Okla. GOP Sen. James Lankford spoke by phone with Public Radio Tulsa's Chris Polansky on Wednesday about the deadly pro-Trump insurrectionist attack on the Capitol, whether he feels at all responsible for the violence, and his thoughts on impeachment.
PUBLIC RADIO TULSA: When supporters of President Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol last week, the Senate was abruptly recessed just moments before the rioters breached the chamber. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford was in the middle of his remarks when proceedings were halted – he joins us today by phone.
Sen. Lankford, thank you for being here. I just want to start by saying we’re glad to hear you and your staff were unharmed.
SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: Yeah, we were as well. It was a very painful day for the country and for a lot of people, and obviously there were multiple people hurt and that died that day. It was a very, very sad day for our country.
PRT: I was hoping you could start just by talking about what was going through your mind when you were cut off. On the video, we could hear someone tell you “protestors are in the building” and then the C-SPAN video feed cut out. What happened immediately after that?
LANKFORD: Yeah, what’s interesting is you couldn’t see the other side of the video. As I was speaking, I actually watched a group of Secret Service agents rush into the chamber, grab the vice president off the dais because he was presiding, rush him out of the room, to be able to move Chuck Grassley, one of the other senators who’s the President Pro Tem of the Senate up to the dais. And then as soon as he got there he gaveled down and said we’re in recess immediately, and then that’s when a staff member came up to me and said there are protestors in the building.
But all of that chaos was happening and I was watching as I was speaking, and thought, “Okay, we’ve got something really serious going on, to say the least, around us, because this is obviously not normal.” Then at that point, they locked the doors down and informed all of us immediately, “Protestors have actually penetrated the skin of the Capitol and they are moving through the building and we are trying to be able to stop them, but if we can not we’ve got to get y’all out of here.”
Within a few moments, they opened up one of the back doors of the chamber and said “Everyone’s got to go out now. We’ve kind of cleared a single path and we’re moving people.” We didn’t know until later that there was a Capitol police officer named Eugene that had actually confronted the rioters on the first floor and enticed them to follow him up a set of staircases and away from the chamber. So as he was leading them away from the chamber, there was a different group of Capitol police actually leading us out a back door to help secure – that officer, Eugene, saved a lot of lives and a lot of pain that day based on his actions and what he chose to be able to do to be able to face down that group on the first floor.
PRT:That video and that story was [sic] remarkable. So, you were in the middle of explaining your objection to accepting the state-certified results of Arizona. When the Senate reconvened, you decided to pull that objection. Now the facts of the matter didn’t change at all – the only thing that changed was the incident. Some of your Senate colleagues did follow through in objecting. What made you decide to pull your objection?
LANKFORD: My focus from the very beginning was to challenge a single state, to do what Barbara Boxer did in 2005 when she had questions about elections. She challenged Ohio and did a single-state protest and said, “We need to change some of the ways we do elections.” My decision was to do it exactly the same way that my Democratic colleague had done in 2005, to challenge a single state and to say, “We really need to get an election commission in place. We really need to answer some questions that are out there. This is not going to change the inauguration of Joe Biden.”
In fact, we wanted to make sure the commission was only 10 days long so it wouldn’t get in the way of an inauguration, but it would be very clear: there are still unanswered questions. And it’s not just a, could have overturned the election. The Congress doesn’t have the ability to overturn an election, constitutionally, nor should they have that ability to overturn an election. But Congress does have the responsibility to be able to bring the voice of people in their state, and what I heard by the thousands over the last couple of weeks were people saying, “I have questions still about the election.”
Their questions need to be heard. In fact, on the sixth of January, we were not only asking for a commission to be done the next 10 days, which we knew quickly wouldn’t be done. But we also asked for a commission after the inauguration to say, “We still need to answer unresolved questions.”
My decision to be able to change my vote after the riot was the obvious sense of, we are exceptionally loud and combustible as a country right now. We need to do everything we can to turn the volume down and to be able to make sure people understand we’re going to be a functioning democracy that’s not going to do things based on violence. If I go back to the Ronald Reagan term, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it’s the ability to resolve conflict by peaceful means.” That’s not what happened January 6th. So my decision to switch was to say, “Okay, I’m not going to get the commission. That’s not going to happen and that’s obvious. We still need to work on these issues in the days ahead, but right now is not the time to be able to do it. Right now is the time for unity as a nation.”
