THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 18, Season 7
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Host: Vassy Kapelos
Guest Interviews: Michael Steele, Ian Bremmer
Food for Thought: Minister Karina Gould at Pure Kitchen, Ottawa
On this Sunday, the Republican divide in Washington deepened this past week as President Trump’s lawyers called on former chief strategist Steve Bannon to stop talking, or risk legal action. How damaging is this latest blow up to the grand old party?
Then, a new report blames the U.S.’s withdrawal from the international stage for major political risks in 2018. What are those risks? And what do they mean for Canada?
We’ll ask one of the authors.
Plus, another installment of our occasional series: Food for Thought. This time we sample vegetarian fare with Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who in a few months will become the first sitting federal cabinet minister to give birth.
It’s Sunday, January 7th. I’m Vassy Kapelos, and this is The West Block.
Cease-and-dessist, it’s been a wild week in D.C., again. This time, author Michael Wolff’s new book is fueling the controversy. In a moment we’ll talk to a long-time Republican insider about how the latest scandal is rocking his party. But first, here’s your West Block primer on what went down in Washington, this week.
A bombshell book out late last week offers the most detailed and telling glimpse inside Trump’s White House, yet. Author Michael Wolff was a fly on the wall in the West Wing for months, and what he heard was jaw dropping. Trump’s former top advisor Steve Bannon is quoted as describing a meeting between the President’s son and a Russian lawyer as “treasonous: and “unpatriotic”.
President Donald Trump: “He called me a great man last night, so, you know he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.”
That excerpt alone prompted Trump to fire back tweeting: “When Bannon was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” The books revelation so damaging, Trump’s lawyers tried but failed to block it from being released.
And joining me now from Washington is Republican strategist Michael Steele. Mr. Steele thanks very much for joining us.
Michael Steele: Good to be with you.
Vassy Kapelos: You’re there in D.C. How big of a deal is this book by Michael Wolff?
Michael Steele: It’s an extraordinarily big deal. Last week was one of the most consequential weeks of the Trump presidency in terms of the future of the Republican Party, and in many ways, the country.
Vassy Kapelos: I want to ask you more specifically about both the country and the party, but I wanted to get your take on some of the stuff that we’ve heard that’s in the book. He writes, for example, that 100 per cent of those surrounding the president at the White House believed he’s incapable of functioning in his job. Do you think that’s true?
Michael Steele: I worry that it’s true. I think that the description of the president as someone utterly incapable of receiving new information either written or verbal is extremely troubling. I think it tracks with some of the concerns that many people have had even before he was elected, and it’s a frightening prospect for the country.
Vassy Kapelos: Let me ask you about sort of divide the two parts of the book that we’ve heard about. First about his own fitness—the president’s own fitness—but second about the now riff between Steve Bannon and Trump. On the former, what does it say about the party? What does it mean for the Republican Party that there is this what appears to be confirmation of his lack of fitness for the role?
Michael Steele: Well, I think that Republicans and others running both the executive branch and the legislative branch have learned over the past year to compensate for some of the deficiencies in the president himself. I think that after the disaster of the attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, the success of the tax reform law that is beginning to take effect now, is a testament to the ability of congressional Republican leaders and others in the Trump administration to effectively make policy regardless of the president’s tweets or what have you.
Vassy Kapelos: Is that a hard thing to do? Shouldn’t it be the president leading the charge?
Michael Steele: It certainly doesn’t make it easier. But at the same time there is a record of success on a range of issues, particularly the economy which continues to be quite strong.
Vassy Kapelos: So in your mind then, is that the party distancing itself from Trump?
Michael Steele: I think there’s always been a distinction in the minds of the American people between President Trump and the Republican Party. While he was the nominee of the party, while he won the presidential election as a Republican, he does not have a longer deep history with the party and his brand, and partially influenced by the sort of Steve Bannon nationalistic elements, is different from the party as a whole.
Vassy Kapelos: Let me pick up on Steve Bannon because that was another big thread of the story last week. He’s a polarizing figure, but he does have a base in at least part of the Republican Party. What do you think this sort of now split between Trump and him, means for the Republicans?
Michael Steele: Well I hope that it means the end of trying to meld or weld this more nationalistic borderline xenophobic, if not outright xenophobic element onto the traditional Republican Party, the traditional coalition. I think that it means that we can move forward in a much more effective way, a much more effective form of governance without those impulses, without that draw from him.
Vassy Kapelos: Sorry, am I to interpret it to mean that Trump will be less of all those things you just described, do you think, because he will be less influenced by Bannon?
Michael Steele: I think the administration, hopefully, will be less influenced by those elements. And I think that that would be a good thing for the party and a good thing for the country.
