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The Passion of Newt Gingrich

The Honorable Newt Gingrich
 

A little more than twenty years ago, the House of Representatives, led by Newt Gingrich, impeached President Bill Clinton, making clear to the last doubter that American politics had reached a state of feverish polarization. Clinton was eventually acquitted by the Senate, but the political partisanship that Gingrich helped usher in has only worsened, culminating in the devotion shown to President Donald Trump by congressional Republicans. That devotion will be tested in the coming weeks, as the House has opened impeachment proceedings against the President. The Administration, according to a variety of diplomats and witnesses, conditioned military aid to Ukraine and a White House visit for the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Zelensky’s willingness to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Gingrich, unsurprisingly, has become a passionate defender of the President, denouncing the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and congressional Democrats for what he calls a coup. He also recently published his third book in support of the President, “Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat.” (During the past Presidency, Gingrich wrote the book “To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine.”) I recently spoke by phone with the former speaker, who was in Rome. (His wife, Callista, is the Ambassador to the Holy See.) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Trump’s views on China, whether there was a quid pro quo in the President’s dealings with Ukraine, and the real reason that conservatives will never give up on Trump.

Why did you want to write a book about China right now?

I think over the last five or six years I have come to the conclusion that China is an enormous challenge to us. I include me in the “we.” I completely misunderstood the evolution of China. That it is, in fact, a Leninist, totalitarian, Communist dictatorship. It has a very long-term, very competent strategy for gradually becoming the Middle Kingdom again. We completely missed the momentum of the Chinese system and how dangerous it was. I wanted to write a book as a calm but serious wake-up call that is also, I hope, very helpful to people.

This is your third book in the past several years, after “Understanding Trump” and “Trump’s America: The Truth About Our Nation’s Great Comeback.” This one is called “Trump vs. China.” What is it that you think the President brings to the fight against China, to use a phrase you might be sympathetic to?

Trump brought two big advantages that made it possible to develop a new strategy for China. The first is that he is not part of the national foreign-policy establishment, so he doesn’t have to get up every morning and try to remember all the things we have said since 1972. And the second is that, as a businessman, he looks at a competitor who, according to the Obama Director of National Intelligence, is stealing between four hundred and five hundred billion dollars per year in intellectual property. [In 2015, William Evanina, the director of counterintelligence under Obama and Trump, estimated that cyberespionage cost the U.S. four hundred billion dollars a year and that China was behind ninety per cent of those attacks.] And, as a commonsense businessman, he knows you can’t have a competitor who steals four hundred or five hundred billion dollars per year if you are going to succeed. So you have to change the game.

So you think his history as a businessman gives him some sort of upper hand here?

Well, I think it gave him the ability to look at the economic side. Look, we came out of a period where our foreign-policy establishment understood that, at the end of World War II, we were fifty per cent of the world’s economic activity. So you could afford to spend American resources for diplomatic and strategic reasons and not worry about it much because we were so gigantic. Well, that ceased to be true decades ago. But we haven’t made the transition yet, and much of our foreign-policy establishment had deeply bought the idea that China was going to become good and democratic, and then, frankly, a bunch of our people became billionaires dealing with China, so they didn’t want to think about it. So you had a general conspiracy of silence.

Do you see the challenge from China as a practical challenge or a moral challenge, or both? There are hundreds of thousands of Muslims locked up in detention camps. There is what is going on in Hong Kong.

It is both. It is a practical challenge, because if you look at TikTok, which has rapidly become a successful, worldwide device for teen-agers, it is actually censored by the Chinese. They are sending their version of propaganda on a system we are paying for. They feel confident enough now that they can dictate to the National Basketball Association what they are allowed to tweet.

You talked about China as a Leninist dictatorship. Were you concerned when the President congratulated the Chinese Communist Party on seventy years of ruling China?

I thought it was a mistake. Of all the things you can do, that is pretty minor. But that is like congratulating the Soviets for having a dictatorship for seventy years.

Right. I was wondering about the moral dimension. CNN reported that Trump was willing to not discuss Hong Kong freedoms in exchange for some sort of trade deal. I am wondering if you think that he grasps the moral as well as the practical dimension of what you have laid out.

All I can say is that his Secretary of State gave a brilliant speech at the Hudson Institute which captured all of it: the technological threat, the economic threat, and the moral threat, and did it brilliantly. I will allow Pompeo to speak for Trump on this.

Were you at all concerned that Trump wanted the Chinese government—or the Chinese Communist Party, as you would say—to investigate Joe Biden and his son, and that American policy in China, which you view as the challenge of our future, would be wrapped up in domestic political disputes?

Yeah, see, I think that is crap.

What specifically?

And you can quote me and use my voice saying it. The fact that someone was Vice-President does not make them immune to discovering whether they were involved in corruption. And it’s kind of astonishing to me that the American news media, in its passion for hating Trump, is wandering around saying, “Gee, it would be really terrible to ask the Ukrainians to find the truth.” If you haven’t read it, I recommend to you Lee Smith’s book on the plot against the President.

I haven’t read that one.

Well, it is worth your reading. He worked with Devin Nunes for two years, and lays out just how sick this whole system has been. So when you come to me and you say, “Gee, was it wrong for the President of the United States to see if we could find the truth about whether Hunter Biden’s involved in corruption?” I think it is an astounding reversal of the news media’s normal behavior.

