Sometimes, in politics, truth is stranger than fiction.
As a cub reporter at Mother Jones in the late Nineties, I wrote an article about novels by American politicians called “Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” reviewing a noir thriller by former Republican Gov. Bill Weld of Massachusetts. Called Mackerel by Moonlight, the page-turner features hard-boiled prose that still make my ribs hurt from laughing: “They turned around like deer in the headlights. Deer who had also been shot.”
Today, Weld himself is the protagonist in a plot that 20 years ago no fiction editor would have greenlighted because it would have strained all bounds of believability: A former New England governor launches a Kamikaze 2020 primary campaign against a corrupt Republican president who is accused of bedding porn stars, dangling pardons for his henchmen — and may just be a Russian asset.
In our democracy’s only-too-real present-day crisis, President Trump is refashioning Republicanism into a cult of personality. And Weld, for one, is having none of it, insisting the Party of Lincoln can’t go without a fight. “I am going to rage against the dying of the light,” he tells Rolling Stone. Weld says he’s trying to uphold the principles of integrity, decency and fairness that first attracted him to public service in the GOP of the 1960s.
In prosecuting the case against Trump, Weld, 73, has relevant experience. He was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, and he later ran the criminal division at the Department of Justice under Ronald Reagan. No stranger to national campaigns, he stood as the vice presidential candidate on the Libertarian Party ticket headed by fellow-former GOP governor Gary Johnson in 2016. The pair won more than 4.5 million votes, a record for that party.
Now laying the groundwork for a 2020 presidential bid as a Republican. [Update: Weld officially declared his candidacy on April 15th, 2019.] Weld believes he can unseat a president he likens to a character out of the Stanley Kubrick horror film A Clockwork Orange — a “crazy clown.” Weld launched his exploratory committee in February, and started polling at 8 percent against Trump — with another 30 percent of Republicans saying Weld could win their votes.
It’s good to finally speak to you. I reviewed one of your novels 20 years ago.
There was a line in there about a femme fatale: “Jerry was pure plutonium, and I still wanted to have kids…”
Yeah, that’s Mackerel.
You’re a storyteller and a student of mythology. I don’t know if it’s a Herculean or Sisyphean task to be taking on a president who has nearly 90 percent approval in the Republican Party. What is motivating you to do this?
I don’t calculate the odds starting out. I’m in this because I think I can do the job starting Monday. And I think the guy who’s in there now cannot do the job. He’s got some skill sets, but they seem to be devoted to burnishing his brand and not to helping the United States.
In foreign affairs, he warms up to dictators and despots and insults our allies. The prime minister of Canada — [Trump] called him “weak” and “stupid.” He said we don’t really need NATO. Vladimir Putin, on his best day, could not have hoped to get a U.S. president to denigrate NATO and praise Viktor Orban, who seems to want to take Hungary out of the Western orbit. Domestically, I was rated the most fiscally conservative governor in the United States by The Wall Street Journal. President Trump has not vetoed a single dime of spending, and we’ve added $2 trillion to the debt.
There’s a couple of things that I think have been good: I favor the tax cut. I never met a tax cut I didn’t like. And I think both the Supreme Court nominees are highly intelligent. I applauded both of them. Other than that, I think the priorities are just all wrong in Washington.
We’ve seen an elevation of racism and white nationalism under Trump. That’s long been an undercurrent of Republican politics—
Not really! Not really—
Think of George H.W. Bush’s run and the case of Willie Horton, from your own state. There’s been an element of that. But Trump brought it to the surface here in an extraordinary way.
It’s disgraceful. The Trump campaign circulated images of George Lincoln Rockwell, who is the founder of the American Nazi Party. And then it would quickly go offscreen. But the white supremacists who had seen them, the Nazi sympathizers, they damn well knew who George Lincoln Rockwell was. That whole campaign, in retrospect, looks like one big dog whistle; it was almost a clandestine campaign.
Are you surprised that you’re the first, and so far only, Republican who’s looking to unseat Trump in 2020?
I’m very surprised that I’m the only one. There are plenty of capable office holders in the Republican Party, and I bet you there’s a couple of dozen of them who, like myself, think they could do a better job than the incumbent. But it’s partly a miasma of fear that I have seen before in Washington D.C. And it’s partly whistling past the graveyard and saying, “I’m happy, happy, happy.” And partly it’s just not being willing to say that the emperor has no clothes. And this emperor does have no clothes!
As Andrew McCabe said, Trump may not be a Russian asset but he might as well be. He seems to have taken off on multiple fronts in exactly the direction that is most calculated to destroy the interest of the United States. And yet, he’s our president. Now that’s not something I’m going to sit still for, and I’m very surprised that so many other people are sitting still for that.
Are they afraid of the forces that Trump has awoken in the party? Why is everyone so cowed?
I think it’s partly fear. The title of the Bob Woodward book about the Trump presidency is Fear, quoting the president as saying, “The most important thing is to be feared.” And it’s partly also that in Washington people care a lot about getting re-elected, which means drawing the sharpest possible contrast between the two parties, and demonizing the other party so that your base will be incented to give you a lot of money that will pay for TV ads so you can get re-elected.
Until a little bit ago, you were part of the Libertarian Party, and ran on that ticket in 2016. How do you reassure GOP voters who are less flexible in their party identification?
