Libertarian Nominee on the Koch Brothers and Being a Trump Alternative

Gary Johnson wants voters to know he's neither Trump nor Clinton — and that's why they should vote for him

Former Republican New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is expected to be named the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee next weekend. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

The day Ted Cruz dropped out of the Republican primary, Google searches for "Gary Johnson" went through the roof. Johnson, the pro-pot former Republican governor of New Mexico, took home one percent of the nationwide vote as the Libertarian candidate for president in 2012. This year he thinks his chances are much better. 

On Thursday, Johnson — still the presumptive nominee until the Libertarian Party convention in Florida next weekend — announced William Weld, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, as his VP pick. Could two Republican governors set to be on the ballot in all 50 states be the white horse #NeverTrump-ers have been praying for? Maybe not: A recent Fox News poll has Johnson at just 10 percent, not enough to even get into the general-election debates.

Rolling Stone recently talked to Johnson about why he's suing the Presidential Debate Commission, rumors about being supported by the Koch brothers, and how he sees his role as a third-party candidate in a two-party system.

You said at a recent Libertarian debate in Las Vegas that you got your "ass kicked" in 2012.
Yeah!

So what's going to be different this year?
Well, I think with the announcement today of Bill Weld as the vice presidential pick for the Libertarian Party, I think that I could actually win the presidency. Now, don't get me wrong: The only chance a third party has of winning the presidency is to be in the presidential debate, and right now that possibility is very, very real, and it starts with Hillary and Trump being arguably the two most polarizing figures in American politics today.

Your campaign is suing the Presidential Debate Commission, which puts on the debates, to include you — is that right?
Yes. The Presidential Debate Commission says that you have to be at 15 percent in the polls to be in the presidential debates. I have never had an issue with being at a certain level in the polls — my issue has always been being in the polls. On Wednesday, for example, Fox had me in a national poll at 10 percent. Monmouth had me at 11 percent in a national poll against Hillary and Trump. 

If Mickey Mouse was the third name in a presidential poll, Mickey would be at 30 percent, because Mickey is a known entity. But Mickey is not on the ballot in all 50 states, and, if I'm the Libertarian nominee, I'm going to be the only one to lay claim to that. You could have all the money in the world, but starting today, you would not be able to get on the ballot in all 50 states. 

Speaking of having all the money in the world, I saw a report saying David Koch committed "tens of millions of dollars" to your campaign. The report cites a source within your campaign. Is it true?
Well, I have no knowledge of it. I have no knowledge of being contacted by David Koch.

You know, if the Kochs do come in [and financially support my campaign], it will probably be as a super PAC, and there's just no transparency in super PACs. That's one of the issues that I have with campaign finance. To me, all of this should be transparent, but currently it's not. [With a] super PAC, you have absolutely no control, you don't even have knowledge of who they are or what they are doing. But, in this case, I would have to think that it would be a positive as opposed to a negative, given that we are so far behind the eight ball [in terms of fundraising].

Have you ever met David Koch? I know he has a history with the Libertarian Party.
I have not. Of course, he ran as a VP with the Libertarian Party with Ed Clark, but since then the Koch brothers — I mean, I've never talked to them, I wouldn't know them if I saw them, but, as reported, they gave up on the Libertarian Party in lieu of Republicans. Huge. Huge!

Everything I'm saying is relative — I'm coming off of one percent [at the polls] in 2012. [In my campaign] we're all slammed, I mean, we are slammed beyond slammed. My Google hits have gone up 5,000 percent. I just gave [press secretary] Joe Hunter a call, and his mailbox is full. When the news hit that Bill Weld was running for vice president, my phone did not stop vibrating for 15 straight minutes.

Would you say all of that interest is from Republicans?
No, not at all. For the most part, supporters. Now, "supporters'" — are those Libertarians? Are those Democrats? It's the whole spectrum.

I ask because I know you and Mr. Weld were both elected governor as Republicans.
I've always identified myself as a Libertarian, from the very inception of the Libertarian Party. That was not ever reflected in my registration. I was a Democrat in college. I voted for McGovern as a Republican. When I actually started to make money, the biggest issue for me was big government and that it spends too much. But Bill Weld, he's always self-identified as a Republican-Libertarian.