PRT: Well, speaking of timing, I wonder, and a number of our listeners have raised this as well: if you were seeking to start a debate on election security – as you note, many people do have questions about the election – why tie it to the Electoral College certification process? I’m wondering if you could do it over again, if you would have said something like, you know, “This won’t change that Joe Biden is President-elect and will take office,” you know, seeing what happened after folks who just didn’t believe the results of the election took the Capitol.
LANKFORD: Well, I would say a couple of things.
One is, in my very first release on the issue, we released out a statement saying “Hey, we’re not so naïve to believe that we’re going to get this, but we do feel like voices do need to be heard, that you can’t just tell people ‘sit down and shut up, you’re not going to be heard.’ It’s important everyone is heard.”
So even from the very first release on it, I was very clear: we understand this is not going to happen but we do think it’s important. It is exactly what Barbara Boxer did in 2005 when she confronted the Electoral College and said, “Hey, I’m going to challenge the state in the Electoral College because we need to make a change in how we do our election system.” And they had the two-hour debate, we finished up the certification of George Bush as president, and then moved on from there.
So what we were doing – and I understand there are people that try to lump us in with others that really were trying to overturn the election – we were not attempting to overturn the election. All of our releases were very clear about that. We were attempting to make a point, which is what the Congress is all about, is to be able to bring the voices of people, including the thousands and thousands of Oklahomans that have come to me to say “I have questions,” to be able to honor their questions and to be able to say “How do we get answers to these things?”
In a normal time period, that’s how things work. Obviously, that day was not normal, but, frankly, we have protests at the Capitol just about every day for something. There’s no way you can look back and say, “There was a protest at the Capitol. You should have known that it was going to turn violent.” No protest has ever turned violent at the Capitol before like that. So while we have protests there every day, we grow numb to it. But clearly the people that were coming that day had fully intended to be able to penetrate the Capitol and be able to carry out acts of violence.
PRT:Well, Senator, the only thing I would say that I’ve heard folks argue is, of course Barbara Boxer did object. But at that point, the President of the United States hadn’t been calling to “Stop the Steal” and urging folks to come to D.C. You know, Rudy Giuliani said we need “trial by combat.” There were a lot of words to a very large group of people who believed, based on this messaging, that the country was being stolen from that.
LANKFORD: I absolutely understand that. But again, when we have protests that are there, we fully expect protestors to be able to honor the law of the United States. My biggest concern on violence that day was actually that there would be violence in the street, as there was weeks before when two different sets of protestors in Washington, D.C., had fought against each other, and we had had several people stabbed. So I was concerned things would get heated outside of the building, but no one would have ever considered they would have ever flown into the building and to try to be able to do that.
PRT: Senator, I have one more on the certification incident on Wednesday, which is: I spoke with Mark Wright. He’s a Tulsan. He’s the executive editor of the National Review, you know, not exactly a liberal, Democrat publication. And in his words, he says that, you know, he’s been a supporter of yours but he believes that you “aided and abetted” the attackers by sowing doubt about the election. The people who committed violence at the Capitol last week did so because they did believe this “stolen election” narrative. So I’m wondering just if you stand by your decisions, or if you have a response to that sort of accusation being lobbed your way.
LANKFORD: So I would say that if you’re going to hold that standard, that every time there’s violence you go and look for someone speaking somewhere nearby and say they’re responsible for that or aiding and abetting that, every act of violence that happened in every protest in any location, you need to go find someone who was speaking nearby and say they were responsible. I certainly didn’t accuse people, for instance, in acts of violence that happened around the country last summer, when there were peaceful protests gathered all around the country talking about police issues and race issues, that when windows were smashed and businesses burned down to say people that were speaking nearby were responsible for all that.
Each person that carries out acts of violence is responsible for their own actions to be able to do it. And while I’m very aware that there were people that were caught up and were saying that there were problems, I’m also very aware that when I talked to a lot of people one-on-one, and I say “Hey, do you think that there are some people that voted twice? That there are people that voted who were dead? That there are people that voted in two different states?” the typical response I hear back from people is “Yes, but that happens in every election.” Well, the problem is, we’ve heard that for so long that we’ve become accustomed to “Yes that happens in every election” that we’re not actually fixing it. So what we’ve got to be able to do is be able to fix legitimate problems.
