Rep. Ted Lieu: 'The administration is just making stuff up' with 'absolute immunity' claim
Donald Trump recently called “impeachment” a “dirty, filthy, disgusting word,” but his continued stonewalling of legitimate congressional oversight requests are moving more and more House Democrats to embrace that “filthy” concept. That was the very point made by Rep. Ted Lieu of California, a progressive Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee during our recent conversation on “Salon Talks.” That committee would be the starting point for an actual impeachment inquiry of the president.
Lieu was one of the early voices in Congress calling for impeachment. As a recent example of Trump’s obstruction, he highlighted the sham process that unfolded before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Former White House communications director Hope Hicks appeared under subpoena, but refused to answer any and all questions about her time in the White House, under the Trump administration's highly dubious claims of "absolute immunity." White House lawyers objected to 155 questions asked of Hicks by House Democrats, including one posed by Lieu: “Where was your office located?”
The third-term congressman representing the west side of Los Angeles has more than a million Twitter followers, thanks largely to his no-holds-barred criticism of Republicans and the Trump administration. In our conversation, he also discussed Trump’s plans for dealing with Iran — or his lack of plans, as Lieu sees it. Neither Lieu nor most foreign policy experts have any idea what Trump’s goals are with Iran, given his constant flip-flops and mixed messages.
A former active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force, Lieu says he does not believe Trump’s claim that he called off a bombing strike on Iranian missile locations because he had learned 10 minutes before the attack that as many as 150 Iranian civilians could be killed if it were carried out. As Lieu explained it, any military briefing would have included an estimate of possible casualties at the outset.
In the 2020 race, Lieu has endorsed his longtime friend and fellow Californian, Sen. Kamala Harris, whom he predicts will break out of the pack when more Americans see her in the upcoming Democratic debates. But whoever becomes the nominee, Lieu is confident that Democrats will win back the White House come November 2020 and he explains why in our interview below.
Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Rep. Ted Lieu here, or read a transcript of our conversation below, edited for length and clarity.
You were one of the first members of Congress to come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry of President Trump. More than 70 members of the Democratic caucus have joined you. What's going on behind the scenes that is making other Democrats in the caucus come out on this now?
I've expressed my personal opinion to Speaker Pelosi. She's making the decision about whether to caucus, and I respect that decision. In the meantime, we're doing additional hearings to bring out the facts of the Mueller Report, and more facts have come out. Members are also seeing the unprecedented obstruction by the Trump administration, and it's not just on the Mueller Report. It's on every line of inquiry on behalf of the American people.
We want to know why the Trump Administration issuing to eliminate health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. We can't get answers to that. We want to know why [Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross lied about the census. We can't get answers to that, so I think members are also seeing this obstruction by the administration as well, which by the way, is also an impeachable offense.
There was a CNN poll this month showing that over 70 percent of Democrats support an impeachment inquiry. It's clearly time, and not for a political reason, but for a constitutional reason.
It is a process, and I think it's important to have the facts continue to come out and have individual members of Congress come to their decisions. On the Judiciary Committee, we're up front and center, so we're seeing all this in real time. Lots of members of Congress, who may be on different committees, this is not the first thing that they're paying attention to, but I think as we get more and more facts, then they're going to be coming out with their decisions as well.
Last week before the House Judiciary Committee, Hope Hicks, Donald Trump's former White House communications director, came to testify. And the day before, the White House counsel sends a letter claiming that she is absolutely immune from being compelled to testify before Congress. "Absolute immunity" — where did they get this from?
That concept has never been recognized by any courts. It doesn't exist. The administration is just making stuff up. It's basically pure BS. They're going to get destroyed in court. Now, one reason we did this is we wanted to put on the record how absurd absolute immunity is. For example, we asked questions such as, "Where is her office located?" And they objected to that, so I finally asked the question, just to point out how absurd this whole thing was. I asked her: On her first day of work at the White House, was it a sunny day or a cloudy day? Just to make the point.
