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What Splits Republicans


This week was a consequential one for the president. Primary results in Virginia and South Carolina showed just how powerful a grip Trump has on his party. In South Carolina, Trump endorsed Mark Sanford's challenger after Sanford criticized the president, and Sanford lost. And in Virginia, GOP voters nominated Corey Stewart for Senate. He's a Trump booster and defender of Confederate symbols who once protested in front of the RNC because he believed they weren't supportive enough of Trump. The Republican Party, at an electoral level, is the party of Trump, and that's deepened a split that's been developing for a long time. Here to talk about that is veteran Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt.

Welcome to the program.

STEVE SCHMIDT: Thank you. Great to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were John McCain's chief strategist. You worked for George W. Bush. I think your Republican credentials are sound, but to describe you as a Never Trumper would be a real understatement. Your Twitter feed, in just the last 24 hours alone, calls out every single GOP member of Congress who will not confront Trump as unfit and unworthy of service. You've called the president's lying unprecedented and an assault on liberty and the republic. And I could go on, but we have limited time. So given that the president is the head of the Republican Party, are you still a Republican?

SCHMIDT: I used a phrase that my friend Nicolle Wallace uses, which is, I'm a nonpracticing Republican at this hour. Watching the Republican Party's degeneracy, it's cravenness. It's moral rot and corruption. The embrace of pedophile candidates like Roy Moore, the fact that there are legitimate Nazis running under Republican banners in races across the country and the inability of, really, a single member to muster the courage to stand up and, with regard to Donald Trump's illiberalism, to say, excuse me, sir, this is the United States of America is a tragedy in my view.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This past week, Senator Lindsey Graham described his rationale for working with the president. He told critics, if you don't like me working with President Trump to make the world a better place, I don't give a - and he used an expletive there, hit and add an s. So what he's saying is that in order to get the GOP agenda passed, he's willing to accept some objectionable behavior. How does that ring to you?

SCHMIDT: What exactly is the agenda that's being passed? It's a cop-out. We see Lindsey Graham - gives me no pleasure to say it. He's a friend of mine. But he's cowed. He's scared to death. And so the Lindsey Graham of 2016 is now a very different Lindsey Graham, and you can see this isn't a principled stand. This is a fearful politician who the worst thing in his life that could happen to him is that he loses his Senate seat, not that there could be enduring damage done to the American republic, which he's sworn an oath to serve.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think conservatives would say that the president's done a lot for them. If you look at what's happened in the judiciary, if you look at the tax cuts, if you look at even immigration, they would say that they're onboard with what his plans are.

SCHMIDT: As a conservative myself that, you know, generally I would have a point of view that less regulation is better than more regulation, but less regulation shouldn't supersede a tax on the fundamentally important institutions that sustain a democratic republic. And, by the way, the tax bill will add another $10 trillion to the debt. It was a payoff to Washington's special interests and corporate interests, did little for the American people and was fundamentally corrupt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where does that leave you, though, sir? Do you wait this out? Can you foresee a moment where the Republican Party splits into something else? I mean, where do Republicans like you go?

SCHMIDT: The country badly needs to have a right-of-center political party, grounded in traditional values that the Republican Party represented till it didn't. It's essential that the Democratic Party prevail in November, that Trump isn't - be repudiated, that it be defeated. But even if you have a Republican majority that's thrown out in the Congress, what will be left - because we live in a country where the politicians pick their voters and not the other way around anymore, we'll be left with a more extreme Republican Party, more fidelitous to Trump. That's where this may all be governed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt, thank you so much.

SCHMIDT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.