WASHINGTON — There is a comically large Darth Vader action figure on the table next to Congressman Justin Amash’s desk. It’s one of the first things he put on display after he recently moved offices. You can’t miss it: the face of the Evil Empire staring you down as you interview the congressman from Michigan’s 3rd District.
The Vader toy was a birthday gift from one of his staffers, and Amash thought it would be funny to have in his office the way other members of Congress have busts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. It’s just one of the many ways Amash, an intellectual misfit in the halls of Congress, is unlike any other politician in Washington.
Amash, 39, has never quite fit in on Capitol Hill. A libertarian who got elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, he’s spent his time in Washington angering his Republican colleagues with his unflinching opposition to mass surveillance and big-government spending bills while chiding members of both parties for not living up to their constitutional duties. Last Fourth of July, he declared “his independence” from the only political party he’d ever known, the Republican Party, and became the only independent in the House of Representatives.
Today, Amash sounds more liberated than ever. He’s running for re-election, operating outside the two-party structure. He’s also one of President Trump’s most articulate Twitter critics (if there is such a thing).
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Rolling Stone caught up with Amash, a longtime critic of unchecked military spending and interventionist foreign policy, soon after Trump’s approved killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani via a drone strike. We talked about Congress’ war powers, runaway defense spending, and whether he’d serve as an impeachment manager.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s your view of the decision to kill Soleimani via drone strike and the evidence (or not) provided to justify that strike?
It’s always the case that a president can take action that is defensive. So the question is whether this was defensive action or offensive action?
We had the administration officials come in. They didn’t present any real evidence to indicate to any of us that there was an imminent attack that warranted the president’s action. They didn’t have any real answers. They were condescending. When people would ask for information, they’d say things like, “Well, you can read it.”
Read it where?
In some classified documents. But then they couldn’t tell us whether those classified documents would even be made available to everyone.
We have to make decisions on behalf of the American people, and we need the information. Our system is not designed to have one person in charge of war. The administration, like past administrations, acts as though the framers of the Constitution didn’t consider these issues. They considered all these things. They understood that at times it might even slow some action; it might cause us to deliberate more than you’d have if one person were in charge. But they decided that was a good outcome for the American people.
What have you heard either online or in person in your district about Trump’s decision to order the drone strike?
I think the respective sides are retreating to their own corners. The people who really like the president are going to say, “Go for it.” The people who are upset with the president are going to say, “Hey, slow down. Congress has to be in charge.”
These positions would be reversed if you had a Democratic president. I witnessed it when you had President Obama. You had the opposite result. There’s usually a small group of fairly principled people on this issue, on each side. But that’s it — beyond that small group, people usually switch positions depending on who’s in charge.
Why has Congress gradually abdicated this role in terms of war powers?
It’s consistent with rank-and-file members abdicating almost their entire role. On ordinary legislative matters, most members of Congress don’t think anymore. They just follow whatever they’re told by their leadership. This is just a more extreme version of that. There is not a strong incentive — at least not a strong political incentive — to take a position. They prefer to have the president decide these matters and then they can later say, “Yeah, I supported it,” or, “No, I opposed it,” without actually having to take a vote and go on the record. It prevents them from ever having to take responsibility for whatever happens.
I think a lot of members of Congress are used to that lifestyle and they like it. They don’t want responsibility. They want the job, not the responsibility.
This is a bipartisan problem. President Obama had his own assassination list. How can the parties say they’re committed to the Constitution and let this drift happen?
I don’t think they have a strong political incentive to address it. You also need a president who’s really interested in addressing it. It’s easy to just blame Congress and say, “These presidents have no responsibility. What are they supposed to do when Congress doesn’t act?” But it would be very easy as president to set it before Congress that you don’t think these authorizations are appropriate or valid. If you don’t get appropriate authorization, you don’t feel you have the power to engage in particular conflicts. It would be easy for a president to say that and force Congress’ hand. The president’s responsible just like Congress.
Did you take President Trump either seriously or literally when he campaigned on reining in military spending or endless wars?
I was always skeptical but hopeful. I never thought that President Trump really believed deeply, frankly, in any particular policy. It was pretty clear his positions were dependent on how it benefits him. I thought maybe he would find it personally beneficial to end some of these wars.