We're now taking this information, and not only are we going to win in court regarding her, we're also going to use this in our litigation to get Don McGahn to testify, because they're asserting the same absolute immunity. So this is very helpful to us, what Hope Hicks put on the record, along with these objections, in the Don McGahn litigation.
You were live-tweeting during the conference, saying, "I'm watching obstruction of justice right before my eyes." I saw your questions: "Does the president ever come into your office when you're eating lunch?" And they go, "Objection." What would be the base of this objection? Were you fighting the laughter, because this was so insane, or were your jaws just dropping?
My intent was actually not to tweet about the closed-door hearing, but when I saw how absurd the objections was, I thought it was important for me to point out that we're watching obstruction of justice in action. I did live-tweet out their objections. I never tweeted out anything about what Hope Hicks said. I just want to make that clarification.
Now we actually have the entire transcript out so people can read it. A lot of people ask, "Why are these hearings with Hope Hicks behind closed doors? Why aren't they on national TV so we can all see it?"
Hope Hicks would not agree to a public hearing, so our choices were basically, we go to court to compel her testimony for a public hearing, or we do this, we get her in a closed-door hearing and get her to testify about her witnessing bad acts during the campaign. We get these objections on her tenure during the White House, and then we go to court and get her back in a public hearing to talk about those issues. Regardless, we're going to have to go to court anyway. At least with this, we get some testimony from her, and we get to put on the record how absurd absolute immunity actually is.
If there was actually a formal impeachment inquiry, which would start in your committee, the Judiciary Committee, could witnesses still say, "I don't want to testify in public"? I want people to understand a little bit more about an impeachment inquiry and whether that would mandate that hearings be much more in the public view, as with the Watergate hearings?
The administration can still assert this stupid claim of absolute immunity. We still have to go to court. We still have to litigate this in court. Doing an impeachment inquiry doesn't actually make it so that you don't have to go to court.
What’s the time frame now? I saw Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of your committee, saying, we're prepared to go to court against Hope Hicks. How long would it be before we might actually hear an answer? I know it's an estimate, but what do you think?
As you know, we'v already won two court cases. We will be filing relatively soon in the Don McGahn case, to get him to testify in an open hearing, and we expect to win on that as well. We're trying to expedite the process. We want to make sure that if we go to court, we win. We need to make sure we have the strongest legal brief, cross our T's and dot our I's. We're making sure we have the strongest case before these courts. It's rather important that we vindicate these rights. So we're doing our due diligence.
You mentioned earlier how the Trump administration is stonewalling on everything. There's lawsuit after lawsuit over tax returns, economic and financial records, the health care law. Have you ever seen an administration stonewall to this degree? It's like a wall they put up that you can't get anything, and they don't care. It seems like Trump actually believes — and I'm not being hyperbolic — that he's above the law and above congressional oversight.
This amount of stonewalling is unprecedented in our country's history. Again, it's not just on the Mueller Report. It's on virtually every line of inquiry that Congress is doing on behalf of the American people. And they're just making stuff up when they don't want to provide information. Again, there's no such thing as absolute immunity. The courts are going to rule for us. It's just going to take some time to get that ruling.
Another big issue is Iran, and what happened after an unmanned drone of ours was shot down by the Iranians. There's a dispute about whether it was in Iranian airspace or not. Then Donald Trump, as we find out, planned to do some type of air strike, perhaps against radar or missile-launch facilities. Then he tweets that 10 minutes before the strike he finds out that 150 people could be killed and he says no, he calls it off. What's your reaction to all of this?
That the administration has no Iran strategy. That the president himself doesn't really know what to do, and in something as deadly serious as the use of military force, we can't be engaged in amateur hour. We're watching an administration that doesn't really know how to respond. By the way, in the normal process of advising a president on military strikes and so on, he would've been told how many casualties likely would occur, so it's really quite unbelievable to me that he only finds out how many casualties might occur 10 minutes before the strike is about to happen. I don't even really believe his own Twitter feed when he talks about that, unless he was simply not paying attention during his initial briefing that caused an order to strike in the first place.
