Transcript: Into the Conservatives Against Trump

The full episode transcript for Into the Conservatives Against Trump.

Trymaine Lee: Let me play a piece of tape for you.

Archival Recording: Something's wrong with Donald Trump. He's shaky, weak, trouble speaking, trouble walking.

Lee: It sounds like a Democratic attack ad against President Trump, but it's not. There's another group that may be just as passionate about removing the president from office this November, a GOP political action committee called the Lincoln Project.

The Lincoln Project was founded last year by Republicans and independent conservatives fed up with President Trump, including George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. And they've largely focused their work on ads bashing the Trump White House on a range of issues, including the administration's response to the coronavirus.

Archival Recording: Trump failed America. So he does what he always does, attack and blame.

Donald Trump: No, I don't take responsibility at all because--

Archival Recording: So who do you trust: Donald the dope?

Trump: Then I see the disinfectant, it knocks it out in a minute.

Lee: Earlier this month, they released a mock endorsement for President Trump from Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Lee: The entire ad was voiced in Russian and praised, quote, "Comrade Trump" for his, quote, "loyalty and friendship to the country."

Lee: This ad's been viewed 1.6 million times on YouTube since it dropped on July 1st.

Reed Galen: What we found is that you had to be willing and able to take the fight to him the way he would fight with you.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, we're going into the Republican fight against the party's leader. The Lincoln Project has reason to think they'll be successful. In the second quarter of 2020, the group raised $16.8 million. And a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 50% of voters say they strongly disapprove of the president, and 50% also say there's no chance at all that they'll vote for him. So the Lincoln Project just might have a shot at helping to unseat Donald Trump this fall.

Galen: Every day that he's worried about us is a day that Joe Biden and his campaign have clean air to go do the things that they need to do to convince the American people that he should be president of the United States.

Lee: Reed Galen is a political strategist with years of experience working with President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He identifies as a political independent, and he's one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project. I caught up with him on Friday. There are a lot of people who might not agree with your politics, but I see from the posters and the records on the wall you have great taste in music. Who is that, Miles back there? (LAUGHTER)

Galen: I've got some Miles Davis. Yeah, I've got some Beach Boys. I've got some Beatles. I've got a little Jason Isbell. Yeah, you name it.

Lee: So let me ask you this, Reed. You know, you've been on a political journey. Give us a sense of your political history, like, from back then till now. What has evolved? What has changed?

Galen: Sure. So, I mean, I grew up in Washington, D.C. So I grew up in Republican politics. My dad worked on Capitol Hill for a long time. So, you know, I was sort of born into the trade. And, you know, after college, started working for Republican candidates, including George W. Bush, Senator McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger out in California.

You know, I got to see the highest levels of American politics at a pretty young age. I was never an activist. I was never an ideologue. At best, I was probably, you know, a RINO, "Republican in name only." So, you know, "moderate" is not a word I see as pejorative but is just, like, where most of the world lives.

And so when you really start to see this stuff with the Tea Party in 2010, I think that, you know, a lot of D.C. establishment Republicans stopped listening to their voters. And as you know, if you don't believe you're being listened to, eventually you get resentful and you look for a way to lash out.

And I think that we saw that Donald Trump was an endpoint for those folks who were, you know, maybe unheard and felt unseen, had no one else that would talk to them in a way that sort of spoke to that resentment. And unfortunately, you know, we're three and a half years into the worst political experiment in American history. And, you know, for me in 2016, I said once Trump got the nomination, "If this is what it means to be a Republican anymore, you can count me out."

Lee: But had you actually been voting Republican the entire time until 2016?

Galen: I did vote for Republicans because, you know, in American life unfortunately, it's typically a binary choice. And, you know, most folks go and they say, "Okay, I'm gonna vote R. I'm gonna vote D." And that's where I was. But, you know, certainly I voted for Joe Biden in the primary this fall here in Utah, where I live. That was the first Democratic presidential candidate I ever voted for. And I'll vote for him again in November.

Lee: So we take that jump from this evolution. We have 2016, you're done. You say, "If this is what it means to be a Republican, I want no parts of it." But then you get to the Lincoln Project. Was there a moment or something that said, "You know what? I have to do something"?