No, Dominion voting machines didn’t double count and have some sort of secret algorithm for Joe Biden. I was very clear on that and made that statement to a lot of people. That was tested and evaluated in Georgia and Michigan and that’s been debunked. No, Sharpies didn’t throw out Trump ballots in Arizona. I was very clear about that and have said that over and over again. But questions still remain, and it’s not unreasonable to be able to say to people, “If you still have questions, let’s try to get you answers because we have to move on as a country.” Saying to people, “We’re not going to answer your questions because I don’t agree with you” doesn’t actually solve the issues. We’ve got to actually seek answers to questions, and people can seek to accept truth or not accept truth, but you’ve got to be able to get answers to questions.
PRT: I do want to cover what’s going on in the House right now before we go. I just want to start out by asking directly: Do you acknowledge today that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the legitimate winners of a free and fair American election?
LANKFORD: Yeah. They are the president-elect and vice president-elect, and I will be sitting on the dais with them on January the 20th, applauding them as the next president representing four million Oklahomans.
PRT: And of the millions of folks who have doubts about the election process, who are still going to have doubts about it after the inauguration, that’s what you’ll say to them? He is the legitimately elected president?
LANKFORD: Yeah, I will most definitely say he is the President of the United States after January 20th. But I will also raise the issue to say, just like we did in 2017 and 2018, let’s work across the aisle to be able to work across the aisle to be able to actually resolve election issues. I worked with (Democratic Senator of Minnesota) Amy Klobuchar for years in 2017, 2018, and 2019, because many of my Democratic colleagues said over and over again that Donald Trump was never really elected, that the Russians interfered with our elections, and that’s the only reason that he was really elected in 2016.
Well, the best way to be able to resolve that was to be able to work together and to say, “What can we do to be able to make sure we protect the election integrity and be able to guard ourselves from any kind of foreign interference. So I worked with Amy Klobuchar. We had a great working relationship and resolved a lot of issues. In fact, multiple states made a lot of changes to be able to protect themselves from foreign interference based on the work that Amy Klobuchar and I did across the aisle.
I would expect that we would do the same thing now, to say that if there are unanswered questions and issues, and areas where we see vulnerabilities, we would also work to be able to solve some of those vulnerabilities and try to get that resolved. That’s not an unreasonable thing, to honor the president that’s there but also to be able to say, “There is a vulnerability in our election system that if we see it, we should fix it.”
PRT: Okay. And of what’s going on right now as we speak: The House is debating an article of impeachment. A number of Republicans say they’re going to join the Democrats in voting to impeach the president for, I believe the exact charge is “inciting an insurrection.” That includes Conference Chair (Rep.) Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), notably. Assuming this matter makes it in front of you in the Senate, will you vote to impeach the president.
LANKFORD: Yeah, that’s not something I’m going to say now, nor did I say before the last impeachment trial that we had. We’re going to go through the facts and the issues on this. The House is facing it today. The Senate will face that starting sometime next week. It will be a very historic and unusual moment, I would say, in American history, where we literally have one president being sworn in while another president is being impeached and going through an impeachment trial even after he has left office, because the impeachment (trial in the Senate) of the president can’t even begin, at the earliest, until the 19thor 20th.
PRT: Right, right.
LANKFORD: So, literally, Joe Biden’s going to have a split-screen here of him being sworn in with the Senate actually dealing with the impeachment of the last president, and we’ll have a lot of constitutional issues with this as well. So, we’ll walk through this all together and I’m going to wait ‘til we actually get to trial and start on that process.
PRT: I understand the timing argument completely, and I heard you make it the other day. I wonder if you’re able to say, practicality or feasibility aside, just based on what you’ve seen, do you consider what the president did an impeachable offense?
LANKFORD: So, my first response is to do the same thing as I would in any situation like this, and that is to pause and say, “I’m going to get all the facts and information out.” Obviously, I heard the speech and read through the transcript that the president had on January the 6th. I’ve also seen other transcripts of other speeches and things that he’s done where he’s said very similar things. The difficulty is trying to be able to evaluate, was there something unique about this particular speech that would have incited a riot that’s different than a speech that happened, you know, two weeks before or a week before that. So that’s going to be the challenge here, and the focus is obviously not just removing the president from office – he’s already out of office – it is, can you constitutionally remove someone from office who’s already out of office, because the goal is really to keep them from ever running again. Quite frankly, that’s a whole different constitutional question that we’ve got to be able to walk through as well to be able to say what we do with that.