Congressman, you're a veteran. I would imagine one of the first questions any normal human being asks about a strike is, "How many people are going to die in this strike? Can you give me a range?" Not to ask that until 10 minutes beforehand, when the planes are in the air. You're saying you don't believe that.
Let's just take a step back from this particular incident. Actually, you always want to know what the potential casualties are, but let's take a step back. At this point, we don't even know what the administration's own goals are for Iran. Before you can even formulate any actions, you need to know what your desired end state is, and we have different members of the administration saying different things. You basically have John Bolton, who has talked about regime change. You then have Secretary Pompeo, who has set out a list of 12 demands for Iran. Most of them are non-nuclear demands.
And then you have the president, who has said that, no, all he really wants is a stronger nuclear deal. You can't have three different goals out there, which makes it very confusing, not just for the Iranians and our allies, but also for Congress and the American people. We need to know, first of all, what exactly are the administration's goals, and how their current actions help them achieve those goals.
Last week, there were two tankers attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, and the Trump administration said very clearly, "This is Iran's doing." But there are questions about whether the evidence has been produced to show that. Have you seen evidence, as a member of Congress, that answers your questions about whether Iran was involved in the strikes on the two tankers?
That's a great question. For the tanker incident, I have seen the public release, furnished by the U.S. Navy. It is pretty compelling. You've got an Iranian boat going to the tanker, trying to remove what looks like one of the unexploded mines. But the question you raise points out a much larger problem, which is that our allies and a lot of the American people no longer trust Donald Trump, because of his over 10,000 lies in his years in office.
In addition, when the president himself keeps attacking our own intelligence agencies, it then causes more distrust. We're in this very bad situation where there is a lack of credibility, a lack of trust in our commander in chief, and that is not a good thing.
On issues of national security, you should be able to believe in government. You should be able to question as well, of course. But this administration has no credibility. Conservatives used to mock Obama, saying that our enemies don't fear us and our allies don't trust us. That was unfair, but with Trump, that seems to be actually accurate.
Donald Trump himself actually said during his campaign that he essentially thinks being unpredictable is a good thing. Maybe that's a good thing in domestic politics, but in foreign policy, that is really stupid. Let's just do a quick thought experiment here. How many people would've wanted John Kennedy to be unpredictable during the Cuban missile crisis? No one, right?
What you want in foreign policy is clear, well-defined goals. You want the administration to explain what U.S. interests are, and you want the administration to explain what is the desired end state of where we want to go, and how we get there using our current actions.
The administration recently briefed Congress arguing that al-Qaida is involved in Iran, which at the least is questionable. Al-Qaida are Sunni extremists, and Iran obviously is a Shia country. In Iraq, you have members of al-Qaida killing Shias. Is there evidence that you've seen that makes you comfortable that al-Qaida is involved in Iran? Because to me, it reminds me of being told over and over that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11, when he was not.
Based on public reporting, it appears that really there's no evidence that Iran is somehow supporting al-Qaida. As you point out, they're completely different camps, that actually would more likely fight each other.
Speaking about military action, you championed a bill that got a vote in the House, requiring congressional approval for any more sales of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Why is this important to you?
Thank you for asking. This is an important issue, because what the administration did is basically they declared a state of emergency to bypass Congress, which has always been involved in arms sales. And they said, "For these 22 arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE, we're going to bypass you by saying there is somehow this emergency that allows us to sell these arms without congressional review." There is no such emergency. How do we know that?
First of all, for the overwhelming majority of these arms, most of them aren't even ready to be sold. They aren't even made. And for some of them, not only would it take months, it could take over a year for them to get to Saudi Arabia. Second, just a definition of some of these arms. One of them is for Saudi Arabia to create products for other end users. I don't see how there is any sort of emergency that would allow Saudi Arabia to do that. And this also outsources jobs to Saudi Arabia. It basically says Saudi Arabia can now start producing these precision-guided munitions, so this is really just an end-run around Congress.
