Just a few hours before Donald Trump’s joint session address to Congress on February 28, I interviewed Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) about the President. Beyer represents the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, and he has been one of the more outspoken critics of the Trump Administration. Our interview covered possible citizen action in the Trump era, impeachment, government cuts, immigration, and attacks on the media.
Geoff Livingston: What's the best way for people who are dismayed by Trump to focus their attention right now?
Don Beyer: It's a good question because in almost every meeting that I'm part of, people are crying out saying, "What can I do?" I was at a little dinner last night with a bunch of guys my age — my history book club — and even these guys were asking, "What can we do?"
It's been very difficult to come up with concrete answers. I try to answer at least three ways:
Number one is there is nothing to keep us from living our lives well now, to making these bigger differences in our community maybe in ways that we never thought about before. So joining the non-profit board, doing direct action through non-profits, where there is the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the school. Every person that we lift up or every family that we help is an investment in the right direction, making our society healthy and whole again. It doesn't necessarily thwart Donald Trump policies or get him out of office any faster but at least it helps us.
The second thing I've been strongly urging is political action. We are in this position because we lost elections and we lost a lot of elections at the state and local level in 2010, etc. Look at how many general state assemblies that we don't control as Democrats.
Hillary got three million more votes but Trump won the electoral college, so this is the way the game was played in 2016. We have to come back and I think exercise our political action. There is room, there is so much debate right now about what should be the Democratic party message.
We also realized that maybe demography isn't destiny but there are so many voters who only voted in 2016 that won't show up in 2017 when the State of Virginia house is up. 2018 when U.S. House and U.S. Senate are up again. If those people can be motivated to vote ... Or look at 2016, look at the Democrats who voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections that didn't show up in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, which is very meaningful. So doing direct political action is very important.
The third piece is trying to hold Donald Trump and the Republicans as accountable as we can. It's difficult because we have 194 Democrats in the house and there are 241 Republicans, and 52 and 48 in the Senate, but that doesn't mean we don't try. Last night for example, Bill Pascrell from New Jersey, introduced a privileged resolution to demand that the Ways and Means committee will look at Donald Trump's tax returns.
Unfortunately it was defeated, pretty much a party line vote. There was a fair number of no-votes, people that didn't vote. That's actually slightly encouraging. Either way they didn't want to cross the party, but they also didn't disagree with us.
There will be many more initiatives to come, we've signed on every piece of legislation of every letter that tries to uncover what happened with Russia. Clearly, we want an independent by-partisan commission to discover what the Adam Schiffs, the Mark Warners of the world that sit on the intelligence committees cannot tell us, the citizens of the world, what's there. The looks of consternation on their faces, their brows...
GL: Is impeachment practical right now?
Don Beyer: So, on impeachment, in the short run it's not an important tool because the facts on the table have to say that there is an impeachable offense. I don't know if there is or not, it certainly is incredibly concerning and disconcerting that this is the first president in decades and decades not to put his tax returns out. Because of his global business interests and because of how sweet he has been to Putin and Russia through the past year, it just seems like ... It doesn't make sense unless there is something in the tax returns that would suggest there was a connection.
Survey after survey, the American public wants to know what's in there. Even people that voted for him want to know, they don't want our government to be corrupt and they don't want our president to be corrupt.
GL: It's interesting that every time a story about Russia comes out, it's almost like there is a doctor hitting Trump on the knee with a little hammer. He reacts and attacks the media, calling them fake news and attacking the media’s credibility. How do you feel about the 4th estate right now and how that's under siege?
Don Beyer: I think that Donald Trump is the best thing that's happened to the 4th estate. I am just thrilled with how the Washington Post, The New York Times, and many others ... I have been reading the papers, which are just coming back incredibly strong.
First of all, we know that this is the first thing that dictators and authoritarian leaders do is destroy the press. As a former state department official, the first thing we do in trying to bring democracy to countries that are trying to emerge from authoritarianism is ask for a free press. We say there needs to be some kind of balance and accountability in your country.
But it's interesting because clearly whenever he feels threatened he attacks. Rather than defend himself, he attacks the press.
GL: The classic bully, right?
Don Beyer: Exactly, when someone speaks truth to power, he just slaps him down. He just slaps him down rather than answering the criticisms in a meaningful way.
GL: A lot of people who live in our district are actually government workers. There is a sense of depression, a sense of dismay, a great sense of fear about being a federal employee right now. What would you say to people that are in public service right now?
Don Beyer: Well, what I would love to be able to say is, "Don't worry it will be okay," but I don't think that's honest. Just look at the budget that he is rolling out right now, we haven't seen the concrete downside, all we know is he's going to bump up defense a bunch, and take [budget] away from other parts of the government.
What's been suggested is that the national endowment for the arts will disappear, the national endowment for the humanities, the IMLS, the libraries, science, public broadcasting, OPEC, it just keeps going. They are now talking about the head of the EPA transition team wanted to cut the EPA by two thirds. The rumor we have [the cuts] right now is say 24% [for EPA], and 37% is the latest on state.
So this is crazy. There are already — not to bad-mouth military band members whom I respect — but there are more military band members than foreign service officers.