Now, saying all that, there’s no question that I do not agree with the rhetoric that the president had on January the 6thor multiple other times. I think what the president has said for the last two months around the election, he’s thrown out just hundreds of accusations of things that were not true about the election, things that were proved patently false, and I think that’s exceptionally unwise and I think it’s inflammatory.
But the challenge becomes: does it rise to the level of trying to say he was actually trying to incite a riot and to be able to overturn the American government? That’s going to be a judgment call question and we’ll walk through all those issues in the days ahead. But I have no question that the president was not speaking something accurate and that he was not being wise at all in what he was saying. But we have a second-tier issue we’re going to deal with, and that is impeachment of the president now after he has left office.
PRT: Would you support calls for his resignation?
LANKFORD: (sigh) Ultimately, again, we’re back to the same issue there. We’re in the very last week. If this was two years ago that we were dealing with this exact same issue, it’s a very different issue than it is for the country when there’s already been a street (unintelligible) and into the Capitol, and we’re already dealing with the transition of one president to another.
This is a very precarious time for us as a country, and this is something I’ve said in previous transitions, as well. The transition of power is always one of our most vulnerable moments as a country: for terrorism, for acts of violence, for vulnerability, for attacks from other countries. This is our vulnerable moment every time, and it has now become much more vulnerable in this time period, and it has become much more heated and more difficult.
PRT: I have just one (more) question, and I really do appreciate you taking more time than we had agreed to. Do – So, you just mentioned that a lot of the claims the president made since the election have been patently false --
LANKFORD: That’s correct.
PRT: -- have been untrue. Do you, looking back, feel you did enough in speaking out against those lies, and letting Oklahomans and Americans know that those things were untrue. While I understand you do believe there are legitimate questions, but those things that are false, do you believe you did enough in that conversation.
LANKFORD: (sigh) So, I spoke out on those issues. I answered questions. My team answered questions. When people reached out to us we responded back to them to try to get them factual information. But there is no microphone on the planet that is louder than the microphone facing the President of the United States, no matter who they are. Every microphone in the world turns toward Pennsylvania Avenue and toward the president at any moment that they want to speak and get the word out. Every news station stops and reports on what the President of the United States says, all around the world. And so while there were many of us speaking on these issues and spoke out often on them and answered a lot of questions on it, there’s no way to be louder than what, at any time, for any President of the United States says.
PRT: So no second-guessing?
LANKFORD: No way to be able to actually see that if I’d have done one more tweet, if I’d have done one more Facebook post, it would have suddenly drowned out the president and what he was saying. No, I don’t believe that’s true. So if that’s your question is, if I’d have done just one more tweet it would have fixed all that – or, as some are trying to say, if only I would have just told Oklahomans that wanted answers to questions, “No, I’m not going to help you get answers to questions, you’re just going to have to just deal with it,” that that would have suddenly quelled a riot in Washington, D.C., I just don’t believe that that’s true. I don’t find often that when people are told “You won’t get help” it actually makes them feel more comforted. I think more people are grateful to say, “When I get the opportunity to at least know I was heard, that that actually gives me the opportunity to actually get some kind of resolution.” Whether you agree or disagree at the end, at least you have the opportunity to be heard.
And that is the challenge, because in an incredibly divided time that we’re in as a country, everyone has very different opinions and everyone seems to feel like no one else is listening or everyone else is believing the lie, when we’ve got to be able to find ways to be able to stop pouring gas on the fire right now.
PRT: I’ll give you the last word, Senator, if there’s anything I didn’t ask about or you think is important for Oklahomans to know.
LANKFORD: No, I think people can continue to be able to reach out to us. I’m quite confident we’ve got blind spots, as everyone else does as well, and I’m glad to be able to engage in that kind of dialogue to be able to see what we can do. We’re going to transition on January the 20thin the middle of an impeachment time period, as well, which will be a real challenge for the Biden team trying to get everything off the ground, and the things they want to do in the first hundred days will definitely be slowed down significantly at this point. But we will work our way through this because the country has to be able to move along and we have a lot of things to do. And as people are going to work and taking care of their families, they also want these issues to also be resolved behind the scenes, and we’ll do our best to get those things resolved.
PRT: Our guest was Sen. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma. Thank you so much for being with us, Senator.
LANKFORD: You bet. Thank you.