Do you think it would be O.K. to condition military aid for a country based on whether an investigation was opened up into Hunter Biden?

I think that it is routine for Presidents to use tools to try to get people to do things they think are important. And, if you will notice, the President of Ukraine says he never once thought there was a quid pro quo, he never once thought there was a threat. Period. [In a press conference with Trump on September 25th, Zelensky said that he did not want to become involved with the U.S. election, but that his phone call with Trump had been “normal” and that “nobody pushed me.”]

Wait, Mr. Speaker, we are speaking now on Thursday, November 7th. I think the line of the day has changed to “There was a quid pro quo, and it’s not a big deal.”

My point is, first of all, that every President engages in a variety of negotiations to achieve things.

I just wanted to be clear about what the line was now.

I don’t have a line. If you ask me, there is no evidence. This whole thing is like mirrors within mirrors. You have a whistle-blower who is not actually blowing the whistle, who turned out not to know anything, and wrote a letter which was mostly false.

What was false in the letter? Just remind me.

Well, if you go through and read it, he made all sorts of assertions that were just plain not true.

The question I am trying to ask—and maybe this gets to bigger questions about our politics right now—is about the fact that people in the White House were saying there was no quid pro quo, but now the line seems to have shifted to, “If there was a quid pro quo, it is not an impeachable offense, or a big deal.” It feels like we are operating in this strange world where the line of the day is going to change, but fundamentally Republicans are going to defend Trump, and it seems like if we could just admit that—

That’s nonsense. I can’t believe you would even say that. Look, most of the media hates Trump. Most of the news media is desperate to get rid of Trump. Read the town-hall meeting that New York Times editor had, which I think he did not realize was being taped, where he says, We ran a neutral headline and our readers reacted so vehemently that, within three or four hours, we had to change the headline, and we now have to recognize that Mueller didn’t work out and we have to do something new. [In August, Slate released a transcript of a Times staff meeting, led by Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor. Gingrich’s summary does not accurately reflect Baquet’s remarks. In the transcript, Baquet calls the headline “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” a “bad headline” and says that he made the decision to change it before he was aware of the social-media reaction. He also notes that, after Robert Mueller testified before Congress, “Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.’ ” He did not state that Times staffers shared their point of view. ]

O.K., but let’s take a step back here. I want to try and have this conversation as two human beings.

I will stipulate you are a human being.

Thank you. I will do the same depending on how the rest of the conversation goes.

That was, by the way, a stupidly snarky comment.

I was just having some fun.

I know. I’m just giving my response.

The point I am trying to make is that we are living in this world where Republicans are going to defend Trump whatever the facts of the case are.

Right. And Democrats are going to attack Trump no matter what the facts of the case are. [Adam] Schiff is the perfect case. None of you guys have the guts to go back and look at the number of times Schiff lied over the past several years. Just plain lied.

Such as? Do you want to say some for readers?

He kept saying, “We all know we have proof about collusion.” Then Mueller comes out and says there’s no proof. [In his testimony, Mueller explained, “We did not address collusion, which is not a legal term. Rather, we focussed on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.”] So our side has taken the position that this is a cultural civil war, that there are no holds barred, that the Democrats are running a kangaroo court, and most of you guys are applauding. Why would you expect us to be flexible, knowing that, the minute one of us said anything flexible, you would immediately distort it and use it to attack Trump?

This is the conversation I actually wanted to have, because it feels like what you said there—I don’t necessarily agree with everything about a kangaroo court, but it seems like the point you are making—

You don’t?

I don’t personally. But it seems like the point you are making is that a lot of conservatives and Republicans in this country, and Republicans in Congress perhaps, feel like there is some sort of cultural civil war going on.

Right.

And you have this guy who is a messenger, who is putting forward conservative policies and confirming conservative judges, and standing up for conservatives in the culture war. And, because of that, we have something like Ukraine. I think that most conservatives, if you had said to them five years ago that Barack Obama was pressuring someone to investigate a political rival, would have said that was an inappropriate way to deal with American aid to a foreign country. But there is a larger issue here in conservative minds—a cultural civil war—and that’s what people are focussed on, and that’s why things are always going to be O.K., or worth the cost.

I think that’s right. I think that’s a reasonable analysis.

O.K., I feel like we have got somewhere. You are famous for loving zoos and dinosaurs. Why do you love them so much, and how does your love of animals connect to a shared sense of humanity that you think we might all have?

I don’t know about that. That’s a pretty big jump. I am fascinated and intrigued with the natural world, whether in its paleontological form or its current form. I am intrigued with watching how animals operate and what they do, and how different systems coexist. I think it is endlessly fascinating. Plus, I like them. I have dogs, I like them. I have given zoos rhinoceroses and a variety of other things, and it is fun. I just went to the zoo in Nagoya, Japan, which is actually a quite nice zoo.

Does it affect your political views in any way, or how you view people?

Well, there is a great book by Frans de Waal called “Chimpanzee Politics.” You might read it someday and it will help you understand legislative bodies.

How so?

It’s about gorillas and chimpanzees and how they interact. It’s a great book.

I would love to, but you have already recommended “The Plot Against The President,” so I have to get to that first.

Well, that’s two books, but you’re bright. You can get to two books.

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