By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – U.S. Senator Doug Jones sat unassumingly in the lobby of Montgomery’s Renaissance hotel late on a Friday afternoon.
It was the end of an ambitious state travel day in which Alabama’s newest senator had toured both the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Tuscaloosa and the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama plant in Montgomery.
I was the only one attending the post-tour media availability his staff had arranged, at least for the moment. Perhaps it was the late Friday afternoon time, or some press had overlooked the announcement, or they simply couldn’t spot the event for its lack of production. There was no big entourage beyond a few key staff, no fancy equipment or colorful banners that sometimes accompany such events.
It didn’t seem to bother Jones, so I set my phone to record and we just talked. Here’s what I asked and what he said about tariffs, President Trump’s judicial nomination, and his prospects for 2020.
Todd Stacy: So you just came from Hyundai.
Sen. Doug Jones: Yeah we went to Mercedes this morning and Hyundai this afternoon. You know I wanted to see firsthand just the phenomenal work they’re doing and just kind of give me a firm grasp on these things on a high level. But just to see the impact that our automotive industry is having on the state is just phenomenal.
TS: Did you hear any concerns about tariffs. I wanted to get your bill in a minute. But when you were on the ground there did you hear any concerns about proposed tariffs and what’s going on with the auto industry?
[Note: Jones is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that would delay proposed tariffs on imported automobiles and auto parts, which are seen as a threat to the auto industry in both Alabama and Tennessee.]
DJ: We’ve heard those concerns. You know, we were taking a tour, and so we didn’t talk to a lot of the folks online. They were busy. They’ve got this real time production line so we didn’t interrupt anybody for fear that we would slow down the whole lot. But I have had folks from Hyundai and the other plants that have come up to DC talked to us. The tariffs are a real concern. You know, folks are being cautious right now. But, certainly the tariffs are a concern. The agreement with the EU the other day was a really good first step, but it’s a very small step. People forget that it’s just a very small step that there’s so much to be done with that with the Asian markets and others that we’ve got to keep the momentum going.
So yes there is a concern. People need a plan. They need to have some certainty. And I don’t think that anybody believes that the Hyundai plant here in Montgomery is in any way a threat to national security. So we need to be realistic about this. And again, I’m glad the president started hearing the voices of concern out there and had this agreement with the EU.
You know the irony about that agreement to me is that I think that could have been done for five months ago. I think he could have done that a year ago by sitting down just like he did the other day. I don’t think it took trying to be tough and, you know, criticize our our friends and our allies and really just almost throw them under the bus in order to get to that point. Everybody wants to have free trade. Everybody wants to have fair trade. And I think we we lost some momentum with our European allies in trying to deal with rogue countries like China because we’ve been doing that alone. Hopefully this agreement will also be the first step and maybe trying to partner up together again as we should be and should have been to try to talk real sense into China.
TS: Are you referencing the Transpacific Partnership. [as an economic stick to China]? I mean is there any talk of that?
DJ: There’s no talk of that right now. And I think people need to look at that. But the fact is that, you know, our allies and our friends have been hurt by China, and the way to do that is work together. We need to get some changes made to intellectual property issues with China. These are serious issues, and I was quite frankly concerned that the president went ahead and made that settlement was ZTE because they are as bad an actor as anybody. And we need to be very very careful.
The other thing I’m concerned about with China is that the longer this goes on, China is spending billions of dollars in infrastructure. They’re doing the same thing around the world that the United States of America did in Europe with our allies and friends to help rebuild after World War II. And they were our friends and our allies for decades until we started trashing them. And I think they still are, fortunately, but if we’re not careful we’re going to lose markets. We’re going to lose soybean markets. We’re going to lose automobile markets we’re going to lose other things and we won’t be able to get a lot of them back, particularly with farming.
TS: Were you surprised by what happened at the White House the other day [President Trump’s announcement that an agreement had been reached with the EU to ease growing trade tensions and hold off on tariffs]. It seemed like a surprise to me, but you’re on the inside. You said it was progress. Were you surprised given your view?
DJ: I really wasn’t that surprised. Only because it just makes so much damn sense, okay? There was nothing that came out of that that was this “aha” moment or an extraordinary thing. Our trade with the European Union is not that much out of balance to begin with. It’s really not. There are some things we can do better. There’s some things that they can do better, but the fact is what came out the other day was really very normal. Or it wasn’t that much of a surprise because the only thing that is surprising is that it took this long. And it and it took this long because we’re the ones that have to impose these self-inflicted wounds.
You know, somebody told me the other day that people say we’ve got to stop the bleeding. Well, we’ve got to stop the cutting first. We’re inflicting wounds and this could have all been done. I am absolutely convinced it could have all been done months or a year ago with just the right diplomatic channels and sitting down and talking and not so publicly challenging our friends especially when, on the one hand you’re challenging our friends and, on the other hand, you’re cozying up to dictators. I mean it’s just a wacky world.
TS: Last thing on trade: how has the response been to your legislation with Sen. Alexander?
DJ: I think it’s been really positive. I mean, you know, no one really expects that to move very quickly. It was a lot of messaging and there were a lot of people I think that have expressed support for it. We know that in terms of getting it passed the Senate or getting passed in the House then the president’s got to sign it.
TS: But you’re making the point.