Galen: You know, I think there was. It started with a phone call last fall among myself, Rick Wilson, John Weaver, and Steve Schmidt. You know, there's the quote/unquote "never Trump" movement that's been around for a while. Most of it exists within the Beltway or had existed within the Beltway.

And it was very smart people making intellectual arguments. The problem is that intellectual arguments don't work against Donald Trump 'cause he's not an intellectual guy. The rule of law is something that he's always trampled upon. So to him, telling him he's violating it is like he just doesn't care.

What we saw was that we wanted to take the skills that we had all developed over the years and the experience we developed over the years and say, "Okay, we're going to go do something about this." So what we found is that you had to be willing and able to take the fight to him the way he would fight with you.

Lee: So that's some serious brain power though. Yourself, Steve Schmidt, that's a lot happening there. But to transform that into something with some resonance, and some grit on the ground, and something sticky, how do you do that? What's the goal? And ultimately, what's the strategy?

Galen: Sure. Look, I mean, when we started this, we launched in a New York Times op-ed on December 17th of last year. And I had written a budget that said that we were gonna raise $25,000 between December 17th and December 31st. We raised $400,000 on the first day.

Lee: Wow.

Galen: And had 40,000 people sign up on the website. And so we knew we had something, but we didn't know what it was. And it really took unfortunately both impeachment to illustrate not only how unfit for office Trump is (although, I mean, we'd always believed that) but really how unfit for office all, you know, his enablers in the Senate are as well.

But it took COVID and the lack of response to it. And we should be clear: That's what we've seen. The federal government has not responded to this in any meaningful way because of Donald Trump. That really I think started to have the scales fall from the eyes of so many millions of Americans who frankly thought he was a clown, didn't like the tweeting, but didn't really care because the economy was good, 401(k)s were up, unemployment was low.

If you wanted a job, you could probably find one. But now, these are life-and-death issues, right? The consequences of having elected this guy are now front and center among all of us. And we have, you know, these three significant crises that we're all facing: COVID, unemployment, and now the greatest social unrest we've seen since the '60s. All of which ultimately lay at his feet and his responsibility for inciting them, not reacting to them, not taking them seriously, or going out of his way to make them worse, either by omission or commission.

Lee: You know, the first time I became aware of the Lincoln Project, I was watching TV and I saw this striking, striking ad. I hadn't seen anything like it in a while.

Archival Recording: There's morning in America. Today, more than 60,000 Americans have died from a deadly virus Donald Trump ignored. With the economy in shambles, more than 26 million Americans are out of work.

Galen: What we've tried to do is show, don't tell, right? One of the basics of sort of visual storytelling. And so what we wanted to do was start to illustrate how his behavior is tangible and impacting Americans' lives. And so what we saw with "Morning in America" is you have to pierce Trump's bubble of unreality that he's lived in all his life.

When you saw "Morning in America," what happened was is that he's sitting there in the residence of the White House and you know where he's gonna be every night. There's only one place he's gonna be. It's gonna be there, with his remote and his Fox News, and his Twitter feed. He saw that ad go by, and he realized, I think why he responded so badly, was he understood that that's what the world's gonna look like if he's still president.

Archival Recording: And now, Americans are asking, "If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?"

Archival Recording: Paid for by the Lincoln Project, which is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Lee: Obviously, Donald Trump presents any number of opportunities to seize on, but you guys have been cranking these ads out. Is there a soft touch? Are you waiting for the right moment to seize on? How do you decide?

Galen: Well, you know, it's a combination of several things. One is we always try and figure out what we believe is most effective against him. We have also used our ability to be flexible and nimble to take him to task in the news cycle, and I think that's where our speed comes in.

And I think that makes us different from everybody else, is we don't have a big superstructure. We don't have a political party. We don't have a candidate. We don't have a campaign. We have a team of people, of video folks and other staff that do these things, and we're able to turn this quickly.

Because once we see the attack, like, we go for it, right? There's not a lot of thinking about it. If we believe it's a clean shot, a hard hit, we take it and we take it as quickly as we can. And so as we go into the fall, we'll be more intentional about the types of people that we're trying to reach, specifically soft Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, but also looking down the path and say, "What is Donald Trump likely to say or do in the coming hundred and however many days?"

