Evan McMullin ran as a third party candidate for president in 2016 and earned 21% of the vote in Utah. Previously, he worked as a staffer in the US House of Representatives, as an investment banker, and served as a CIA operations officer for ten years. McMullin received his MBA from Wharton in 2011. He currently leads Stand Up Republic, a conservative political organization. PPR spoke to him about President Trump, the downsides of the two-party system, and climate change.
Conducted by Jamie Gleklen and Michaela Palmer
Transcribed by Michaela Palmer
Penn Political Review: Donald Trump has been in office for some time now. What do you think of his presidency so far and what would you be doing differently right now?
Evan McMullin: I think he’s had a lot of… I was going to say ups and downs, but it’s been mostly a lot of challenges in the first days, with some of his appointees not working out and having to withdraw. Certainly, the immigration executive order didn’t go well. The constant feuding with the press has been not good for our country but also not good for his leadership and his presidency. You asked what I would be doing differently… there’s a lot. First of all, my tone would be different. When you’re the President of the United States you have a tremendous opportunity to bring people together, even with your words. That’s one thing that would be very, very different. But also, it’s understanding where challenges to our national security actually come from. His immigration policy demonstrates a lack of understanding of where security threats really come from. And I’m not just talking geographically, but I’m talking about from which people. I think the executive order he released before demonstrates a lack of understanding, or, frankly, bigotry against Muslims. That, I thought, was damaging to our national security interests. That’s one thing I simply wouldn’t have done. I understand we’re not at war with Islam. We need Muslims to help us be successful in our efforts against terrorists. We have a lot of critical Muslim allies in that effort. I would have stepped up the effort to destroy ISIS, but I would have done it in collaboration with our Muslim allies. Also, I’d be working on criminal justice reform, I’d be working on poverty. I would be trying to further our trade relationships but also address some of the challenges the American worker faces due to automation. It’s more automation than it is trade. These are some of the issues that I’d be dealing with right off the bat.
PPR: FiveThirtyEight forecasted your chance of winning the election at 1-3%. Republican critics said that your running for President, along with Gary Johnson, hurt the chance of a Republican President. Why did you run? Between Trump and Clinton, did you think there was a lesser of two evils?
EM: I ran because I didn’t think people should have to make a “lesser of two evils” decision. That necessitated, for constitutional conservatives, a run by somebody like me. If I hadn’t run, I think most people that voted for me would have voted for Gary Johnson, or Darrell Castle… other more obscure candidates. There were two major party candidates, certainly, but I do think we have to get away from the idea that we have to choose one or the other, because as long as we think that way and as long as we continue to vote for what we believe to be the lesser of two evils, we’re just going to get more candidates that don’t live up to what we hope our candidates will live up to. In the case of Donald Trump obviously, I have well-documented concerns about him, but in the case of Hillary Clinton, I thought that we could have had someone on the Democratic side who didn’t have the scandals she had and who treated classified information more appropriately. Some of that pales in comparison to what we’re facing with Donald Trump now. But the point is, we shouldn’t have to make these lesser of two evils decisions. The parties need to do a better job giving us better candidates. Better people need to step forward and run for office. The whole premise of my campaign was that we shouldn’t have to choose the lesser of two evils and it only does us harm in the long run.
PPR: How do you respond to people who criticize independents for splitting the electorate and making it harder for a major party candidate to have won?
EM: That’s what I’m talking about. It’s so ingrained in our minds that the only legitimate candidates are the Republican and the Democrat. Some people say, and I understand the point – that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein pulled votes from Hillary Clinton and had they not been in the race then Clinton would have won and we wouldn’t have President Trump… Most of my voters were people who were conservatives who couldn’t vote for Trump. So they were going to stay home or they were going to go but leave the presidential spot blank and vote down the ticket for Republicans. I didn’t pull votes from Hillary Clinton and I actually don’t think I pulled votes from Donald Trump. The people who voted for me were so principled they were not going to vote for Trump… Unless the parties somehow miraculously offer us better leaders, we’re going to have to break out of this idea that we can only vote for Republicans or Democrats. I say that as somebody who may run as a Republican. It’s not that I don’t see any utility in the parties, I’m just saying that we’ve got to do something to put pressure on the parties to do better. If not with our vote, how will we do that? If we’re unwilling to use our votes to inspire better leadership, then what are we willing to do? How can we have an impact if at the end of the day, we’re still going to go back to the Republicans or the Democrats no matter what?
PPR: You believe in climate change. This opinion differs greatly from those of many conservatives in Washington. Do you think these officials truly do not believe in the facts supporting climate change or do you believe their stated opinions are motivated by politics?
EM: It’s really hard to say, but I do think that there is a lot of pressure on the Republican side not to acknowledge that the climate is changing, and on other issues. I think there is probably pressure on other issues on the left like that. In general, we tend not to really have leaders. We tend to have representatives. Elected leaders face this tension between leadership and representation. Representation is of course just doing what your constituents want you to do. That’s easy enough. Leadership is taking a position that is not popular and risking political consequences, perhaps losing your seat, for doing that. That’s where leadership happens. You’re not leading if you’re only representing. And maybe it’s not necessary to lead all the time. Many times representing is good enough because people are in the right place and you agree with them so you just represent. But in some cases, it is necessary to lead and by definition, leading is doing something that is not the norm. You’re moving in a new direction and hopefully pulling people with you. That’s risky. I think our members of Congress lack the courage and the principle these days to do that. But on climate change specifically, yes, I think there’s an issue with that with the Republicans. But there are plenty of Republican leaders who I think really don’t accept the idea that the climate is changing. Still. They really don’t accept it.
PPR: You were a CIA operations officer for ten years. How do you think that shapes how you view foreign policy and national security today? Do you have thoughts on Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community?
EM: I think I certainly understand a lot about how the different players act on the world stage and what our interests are and where our power comes from. I saw firsthand that American power comes ultimately from our ideals, from the truths that are enshrined in our founding documents. Like the fact that we say that all men and women are equal and we try to be consistent with that, imperfectly, but we’re making progress over time. The fact that we believe that people should have liberty and power ultimately should be in the hands of the people. That creates enormous goodwill throughout the world. Because of that, countries and people are willing to work with us. That’s something that our leaders absolutely must understand. Donald Trump does not understand that. He’s doing everything he can to abandon any value-based leadership. That is going to harm the goodwill that other countries and people have for us. That is going to decrease their willingness to work with us and that is going to decrease our power. That is probably the most essential thing that I learned during my service, and that is certainly missing from this administration.
This interview has been condensed and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.