examiner: Finally, the convention rules committee amended GOP rules to strengthen the binding of candidates and reduce the power of delegates to nominate candidates. What about that?
Lee: I've become a big believer in conventions. I think they're a good place for candidates to explain what they would do if elected. And, within our system in Utah, delegates have a lot of discretion; they're elected for that purpose. It ends up being a pretty good process.
Having delegates strip away their own power and having the rules committee strip away the power of the delegates to the convention that's about to start, is very unwise. It's very unwise from the standpoint of the presidential frontrunner himself — the presumptive nominee himself, because he's showing up to be designated as the nominee by these delegates, and he and his campaign are telling the rules committee to strip away their power. That's not a good signal. And I don't think it's wise for delegates to strip away their own power.
This is not going to help him with those delegates he has yet to win over.
Examiner: You think it makes Trump look weaker?
Lee: I think he could have won them over; I think he still would have gotten the nomination. I think he probably would have gotten it overwhelmingly and won over a lot of skeptics. But I think this make it harder to win them over.
When you offend that many [delegates] by saying, I'm not going to let you have discretion — I'm going to let you pretend to be a delegate, but you're going to be like that car ride at Disneyland, where you're driving the car, you can move that steering wheel a little bit but ultimately you on a track and the car's going to go where it's going to go no matter what. You put them on that Disneyland car ride track — that's kind of offensive to them — and it's not smart. He could have won them anyway.