Take China, for example. We knew that China was gonna be a line of attack for Trump against Vice President Biden. We'd had that in the can for two or three weeks. But then the John Bolton book comes out, and it has all these revelations. We take the ad out, we spend, you know, an hour re-editing a few things, and, boom, it's out the door. One of our ads called "Flag of Treason" about the Confederate flag and just what it means, disunion, disillusion, treason, slavery, oppression.

Archival Recording: America defeated the men who followed that flag. Those with honor surrendered and cast it aside forever. So why does it keep showing up today at events supporting Donald Trump, and why does he call the folks who carry it "very fine people"?

Galen: I think you see that that commercial is still resonating in several ways today, and I think that's one of those things that that's where we want to be in the context of this whole campaign.

Lee: Speaking of the Confederate flag, we see how the president has responded to the protests, and the rising calls for this racial reckoning, and his praise for Andrew Jackson, "our beloved statues," right? And we saw that Mount Rushmore display. Why haven't you all taken the notions of race and how Donald Trump has mishandled it? And he has this long history of racism. Why haven't you more explicitly taken that on in this moment?

Galen: One is because I think that the president is doing it himself. On both, you know, violence against African Americans by police forces, what does he do? He doesn't acknowledge that it happens, and acknowledge that it's a massive issue, and acknowledge that George Floyd has driven us to a place where we have this reckoning that as a country we must contend with.

Instead, he says, "They kill more white people. They kill more white people. They kill more white people." Like, everybody knows that that's the wrong answer except for him. On the Confederate flag, look, Donald Trump is behind the cultural curve of NASCAR and the state of Mississippi. That is abundantly clear to everybody.

This is why his numbers are tumbling among suburban voters, that white middle class voters find that rhetoric and those actions repellent. But I will say this, is that I think we have seen that that is a major wedge issue. And so we will continue on that front.

And remember that we are targeting Republican voters. You know, mostly white voters, mostly suburban voters. And so we are going after it in the way that we believe is most resonant to them. Now, does that mean that won't broaden our scope and our case against him on that front? It doesn't.

I think what it means is that we want to make sure that we're being most resonant to those folks. Look, if Trump loses 1-4% of those voters in any of these states, he doesn't just lose. He loses in a landslide. He gets crushed. And so if we can come in and take, you know, 1% off the top and 3% off the bottom of his vote and Democrats can get out their vote in urban centers and among longtime Democratic voters, he's in for a terrible election night.

Lee: What do you think the ceiling is for those kinds of voters? 'Cause that's a specific niche of voters who are Republicans but they find a lot of this stuff distasteful. Do you have a sense of how the ads are working and how your efforts are working in that space? And how big of a space do you think you're playing in?

Galen: I think the space has grown, but we don't want to take our eye off the ball. We will be going in and doing more traditional advertising to those target voters in those target markets and areas. But I think the strategic piece is keeping Trump off balance. He's not a guy who fights well off his back foot.

And so, you know, again, whether or not it's the Confederate flag piece, which he's still talking about today, whether or not it's the "Trump is unwell" piece, where we, you know, highlighted him sort of shuffling down the ramp at West Point, you know, he's wrapped up in his own self-image, in his own sort of base instincts.

And while he's there, you know, his campaign is desperately trying to hold on to voters in Ohio, the panhandle of Florida, Texas, Iowa, Georgia. These are not offensive advertising buys. These are defensive, trying to hold the base. And, you know, at this point, you know, look, his campaign's already spent like $800 million and he's at 38%.

Lee: Whew.

Galen: Now, all that being said, complacency is our enemy. Gotta get the votes out. Gotta get the votes out across the spectrum, across demographics, across geographies. We can't let what happened in 2016 happen in 2020. We have to get our voters out.

Lee: When we come back, I speak with Reed Galen about the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the voters he thinks the Lincoln Project won't be able to win over this November. Stay with us.

Lee: One thing that has been wild to see and concerning for many people is that we're in the midst of a pandemic. We're seeing the wave spreading across the South and the West, and we see the administration and the president discrediting the CDC, saying, "Hey, we don't want, you know, the CDC to stand in the way of reopening your schools." The discrediting of Dr. Fauci. And one of your group's latest ads compares Dr. Fauci to the president, and you call him this hero. This is another interesting ad, spot on in the moment.

