An Interview With Sen. Rob Portman

The Republican from Ohio discusses his retirement, the current political environment, and impeachment.

On Thursday, I interviewed Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who recently announced his retirement. We discussed the lack of civility in politics, the roles played by both politicians and the media, and his working relationship with Donald Trump, among other topics. The transcript, lightly edited for clarity, follows below.

Why are you retiring?

I've been doing this 30 years off and on, and I never intended to do it that long. And you know, I love the private sector. I love my family. I love being home. I love our family business, so there's a pull, that part of it. And then on the other side of it, you know, what's the balance? Like how much can you get done in this town these days in the United States Senate? And that's diminishing, you know, the diminishing returns of the way I like to operate, which is—I'm a conservative, but I've figured out how to find common ground and get to a result. And we've been good at it. I mean, 82 of our bills were signed into law by president Trump, 68 by Obama, I'm told. So it's not that we haven't figured it out, but it's harder and harder. And that balance is harder and harder to justify. 

So that's the truth, there's no one thing that, you know, pushed me. But it's signing up, Steve, for another eight years, which a lot of people don't realize back home. You know, I had to make a decision about the next eight years of my life. I do love being home, and eight years from now, I would be in my mid-70s and less able to be engaged in the things I'd like to do--both the stuff I love to do, the hunting and fishing and kayaking and biking and stuff, but also, you know, doing some something in the private sector when you get to your mid-70s, it's a different ball game. So it was time to move.

Picking up on what you said there, and also in your announcement statement, you mentioned the partisan gridlock, and said it’s just hard to make progress, to do anything substantive on policy, and that that was a factor in your decision? Why has it become harder? Why is that? I mean, you’ve been in Washington for a long time; you’ve seen this from the House, you’ve seen it from the executive branch, you’ve spent time in the Senate. What’s made it harder?

It’s a very good question, and I don’t have a profound answer except the obvious one, which is that the political system—and even our culture—pushes us to the extremes these days. So the rewards in politics have changed. The days of bipartisanship being viewed as a positive versus a negative have shifted. And I think it’s partly because of social media, and social media gets blamed for everything these days, so why not blame them for this? But seriously, I think people are online finding what they want to read and learn about, and it tends to affirm their beliefs and probably strengthen their beliefs on the right or on the left—

Whether it’s true or not.

Whether it’s true or not. Talk radio, same thing. Cable news, same thing. I struggle to find news now when I turn on my TV at night when I get home. I get lots of opinions, and sometimes it’s not entirely accurate, because it can’t be—you can’t have two totally different universes out there, which is often what you hear on radio or TV or wherever. So I think that does make it more advantageous for a political person to kind of choose your team, shirts or skins, and to go for it. And that’s where you get, not just political support, but financial support. So I think that’s what’s going on, again, I don’t have a profound answer because I don’t have an answer to it, except that I encourage people to look at various sources of news and, you know, find the objective truth and vote for people who are trying to actually serve them, which means get things done, because that’s our job.

I’m not good at throwing out the red meat, and I don’t do it—I say no to a lot of opportunities to be on Sunday shows and to do the interviews that are conducive to kind of being the political warrior, because I don’t think that’s my job. My job is actually to figure out how to get things done. And it seems like maybe that’s out of date right now.

In your view, did Donald Trump’s presidency slow or accelerate the trends that you’re describing?

Well, it’s interesting. I think it accelerated the trends in terms of the coarseness of the language and the incivility, which is part of it—the toxic environment is partly due to the pushing to the extremes, because that’s how people communicate these days, more and more. And again, online being anonymous makes it even more likely that you’re going to see the kind of coarse discourse and incivility that everybody bemoans, but everybody seems to enjoy participating in. So I think he’s made that part of it worse.

On the other hand, when he came in, he wasn’t particularly ideological, which means that there was actually room for some compromising, and we did get some things done that were actually quite good for the country, in my view. Criminal justice reform—as you know, I’ve been a leader on what’s called second chance, you help people get out of prison and get into the job training and drug addiction treatment, and get them back on their feet. We were able to reauthorize my Second Chance bill in context of that criminal justice reform, so I was somewhat involved in it. And that’s an example where he was able to just say, hey, I want to do this. And it didn’t seem like a very Republican thing, but he got it done.

