Steve Scalise was nearly killed last summer when a gunman opened fire at the Republican congressional baseball team’s practice. After months of surgeries and intensive rehabilitation, the Louisiana congressman met a thunderous ovation when he returned to work at the Capitol last September. The emotional scene—cathartic for Scalise and so many colleagues who were on the baseball field with him—might have obscured just how far he has to go. He’s still undergoing regular physical therapy and walks with the assistance of a cane; the wounds to his pelvis, hip and left leg were so severe that Scalise still doesn’t know whether he will ever be able to run again.
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Mentally, however, he claims to have recovered fully. Scalise says he was able to process the incident and put the trauma behind him by reconstructing the events of the day with the help of his teammates and security detail. That included a trip back to the baseball diamond with David Bailey, one of the two U.S. Capitol Police officers who saved his life.
“We went back to second base, and he showed me where the shooter was,” Scalise told me in an interview for Politico’s “Off Message” podcast. “We’re looking at first base, where [Bailey was] in a gunfight with the shooter. And he [was] standing just kind of isolated on an island at first base with no protection, and the shooter is kind of hiding, pigeonholed behind this cinder-block dugout behind third base.”
Of course, Scalise doesn’t want to be defined by that event. And he’s a fascinating character for other reasons.
Control of the House of Representatives isn’t the only thing at stake in the Nov. 6 midterm elections—there’s also the future of the House speakership. Paul Ryan is retiring, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi faces an uprising among younger Democrats and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not demonstrated the ability to collect the requisite 218 votes needed to become speaker. That makes Scalise, the House majority whip, a popular dark-horse pick to become speaker of the House—that is, if Republicans hold the majority.
Scalise, one of Washington’s most reliably on-message lawmakers, is even more cautious than usual these days. He’s spending the homestretch of the election season traveling the country with his House Republican colleagues, raising money and collecting favors while hugging President Donald Trump at every turn. Right now, with a career-climaxing promotion potentially awaiting him next month, Scalise can’t afford to alienate Republicans on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The internal dynamics are fragile: McCarthy’s allies have eyed Scalise warily for months, worried that he is undermining his superior’s bid for speaker. Scalise, for his part, promises not to run against McCarthy for the top spot if Republicans hold the House, and moreover, he tells me, “I think Kevin would have the votes.”
We talked about the shooting, the fight for control of Congress and America’s hostile political climate while in Pittsburgh, where Scalise was campaigning for endangered Republican congressman Keith Rothfus. Excerpts of that conversation follow.
This transcript has been edited for length, readability and clarity.
Tim Alberta: We’re just past the one-year mark of your return to Congress following the assassination attempt, the shooting at the baseball field in Alexandria, Va., during the congressional baseball practice. We think mostly about post-traumatic stress as it would relate to the military or to law enforcement. Do you find yourself experiencing any sort of post-traumatic stress?
Rep. Steve Scalise: Thank God, I really don’t. And I think a lot of that has to do with the support structure around me—my family, my friends—and those months I was in the hospital. I was in the hospital for 3½ months, and you have a lot of time to reflect but also talk through those things.
I talked to my security detail, Dave Bailey and Crystal Griner, who were my two Capitol Police security detail officers with me that day—true heroes who not only saved my life, but saved the lives of all the other people on that ballfield that morning. They were both shot themselves. When I was laying on the field, I never saw the shooter. I didn’t see all the perspectives that they saw. We talked through our different experiences and emotions, and I think that helped me resolve it a lot.
When I got better and was able to get discharged from the hospital, I wanted to get back to the ballfield, just to go by myself with David Bailey. We’re looking at first base, where he [was] in a gun fight with the shooter and [was] standing isolated on an island with no protection, and the shooter is hiding, pigeonholed behind this cinder-block dugout behind third base. And you’re just thinking to yourself, “This is a special person that would put their life at risk to save me and everybody else out there.” A lot of hard work went into it, but you kind of confront all the demons, and fortunately I’ve been able to exorcise those demons by just facing them head-on.