Archival Recording: He's an American hero. A kid from Brooklyn who grew up over his family's pharmacy. At 5'7", he was captain of his high school basketball team, a natural leader. Under six presidents he's quietly worked to keep America safe. In a time when truth is under assault, he's always been straight with us.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: So I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now.

Archival Recording: While President Trump lied.

Trump: It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle. It will disappear.

Lee: Give us a sense of the back story.

Galen: Sure. Well, look. I mean, Dr. Fauci's an American hero, right? I mean, he's been working on behalf of the American people for 40 years. One of the pioneers during the AIDS epidemic of trying to figure out how to mitigate the loss of life from that horrible disease.

And so from our perspective, again, this is one of those things that we've tried to do, is say, "Dr. Fauci has been here for all of us for a long, long time. Presidents through the last 40-plus years have taken his advice because he knows what he's talking about. But because Trump refuses and is unable to respond to COVID, it must be somebody else's fault."

You listen to Dr. Fauci's interviews now, and he's sort of flabbergasted and bemused by it because he didn't expect to be here. But certainly this is a tough guy from Brooklyn, right? Like, he's not gonna just sit back and take this stuff. And so what I think you're starting to see is, like, that guy's in a world of his own. This is bizarre. I think the president doesn't understand it's just hurting him. Like, he's not gonna engage in the silliness, but he's certainly not gonna allow himself to be impugned either.

Lee: Are there some Trump supporters and members of the base that you think are just unreachable?

Galen: Yes. Look, and I think that's a great question because I think we should never underestimate the effectiveness and the efficiency of the Trump/Fox News/OANN/Alex Jones/conservative radio mediasphere. I was in New Hampshire back in February right before the primary up there, before COVID and everything hit.

I spent two hours outside of a Trump rally in New Hampshire talking to folks, asking them questions. And whether or not it was a group of high school kids, group of middle age women, group of older guys, it was like they were all reading off the same sheet of music. Literally, like, they had a piece of paper and they were reading off the bullets.

Lee: It was written in the palm of their hands, right? (LAUGH) Everybody's just--

Galen: Exactly right. Yeah, exactly right. And I see it with some friends and family, too, that the further Donald Trump drops, the harder that that base crystallizes because the more the Fox thing ramps up. I think it's actually harder and harder to reach those folks. And, look, at some point in politics it is a numbers game, right?

You always know there are people you're never gonna get. And you say, "I'm not gonna get those people. Who are the people I can get? How am I gonna get them? And what's the most efficient way to make them come across the line?" So there's that 25, 30% of, you know, certainly the electorate but the country writ large, they're never comin' our way.

Lee: You know, if there has been any criticism of the ads, a couple are that they are so ramped up, hyper masculine. There's the sexual innuendo in one is like shrinking, where you talk about the size of his turnout, (LAUGH) right?

Galen: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Archival Recording: Hey Donald, your campaign manager told you a million fans wanted to come to your first big rally. Turnout in Tulsa? A dud. You've probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected. It sure wasn't as big as you promised.

Lee: Does that pose difficulty in reaching women voters?

Galen: That wasn't for any voter. That was for him.

Lee: (LAUGH) I see.

Galen: That was the audience of one.

Lee: I see. I see.

Galen: We want to ridicule him because we want to put it on Fox News in Washington, D.C. where we have it standing by. Five days a week, we're on Fox and Friends, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson. Every night.

Lee: He's definitely seen these ads then.

Galen: He's definitely seen 'em. The shrinkage ad is not what I would call a persuasive ad to any human being other than Donald Trump. And it was to drive further into his skull that he's failing, that people don't want to come see him, that we know he doesn't like the small hands attack and all the other stuff. Is it juvenile? Yeah. But we're dealing with someone who's got the id of, like, a nine-year-old boy, right? So, like, that's not an ad that is meant for broader distribution.

Lee: How has the president responded? We know his legion of supporters will come out and take shots at you, and they'll spend taxpayer voter money. But George Conway is also a co-founder of the Lincoln Project. I wonder if word has kinda trickled through his wife, Kellyanne Conway, about the president's displeasure with what you all are doing.