So there were some opportunities actually with him. I also did quite a bit with human trafficking with him—we did also with Obama—but passed some good legislation. And he helped me with Republicans on a couple of other issues. Of those 80-some bills, some were frankly tough to get through Republicans, including some of the anti-drug stuff that we did, but he was helpful.

So it was interesting, because from a policy point of view, it was a pretty good four years, in my view. I tried to do tax reform with George W. Bush, I tried to do it with President Obama, and it was unsuccessful. And with Donald Trump we got it done. Now, that was driven by the House and Senate, no question about it. But he was helpful. In that case [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin in particular was very helpful.

So I think he exacerbated the partisan rhetoric and the divisiveness, but in terms of policy, he did provide an opportunity, sort of an opening to get some things done that were very good for the country.

I think your point about the changes in Congress, and your approach to substantive policymaking as opposed to spending time on television, makes you—you stand out. It’s not the trend. There was a news story yesterday about a young Republican elected from North Carolina, Madison Cawthorn—he’s built his staff around the communications team, not legislation. Is Congress today a more legislative body or a more performative body, in your view?

Well, there’s both. But I think that’s very interesting what you say about Madison. I don’t know him; I’ve seen him on TV [laughter]. And I think if you’re a rational member from a red district or a blue district, that probably is a rational decision, to say ‘I’m going to put my time and effort into communication; in terms of my reelection that’s more important than passing legislation.’

By the way, I don’t let the media off the hook on this one. I mean, the business model for media—as you know better than anybody, having gone through this recently in your own life—is crumbling. And the online presence is part of that, where the advertising model has really fallen apart. But there’s a responsibility, I think, for media to actually cover what we’re doing up here.

And there’s nobody left to cover it. There’s one stringer left, there’s literally one Ohio reporter left in Washington; she’s with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and she’s terrific. And, you know, she actually writes about our policy successes sometimes. But other than that, there’s nobody, and there were, I don’t know, maybe six when I got elected. When I was in the House there were 12, literally 12. The Cleveland Plain Dealer had two or three. Cincinnati Enquirer had one, Cincinnati Post had one.

I only say this because it kind of makes sense, not to pick on Madison here, but for Madison to do it, because he’s smart enough to know that if he passes 82 bills that President Biden signs into law, nobody’s gonna write about it. Like, it’s not controversial. It’s just about helping America. It’s about helping people to be able to save more in their IRAs or something like that, but it’s not about controversy—because by definition they are bipartisan, and some take some time to understand, and they don’t sell, I guess, in the eyes of the media at least.

But I think there’s a responsibility that goes beyond just what sells, even if that’s the case that policy doesn’t sell—which I don’t think is necessarily true, but let’s say that is true. Then you still have a responsibility as a journalist to figure out what’s important to the people who are being represented here.

So the media plays a big role in this. I have a hard time; I do a press call every week, and I get through my 15 minutes of talking about all the policy things we’ve done, and usually I’ve got two or three bills I’ve either gotten introduced or gotten passed into law in a week. And they don’t care. Their questions are all about Donald Trump, and all about putting me on the spot between the Republican Party and Donald Trump. I mean, honestly, that’s been our pattern for the last four years, is that we’re talking about substantive policy, and the media only wants to talk about the latest Trump tweet and how to put me in a tight spot. And that’s just the reality of today’s media environment also.

Again, I don’t have an answer to it in terms of the business model; I do have an answer to it in terms of journalism school or wherever people learn how to be a reporter or an editorial writer, is that there is an accountability here that ought to go with the media, that they’re accountable for actually helping to correct this problem by actually reporting on policy, and who is doing what. This year I’m the fourth-most bipartisan member, last time I was the second-most bipartisan member—no one in Ohio knows that, because no media will report it, because that’s not considered interesting or good, I guess.

I don’t know enough about whether that can be profitable on the local level, but you’re certainly seeing the problems that arise when we don’t talk about that. And allow me—this is a rare moment for me, to say a word in defense of the media, which I don’t do very often anymore—it’s not like President Trump was leading a lot of policy discussions either. And while it’s certainly true that much more attention could be paid, could have been paid, to what individual senators are doing, to policy debates in the House—when you have somebody with such a commanding presence, it’s hard not to pay attention to what he’s doing, too. And I think the balance wasn’t right a lot of times. At The Dispatch, we chose to overlook, to look past a lot of the ephemeral Twitter spats of the day, the things that wouldn’t matter in six months or six weeks, probably not even six hours and maybe six minutes, but it makes it harder when you’ve got that kind of character at the top.

