Republican Sen. Mike Rounds On Trump And The Mueller Investigation
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We're about to get an idea of the conversations Republicans have been having during an increasingly charged time. You know the list. We have the midterms now a couple months away.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Is primary day in Florida.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The U.S. Senate seat also up for grabs in Arizona. And it is...
CHANG: Trade, as of yesterday, is back front and center, raising real questions about what President Trump's policies could mean for American consumers and workers.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They used to call it NAFTA. We're going to call it the United States-Mexico Trade Agreement.
CHANG: Also, the death of Senator John McCain signals a moment of reflection about which direction the party is going to take.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: At the Senate, McCain's colleagues lining up to pay tribute to the decorated war hero and six-term senator.
CHANG: And underlying all of this is the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. It was only one week ago today that guilty pleas and guilty verdicts came in for two former close associates of President Trump.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is found guilty on eight of the counts against him. But the...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Breaking news - the president's former fixer and personal attorney Michael Cohen has entered into a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
CHANG: With us now to talk about this moment is Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. He joins us from the Capitol.
MIKE ROUNDS: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.
CHANG: We appreciate you coming on today.
All right, let's start with trade. Yesterday, President Trump announced a preliminary deal with Mexico which would overhaul parts of NAFTA, but Canada isn't yet part of these talks. And both of these countries, Mexico and Canada, are really important to South Dakota's corn and soybean production. I know that you've been supportive of this deal with Mexico. But what are your concerns? Your own statement points out that Canada is your No. 1 export market.
ROUNDS: That's correct. We understand that the administration wants to make changes in the existing NAFTA plan and that they wanted to do as many individual plans as they could. So they started with Mexico. It will not be complete until we have Canada back in the mix once again. This was a step in the right direction, but it's not the end result. We most certainly need to have trade completed or at least trade plans completed with both of these two countries. And that's just the first step in other trade agreements that we also need to complete.
So - good news that we have Mexico and the United States making some agreements - the challenge is now to bring Canada back into the fold. I like the idea of all three countries being able to negotiate with one another and making trade easier across our borders.
ROUNDS: And then we move on to the next series.
CHANG: All right. So you sound pretty optimistic about these trade talks. But farmers throughout the country are already dealing with the fallout of President Trump's tariffs and the retaliation by other countries because of those tariffs. How much are farmers in South Dakota telling you they're hurting right now because of those tariffs about these escalating trade tensions?
ROUNDS: It might actually surprise you. Most of them are saying, yes, we are feeling the pinch. We recognize particularly those that grow soybeans, particularly with regard to the retaliation from China. They're also telling me - in almost the same breath, they're saying, but it might be worthwhile if we can get some deals done. We know we didn't have the most perfect trade deals out there to begin with. And if this president is going to go to work and fight for us, we're going to give him every opportunity to be successful. But we sure wish he'd hurry up.
CHANG: OK. Let's talk about some of the legal developments over the last week. How concerned are you about the possible legal risk the president is now exposed to after Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, said Trump directed him to make payments to two women to affect the outcome of the election?
ROUNDS: I think most people in the United States that voted for the president did so because of - number one, they felt that he was going to have conservatives that he would appoint to the Supreme Court. Number two, they were not satisfied with former Secretary Clinton as the nominee. And finally, they said he was an outsider. He was someone who was not a part of government. In this particular case, all three things still apply. So politically, I think this was kind of baked in to what most people had expected in the first place. It's a recognition that the president is not perfect, but they knew that to begin with.
CHANG: Wait. Just so I understand, are you saying that people understand or they expected something like this to happen?
ROUNDS: I don't think it came as a surprise to people.
CHANG: So are you telling me that you don't think Trump's supporters - that his base cares about the possibility that he might have broken the law?
ROUNDS: No. I think it's more along the lines of there was an expectation that there would be lots of discussions about things that might come from his past. And they made that decision way back before the election that - they knew that he would be imperfect. They recognized that. But remember, there's going to be a discussion about whether or not he broke the law or not. That part has not been decided yet.
CHANG: But if it is decided - if it can be shown with evidence that President Trump committed campaign finance violations, would that be grounds for impeachment?
ROUNDS: Not necessarily...
CHANG: Why not?
ROUNDS: ...Because campaign violations, in most cases, start out as a civil discussion. You have them - and you've probably heard this before. There are all campaigns that have violations that don't meet the perfect criteria of the existing rules.
CHANG: But I'm asking - if it can be shown that President Trump did violate federal law about campaign finance, is that grounds for impeachment?
ROUNDS: It would depend on whether or not he did it intentionally or whether it was simply a matter of he would have made the payments regardless. And I think you're going to find clear evidence that he might have made those payments anyway. And that's part of the discussion that will go on. But I don't think that by itself is going to be the issue.
CHANG: You have said that you care about the Russia investigation directed by special counsel Robert Mueller, that you care about its continuing to its full extent. But there's been talk that Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be replaced after the midterms by someone who would not recuse himself from the investigation and could actually end the whole thing. How do you feel about that possibility?
ROUNDS: I still think that the president made the right choice to begin with when he nominated Attorney General Sessions. Look. Jeff Sessions is in this for the right reasons. He cares deeply. And most certainly, he is the right guy for the job. So we want to see him continue moving forward. We want to see him continue to be the attorney general. But that doesn't mean that he has to be in there forever. It simply means that right now, we don't think, if it is the intentions or the reasoning by the president to try to impact the Mueller investigation, that he should be removed. Mr. Sessions should remain if that is the issue.
CHANG: You have said that it would be a mistake for President Trump to pardon Paul Manafort, who's been convicted on eight counts. Why is that? Why would it be a mistake to pardon him?
ROUNDS: I think politically it's a mistake. I think common sense would suggest that you simply don't issue pardons for this type of an issue, particularly when the perception might be that you're doing it in order to protect Mr. Manafort. I think that's where the mistake would be. And I'm - I think the president clearly understands that.
CHANG: I want to talk a little bit about John McCain before we go. You served with him on the Senate Armed Services Committee. What kind of hole does his death leave in the party now?
ROUNDS: John McCain is one of these guys who always stood up for the men and women who wear the uniform of this country. He was always standing right beside them. Here's a guy also who, on multiple different occasions, talked about different issues in the United States Senate. You could agree or disagree with him, but you always knew where John McCain stood. And you always knew he would bring intensity to every single fight and every single argument. And you knew when you were on a different side because he'd let you know. But when it was all done, he was back to being John McCain, your buddy and a guy who was a great colleague.
CHANG: Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
Thank you very much.
ROUNDS: Thanks. Appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.