DJ: We’re making a bipartisan point. It’s a very strong bipartisan point that you got a junior Democratic senator from from the south and a senior Republican senator from Tennessee.
TS: Well, they’ve got GMC, they’ve got Volkswagen, Nissan.
DJ: I think there are output is greater. They probably have a greater footprint in the sense of the number of jobs that they have in Tennessee. So [Sen. Alexander] and his statements were very strong and very supportive. So it’s been really good working with him instead.
TS: You’re in the middle of a nontraditional August recess. Normally, you’d be out planning an entire month full of events around state. I mean, here in your first year in office, would you like to at least get a little more time to get out there?
DJ. Sure. I mean you know it’s a pretty jammed schedule when I come back. We would have liked to have had some for the ability to have a little bit more flexibility with that. But, we’ll deal with it the way we have. I think we may get a little bit of back on the back end. It’s going to give me time to do a few things. We’ll see how that goes.
TS: Part of the reason for canceling the recess was to get nominations through. There are ads up right now…
[at this point Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler joins us, having not seen the unassuming meeting]
TS: So, yeah, I was just asking about how part of the reason why they canceled recess was to get judicial nominations through. I know that there are ads on TV and the radio pressuring you. Do you feel that pressure?
DJ: Yeah, I’m not worried about the ads. And, you know, for folks running the ads on both sides, they’re really wasting their money. Because I have a process that I’m going through to do what I think is is my job, and ads from interest groups really don’t mean that much to me at all. In fact, they mean nothing. I think initially when Senator McConnell decided to bring us back he was talking more about nominations. As it turns out, I think we’re going to probably spend a fair amount of time on the appropriations process. You know, Senator Shelby and Senator Leahy I think are really working well together to try to get us back into what we call regular order in a process that hasn’t been seen now in 10 years. And I’m hoping that that will be the case. So I think the appropriations process and nominations are moving I think people want to complain about it sometimes but the fact is when nominations have been moving in and we’ve been voting all whatever it comes up, so.
TS: Have you scheduled a time to meet with [Supreme Court nominee Brett] Kavanaugh?
DJ: No my process is every day I get a new brief and memos or copies of speeches or opinions and I need to read. We’re trying to go back and do my due diligence on him. And look at his record and it’s a pretty extensive record. And we will see when the hearing is scheduled. I don’t know when that is. Whenever that hearing is scheduled I’m going to spend a lot of that day watching the hearing tell the staff that I’d like for them to just kind of keep my day light that day so I can really watch that hearing and then we’ll schedule a meeting with him as soon thereafter as I possibly can. But, I don’t really want to meet until we go through that hearing because and I’d do my work because I don’t want to I want my meetings with these nominees to be more than a meet and greet. I wanted to be substantive and I’m sure we’ll have some questions that did not get answered in the hearing.
TS: Didn’t you work on judicial issues as a Senate Staffer?
DJ: I worked on the judiciary with Senator Heflin.
TS: Do you find that background helpful?
DJ: Well I think that background is. Although it was a different Senate and a different Judiciary Committee during that time, even though there were a lot of controversial judicial nominees during that time. It is a different Senate and it’s a different process. The main difference today is that the process for judicial nominations, but particularly Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, is much much much much more political.
TS: I think I counted “much” times four.
DJ: Yes, you can write that. It is more political and partisan. And that’s very unfortunate. I mean that’s very unfortunate. The framers of the Constitution wrote in an independent judicial judiciary and it’s hard to see how a Supreme Court is considered independent. When you see so much money being spent on advertising to get 51 votes, alright?
Kim Chandler: Have you decided how you will vote on the nomination?
DJ: You know, I have made it a point of not trying to talk about anything about that publicly. I think that I want to keep an open mind on every aspect of it. And look at a number of different things. So rather than trying to talk about those publicly which will tend to kind of box me in, I just say I’m just doing my investigation. I mean there’s a lot of information about this nominee between his time with the independent counsel’s special counsel and the White House his time as a judge. There’s a lot to look at. The one thing I’ll tell you that I am concerned about is has nothing about his background but the fact that we need the information from the White House. That’s the big tussle right now between Senator Grassley and the Democrats on Judiciary. When Justice Kagan went through her nomination process, Senator Leahy and Senator Grassley worked well together and they got was basically everything [documents from her time in the White House] unless there was a real technical privilege that everything was turned over. And, I think you have to do that. The president nominated him with a full knowing of his background and I would like to see them just say look, okay, we we’re going to start when we get the information. And unfortunately when there is such pushback on that from a lot of a lot of cynical people in WashingtonD.C. It raises questions and I have not gotten to that point yet.
KC: Congratulations on your win, Senator Jones, but 2020 is going to be here before we know it and Republicans are jockeying to run against you. We’re a long way off from reelect, but what are you wanting voters to know and are you concerned about this slate of Republicans coming at you?
DJ: You know look I just I’m out today and I’m talking to folks and I’m doing what I said I would do. I said I was going to be an independent voice for Alabama. I’m not in a party line person. I have supported the president like with this EU decision, but I’ve also criticized him with some of these other tariffs. But I will continue to be the independent voice. That’s how I’m going to do this. I’m going to continue to do what I said I would do during the campaign and what I’ve done for the first six months plus in my office and that’s the way we’ve been running the office and that’s the way we’re going to continue to run the office. I’ll let everybody else jockey. Thank you.