Alberta: Before you were House majority whip, you were chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and the fact that the House Freedom Caucus wound up spinning off from the Republican Study Committee spoke to the ideological brinkmanship within the Republican Party from 2010 to 2016. It seems Donald Trump’s presidency has squashed those old beefs, and now, rather than conservative versus moderate, or tea party versus establishment, the divide within the Republican Party today seems to be Trump versus Never-Trump. Is that fair?
Scalise: It’s not the entire picture, but it definitely shows you that now President Trump is in place, we have a president we can work with. One of the good things, I thought, after the Freedom Caucus started, is that most of them still stayed as members of the RSC. And I thought that was important because it wasn’t a true break, and we don’t really disagree on philosophy. The differences might be really on tactics: How do we move as conservative an agenda as possible forward in a dynamic with a president who wants to work with us?
The Democratic Party is having, I think, [an] internal civil war. There is a lot of internal angst about who they are and what they’re going to be, because they really don’t have an agenda. They’re just against Trump.
Alberta: What you’re describing—a party organized around opposition to a sitting president—is how many folks would have described the Republican Party, circa 2008 to 2016. And it seems now, not only have the tables turned, but Trump’s presidency has stopped that internal bleeding in the Republican Party and pushed aside some of those old divisions. Is this fully Donald Trump’s Republican Party?
Scalise: Well, clearly, he’s the leader of our party, and he is [going in] the direction that people elected him to move forward on. “Promises kept” is a real important thing in politics. When Donald Trump ran for office, he ran saying very specific things. And he’s actually fighting to do all of those things for the people that he committed he would do those things for. And the highest profile, obviously, has been the Supreme Court.
Alberta: Do you see Trump as a legacy figure, the kind of president who will durably reshape the party in his image, like Ronald Reagan?
Scalise: Yeah, and the country. There are a lot of similarities in policy between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. It’s very much a Reaganesque conservative agenda, if you look at it. Clearly their styles are different, but in the end, you’re going to be judged on your results.
Look at the results: You’ve got one of the strongest economies we’ve ever seen, and now you’re seeing the president confront some of the underpinning trade problems. This country has cut bad deal after bad deal; he’s actually cutting better deals for America. Once we get through the trade negotiations, I think you’re going to see this economy take off even more.
Alberta: You talk with a lot of conservatives, though—I do, and I’m sure you do as well—who will acknowledge those accomplishments—
Scalise: It’d be nice if the media did, too.
Alberta: —but express a great deal of uneasiness with him. Is there anything about the president that makes you uneasy? Or a more direct way of asking the question: You have young children. Do you view President Trump as a role model for them?
Scalise: I think he is a role model in that he’s actually following through on his promises. One of the things that people don’t like about politicians are the people [who] go out and make promises and have no intention of keeping them. Donald Trump promised very specific things. He was criticized for saying, “We’re going to build the wall.” I voted to help build the wall and to put the money in place. Obviously, we don’t have enough votes yet to do that. That’s one of those things that hasn’t been done—like repeal and replace of Obamacare—that we need to go back to. We need to help the president deliver on that promise, but the president has done his part. I think that’s an important thing to be able to say, “You know what? Here is a person who ran for president, and he promised he would do these things, and he’s actually doing them.”
Alberta: A big pivot point in the Trump presidency will be the midterm elections. I’m curious from where you’re sitting today, what percentage chance do you give Republicans of holding onto the House?
Scalise: I would give over a 50 percent chance, but clearly there are a lot of races that are tight. This could be a long night, because there are a lot of elections that are going to be 50-50 races. And if you look today versus two weeks ago, Republicans are in a much better position because think momentum going our way. People are excited that we now have another justice on the Supreme Court, and they got to watch the Democrats literally implode and just go off the rails trying to destroy Justice Kavanaugh.
Alberta: You feel better about your odds of keeping the House today than you did before the Kavanaugh controversy erupted?
Scalise: Yeah, I think it really concerned a lot of people the way it was handled by the Democrats, the way they tried to make it purely political and personal and tried to destroy a man’s life whether he deserved to have it destroyed or not. And then you add that the economy continues to grow and people’s lives are better.