One of the criticisms of Mr. Weld is that he was for the invasion of Iraq. Is that something you two discussed?
No, it isn't, and he is not alone in that category either. There were so many who did. I think it was a mistake — a big mistake — and I think the military intervention had an unintended consequence of making things worse, not better.

You stepped down as CEO of a cannabis company, Cannabis Sativa, Inc., before launching your campaign. Can you tell me a bit about what drug policy would look like under President Johnson?
I've always advocated the legalization of marijuana. I think that makes the world a better place. On the medicinal side, marijuana products directly compete with legal prescription drugs — painkillers, anti-depressants — that statistically kill 100,000 people a year. [Meanwhile, there have been] no known deaths from marijuana.

I am not Donald Trump. I could have all the money in the world, and I would not gold-plate the seat belts on my jet.

And on the legal side, I have always maintained that legalizing marijuana recreationally will lead to less overall substance abuse because people are going to find it such a safer alternative than everything else that's out there. I have never advocated for the legalization of any other drug, although I will say that if we legalized all drugs tomorrow, the world would be a much better place. But the world isn't ready for that. That's just a plain and simple truth.

[We have] the highest incarceration rate in the world — well, that's the [fault of the] Drug War. Black Lives Matter: at the base of all that is the Drug War. The militarization of our police forces: that's the Drug War. The fact that tens of millions of Americans are convicted felons in this country who, but for our drug laws, would be tax-paying, law-abiding citizens — it has just wreaked havoc on all of our lives. And that's not to discount the problems with use and abuse, but 90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related.

Let's talk about guns. It's a big issue for many Libertarians, but it's not listed as one of the chief issues on your website or in campaign ads. Is it a big issue for you, or no?
I've always offered my support to gun ownership and the Second Amendment. Always. Is it something that I talk about? Actually, I never talk about it. So, I guess, draw your own conclusions.

Do you support any laws that would restrict gun ownership?
I do not. And I get why people do. I got into hot water in the libertarian debates over the question, "Should you, as the Libertarian president, be open to a discussion on how you take weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill?" And my response was, absolutely you should be open to a discussion. I mean, my goodness. But I have not heard any suggestion [of legislation] that actually accomplishes that. The [legislative] suggestions that I end up hearing, I could see myself being denied ownership of a weapon because I am not going to qualify under the litmus test that is being established.

I want to ask you about being a third-party candidate in a two-party system, and how you grapple with the impact your candidacy has on the race. Do you worry about tipping the balance in one direction or the other — being a deciding factor the way Ralph Nader was in 2000?
Well, first of all, in the polls that I have been in, I actually take more votes away from Hillary than Trump, but at the end of the day I think that it is going to be really 50-50. It's going to be Hillary the liberal and Trump the — well, Trump is, I don't know what Trump is, actually, other than I happen to be 180 degrees [from him on] just about everything that comes out of his mouth, starting with immigration and then free trade, tariffs, killing the family members [of terrorists]. It starts with Mexican immigration, and the fact that we're going to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants. That's just crazy. That we should build a fence across the border. That's just crazy. That [Mexican immigrants] are murderers and rapists. They are the cream of the crop; statistically, they commit less crime than U.S. citizens. That we're going to bring back waterboarding or worse, or "whatever it takes." He's all for free trade, but in the next sentence he says he's going to force Apple to make their iPhones in the United States. You saw the interview with Chris Matthews where he said, "Yes, we should punish the woman for [getting an] abortion?" [Soon after] he clarifies, says, "No, no, the doctor, that's what I mean."

And now he's saying women who have abortions would "punish themselves."
Yeah. I'm not Donald Trump. I am not Donald Trump. I could have all the money in the world, and I would not gold-plate the seat belts on my jet.

Does it weigh on your conscience, then, that you could theoretically push the election in his favor?
No! Not at all. I don't think anything changes under Hillary. The military interventions that are occurring right now in the world have a basis in Clinton politics. She has orchestrated this. Government growth: under Hillary, government is going to get bigger, and it's going to tax more, and ultimately, that's an erosion of freedom. I have issues on both sides. And when 50 percent of Americans right now are declaring themselves as independents, where is that representation?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.