JOHN YANG: We turn our focus back to Capitol Hill.
Earlier this evening, I sat down with Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. We spoke before the Justice Department announced it was appointing Robert Mueller as a special counsel in this investigation of the ties between Russian and the Trump campaign.
We looked at how the Republican Party’s leadership is handling the fallout, and the senator’s new book, “The Vanishing American Adult.”
Senator Sasse is a Republican who has been vocal for some time about his opposition to Mr. Trump.
I began by asking for his response to the recent events.
SEN. BEN SASSE, R-Neb.: Well, there’s just a lot we don’t know, so let’s first be humble about how little we know.
But it’s very important that we, those of us who are called to be public servants for a time, are constantly thinking about, what can we do to rebuild, not further erode public trust?
We have the institutions of our democratic republic that have 9 percent, and 12 percent, and 15 percent approval rating, and that’s not sustainable.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is a really important institution, and we need to all want to shepherd it. We want it to be protected from political influence. We want it to not be a place that the American people think of as a partisan agency that they should doubt.
And so, very critical, when you have three branches of government, the executive branch is where you are going to have to put your investigative arm, the FBI, and your prosecutorial decision-making, the Department of Justice. But the American people need to have confidence that it’s insulated from political and partisan decision-making.
JOHN YANG: You have questioned — even in the campaign, you said you trusted neither candidate. You didn’t trust Mr. Trump. You didn’t trust Secretary Clinton.
As your colleagues have learned more, and as we have all learned more about President Trump, have you been satisfied with the way your colleagues, and especially the leadership, have reacted?
SEN. BEN SASSE: Well, I think both of these political parties are living on borrowed capital. And they’re exhausted. There aren’t clear visions that either party has right now.
I want to be clear, I’m the third or fourth most conservative guy in the Senate by voting record, but I’m not particularly partisan. We should be having a conversation between the two political parties, where they’re each trying to outdo each other in terms of having better ideas to persuade the American people about what a vision for 10 and 15 years and 20 years into the future should be for policy-making.
Instead, we constantly have a lesser of two evils conversation. And right now, both political parties tend to act like their main job is to explain yet why the other side is worse. That’s not good enough.
JOHN YANG: But is the discussion, the constant discussion of trying to explain or defend the president, is that getting in the way of not only the Republican agenda, but also this greater discussion that you talk about?
SEN. BEN SASSE: Yes.
I mean, we have a continuum that should be Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. progressive continuum about what policy-making the federal government should do. But most of our policy-making discussions are short-termist.
We should be having long-term discussions about a national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad. We should be thinking about the portability of benefits in an era where average job duration for the next generation is going to get shorter and shorter for evermore. And that’s before artificial intelligence and machine learning is really disrupting it.
And those policy discussions should still be subordinate to an even larger civic conversation about, what does America mean? What is our shared narrative? How is the freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly the beating heart of the American experiment? We don’t talk about any of those things. We talk about the blood feud of Hatfields and McCoys almost every day.
JOHN YANG: Let me quickly bring you back to something a little more immediate.
The — one of your colleagues, Lisa Murkowski, said today it may be time to start thinking about an independent counsel in the Russia investigation involving the Trump campaign. Are you hearing that more? And what do you think about that idea?
SEN. BEN SASSE: So, I haven’t yet called for either a special prosecutor or an independent counsel, but I want to distinguish those terms and talk about why not.
So, first of all, independent counsel, or a criminal or an investigative thing that’s based on retrospective problems, that’s one potential pathway. We also — we usually use the word independent commission or 9/11-style commission usually to look at not just what’s happened retrospectively, but what do we need to do to be prepared for what Russia other and hostile foreign powers are going to do with cyber-attacks against us in 2018 and 2020?
I think, for the future-looking thing, we need to be doing lots more, because what comes next is far more compelling and dangerous attempts to interfere with America’s trust and Americans’ trust of each other. When the bot technology and the machine learning enables even more aggressive cyber-attacks in the future, it’s not going to be against one party or against the other. It’s going to be a war of all against all, where every American is supposed to doubt each other.
Putin is winning right now with these kinds of efforts. We have to be sure that we’re doing the prospective looking at how we’re going to be prepared for the cyber-attacks of the future. But I believe we also need to — and this is why I haven’t yet called for a special commission or a special investigator, though I’m open to those deliberations — I haven’t yet called for it because I want to see us restore trust in the institutions we currently have, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
We have to shore up these institutions. It’s not the case that you can just punt because of the current mistrust and say, well, if we have a special prosecutor, that will be a panacea and everyone will trust it.
If the special prosecutor — we don’t have a statute for it now, by the way. If we had to pass a new statute, usually, it would be some form of a three-judge panel. Well, if they appoint somebody, then two of them are going to have been Democratic nominees and one a Republican or two Republicans and a Democrat, and then people are going to dig into their history.
And we’re going to have distrust all the way down. We only have feet of clay. And the American people, we need to come back together and restore trust in some of our extant institutions and plan for the future.
JOHN YANG: Let’s turn to your book, make your publisher happy. We will talk about your book a little bit.
It’s called “The Vanishing American Adult.”
You write: “We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore or how to become one.”
Talk about that.
SEN. BEN SASSE: Well, first of all, this book is a — “The Vanishing American Adult” is a constructive project. Two-thirds of it is about different habit-forming enterprises that we should be dedicating our 13- and our 15- and our 17-year-olds to.
It’s not a blame-laying book. But, if it were, it would be directed at the parents and at the grandparents, not at millennials today, because we haven’t done a good job of helping our kids understand that scar tissue is something to celebrate. Scar tissue is the foundation of future character.
And, right now, we have come to believe that one of the ways to serve our kids is to protect them from hardships and transformational coming-of-age moments and to protect them from work. That’s not what we want.
We want them to become free to find meaning in work and in service to their neighbor.
JOHN YANG: Senator Ben Sasse, the book is “The Vanishing American Adult.”
Thank you very much.
SEN. BEN SASSE: Good to be with you.