Vassy Kapelos: What other ways do you think Trump will be affected by the rift? And I’ve heard you say in the past, for example, he might not focus as much on bashing free trade, or you know, you mentioned some of the other elements, the xenophobic elements, for example. What other ways do you think Trump could be affected?
Michael Steele: I think that he could be freer to move in a more traditional Republican direction on two big issues in particular. One is trade, and given the strength of the economy right now, I think it would be a real mistake to try and crack down on trade, to leave NAFTA, to engage in some of the actions that the more nationalist wing has urged. The second area is immigration, and I think that the negotiations over the coming weeks offer the opportunity to 1) improve border security, which is a real issue. But 2) provide some sort of realistic and humane framework for dealing with folks who are here already, particularly the people known as “dreamers”.
Vassy Kapelos: Do the revelations in this book, Mr. Steele, put your party in a better or worse position heading into the midterm elections this year?
Michael Steele: I think if we reduce the influence and impact of the nationalist fringe of characters like Mr. Bannon who have pulled the party in uncomfortable directions in places like the Alabama Senate race, I think that reducing the risk of divisive primaries that pull Republican candidates to the right often in irrational ways, I think that’s a big plus for the party going into the midterms next year.
Vassy Kapelos: And speaking of those midterms, before we go I have to ask, because you’ve worked with former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Do you think he’s going to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch?
Michael Steele: I certainly hope he does. I certainly hope he’s successful. I think he is one of the most humane, decent and talented public servants of his generation, and it would be a huge credit to the United States Senate to have him there.
Vassy Kapelos: Have you heard from him or anyone around him about his plans?
Michael Steele: I’ve not spoken with the governor. I’ve spoken with some people who are keenly interested in his plans, but no news on that front I’m afraid.
Vassy Kapelos: Okay, we’ll be watching Thanks very much for your time, appreciate it, Mr. Steele.
Michael Steele: Thank you.
Vassy Kapelos: Up next, what are the top risks in the world in 2018? The answers might surprise you.
Vassy Kapelos: Welcome back. The Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm, issued its list of the top 10 global risks, last week. America’s withdrawal on the world stage and China’s role in filling that vacuum topped the list. So what does that mean for Canada as our government looks to boost trade opportunities with China?
Joining me now from New York is Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group. Mr. Bremmer, a pleasure to have you on the program. Thanks for joining us.
Ian Bremmer: Sure, my pleasure.
Vassy Kapelos: Before the commercial break we were talking to a Republican strategist in Washington about the instability there, the battle between the president and his former chief strategist. How much did the political chaos in the U.S. factor into your top 10 geopolitical risks for 2018?
Ian Bremmer: Oh it matters because clearly we were moving towards a world that American leadership was going to erode. There are a lot of reasons for it. But the Trump presidency, his lack of capacity on foreign policy, the massive disagreements that are getting leaked all the time between himself and members of his national security team, all of that leads to a much more precipitous decline of U.S. influence globally. It happens faster and it happens more dramatically than it would have otherwise. And you can see this in the way that other leaders around the world react to the American president. They think that they can less count on the United States. And they’re looking to hedge much more effectively, whether it’s the Germans in Angela Merkel and certainly the extraordinary public statement that her foreign minister made a couple of weeks ago, like nothing you’d ever see from a European foreign minister in the past 20 years. Or whether it’s the Mexicans, or the Canadians, or America’s allies in Asia, you’re seeing it just about everywhere.
Vassy Kapelos: And I know your report talks about China vocalizing the desire to move into that vacuum and I’ll get to that in a second, but a lot of the instability in the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, has centred around North Korea and events in Iran. How likely is it that you think that the situation or conflict with one or both of those countries will reach a sort of tipping point this year?
Ian Bremmer: It’s a lot more likely than it has been, right? I mean I don’t think it’s 50/50 but you want it to be a lottery shot and it’s not. On North Korea I actually think it’s kind of bimodal. There’s a bigger chance of a diplomatic breakthrough driven by the South and North Koreans and that’s the big news for this week, but there’s also a bigger chance of incinerating the peninsula at [00:11:12 Seoul??]. And in the case of Iran, it’s largely downside. There’s not much upside, it’s the probably coin flip possibility that the Iranian nuclear deal ends demonstrations in Iran get supressed by the hard liners. They become more important in the Iranian government. Trump focusing much more on his distaste for the Iranian government and his support for the demonstrators makes it more likely that that deal gets ripped up and then the Iranians move back to developing their nuclear capabilities and suddenly we’re talking about Israel striking them or the United States. So these are the potential for miscalculations to cause very significant geopolitical confrontation, the kind that we haven’t really experienced since 9/11 and haven’t experienced from a state since the Cuban missile crisis. Those things are real in 2018 and so despite all of the market highs and how well the global economy is truly doing right now, the geopolitics actually looks quite bad indeed.