And because—not to elongate this, but because I did not respond to every tweet, although I can give you literally a list of more than 70 times I criticized Trump. But 70 out of four years is a small number, right? Because it happened to him pretty much every other day. But because I didn’t do that, literally I had editorial writers back in Ohio attacking me for being a coward.

It was like, are you kidding? First of all, no one except maybe Susan Collins or Mitt Romney, when he got here, have done it more. But that’s not the point: That’s not my job, is just every day to spend my time responding to the latest. So you get whipsawed if you’re in my position—you get it from the right, you get it from the left, and you get a media that’s disinterested in what you’re doing, and therefore your constituents don’t know what you’re doing.

In your announcement, you noted that you thought you’d win a reelection if you were to have run again. History suggests you might well be right about that; you trounced even formidable candidates like Ted Strickland in 2016. But if you’d had a Trumpy populist challenger in a primary, the path might have been more difficult. And if you were to vote to convict in the upcoming impeachment trial, you would have guaranteed that kind of a challenge, and the sustained efforts of the Trump operation against you. Did that factor in your thinking, as you thought about what you wanted to do?

I know this is going to sound unrealistic to you, but it really wasn’t about that. I managed somehow, and I don’t know how, honestly, to avoid any Trump tweets against me, or any public statements against me. When he came to Ohio he always said good things about me.

That makes one of us.

Yeah, I know! And they were more about—'I don’t always agree with Portman, but I respect him.’ In fact he said that, he said ‘he’s one of the most respected people in Washington,’ he would say things like that back home. So we’d had all that on tape. So there was not a groundswell in my case, as there has been for others, including our governor—he got some heat from the president.

And I think it’s because, frankly, I did work with him on policy. And although he wasn’t happy with my comments on Ukraine or on the election, you know, literally within hours of my saying and him seeing, because I heard stories about it, that he ought to let GSA start the transition immediately, he had GSA start the transition immediately. He wasn’t happy about it, but …

I think there was a certain, I don’t know, I don’t know why, but I think there was a certain—Emily’s saying ‘respect,’ that may be a strong word. I’m not saying, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to get a primary. You always get a primary in Ohio. By the way, my last primary everyone said I was going to have a really tough primary, because I’d come out for gay marriage just before the election. And it was the issue in my primary. And I won the primary by 82 percent, which was the highest percentage anybody’s gotten in Ohio in modern history in a primary. So I have a connection with our party back home, and I work it, and I have a lot of friends. And primary politics are in part about organization, and we’re good at that. So that wasn’t an issue for me. Maybe it should have been, but it really wasn’t; it’s not why I decided not to run. I think I would have run again, both the primary and the general, particularly given the new reality in Ohio which is that we’re a more red state than we used to be. And I think whoever replaces me will be a Republican, I really do, because of that.

It was more, you know, it’s just been a long time, Steve. And I never wanted to be a career politician, honestly—I actually voted for 12-year term limits in the House, which I ended up doing. Twelve years in the House, 12 years in the Senate. Not that—that’s almost a coincidence, and I never campaigned on that, but that’s kind of how I just feel. I think citizen legislating is a good idea. It’s good for the country to have people not stay around here forever. So anyway, that was not a big part of my thinking. It wasn’t about politics. It was about, again, kind of a personal issue, which is—30 years, my family made a lot of sacrifices, and just the balance, am I making enough of a difference?

Let me ask you a couple questions on impeachment and the Republican Party broadly. I was watching your interview with Bill [Hemmer] and Dana [Perino], and you said that what the president did on January 6 was “inexcusable,” but you also said the question is, how do we heal our country at this point?

And I want to push you on that: It feels to me like that’s the wrong question, or at least the wrong question right now. If you look at your criticism of the president—certainly my criticism of the president—he fomented an attack on the Capitol, some of his supporters were targeting members of Congress and maybe the vice president, they were there because the president lied about the election, he was caught on tape pressuring a state election official to commit fraud so he could remain in office. So there might be a time when the most important question is ‘how do we heal the country,’ but isn’t the most important question right now ‘will the president be held accountable for this unprecedented and un-American behavior?

