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Joe Walsh On Challenging Trump In Primary


Former Illinois Republican Congressman Joe Walsh is challenging President Trump in 2020. He bills himself as the better option. But Walsh and Trump share a history of peddling conspiracy theories and spreading racist rhetoric. Walsh announced his candidacy last Sunday. But is he the alternative to Trump some Republicans want? We reached Joe Walsh at his home in Chicago.

JOE WALSH: Our campaign slogan is be brave. I believe Donald Trump is fundamentally unfit. And I believe most Republicans are sick and tired of all of his ugly tweets and his lies and everything. I believe they believe that privately. I believe they're afraid to say that publicly. And so we're going to spend this campaign trying to get them all to come out and say with me publicly that he's unfit.

MARTIN: You voted for him, though, in the 2016 election. What changed your mind? What made you believe he is fundamentally unfit?

WALSH: So when I voted for Trump in 2016, I didn't love him. I didn't like him. He wasn't Hillary. Over the course of the first year, it became clear to me that the president of the United States lies - I mean lies virtually every time he opens his mouth. And then finally, Rachel, Helsinki 2018 was when he officially lost me. He stood in front of the world and said, I believe Putin and not my own people.

MARTIN: The president was talking about the conclusions that his own intelligence agencies had drawn when it came to Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. Can you point to policies that Mr. Trump has pushed that you would disagree with?

WALSH: Yes. Donald Trump doesn't care about the debt. And, in fact, Donald Trump is increasing the debt at a faster clip than President Obama did. I'm also hugely opposed to his trade war and his tariffs.

MARTIN: You want to make this about President Trump. This is personal. It's a moral play. In The New York Times, you wrote an op-ed accusing President Trump of stoking bigotry. You called him a, quote, "racial arsonist." But we have to get into this. You yourself have admitted to saying racist things. You, too, fueled the Obama birther conspiracy. You, too, described Haiti in those derogatory terms. You, too, have a history of bigotry against Muslims. You even attacked the families of the massacre at Sandy Hook, telling them their 15 minutes of fame were up. So what gives you the moral high ground?

WALSH: Rachel, I was never part of the birther movement. I understand that a lot of this gets conflicted because I did put out a few tweets where I called President Obama a Muslim - and probably the biggest tweet that I regret over the course of the last couple years. Watching how ugly and mean and cruel he is, it's made me consider that he's like the ugliest version of what me - what people like I were doing these past eight to nine years. Do I have a few bad tweets? Yes. And I've got to own them all.

MARTIN: It's more than a few bad tweets. You said that you were never part of the Obama birther movement. One tweet in particular I have to point out. You wrote explicitly, Obama never let a voter feel his birth certificate. So we can argue about whether or not that makes you part of the movement. But you said very explicit things that were anti-Muslim, very explicit things towards those Sandy Hook families. How do you expect a Republican who is craving a change in the language, who is craving someone who can unify Americans in this moment - how do you look to your record and say, I'm your guy?

WALSH: So I think we figured out that in the last six years since I first went on Twitter, I've sent out 66,000 tweets. I talk about issues like race. I talk about issues like Islam, oftentimes in very blunt terms.

MARTIN: But you know that that's how President Trump justifies many of the racist remarks that he has made.

WALSH: Right. But again, what I'm trying to do is - I think there's a big difference. I believe that President Trump only cares about President Trump. So I believe President Trump engages in bigotry and cruelty and xenophobia and all the rest because it will benefit him. That's not me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So you were engaging in it because you actually believed it then?

WALSH: No, I was in - everything I would say or tweet - provocative, yes - sometimes a little too provocative, yes. But generally, it was always to advance ideas and to get people thinking. Like, for instance, Rachel - and I'll go right at one that you brought up - the Sandy Hook parents. I think you may be referencing a tweet from maybe a couple of years ago where the Sandy Hook parents announced that they were going to sue gun manufacturers. And I said something like, that's a horrible idea. Sandy Hook parents, your 15 minutes of fame are up. Now, that's a perfect example, Rachel, of me making a serious point. I think it's wrong that we sue manufacturers of legal products for what bad people do with their products. But instead of just saying that, Rachel, I took a cheap shot - an offensive, indecent cheap shot at the Sandy Hook parents.

MARTIN: You said, quote, "I'm sick and tired of the Sandy Hook parents. They're partisan and political."

WALSH: Absolutely. Did I go too far with that language? Yes.

MARTIN: Peter Wehner at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, prominent anti-Trumper - he wrote a recent op-ed in The Times saying that you and President Trump have used language to brutalize insult embarrass and demean those who hold different views. Presumably, though, Peter Wiener is the kind of person you want to vote for you. He's an establishment Republican who does not like President Trump on moral grounds. So what do you say?

WALSH: I have to, as I engage in this campaign, let Republican voters know clearly that I am a conservative, that I have strongly held issues and that I've made mistakes in the past as a radio talk show host. But I'm not going down that road any more. And the election of Donald Trump was like my come-to-Jesus moment. And, Rachel, either Republicans believe me, or they don't. Final point I'll make, Rachel, is this guy is a clear and present danger to this country. Is there a better Republican that could have stepped up to say that? Maybe. But where is he or she? Am I a flawed candidate? Hell yes. But I'm - I know I've got the message that this president's unfit that needs to be heard.

MARTIN: Former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh. He's challenging President Trump for the GOP nomination for 2020. We appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

WALSH: I enjoyed it, Rachel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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