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Progressive Rep. Ro Khanna on holding Trump accountable for the Capitol siege, ending the 'forever wars,' and working with conservatives to bridge America's cultural divide

January 11, 2021
In The News

Rep. Ro Khanna of California is a third-term progressive Democrat in the House who has made a name for himself as a strident opponent of the US government's interminable support for the "forever wars" — the numerous military actions that have gone on for years without congressional approval. 

Khanna spoke with Insider columnist Anthony Fisher by phone on Friday, less than 48 hours after the deadly insurrection by Trump supporters on the Capitol during the Electoral College certification proceedings.

The following interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity. 

What were you doing when the doors of the Capitol were busted in? 

I was in the Cannon office building. We were evacuating Cannon because there was a lead pipe bomb threat. I was actually headed towards the Capitol and then I got a frantic text saying head back, the Capitol is being overrun. 

We went back to the Cannon building and there were conflicting reports. We got one report saying "bomb threat cleared," then another report saying it was not cleared. But finally we just decided that it was probably cleared and better to be in our office. So I went to my Cannon office and locked the door and stayed there. 

I stayed in my office till about eleven o'clock and then and then went to the floor for the proceedings and the votes until about three in the morning. 

Can you describe the feeling on the floor of the House that late at night after such an unprecedented day? 

I think it was one of determination that we were going to stay until we certified the results, one of anger about what happened, one of shock. As you walk to the floor of the chamber, you see the damage. The elevator I usually take was cordoned off as a crime scene because that was a place where a woman had died. [I was] going into a majestic building which had been badly damaged. 

What do you think about your Republican colleagues who even after the insurrection insisted on trying to stop the certification? 

It's bewildering. It's baffling. A total lack of respect for the democratic process. 

There have been calls to expel Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, what do you think about that? 

I think there has to be an ethics investigation. Hawley was actually out there fist pumping with the crowd, and so there could be actual incitement to violence. And I think there should be an investigation for any sitting member of Congress or senator who actually incited violence, who went and supported a crowd that was engaged in violence. 

Do you consider Hawley's behavior an incitement to violence? 

On its face? It looks like it from the pictures I've seen of his activity next to the protesters. But that's where I think there should be a formal ethics investigation into his role in inciting violence. 

Do you think that the president directly incited violence? 

I think it was a case of incitement. Again, I think there has to be an investigation into what laws may have been broken. 

Do you support impeaching the president again? 

I do. I think we need to do it right away. 

Why's that?

Well, first you have a President of the United States who incited violence, then supported the people who were engaged in storming the Capitol — literally supported them on Twitter — and then refused to do his duty, which is to safeguard American democracy. He refused to call the national guard. I don't see how you do those things in you. How can you do those things and still be President of the United States. He should have been out the day after. So I am not just for impeachment, I'm for impeaching him now. 

What do you think the chances are of more unrest? 

I'm fearful of it. I think a lot depends on what the Republican leadership does. If Pence is president, I think there's less of a chance of riots and violence. And hopefully this time you aren't going to have Republican lawmakers invoking conspiracy theories and inciting violence. 

To pivot a bit, you took a lot of heat from people on the left for going on Laura Ingraham's Fox News show and discussing your support for ending the forever wars. Some thought you were "validating" Ingraham just by appearing on her show. Why do you think it's valuable to go on shows like that? 

I believe in the First Amendment, and I believe that you have to reach as many audiences as possible, and you have to engage in wide debate. Laura Ingraham has millions of followers. She's going to have millions of followers whether I go on her show or not. So the idea that I'm "validating" it doesn't measure up with the facts. It's one thing if I went on some show that had a small audience and was giving them a credibility boost, but Ingraham's show doesn't need that. 

I don't think progressives should be afraid to go into forums and articulate our ideas and build a growing coalition. Otherwise, how are we ever going to get our policies through? Now, if someone is on those programs, I think that they have an obligation to speak out for their values and you shouldn't be going on a show and, and agreeing with the host if they're saying things that are offensive or saying things that are contrary to what you believe. 

President-elect Joe Biden's got a history of being a hawkish Democrat, and his administration is shaping up to be a lot of familiar faces, probably not people that are terribly divergent from his foreign policy views. What are you hoping for from the Biden administration when it comes to national security and foreign policy?

I'm hoping we end the war in Yemen and I've been encouraged by preliminary conversations with people in Biden's team. I think they understand the moral urgency of the situation. I believe [Biden's nominee for secretary of state] Tony Blinken is going to make it a priority to stop our support for the Saudis and stop the bombing in Yemen. That has to be a priority. 

I'm working with Sen. Bernie Sanders on a war powers resolution to make sure that Congress has to be consulted before we get into any other wars.

What do you think Biden should do about the remaining US troops in Afghanistan?

He should pull them out. There needs to be a peace negotiation, and then we ought to leave. That's what's in the interest of humanitarian considerations, that women and children are dying there every day as we speak. And that's in the United States' interest. We're still spending $50 billion a year there. That would pay for almost-free college for every American. That would alternately pay for high-speed internet for every American. The costs have been staggering and the cost to human life is staggering. So we need to leave. 

We should make it clear that if there's ever emerging threats or terrorist threats to our homeland from [Afghanistan], we reserve the right to conduct and we reserve the right to go in again. But, there's no point in having a permanent presence there. 