But the opposite has happened. If anything, he has expanded endless wars. There are more troops in the Middle East now. Military spending has increased. Drone strikes are up despite what people think. I keep hearing Republicans talking about Obama’s drone strikes, but drone strikes under Trump are at a higher rate.
He hasn’t been good on war issues. He hasn’t been anti-war or even cautious about war. The people who have been constantly parading that — that Trump is some kind of hero who will end wars — they’re either deceiving themselves at this point or they know better.
The wars are not ending. In a lot of ways, they don’t seem to be going better.
Yeah, Afghanistan deaths are up.
The Taliban, by some measures, controls more territory now than at any point since we invaded. And yet the only response that’s palatable in Washington is to spend more on the defense budget. Why is that?
There are a lot of factors. I think one of the factors is that Democrats who are in tougher districts often think that the way to distinguish themselves as bipartisan is to be really tough, from their perspective, on war issues or intelligence issues. In other words, it tends to be the case that when Democrats are in charge there’s also a large group of Democrats who are in tougher districts who want to prove themselves to Republican constituents that they’re not always with the progressives or Democrats on the left.
So it’s actually more difficult to rein things in when the Democrats are in charge. That’s been my view of it. It’s more likely to happen when Republicans are in charge because you have fewer of those Democrats that are in that position, and I think Republicans tend not to view that as such an important distinguishing factor in closer races as much as Democrats do.
Do you see any indications that now is any different in terms of maybe looking at the AUMFs in a real way? Maybe clawing back some responsibility with war powers?
The speaker has indicated that she’s willing to look at these things, and that’s a positive sign. I don’t see how that goes anywhere in the Senate under Republicans, and I can’t imagine the president giving up powers.
I don’t know whether it will be addressed. I’ve talked to some Democrats. You get pushback from the ones in the tougher districts. If anything, they tend to be the ones who are least concerned about reining in war powers. They view that as the kind of thing that will distinguish them in their more Republican district. The message they’re trying to send is: Look, I’m not a far-left progressive. I’m tough on terrorists.
Changing gears, how are things going as an independent? I see you raising money online and pitching people on the independent move.
I have strong support in the district. I feel like the support is stronger than ever.
What have you heard in the district lately? What are the things that have surfaced?
When people talk to me, they often talk about character issues or thanking me for standing up for what’s right, or the disagreement, if they have one, might be over impeachment. I think it’s more on people’s minds than a lot of people will admit.
Both impeachment and character of the president. You’ll hear from members of Congress, particularly those who are in the tougher districts, they’ll tell the media, “Oh, no, impeachment’s not an issue — nobody talks about impeachment.” Or, “Nobody really cares about the president; they care about this issue or that issue or the other issue.”
I think that’s just not right. It’s possible they’re in very screened environments. In other words, they’re going to town halls and they’re not doing town halls the way I do it where I just call on anyone and you can say whatever you want. They are having someone go around and pick up questions from people and then sort the questions and then a moderator asks them the questions and they’re like, “Oh, wow, only one question on impeachment out of 10.”
And then they come back to D.C. and they get asked on CNN what’s going on in their district, and it’s “Oh, nobody’s talking about impeachment.” I spend a lot of time in the district talking to people, whether it’s at town halls or just traveling the district, being out and about in the community. I run into people all the time, and I think people care a lot more about character, integrity, doing the right thing than they do about the particular issues.
Most of the public is paying some attention to politics, but not a lot. They’re busy. They’ve got other things going on. What they really take away from their elected officials is: Can I trust this person? Does this seem like a person who is standing up for convictions or is this person just bowing to political pressure all the time from the White House or congressional leaders or lobbyists or whoever it might be?
On impeachment, there was a little bit of chatter about you being a manager possibly. [The House managers act as prosecutors in a Senate impeachment trial, arguing the case for why the president should be convicted.] Is that going to happen?
It’s not something I’ve requested. It’s something I’ve been approached about. I’ve relayed through Democratic colleagues that if the speaker’s interested in that, I’m happy to have a conversation. But it’s not something that I independently brought up.
You’re not lobbying for it?
No. But I’m happy to have the conversation.
No conversation with the speaker has happened?
Not yet. And it’s possible she’s waiting to see what the Senate rules are and have an understanding of which members she’d want to have. Obviously, if she wants to have that conversation with me, I will have that conversation with her. I’ll take it seriously.