Nancy Pelosi wants to be speaker again. She said she would reverse the tax cuts. She would get rid of the border patrol agents keeping our communities safe. She literally said for everybody that’s out there that got $1,000 bonus or that’s seeing more real money in their paycheck today and their utility bills are going down because we cut taxes, she called that “crumbs.”
Alberta: If Republicans hold the House, the assumption is that it would likely be by a small margin. If that’s the case, does Kevin McCarthy have the votes lined up to become speaker?
Scalise: Well, I think Kevin would have the votes. We’ve got to hold the majority first, and then it’s going to probably be a smaller majority—I don’t think anybody is [under] any kind of delusions about that. But, at the same time, I still think we hold the majority. And there have been smaller majorities. There was a five-vote majority that Republicans had back in the early 2000s, and they managed to get some important things done. You can have a functioning majority, even if it’s smaller.
Alberta: To be clear, if Republicans hold the majority, you do not plan to run against Kevin McCarthy for speaker?
Scalise: No. I’ve been very clear. I’m not running against Kevin; I’m supporting Kevin, and ultimately, we need to make sure we’re focused right now on holding the House, and we are.
Alberta: I have to think back to John Boehner having a cushion of 30-plus votes, Paul Ryan having a cushion of 20-plus votes and how miserable their lives were. Who the hell wants to be speaker of the House with a three- or a four- or a five-seat cushion?
Scalise: It’s always a tough job, no matter who is Speaker, no matter what the time is. There are tough decisions you have to make every day, and so that’s why you see that job—there’s not a long shelf life for it no matter who is holding it.
Alberta: So if Kevin McCarthy is unable to get the votes to become speaker if Republicans hold the House, are you prepared to step in and throw your hat in the ring?
Scalise: I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Obviously keeping the House right now is my top priority, and there’ll be time for the races and who is going to run for what, but I’ve been very clear from the beginning: My focus is on keeping the House. That’s why I’m traveling around helping members in tough districts raise money. I just transferred another million dollars from my campaign account into the [National Republican Campaign Committee] last week so that we have the tools we need to compete against a Democrat[ic] machine, where you’ve got the likes of Michael Bloomberg—one person alone putting about $100 million of his own money in place to flip the House from Republican to Democrat. You’ve got [Tom] Steyer out there putting about $100 million in place to flip the House so that he can impeach Donald Trump. There is big money out there. We need to be focused on what’s at hand, otherwise we’ll be in the minority wondering about what we could have been.
Alberta: Now purely hypothetical here, but if you’re Donald Trump, isn’t there a part of you that thinks you would rather have a Democratic majority for the next two years because they provide an ideal foil—they would spend two years attacking the president, potentially overreaching, and helping him in his reelection cause?
Scalise: I’ve heard some of those same kind of ideas, but I think it discounts who Donald Trump is. Donald Trump is a person who wants to get stuff done. He didn’t run to play politics. He ran to shake up Washington, but more importantly to get this country back on track. And the president knows if Nancy Pelosi is speaker, the Democrats take the House, No. 1, all of the good progress that we’ve made in two short years is over. You’re at a status quo from there on, because their agenda is going to be to resist, to delay, to drag Cabinet secretaries into hearings every week, to stop them from unraveling all these radical regulations that Barack Obama put in place that were killing manufacturing jobs in America. It’s going to be testimonies; it’s going to be subpoenas; it’s going to be impeachment.
Alberta: Regarding our polarized political climate, your friend Jeff Flake likes to say, “The fever is going to break.” Do you think this is a fever that’s going to break, or is this the new normal?
Scalise: Well, we’ve seen for years that this is a very divided country. Election after election, it’s been going back and forth, but the divisions have been getting higher, the swing voters as a percentage of the country have been getting smaller, so people kind of get more polarized into whatever corner they’re picking. And then ultimately, there’s a lot less room in the middle where elections are ultimately decided.
I don’t think [Trump] is the reason why we’re a divided country. He came into a divided country as a president making some very specific promises about fixing some of the problems that were causing the division.
