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August 18, 2019

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Q+A: Harry Reid remembers one impeachment and ponders a second

Reid And Boehner on Public Policy Panel

Steve Marcus

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks before a panel discussion with former Speaker of the House John Boehner at the Bellagio Tuesday, April 23, 2019. The panel was part of the inaugural symposium of the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at UNLV.

Former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has called Donald Trump the “worst president” in American history. Trump has said the former Senate Democratic leader’s “failed career” was marked by “lies and deception.”

But on the wall of Reid’s Las Vegas office, which is discreetly tucked away just a few steps past a gelato stand in the Bellagio casino, he has a reminder of less hostile times.

“Dear Harry: Congratulations — you are amazing,” reads the framed note on “Donald John Trump” letterhead and dated Nov. 8, 2010, shortly after what would be Reid’s final election.

Reid, 79, is battling pancreatic cancer, but in a recent interview, he showed he has not lost his dry sense of humor. Shortly before he welcomed former Vice President Joe Biden to his office for a visit, Reid discussed Trump, the Democratic primary and the Senate. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“How do you like my Trump letter?” he began.

The topic now with your former colleagues is whether to impeach the president.

I sat through an impeachment. I was right there, and — right in the front row. And Chief Justice Rehnquist was the presiding officer. And it was a great experience, it really was.

But I believe Jerry Nadler [chairman of the House Judiciary Committee] is handling things the right way. Of course Pelosi’s backing. I think the Mueller report deserves a full airing. I think that there should be witnesses, and I think that Trump better be very careful. Because if they’re going to order McGahn [Donald McGahn, former White House counsel] and Mueller and others not to testify, I think that opens the door to impeachment. So I think that they have — to do it the right way they have to go through these hearings, public in nature, of course. But the one, I repeat, trigger point is if they try to not allow people to come forward and testify.

Do you share Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s concerns about political backlash to some of her members, or to the nominee?

The answer’s yes. Because you don’t have to go very far to remember what happened. I mean, Clinton was impeached — it helped him. And, you know, I’ve been saying that for several months.

And you won in ’98, right, pretty narrowly against former Sen. John Ensign.

Well, I don’t think so — it was 428 votes.

Tell me what you make of this presidential race. Obviously Biden has gotten in now with a sizable lead. Do you think he’s a formidable front-runner, or do you think this is more of a jump-ball race?

I think that Biden is in really a good position, because my personal feeling is that I think people are looking for some stability. But you can’t discount other candidates. Bernie [Sanders] has a powerful organization out there. Here in Nevada we have our caucuses. Kamala Harris is next door — California always does well here. Elizabeth Warren has a fine organization, and she’s been here many times. Kirsten Gillibrand was here again. So I think for the American people it is good to have a primary like this.

What advice do you have for Biden? He obviously likes to sort of speak off-the-cuff. Should he curb that? Should he just be who he is? You have that in common.

[Reid recalled an ill-fated debate in his 2010 Senate campaign.]

I tried to be somebody I wasn’t, and I was a flop. And I learned as — when I would do those Tuesday stakeouts with all the cameras. I was better off just — I never had anything prepared. And people really got to know who I was because I was very candid with everybody. And I just think that Joe Biden just needs to be himself. Everybody likes him; he’s a nice guy.

How concerned are you about the recruitment challenges that Democrats have had so far this year for 2020? Is the issue that folks just don’t want to serve in today’s Congress?

I think that there’s a feeling that the Senate is not — is not dignified like it used to be. You know, we had Fritz Hollings, who just died. He was a person who personified what a person on the street would see in a senator: white hair, great voice, funny. I mean, it’s a shame that someone like Steve Bullock would not run for the Senate.

It’s a shame that Beto O’Rourke — he came to see me at my home. I just lament he’s not running for the Senate.

Did you tell him that, by the way?

I told him I thought he should’ve run, yeah.

What’d he say?

Nothing.

I’ll tell you a story about [former Speaker John] Boehner. I hurt myself, blinded myself in my right eye.

I know.

And so when you lose sight of one eye, the older you get the harder it is to get your depth perception. So they would put us on those little stages. So I said, “John, these stages are hard for me.” I said, “Keep an eye on me because I can’t see going down.” So he didn’t make a big deal out of it. Didn’t talk to anybody about it. But he always was there. And I remember that.

Let me ask you about what happened in 2016 with President Trump winning?

Hillary was at my home Saturday. And we — it’s easy for us to go back and be Monday-morning quarterbacks of our campaign. The fact is I don’t know what more she could’ve done. We were at a time in the history of this country when we had this great mass of humanity, mainly white men, who were just flailing around, and they voted for this guy. “He calls them the way he sees them. We at least know how he stands,” and that kind of stuff, no one recognizing that we would be keeping track of his lies. Now it’s over 10,000.

Let me ask you about Nevada’s role in the primary next year. Do you see Nevada playing a winnowing role? Do you think that we’ll have two candidates left after Nevada, one candidate left after Nevada?

We’re the third state. I think we have the ability to come out of those [early-nominating states] with a nominee pretty quickly. Now, what could go wrong is we have three people that have 30 percent of the vote, and so that’s the concern I have.

And you won’t endorse, you don’t think, until after the caucuses or at all?

No. Everybody knows my affection for Joe Biden. But he knows — I’ve told him I can’t endorse him.