Mr. Trump, and this is not an indictment, had been a New York City Democrat most of his life. My principles have never changed. I’m the same guy who said in 1992, at the Republican convention, “I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom.” Those are absolutely my principles. I did run with a fellow former two-term Republican governor on that ticket in 2016, but I’m basically a lifelong Republican who always tended toward the liberty side of the Republican family. When I re-registered as a Republican, after three years as a Libertarian, I was not rejoining the Know Nothing wing of the Republican Party, which is the Trump wing. The Whig Party, when it split in half in the 1850s, the pro-slavery wing became the Know Nothing Party, and the other wing is the party that elected Abraham Lincoln four years later. I rejoined what I hope is the party of Lincoln.
You had a career in the Justice Department. How do President Trump’s attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department more broadly sit with you?
It’s probably issue number one. This president is well beyond anything President Richard Nixon ever did in terms of attempts to undermine the rule of law. In Nixon’s case, he said on one occasion — tell them, he said to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, tell them that it’s [a] national security [issue], so that they should squelch this Watergate investigation. That was one investigation.
This president has shown complete, contumacious disregard for any notion of the rule of law. His motto seems to be 180 degrees away from the motto of the Justice Department, which is to do justice without fear or favor. And he’s been very plain about this. Dangling pardons in front of people who may be testifying about him behind closed doors. A pardon is an official act. And if he gets something in exchange for dangling that pardon — like, for example, Paul Manafort or another witness pretending that they’ll help the prosecution, and meanwhile reporting back to Trump and his lawyers — they’re getting something of value in return for offering an official act. There’s a word for that, and it’s bribery. Bribery and obstruction of justice are not far from the surface here.
Do you think the Democrats should be moving forward on impeachment? The indictment you just laid out is stark.
I think that biding time for now is probably the better course, the better part of valor. Impeachment is hedged around with politics. It’s a political remedy; it’s not a criminal remedy. There’s no punishment for being impeached and convicted and removed from office. But under Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution, such a person does remain liable to indictment, prosecution and punishment under the ordinary criminal laws. It says so right in the Constitution. So that could await the expiration of Mr. Trump’s term.
You talked to the New Yorker about pitching yourself to funders. Who in the Republican orbit are you speaking to?
I don’t think I want to bring down the world on anybody by naming them. But I think we will be adequately funded.
It seems like there’s an opportunity for a grassroots-oriented campaign here too. Do you have something like that going?
There are restrictions on what I can do during the exploratory period, in terms of asking for money. But we have that very much in mind. It’s all digital and digital analytics. We have a plan to have a very robust digital presence, including fundraising.
When do you expect a full-fledged campaign to launch?
I think likely the month of April — latest, first half of May. But there’s a lot of bases to be touched.
Trump is going to expose you to ridicule. You’re going to be inviting a tremendous amount of scorn by doing this. Is that something you welcome?
I checked my privacy at the door a long time ago. And once you’ve been the head of the criminal division at the Justice Department you don’t really care who says what about you. But that’s an example of the president’s character. He says, “I’m a counter-puncher.” Baloney. He’s not a counter-puncher; he’s just vindictive. And I can take it. But what I don’t care for is that too often it’s little people who feel his vindictiveness.
The poor mother [Ghazala Khan] of the soldier who was killed. Trump takes off after her and her husband and her dead son, and says she was muzzled. “Why didn’t she say anything? What’s her problem?” Implying that she was muzzled by her religion. And that’s not her problem. Her problem is that her son is dead and the [future] president of the United States was using airtime to go after her personally. It’s just the worst possible display. It goes beyond manners; it’s character.
There’s too much pretending going on in [Republican] Washington D.C. That’s the nub of the problem. Everyone’s pretending that the president — he’s just a little different. They’re indulging him in his malignant narcissism. A malignant narcissist is someone who’s only happy when other people are losing.
If you look at his track record in business, when he went bankrupt in Atlantic City with his casinos, every time he made sure that he got a lot more money because he would threaten the banks: “If you don’t, I’m going to walk and you will lose all of your collateral.” And the banks played ball. But the little people collected 5 cents, 10 cents on the dollar. And he was very pleased with that. It’s just not who you want in the White House.
When your running mate in 2016 faced a question about Aleppo, he had a stumble that became a scandal for weeks. What is your approach to difficult places like Syria?
I’m not interventionist in either Afghanistan or Syria, so that’s not one where I’m hitting the president over the head.
What is your path here? Are you trying to be Kennedy to his Carter? [Editor’s note: In the 1980 campaign, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) primaried then-incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter; Kennedy didn’t win, but underscored Carter’s weakness. Ronald Reagan won in a 1980 landslide.]
I’d be flattered to be Kennedy to his Carter [laughs.] I think that the current situation is not going to [prevail] for much longer, and I’m surprised that people cannot see that. If six months is an eternity in politics, what is two more years? And yet people seem to be hypnotized, mesmerized by the current situation. And thus paralyzed, and unable to lift a finger to do anything about it.
Which states do you think are fertile ground for you?
I think all of New England. All of the mid-Atlantic states. The West. The battleground states will be the battleground states of the last election — the Rust Belt. If you put those together, that’s a majority. So the situation is susceptible to ordinary political analysis.
Any final words for your fellow Republicans?
We can’t gently go into that good night. You know? And I am going to rage against the dying of the light. I think the president is kind of like that crazy clown in A Clockwork Orange who bursts through the door at the end and turns everything upside down and everyone is so distracted they don’t know what’s going on. I think that’s true.
And all the qualities that I was raised to prize in our presidents — I remember President Eisenhower and President Reagan, who I worked for for seven years, they had integrity, they believed in fairness and decency. Empathy! Missing in this White House. Openness. Missing in this White House. Good judgment — largely missing in this White House. So I don’t see why a lot of people aren’t trying to do something about that. I certainly am.