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Politics & Government

Sen. Sasse Says Capitol Attack Was Inevitable After Trump Stoked Division

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is on the line. The Republican was one of those in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday when rioters attacked. When Congress reconvened, Sasse gave a speech saying, quote, "Lies have consequences," said the attack on the Capitol was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the president's addiction to constantly stoking division. And then Sasse voted to affirm the election results.

Senator, welcome back to the program.

BEN SASSE: Thanks for having me on, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did this week's events say about the state of democracy?

SASSE: Well, we're not very healthy right now. But I want us to be sure we focus on the fact that we're going to get healthy again. But obviously, Americans are angry right now, and our country's mourning. And particularly, I guess we should start by acknowledging the death of Officer Sicknick overnight and grieve with his family and obviously also with the families of the other four who've already died. The loss of life is gut-wrenching.

But on Wednesday, the people's Capitol, which is the greatest symbol of freedom and liberty and representative self-government anywhere in the world. All over the world, there's polling that shows when people think about freedom, they see the dome of the U.S. Capitol in their head. And it was ransacked by a mob that was incited by the president of the United States. That's not a healthy situation.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one of your colleagues, one of a number who voted to object to the obvious election results - Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He was the first senator to say that he would join the objections. He raised his fist to the mob before they stormed the building. He continued his objections afterward and said, if I can paraphrase, listen, I'm just raising some concerns about ballot security. Is there any doubt, though, that your colleague knew what he was inciting?

SASSE: Well, let's begin by laying the blame first and foremost on those who actually committed the acts of violence at the Capitol and then on the president of the United States, as well, because he was the one pouring gasoline on these fires of division.

INSKEEP: Sure.

SASSE: But a big part of the problem with our polarized politics at this moment is that there's a massive demand for it. This isn't just a supply problem. We have a big chunk of voters. They're not a majority. But they're really loud, and they're growing. There is a large group that is hopped up on rage clicks, and they're demanding nonsense stunts like the objection to the Electoral College vote. So Senator Hawley was doing something that was a really dumb-ass, and I have been clear about that in public and in private since long before he announced that he was going to do this. This was a stunt. It was a terrible, terrible idea.

And you don't lie to the American people, and that's what's been going on. The American people have been lied to, chiefly by Donald Trump, and lies have consequences. And those consequences are now found in five dead Americans and a Capitol building that's in shambles. And there's a lot of work that has to be done to rebuild. And legislators should not be aiding and abetting those kinds of lies.

INSKEEP: David Humphreys, who's a Missouri businessman who spent $2 million to support Hawley's election in 2018, now tells the Missouri Independent that Hawley is, quote, "a political opportunist willing to subvert the Constitution." And he specifically has an idea. He would like the Senate to censure Senator Hawley, would you - which would take a simple majority vote. Would you vote for that?

SASSE: I heard late last night that Mr. Humphreys had made this recommendation, and I have not been shy in my criticisms of Josh Hawley, either in public or in private. This was a terrible, terrible idea. The mechanism of how the Senate handles it next is something that we'll obviously need to talk about. But the most fundamental issue for any individual senator is their conscience to their oath of office to the Constitution and their relationship with the citizens of the state that they serve. So Missourians are the most important people in that conversation. But obviously, I think lots of deliberation needs to be had on the perverse incentives inside our Article I branch right now.

The way people raise funds, the way they raise money during legislative debates is disgusting. Fundamentally, this goes back to the demand side problem. We have - again, I want to be clear. It is a minority of America, but we have somewhere between four and 14% of Americans who are identifying their political tribe as their most important community. And it's not a community of love. It's just - they're anti-communities. They're communities of hate.

INSKEEP: Let me just stop for one second there, Senator.

SASSE: Yep.

INSKEEP: We could have a long discussion here. But you mentioned fundraising. Hawley sent out a fundraising message on the day of the storming of the Capitol - shortly before, according to the Kansas City Star. But the question about censure - should the Senate be disciplining its own members for doing this sort of thing?

SASSE: I think we need to change rules that allow people to be fundraising while the Senate is in session. You know, I'm a fan of term limits. I don't think the idea of constantly trying to get these feedback loops and make politics the center of kind of horse race rage, addiction, social media stuff. I don't think any of that is healthy. So the fundraising is gross. I have - I want to ban cameras in committee rooms, not audio. I want the American people to have transparency. But I want to end the constant grandstanding that drives so much of our politics at present. And so I want this kind of gross stuff, this kind of - these kinds of fundraising stunts to be ended.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about the president of the United States and what happens to him now. I know there's talk of urging the 25th Amendment. We haven't heard that Vice President Pence is a fan of that. There is talk in the House of impeachment, which would take a while. And we had Jeh Johnson on this program, the former homeland security secretary, earlier today, who told Noel King simply that he thought the best option was for people around the president to urge him to leave town. Go to Mar-a-Lago. Delegate authority to the chief of staff, the vice president or somebody. Just stop working. What would you have the president do in the final 12 days of his term?

SASSE: Yeah. I think that the less the president does over the next 12 days, the better. You mentioned delegating responsibilities during this period to the vice president. In the midst of all of the pain and ugliness of the present, it is worth us pausing and affirming the fact that Mike Pence acted as a patriot through this. Mike Pence fulfilled his obligations on Wednesday. While blood was being shed at the people's Capitol, the president was actively rage tweeting against his vice president because the vice president was fulfilling his oath of office to the Constitution to affirm the fact that Joe Biden won because Joe Biden won, and the Congress' duty was to count and announce that Joe Biden had won.

We were in the Senate chamber, and the Secret Service had to rush in and grab the vice president from the dais and rush him out of the room. And the president of the United States was rage tweeting against him at the same time. So, frankly, I think it's obvious that the president's conduct wasn't merely reckless and destructive, it was a flagrant dereliction of his duty to uphold and defend the Constitution. And we need to know more about why the National Guard wasn't deployed when calls were sent up for it.

INSKEEP: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

It's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much, sir.

SASSE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.