Galen: We haven't heard much of that, but let's just say we do have voices within those places that definitely make it known that he is unhappy. We see some of this tangibly. So, for example, as I mentioned, we buy this time on Fox News. He has now commanded his campaign that they must put his campaign ads on Fox News in Washington, D.C. because he doesn't like just seeing ours. So that's, like, a million dollars a month they're probably spending on that stuff.

Lee: Wow.

Galen: You know, he's gonna lose Washington, D.C. like 90-10, right? Like, I mean, I don't know who the Republicans are in Washington, D.C., but there ain't a hell of a lot of 'em. But that's a waste of time, energy, and resources that his campaign is utilizing.

He attacked us personally, right? He attacked us on Twitter back in May. He gave us table stakes. We now are his prime antagonist. And so, you know, as I mentioned, every time they're focused on us and trying to drive our quote/unquote "numbers" down, right, we're a bunch of political consultants. (LAUGH) We're not running for office.

So the idea that, you know, you have hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of people who otherwise should be figuring out how they're gonna get the president reelected, they're focused on the pirate ship. We move faster. We hit harder than they do. And so, you know, that's one of those things. It's working. And they can't quit us because Trump can't let it go. If he had just ignored us, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation today.

Lee: You're not just a strategist though. You're a strategist who created this PAC that raised $16.8 million and have attracted a bunch of billionaire donors. What is it about what you all are doing that you think resonates with those high-net-worth donors?

Galen: Well, look. I would venture to say we have been lucky enough to have some, yeah, very wealthy individuals contribute. But, you know, we also have hundreds of thousands of regular Americans who have contributed. There's a level of candor, right? We don't pull punches.

And I think there were folks across the political spectrum who are just sick of this guy, who are looking for somebody to just stand up and metaphorically punch him in the nose. We have clarity of mission, clarity of message. And I think that, you know, with so many different people trying to tell you this, like, slightly shaded story of this, or that, or whatever, like, we say, "This is our guy. This is who we're going after. And when we're done with him, we're gonna go get the senators, too."

Lee: So, Reed, what numbers are you seeing? What's the data suggesting that, you know, you all really have a chance of, you know, hitting Donald Trump where he's soft and really winning in November?

Galen: Yeah, look. The national polls are always interesting. And if you look at what we see now, that Trump is down 10, 11, 12, 13 to Biden nationally, that's all good news. You really want to look into those states not at what the registered voter surveys are telling you but what the likely voter surveys are telling you.

It shows Biden up in a lot of these places three, four, five, six points. And so I think that's all good news. The race is going to tighten. We should absolutely expect that. The Trump comeback stories will be written. They absolutely will be. But I think what you've seen is that Trump has done enormous institutional damage to his voter base and are even getting a lot of those country club Republicans who sort of thought he was a joke but liked their economic position are moving off of him.

Their wives, I think, are certainly moving off of him. And now I think you're seeing a lot of those working class white voters, too, for whom there's just an exhaustion setting in. And I think that when Donald Trump is gone, I'm hoping that we see that he was a wake-up call to all of us.

We traveled way too far down a path, and it almost cost us everything. We now have a chance to do something bigger, and better, and greater and to solve so many of the problems that have been with us for decades. Look, I'm Generation X. I think you see millennials, the Gen Z people.

As the baby boomers sort of move out of their space in the middle of American policy and American life, you see a much different group of Americans coming to the fore that have recognized the issues that are significant, and consistent, and persistent in our country. We can do that, and we can do it together. We got 110 days to make those things possible.

Lee: Reed Galen, thank you so very much. You all have certainly stepped out on this one and really put your money where your mouth is. We really appreciate you joining us. Thank you very much.

Galen: Thanks, Trymaine.

Lee: That was Reed Galen of the Lincoln Project. And a heads-up to you, our listeners. In a few weeks, we're gonna dive into the messy new reality of education in the midst of a pandemic. We're headed to San Diego, California, where all classes in the district will be conducted online this fall. Listen, I'm a parent. So I know what a huge disruption this is for families and for educators. So we want to hear from you.

If you are a parent or a teacher in the San Diego Unified School District, write us. We want to know more about your experiences with online learning over the past few months and what you are doing to prepare for the fall. You can send us an email, IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com. That's IntoAmerica, all one word, @NBCUNI (short for "Universal"). com. And one of Into America's producers will get back to you.

Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.