Yeah, by the way, that description of ‘inexcusable,’ you know, came from my heart—I hadn’t ever used that word before, I don’t think ever. It’s just, it’s how I feel. And I’ve said other things about it consistently, as you know, including that he would have borne responsibility for whatever happened after that day if he didn’t speak up immediately to condemn the violence and to demand that his supporters be peaceful. And guess what? Again, I’m not taking credit for it, but that’s when he came out the next day and said what he said, which was, you know, very important—you know, like ‘stop it.’ So I have not been shy about talking about what he did that day. And as you discovered in your Fox appearances, saying “inexcusable” on Fox probably was not the best forum for me.

But anyway, the question is do you convict, or even impeach, in this case convict a former president, and I have concerns on two fronts. One is obviously the constitutional concern, and I have raised that from the start. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I am a lawyer; I was White House counsel for a while—associate counsel, rather—but it’s enough to be able to understand some of this stuff. Impeachment’s about removal; that’s the focus of impeachment. There’s no question in my mind about that. And that’s why the chief justice didn’t show up, you know, because we’re not removing the president. So I have concerns about that—although I’m listening as a juror; I’ve said from the start I’m not gonna make any decisions till I hear both sides. And that’s why I didn’t want to vote to table the discussion the other day, because we need to talk about it, because it’s a big issue.

And then the second thing is, what’s the impact on the country. I suppose you could argue that it would heal the country more to have a conviction. But, number one, there’s not going to be a conviction. We all know that. Frankly, I’ve known that from the start, and I think you have. But let’s assume that there were a conviction; what would that mean in terms of healing the wounds here? Which is that you’ve got the 73, 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump, you’ve got probably half of them who truly believe that he’s still right—maybe more, maybe two thirds, according to the polling—and that it was stolen. And they’re going to be told now that they can’t vote for the guy; some people in Congress are going to tell them that he’s not going to be able to run again, therefore they can’t vote for who they want to. And I think that’s going to further polarize and deeply divide the country. I mean, I just think that’s true. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way people [are] right now, back home in Ohio, where he won by eight points twice.

It’s a dilemma; I don’t know the answer. I think it’s a terrible precedent to set, that a former president, now private citizen, can be impeached or convicted. On the other hand, you want some consequence—there is a consequence, obviously, which is that he’s been impeached for this very thing by the House, but the Senate, there would be no consequence, effectively, if we didn’t proceed with the trial. So we are going to continue with the trial; that will have consequences in and of itself, because all of this will be coming out, and a lot of people will see it, some for the first time, at least in this context. But at the end of the day, there’s not going to be a conviction unless the numbers change dramatically from what most people think.

Is there anything that you could hear—you’ve talked about being a juror—that you could hear in a trial setting that would convince you to vote to convict? Or are you pretty well set that you’re not?

I’ll be listening; I suppose there could be some new information that could be provided. I don’t know what it would be, but I suppose that’s possible. And that’s why I think, you know, we have a responsibility to listen as jurors. We’re gonna have the trial, and it’s got to be taken seriously.

Jim Jordan, who’s already being discussed as a potential candidate for your seat in 2022, has called for Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach, to be removed from leadership position. Is he right to make that call? [Editor: Jordan said yesterday he is not running.]

No. Liz is a good friend of mine, so I have a bias, I suppose, on this one. But no, I think Liz Cheney should be able to speak her mind, and then the conference should decide. The conference rules, I suppose, allow for the conference to speak. But I don’t think—I’m not in the habit of giving the House advice, but I don’t think she should be removed.

I’ve talked to a lot of your colleagues who’ve described their service as one of this kind of permanent dilemma, and they think of it this way: Doing what’s right in politics today increasingly means doing what’s unpopular. Have you found that to be true?

I think doing what’s right in government is sometimes popular and sometimes unpopular. But that’s what you do. I did what I thought was right. I think the bigger issue is not so much that, but just both parties being pushed further to the extreme by the systems, you know, including the broadcast media and the online media and online information, and the fact that primaries have become such a powerful tool by those who want to pressure one side or the other. So I think that’s the bigger issue.

You’re former OMB director, obviously you’ve taken a pretty serious interest over the years in debt and deficits. We’re looking at $28 trillion right now, running deficits we’ve never seen. Republicans obviously haven’t been very outspoken on debt over the last four years; does anybody care about these issues?

