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44 Former Senators Sign Letter Urging Senate To Guard Democracy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Forty-four former senators of both parties have signed a letter in The Washington Post today. It says, quote, "we are entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, our governing institutions and our national security."

One of the people who signed this letter is Chuck Hagel. He was a Republican senator from Nebraska during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. And he was also secretary of defense under President Obama.

Secretary Hagel, welcome.

CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: This letter says the country is at an inflection point right now. What is it about this moment that prompted you and your former colleagues to speak out?

HAGEL: Well, the bitter polarization and divide of this country, I believe, we haven't seen since the Vietnam War days. And I think the way we got ourselves into this is the last two years, we have not tried to find a center of gravity in our thinking, in agreeing to policy. Instead, we've gravitated toward a political anchor on both sides.

And as we look at the next two years, with the Mueller investigation probably winding up sometime next year, the Democrats taking control of the House, Republicans still in the Senate, we see a divide and a bitterness and a polarization coming that we think is dangerous for this country unless we - we start to try to get above it.

SHAPIRO: We've seen a pattern in the last year, in the GOP especially, where Republican senators who pushed back on the president lost support, like Jeff Flake of Arizona or Bob Corker of Tennessee. And then Republican senators who were once very critical of the president, like Lindsey Graham, who called Trump crazy, a kook, unfit to be president, have now become strong defenders of the president.

It sounds like Senate Republicans are moving in the opposite direction from where you would like to see them go.

HAGEL: Well, I would say this - the vote in the Senate two weeks ago on the Saudi Arabian resolution...

SHAPIRO: Over the Khashoggi killing.

HAGEL: The Khashoggi killing - that was a - I think, a very defining vote, maybe a turning-point vote because 14 - 14 Republican senators disregarded President Trump and the warnings that secretaries Pompeo and Mattis gave to those senators about, if you vote for the resolution, you'll jeopardize national security of this country. But yet, 14 Republicans crossed the aisle and voted with all the Democrats.

I used to say - and I've been, over the years, vilified by some of my Republican colleagues for not supporting the president of the United States on down - that we senators, congressmen, anybody, takes an oath of office to the Constitution, we don't take it to a political party, to a president or a political philosophy.

SHAPIRO: Do you see that vote as an anomaly, as a blip or actually the beginning of a larger change?

HAGEL: Well, it could be. On a vote that significant, I don't recall any vote where 14 Republican senators crossed the line and did not support President Trump. I think that was defining. Whether that's something that will foretell the future, I don't know.

But one other thing that you - that you have to add to this discussion is what happened November 6. Republicans are now starting to really digest how bad the Republican Party was defeated. And I think that will be part of the evaluation going forward over the next two years.

SHAPIRO: Just today, we saw President Trump meeting with the top Democrat in the House and the Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. They ended up arguing in front of reporters, and the president threatened to shut down the government over border security funding. How does that square with the arc that you're describing and the call that you're making here?

HAGEL: (Laughter) Well, it's not a model for what we...

(LAUGHTER)

HAGEL: ...Are advocating. I saw the exchanges in the video. And they're really disappointing and unfortunate that our country has to see that, the world sees that. And for a president of the United States to sit in the Oval Office and say, I'll be proud to shut down the government - really shocking.

So we can't let everything get so personal that you just can't compromise, and that's another thing that's happened over - I don't know how many years - but a good number of years, where we've allowed the personalization of politics to overtake the responsibility of governing. And we don't want to see that go any further because the next year or two, I think, are going to be very, very rough in this country.

SHAPIRO: Secretary Hagel, thank you for joining us today.

HAGEL: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Chuck Hagel was a republic senator from Nebraska and defense secretary under President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.