For the past five years, Republicans have been terrified of offending Trump and in some cases abandoned their long-held principles for free market economics to appease Trump and his base.

After the Capitol insurrection, will Republicans still express that kind of fealty to Trump because they're afraid he'll support a primary challenge?

It's the first time I've seen a break. Not just by lawmakers, but also by [Trump's] Republican friends.

I think the images of the Capitol being stormed, it really shifted people's mindsets. There's something about the sacredness of the Capitol, about a belief in stability for American democracy. Conservatives are the last ones who want to see some revolution in this country. And I think those images scared people of what we've become. So I used to think that Trump would run again and now I think that seems very unlikely. I think events of January 6th were a game changer.

Trump has stoked conspiracy theories and those conspiracy theories were obviously a huge factor in the minds of the people who got violent at the Capitol. A repeated mantra from this hardcore Trump supporters is that — even though Trump's lawyers were laughed out of court — there was enough voter fraud that the election was effectively stolen and that they now no longer trust democracy. 

Moving forward, what do you think about the state of American democracy in the sense that a great many millions of people have lost faith in it because of blatant lies? 

It's a big challenge for us. I think on the one hand you've had parts of democracy working, you had Republican state legislatures vote for certification. You had Republican secretaries of state stand up to this president. You had a Republican appointed judges rule against the president. You had a Republican senate majority leader and a Republican vice president stand up to the president. But how do you overcome the spread of conspiracy theories and alternative reality, is one of the challenges for our time. 

Obviously we need to rethink the role that social media has had in encouraging diversion realities and how we try to structure and design social media so that there are common sources of information. We have to look at education across the country in terms of giving people the ability to sort out facts from conspiracy theory. And then we have to look at the communities that have been left out and why and why some of the anger may be there and the anxiousness may be there with the changes the country is going through, and how to respect the dignity of these places that have been left behind. 

And if we can do that, you're not going to get to everyone, but maybe you'll get to some, and that builds a coalition of people going forward.

I think there's two challenges for the country. The challenge of economically-left behind places and people where you don't have economic wealth generation, without basic healthcare, without basic housing. 

And then you have the deeper question, and that is the cultural challenge. I mean, one of the reasons that this country has produced Obama, Trump, and AOC within a few election cycles is because we're searching with great difficulty in how we've become a multi-racial multi-ethnic democracy. And when you look at the immigration post-'65 from non-European countries — I mean we're the most diverse we've ever been in our nation's history — it's easy to conceive of a nation on philosophical principles if there is also a cultural similarity. 

To conceive of a nation on philosophical principles, of a commitment to our constitution, when you have such incredible racial diversity, such incredible religious diversity and the racial history we do, is a very, very difficult project. And I think a large part of our challenges — how do we begin to improve the communication between Americans who come perhaps from very different perspectives — I think that just the awareness of said difficulty of that project, that having greater respect and humility in how we talk to each other, trying to lower the temperature of accusations, is something that leaders should aspire for. 

I guess the point is we need a bold economic vision, but we need to couple that with leadership that looks for finding commonalities of Americans with great differences. And it's a difficult project, but there's never been a multiracial, multiethnic democracy in the history of the world. And so what we're trying to do is very hard as well. 

In the Congress, we need to begin a dialogue with each other in ways that lowers the volume of the screaming on cable news and looks for ways to respect Americans and understand their anxieties, understand their perspectives, and find some common fabric for this country.

Are there any Republican colleagues who you're hopeful can help you in that effort to lower the temperature? 

I have a very good relationship with Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin. We've done things together with Jodey Arrington in Texas. I went to Hal Rogers' district in Kentucky to have conversations.

One of the things I think we need in America is sister cities. We have sister cities with countries overseas, but what about the sister cities with Palo Alto, California and Jefferson, Iowa?

I think we have to stand firm on our values, but figure out how do we understand and appreciate the misconceptions, the anger, and common ground. I guess it comes down to your fundamental belief of a fundamental decency of the American people. I think there is, of course, we're all a product of her upbringing. 

Now, my family hasn't faced some of the piercing hate and segregation that certainly African-Americans have faced in this country. So I don't want to minimize the problems around race and the changes in the face of leadership and the reactions that caused. 

But I think the way to solve that is to have more exchanges between members of Congress going to each other's districts, learning and recognizing, and talking to communities with an openness and not having a moral judgment in doing so. It's a little bit abstract because there's not a concrete three-point program that is going to suddenly find a common culture in America. But, I think ultimately it's the responsibility of leaders.

Take Lincoln's famous speech on July 4th, the question was, how could you be a German and be American, or be French and be American, or be a Norwegian and be American — ironic given that Trump said he wanted Norwegians in this country — but back in Lincoln's time, Norwegians weren't considered American because you had to trace your heritage back to the founders to be a true American. And Lincoln said famously in that speech that there's a mistake chord that extends from any American who believes in freedom and liberty. 

Of course, Lincoln was half-poet, half-political leader, but the question is how do we have that kind of leadership in communities across America that allow us to have difficult conversations and yet search for some common identity? 

I actually think you could probably split politicians into two buckets. To me, the highest obligation of those who are serving — more than the programs they're offering — are they contributing to finding a common American narrative and vision, or are they further dividing it?