I'm really pleased that, just a few days ago, I got an amendment passed that would shut down these 22 arms sales. It was a bipartisan vote, and hopefully we'll see if the Senate will do the same thing.
We're in the heat of the 2020 campaign and the race so far has been about domestic policy concerns. Do you think what's going on in Iran now will end up becoming an issue in the upcoming primary debates? Will the 2020 candidates be called on to talk about foreign policy?
It could, depending on whether the situation escalates or de-escalates in Iran. But it does point out that this is another broken promise by Donald Trump. He campaigned on getting us out of these endless wars. He has not done that. We've been in Afghanistan for 18 years. We are still there. He tried to get us out of Syria. He failed to do that. We still have troops in Syria, and now it looks like he's actually adding additional troops to deal with what Iran is doing. So this does highlight that Trump has failed on foreign policy.
I can only imagine what's going on behind the scenes. You mentioned John Bolton, who called for regime change in Iran a long time ago. Mike Pompeo is far to the right on many issues. And then this bizarre alliance between the Saudis and the Israelis, who want different things but are willing to work together against Iran. You have to look to Trump to be the backstop to avoid a reckless war in Iran — and it seems like we can't trust him at all. It feels like 2003 all over again.
The difference is that the overwhelming majority of Congress, as well as the American people, don't trust the president when it comes to these issues. That wasn't quite the same back in 2003, so I think you do have that difference. We in Congress, on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we've held hearings previously on Iran. We're going to do more. We're going to hold the administration's feet to the fire and have them explain to the American people what their strategy actually is, because the American people and Congress don't really know that right now.
Let's turn to 2020. You were an early supporter of Kamala Harris. Why did you get involved quickly and endorse her?
I think Kamala Harris would be a fantastic president. I've known her for many years. We've worked on a lot of issues together, including criminal justice reform and also specifically on bail reform. I think she is the leader we need who can unite the American people. I'm very, very excited about her candidacy.
Do you think she can actually break out of the pack a little more?
I think she could. As the American people have seen, she's a great public speaker. During the committee hearings, she is excellent at asking questions, and she, I think, is very eloquent in her vision and her statements. So look forward to these debates.
I'm looking forward to watching it, but I do have a fear of the Democrats beginning to cannibalize each other. Do you share those concerns?
The No. 1 goal is to remove Donald Trump next November of 2020. We also need to make sure that we don't, as you said, attack each other. I actually think it's better to have a lot of candidates, because one of the things that happened in 2016, when it just basically was Hillary and Bernie, is that the two camps really went after each other. When you have this many candidates, there'll be some folks who attack, but most of the time, they're just trying to get their own vision out to the American people, so you're actually seeing comparatively fewer attacks.
You were a co-sponsor of Medicare for All, which is a big issue that many of the candidate have signed on for, including Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and several others. Do you think this is the premier issue for Democrats in 2020?
Health care is absolutely the premier issue. I am a supporter of Medicare for All. I also think we need to change that term, because what polling shows is that a number of senior citizens believe that this will make Medicare worse for them — that by expanding the number people who can be involved in Medicare, they're going to get fewer benefits. We just have to change this term. We can call it "universal health care." You can call it "single-payer." But we should not be using that term.
Do you think the Democrats are going to beat Donald Trump come Nov. 3, 2020?
Absolutely. What you see right now is the Trump administration fighting the wrong war. What they're fighting is what happened in 2016. If you watched his campaign launch recently, it was exactly the same as 2016, based on immigration, building the wall. If you look at what actually happened, it was a different war that happened in 2018, and Democrats won. It appears that the Trump administration is simply ignoring that, because in 2018, the Republicans and Trump ran again on immigration, on these big caravans, on the wall. Democrats ran on health care and we crushed them. That's going to happen again, I think, in 2020. Democrats have learned. The Republicans have not.
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