Vassy Kapelos: And North Korea and Iran while they did factor into your list of geopolitical risks, they were usurped by China. China tops the list of risks that the Eurasia Group released. Why is that?
Ian Bremmer: Well two reasons. One is because North Korean and Iran are maybe and would be a disaster. China’s a yes it’s here. It’s definite. But also China’s size makes it such a structural change in the global order. I mean you and I have never lived through a country saying we’re prepared to play a global leadership role. We weren’t before. For the last 20, 30 years, China’s been we’re too small, we’re too poor. Suddenly, Xi Jinping, much bigger economy, much more consolidation of powers, the strongest leader since Mao and the United States Trump saying not our problem, America first. He saw the opportunity to say we’re prepared to be a global leader on climate, on trade, on global architecture. We’re going to spend more on the one belt one road plan, seven times more than the Americans did on the Marshall Plan. That’s a big deal. And there’s no question that that’s a change in the global order that’s extremely destabilizing because it’s not like the Chinese are going to help build up the U.S. led order. It’s not like the handover from the U.K. to the United States with the special relationship when they trust each other. This is a competitor. To some degrees it’s an antagonist. It’s authoritarian regime. It’s state capitalist and they have zero interest in politically reforming, which really changes the way we think. We thought Liberal democracy was going to win, that that was the future. And certainly, Justin Trudeau embodies this idea of rule of law and openness and liberalism, but China’s the opposite of that and increasingly it’s the Chinese model that seems to have more pull.
Vassy Kapelos: And that’s exactly what I wanted to ask. Because Justin Trudeau and his government are in the midst of trying to pursue or boost trade, even pursue a formal agreement with China, how risky do you think that is given what you just said?
Ian Bremmer: It’s not that it’s risky. It’s just that it’s really hard. I mean if you look at the United Kingdom when they were talking much more about rule of law and willing to meet the Dali Lama and human rights. They saw themselves more strategically less of an economic player. The Chinese preferred the Germans, why? The Germans were bigger and the Germans focused on the economic relationship. Justin Trudeau has been exceptional on the global stage in talking about human rights, in talking about diversity and talking about whether it’s gay rights or women’s rights or all the rest. None of this plays in China. They can’t stand this stuff and Canada’s small. So there are a lot of countries in the world. I think that someone like Justin Trudeau would be able to make a lot of progress with, but Xi Jinping is not one of them.
Vassy Kapelos: Okay, thanks very much for your time, Mr. Bremmer. Appreciate it.
Ian Bremmer: My pleasure, sure.
Vassy Kapelos: Up next, politics, pregnancy and some food for thought with Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.
Vassy Kapelos: Adjacent to Ottawa’s downtown sits Elgin Street, a trendy strip of bars and restaurants catering to a young-ish crowd. Smack in the middle is Pure Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant and juice bar, and that’s where we met up with Democratic Institutions Minister, and mom-to-be, Karina Gould.
Thank you so much for your time today, Minister. It’s nice to see you here.
Minister Karina Gould: Yeah, I’m glad to be here.
Vassy Kapelos: Why did you choose Pure?
Minister Karina Gould: Well I really like this restaurant. It’s one where I like the food. I like the variety. I’m gluten free, so it’s really easy for me to find something on the menu. And most of it is vegetarian, so that way if I don’t want it’s an easy place to come.
Vassy Kapelos: You ordered the “Loved Salad”. What is that?
Minister Karina Gould: Well it’s kale and dried cranberries, and there’s sesame seed, and squash and a few other vegetables.
Vassy Kapelos: It looks extremely healthy.
Minister Karina Gould: Yeah.
Vassy Kapelos: I chose kind of like the most unhealthy version of healthy food on the menu, which is like cauliflower wings. It basically looks like stuff rolled in hot sauce.
So I wanted to start off I guess by asking you a bit about what drew you to politics. I mean you’re 30 years old. Take me back to how that decision came about.
Minister Karina Gould: I mean I made the decision when I was 26 because I’ve now been elected for two years and I made it in February 2014. But I have to admit that when I moved back to Canada after finishing my Masters, I just wanted to be involved in politics. And I wanted to be involved with the Liberal Party because I really believed in our now prime minister and the vision that he was putting forward. But I thought of myself as a volunteer and I went to the Montreal Liberal Convention in 2014, heard the prime minister speak, was really thinking about it and said you know what? If there’s a time when I want to be part of this it’s now.
Vassy Kapelos: Has it been what you expected or did you know what to expect?
Minister Karina Gould: I had no idea what to expect. One of the greatest blessings that I’ve had is not having those expectations because every day has been wonderful. Every day has been a learning experience. Every day I’ve been able to do something new that I didn’t know was part of the role of being a Member of Parliament or part of the role of being a minister.