Alberta: But Trump certainly met the moment by exploiting some of those divisions and playing on some of the divides. Ideological, class warfare, identity politics—he exploited those things and was able to win the presidency because of it. And I wonder if you look 10 to 20 years down the road, will we be looking back on this as just a hiccup where the fever got a little bit high and then eventually came down, or do you see this getting worse?
Scalise: If you look at our country, we have gone through different pendulum swings. I mean, after September 11, you saw a real unification where people came together, and there have been inflection points like that, but, you can even look when George H. W. Bush was president. Right after the Gulf War, he was at a 91 percent popularity, and just a few years later he was not president and was voted out of office. The country moves around depending on what’s happening, and I don’t think that’s going to change.
Civility is one of the things I’m concerned about. Hillary Clinton just earlier this week was almost encouraging some of the violence you’re seeing against people based on their political views.
Alberta: Her quote was, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.”
Scalise: There’s no place for that. And I think you start seeing why Donald Trump was elected, not her. That’s not what this country is about. This country is not about choosing when you’re going to be civil and when you’re going to be violent. There’s no place for violence in our political discourse. You can absolutely disagree with people, but you can’t pick and choose who you’re going to obey in terms of laws.
Alberta: Donald Trump in 2016 at multiple rallies [said], “I’ll pay your legal bills if you smack this guy around, if you punch that guy in the face,” seeming quite clearly to be inciting some violence at his own rallies. And this is where as I ask as a man who has been—
Scalise: Well, and I think that was in response to people that were paid to go and beat up some of Donald Trump’s supporters. You know, clearly you didn’t want to see it go there, but it went there because they were paying people to go in and attack people at Donald Trump rallies.
Alberta: I ask this to a man who was shot and who very nearly died: You would agree that there is no party or ideological tribe right now that has a monopoly on some of the insanity that we are witnessing in our political system?
Scalise: I’ve been very vocal recently that I’m concerned about the rhetoric on one side of the aisle. You can say all you want, “Well, gee whiz, it’s going around everywhere,” but it’s not. You don’t see this coming from the right. When Barack Obama was president, there were a lot of his policies that I disagreed with, that a lot of Republicans disagreed with, but threatening him, threatening to harass his Cabinet members, threatening his life was never acceptable. And any of us on our side would speak out, just as people on the left would if something like that happened.
I am real concerned about the radio silence when somebody on the left threatens violence against someone on the right, and it’s happening over and over again. It’s not equivocal; it’s not happening on both sides. It’s happening on the left against people on the right, and it’s well-documented, and it’s got to stop, and leaders on both sides need to call it out. I’ve called it out. I’d really like to see people on the other side call it out too. And they ought to, and frankly people in media should be asking them. If somebody is inciting violence, Republican, Democrat, regardless of party, we all ought to be calling it out because there’s no place for it in America.
Alberta: One of your best friends is Cedric Richmond, a progressive Democrat and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. A few years ago, when the controversy exploded surrounding your having spoken to a conference organized by David Duke, Cedric Richmond came to your defense and said you don’t have a racist bone in your body. He may very well have saved your political career. Do you worry about the lack of cross-party relationships in Congress today, and is there something that can be done to encourage more of those personal friendships that transcend the partisan differences?
Scalise: Cedric and I go back to our days in the state House, where you would still have ideological differences with people, but afterwards you would go out to dinner. You would run into people you didn’t know, and you’d get to know them better, and you’d build real relationships. And while we on the Republican side and the Democrats on their side do a lot of things together, I think it would be healthy for us to do more things, you know, almost like a buddy system—you go pick somebody on the Democrat[ic] side, go pick somebody you really have a lot in common with personally and just get to know them better. And I think that would be better to really understand where the other side is coming from.
I mean, friends sit around their own kitchen table, and husbands and wives don’t agree with each other on every issue, but they don’t call each other names and throw things at each other. I think we need to do more of that, because the more you get to know somebody, at least while you can respect their differences, you’re not going to demonize them. And I think that’s what really is at heart here, is respect people’s differences because that’s what makes our country great.