Now you're going to cut state department by 37%? That's just crazy. We need more diplomats to build world peace and create relationships rather than fewer. Then with the Holman Rule which gives members of the House the ability to pick on [individual employees] and cut [their] salary to one dollar or eliminate [their] other five staff members in an appropriations amendment is just terrifying.
We know that the Gingrich plan is about to be rolled out. It will get rid of the federal pension system and replace it with a 401k , which actually already exists, and lots and lots of federal employment at will. There is every reason to be terrified as a federal employee, really [more so than] in the history of the Civil Service. This is a terrible time.
So we, and not just me but I think every Democrat and even a few Republicans will be fighting back against this and we hope we'll be successful. I find myself very grateful that most things need 60 votes in the Senate which can be hard to get. I think the worst things will happen probably through executive orders rather than actually in the house itself.
GL: It seems like the new Democratic leadership with Perez wants an all out war against the Republicans. Is that more rhetoric to appease voters?
Don Beyer: Well, so far I still basically believe most Democrats want good government, they want government to work. We love our country, we are patriotic, we would rather Donald Trump be a good president.
But everything we have seen, first of all the way he treats women, the way he treats any opponents, the way he treats the press... This is not a person with any ability, any dignity, anything that's deserving of being characterized as the President of the United States or let’s just say a mature adult.
Then the big things he's coming out with — let's talk about repealing the Affordable Care Act — it is a disaster. We even spent three or four weeks now of passing congressional review acts to reverse incredibly important Obama rules on ozone, on clean air, on dumping toxic refuse in streams, on protecting old people from unscrupulous brokers, denying people that work 15-16 hours a week overtime. A lot of really good things that protected American citizens are being reversed under this Trump administration.
So please give us something we can agree with you on, then we'll work with you. But when it doesn't happen like that, then I think we need the Tom Perezes of the world to lead the charge on fighting.
Oh by the way, and the most important thing that at least we see in our district is not just the Muslim ban, but now the accelerated, aggravated, unfair immigration enforcement.
GL: If you're a minority of some sort or if you're Jewish, what do you do right now when you're targeted?
Don Beyer: As political leaders or as a political leader aspirant, you so much want to have easy smart answers for every question. I find myself humbly saying, "I don't actually know."
I do know what that means for me is that every person, every person, period, but certainly every person that seems to be vulnerable, it's incumbent on us to treat each one with respect, with gratitude. Lifting them up, trying to make them feel loved and appreciated despite what Donald Trump is doing.
And that we continue to speak out as loudly as we can against this legitimized racism, or legitimized xenophobia. It is immoral, and it is tragic. I think it's generally representative of the worst part of our civilization.
I spoke at a little Q&A for an hour with the kids at T.C. Williams High School yesterday, and it was a very diverse classroom. The kids were from every continent, many different languages, and there was a terror in the room about immigration enforcement. "When I come to school, will my mom be picked up while I'm at school, and I will come home to an empty house? Or will my dad be picked up and sent back and I'll never see him again?" Lots and lots of fear like that.
They would say to me, "Congressman, what can I do?" I would just say, "I don't know."
We're doing the Know Your Rights session, coming up in a week. We want to empower people with the best immigration law we can, but that doesn't necessarily protect people.
GL: We heard that you might like science fiction so obviously science matters to you. Do you want to speak a little about what's going on with science? Then tell me what your favorite science fiction book is.
Don Beyer: So I serve on the Science Committee, I'm actually the vice ranking member of the Science Committee. I run the Space Committee and ... it's actually, I love the committee, the work is very interesting. The unfortunate part is that the chairman who leads it believes that climate change is a hoax, it's not real, or if it is real there is nothing we can do about it. It's craziness.
Most of the Republicans, they hate the EPA, and the EPA is super science, political agenda. So there is denial of science and of peer reviewed studies. The respect for scientists that show up at almost every hearing is incredibly disappointing.
So I do see my role and the other Democratic roles there to be defenders of the sciences, to try and ask the intelligent questions and bring out the truth even from the majority witnesses who are usually two out of three or three out of four. I do think this is a long-term fight.
By the way, this is a committee that doesn't have to be partisan and science should not be Democrats versus Republicans. Even if in a private conversation off the record many of the Republicans would say, "Yes, I know this is real, I'm willing to do anything to support it."
So my favorite science fiction growing up was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
GL: Oh, no way, that's awesome. The Mule.
Don Beyer: Yeah, the Mule, and I've often compared Donald Trump to the Mule because this is the one off, it's something that history doesn't predict. The complete outlier, “grab women by the pussies” and still be elected president. Although Harry Seldon did predict the Mule. I was fascinated by that.
And as an adult, I think the thing that I've enjoyed the most the last 20 years is Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: Red Mars Green Mars, Blue Mars. I just love that terraforming.
In the second and third book, there was a leadership lesson that they had often used about ... I don't remember the character's name but he was running Mars sort of towards the end. He started off as a plant biologist and he would spend two years at the central headquarters doing leadership from the balcony, big picture strategic long-term thinking.
Then he'd go off in the field to live in a tent for two years studying the ferns. You need to be able to look at it on the micro level, and then you look at it in the macro level. If you can do both, you had to be much more effective leader.