Well, I hope so. I’m using that argument, as you can imagine, as I did with regard to the last package, on this $1.9 trillion, this is at a time with historically high deficits. This year’s deficit, this fiscal year is likely to be the largest ever. And the debt obviously is the largest ever. But more importantly, as a percentage of GDP it’s approaching the highest ever; it may be already. You have to go back to World War II to find debt as a percent of GDP this high.

It’s a problem. I talked to the secretary of treasury at her nomination hearing about it. I spoke to her about it privately, and I also raised it at her business meeting and tried to get commitments from her, that at least somebody in the administration is going to be caring about it. And she indicated that she did, but that she thinks interest rates are so low that it’s not a bad time to ‘invest,’ quote unquote.

The media is fond of saying, well, you Republicans only care about it when there’s a Democratic president. But on every single vote, every time this came up over the last four years, Democrats wanted to spend more than we did, regardless of what the issue was, including COVID. So it’s all relative, I guess, but it’s not like Republicans are more fiscally irresponsible than Democrats; we’re the more fiscally responsible party on every appropriation bill at every step, and always have been the last four years. So it’s not fair to say that relatively speaking we’re worse than Democrats or as bad as Democrats. But having said that, Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible for getting us into the position we’re in. And so together we should be getting us out of that.

I support this commission that Mitt Romney has introduced, I think it’s a good idea, to look at the trust funds. And I’m talking to Democrats about mandatory spending reform all the time. Yesterday I had a nice conversation with a senior Ways and Means Democrat who shall remain nameless—I’d probably get him into trouble. But we were talking about the need to reform mandatory spending side in a way that doesn’t hurt people, but that deals with what is the largest part of our spending now … and the fastest-growing part. And I’ve talked to a senior Democrat in the Senate about it recently, too. So I think there’s some interest; I certainly will be very open to it, as I always have been. I support raising the age of Medicare and Social Security, and that is a political issue I’ve dealt with. I think it’s one of the three or four things we have to do. I also support more means testing, which is one of the three or four things we have to do. So there’s some solutions out there, which I think I’ve been able to take those positions and still survive. 

On the current relief-slash-stimulus package, am I right that you’ve been involved in the discussions about that, trying to make it somewhat bipartisan?

Just before I took the phone to call you, I signed off on a proposal that we’re sending around to our colleagues, trying to do a targeted smart bill that builds on the $900 billion bill rather than replacing what we’re still spending. The ink’s hardly dry on the $900 billion one and we’re talking about another one, so we’ve got to be sure it makes sense.

One area is vaccination. Obviously—not obviously, I shouldn’t say that—but there is a need in my view to have more funding for the distribution of vaccines. That is something that I think both sides can agree to. There’s still probably $3 billion left in the kitty from the $900 billion bill for that, but we’ll need more. And what we don’t spend, well, that can go back to the Treasury. But we do need to be darn sure that more people aren’t dying unnecessarily for lack of resources from Congress.

Am I right from the outside to be concerned that Democrats increasingly seem willing to take this in a partisan direction?

No, you’re not wrong at all; that’s exactly what’s happening. Manu Raju—while we were talking, I got a text that Manu is reporting, I had a call last night with the White House along with three of my colleagues, one Republican, two Democrats, from this group. And I didn’t report that, but someone else reported it, so it’s out there now. And he just reported on a similar call but with all Democrats that apparently did not bode well for bipartisanship.

Should we be concerned about what that means for the prospects for “unity?”

Yes—it’s entirely contradictory to say on the one hand in an inaugural address that you’re looking for unity and bipartisan outreach; on the other hand, propose something at this level, $1.9 trillion, and propose to do it under a process that jams Republicans and unnecessarily poisons the well. This is an issue, COVID, where we can find bipartisan compromise; we just did, we know that. … Just to send this up here, up to the Hill, and then to say we’re going to jam it through on reconciliation is entirely inconsistent with a call for unity.

At a minimum, give us a chance to engage, you know? [They say] well, it’s gotta be done immediately, it’s a crisis. I said, well, the $900 billion, two thirds of it hasn’t been spent yet. And if there’s an emergency it would be vaccine distribution, and we’re told there’s over $3 billion left in the pot right now for vaccine distribution. So maybe next week or next month when there’s need for more, I’m open to that, as are all my colleagues, but there’s certainly not right now.