Vassy Kapelos: What’s been the most unexpected part of political life?
Minister Karina Gould: I think time management in a sense because I think all of us understand what it means to be busy kind of except that it’s you’re fully immersed into it. And it’s not like you ever stop being the Member of Parliament. And so really kind of understanding that role and that position that you hold within your own community, but also within the House of Commons, I think, has been one of the things I’ve had to learn and also what it means to make sacrifices as well.
Vassy Kapelos: Do you think that makes it hard to sustain for years and years and years? Like could you imagine yourself doing this 20 years from now?
Minister Karina Gould: Right now I can because as I said I really love it. You know it’s intellectually challenging, it’s exciting. It’s hard.
Vassy Kapelos: As far as what to expect, I guess, in the coming years and your loved ones, you’re obviously pregnant.
Minister Karina Gould: Yes.
Vassy Kapelos: The elephant in the room. Maybe the cameras don’t see, but I guess how is that going to factor into things, or how has that factored into things? It’s really cool, I mean as a young woman watching it, it’s really cool to see. It’s kind of novel, I think, to a certain degree. So how has it impacted your life on the Hill and outside the Hill?
Minister Karina Gould: So I’d say up until now it hasn’t that much because being pregnant, I mean for every women is a different experience, whereas my first trimester was less fun than my second has been. The House wasn’t sitting during my first trimester, so that was actually really good in terms of energy and how I was feeling. But I’ve been really good in the second trimester and I have a lot of energy, so that hasn’t impacted too much. I think the bigger change will be once I actually have the baby and I’m trying to manage that different balance.
Vassy Kapelos: Are you going to take mat leave? Can you take mat leave? How does it work for an MP?
Minister Karina Gould: So there’s no mat leave policy, and actually within the Parliament of Canada Act there are only two reasons why you can be absent from the House and one is illness and the other is constituency business. And maternity or parental leave is neither of those. So the way it’s worked up until now is that each member of Parliament, and there are currently three who have babies right now, negotiates kind of with their whip, with their party on what their policy is going to be. I know the Procedures and House Affairs Committee is looking at this.
Vassy Kapelos: Do you think that’s a good idea? Should they be? Should there be a policy about this?
Minister Karina Gould: Well I think there should be, right? For me, it’s really important there are more young women in politics, right? It’s important that we have that diversity of who we are as Canadians. And you said at the beginning it’s kind of novel that I’m pregnant and in politics, right? And I’d like it to be more normalized. I think it’s really important for women no matter which sector and no matter which industry they’re in. Not every woman is going to choose to have children, but we shouldn’t be surprised when young women do, and we shouldn’t think of it as a setback to their career or what they’re going to be able to contribute to their job. So I do think it’s important that we’re having this conversation. Obviously, there’s never been a minister at the federal level who’s had a baby before, so we’re working without.
Vassy Kapelos: Do you worry at all about it being like a setback? And I ask that genuinely because in my career it’s the same thing. Like I think oh God, if I were to take a year off, somebody would replace me the next day, you know? Or I don’t know if I’d be able to continue advancing or that kind of thing. Do you think about that stuff?
Minister Karina Gould: Totally, yeah of course. I know it’s actually the number one question that young women ask me about politics. And even before I got pregnant the number question I got was like how are you going to balance maybe wanting to have a family with your career? And I can’t say that I have an answer to that.
Vassy Kapelos: Does you, being a minister, change things at all in so far as obviously the responsibilities are greater. Can you be away for two months? Do they have to figure out how that works?
Minister Karina Gould: So there is a leave policy for ministers.
Vassy Kapelos: Will someone sort of act as your replacement at that time?
Minister Karina Gould: Yeah.
Vassy Kapelos: Oh, okay.
Minister Karina Gould: So there’ll be an acting. But again, that’s why I’m pushing for a little bit of innovation as well because obviously there’s things that I’ve been working on for the past year that I want to make sure are coming to fruition and I still want to be involved in that process.
Vassy Kapelos: As minister you were kind of introduced to Canadians as being the face of a broken promise, at least when it first happened, obviously the electoral reform promise. Did you feel that way? Like did it kind of feel like you had to wear that?
Minister Karina Gould: I think we made the right decision and I think that it was obviously people are depending on what their feelings are and what their objectives are going to take it in different ways. But I think it was the right decision at the time.
Vassy Kapelos: Okay, cool. I’ll leave it there. Thank you so much.
Minister Karina Gould: Okay.
Vassy Kapelos: I appreciate it.
Minister Karina Gould: Pleasure.
Vassy Kapelos: And that is our show for today. Thanks for watching. I’m Vassy Kapelos. We’ll see you back here, next week.
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