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Transcript: Leadership During Crisis with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R)

MS. CALDWELL: Hello. Welcome to Washington Post Live. My name is Leigh Ann Caldwell. I’m an anchor here at Washington Post Live but also co-author of the Early 202 newsletter. Joining us today is Republican Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson. Governor Hutchinson, thanks so much for joining us today.

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Leigh Ann, it's good to be with you and looking forward to the conversation.

MS. CALDWELL: And first to our viewers, we also want to hear from you. So, if you have any questions for Governor Hutchinson, feel free to tweet us @PostLive. So, Governor, again, thanks for joining us. It's been five and a half weeks since Roe v. Wade was overturned, as our open mentioned. There was a trigger law in Arkansas that banned abortion in the state, including there are no exceptions for rape or incest. I do want to ask you in one of those clips, you say that you should think that perhaps there should be those exceptions. So, what is the state--what are you able to do to ensure that at some point in the future those exceptions do exist?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, time is going to dictate states' responses and experience. And so the legislature fairly recently passed a trigger law overwhelmingly that banned abortion except in the case of the life of the mother. Now that of course went into effect after the Supreme Court decision, and that is in effect right now. At the time that was passed, I issued a letter saying I support the additional exceptions of rape and incest, and I could go through the reasons for that. But I issued that letter. People say, well, why didn't you veto the law? Well, in Arkansas, a veto can be overridden by a simple majority vote. And so it was clearly an overwhelming consensus on that in the legislature. I've always signed pro-life bills when they come to my desk.

Now that the trigger law is in effect and that we don't have abortion except in the case of the life of the mother, you're going to have to look at months and months, perhaps a year of experience before there's any consensus that that should be adjusted if that is the case. And but we're going to have experience in Arkansas that--and across the nation that's going to help shape public opinion, help shape the opinion of the legislators. And so I don't envision that being revisited during the time that I have as governor, but I can see that revisited down the road based upon experience. We'll wait and see on that.

In the interim, it is important that we make sure that we provide services that are needed. And so we've always--in Arkansas, we have--during my leadership, we've increased the foster care coverage. We've expanded healthcare in Arkansas. Arkansas is one of the southern states that have the Medicaid expansion, and so that we can have better healthcare resources in our state. And so in addition to that, we want to be able to increase our foster care assistance. We want to make sure that we have the maternal care, we have an application pending before the Biden administration now to expand maternal healthcare in our rural settings. And so those are steps that we want to take to make sure that the mom, in the event there's an unwanted pregnancy, has the resources that are needed to assist her and help her through that time.

MS. CALDWELL: Arkansas has a lot of room to do better on some of those issues and taking care of mothers, families, children. The state rates 48th in the country as far as childhood poverty is concerned. You mentioned some things that Arkansas is doing to help mothers and families now that there's probably going to be a lot more children born. What else needs to be done? Is that going to be enough?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, firstly, you’ve got to separate those issues a little bit. Arkansas is a southern state. We've always had challenges in terms of healthcare. And in if--the fact that we're 48th or we have low statistics on child health, we need to improve child health. We don't need to have a response that we're going to increase taking the life of the unborn. And so you got to separate those. And we have continually tried to invest more in rural healthcare. Again, Arkansas went against the grain, and my predecessor did Medicaid expansion for the reasons that you just indicated, trying to improve our health outcomes in Arkansas. I continued that as a Republican governor, because I knew how important it was, and we shot up with access to healthcare. We're trying to do more even now, as I said, with our rural hospitals to provide wraparound services for the mom going through a pregnancy, but also to extend it after that child is born. So, we're doing all of those things. And we obviously want to increase those healthcare outcomes. But there's challenges that we have to address from eating habits to exercise. All of those have been a part of a message that we've had in Arkansas to improve healthcare.

MS. CALDWELL: Do you anticipate the Arkansas legislature legislating on issues of travel, allowing Arkansas women to travel outside the state to obtain an abortion, or perhaps order abortion pills online into Arkansas?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, you have--the answer on the first part is absolutely no. I--we have the freedom of travel in America. And while we don't encourage, support traveling out of state to take the life of an unborn child, there's not any prohibition on that. There's no restrictions. And that's the freedom that we have in America. We always have or had the ability to travel for healthcare out of state or make the decision to have the healthcare in state.

In terms of the second part of the question, what was that again?

MS. CALDWELL: It was about--it was about access to abortion pills.

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, you know, whenever you look at--if it's a contraceptive, everybody has access to contraceptives. There's not any limitation on that. But if you're looking at abortion, again, under the trigger law that would be outlawed, whether it's, you know, a medical abortion, or whether it's a chemical abortion, and so those would be prohibited except when the life of the mother is at risk.

MS. CALDWELL: Is there a way, though, to legislate people or prohibiting people from receiving those in the mail?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, you know, there, you have to look at the providers. They're the ones that are responsible. We have to understand that there's nothing that is designed to penalize or punish the woman. That's not part of our law. We don't do that. It's the restrictions are on the providers. And so obviously, it's more difficult if they're out of state providers. That's a legal enforcement issue. But there's not any effort to do any of those things in Arkansas.

Right now, we have the law in place. We expect it to be followed. It is being followed to my knowledge. There's not any police that's out there knocking on doors, trying to check out things. But we expect the law to be followed like it is in other cases. And if there's a violation of it, you go after the provider. Obviously, it's more difficult if they're out of state. But that can be investigated just like any other violation of the law.

MS. CALDWELL: Big picture, Governor, where do you see the debate on abortion access, pro-life? Where do you see this moving in the next few years, not only in Arkansas, but across the country?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, it's always a matter of education first, and I think that's why the pro-life movement has had success, is that because of science and because of more knowledge as to the health of the child in the womb and their viability, that abortion has been more reduced, and you've had a greater acceptance of a pro-life viewpoint. And so now that attention has drawn to it again, I expect, you know, the education to be a very important part of it. And the experience is going to dictate any changes and exceptions. And it's interesting. We're going to learn from states. States are the laboratory of democracy. And you're seeing states approach this a different way. We're going to learn from their experiences. Legislators are going to get together and share ideas. And so I see it as something that moves in the next couple of years based upon the experience that we have.

Arkansas right now has a very restrictive abortion policy. Other states will adopt something different. I think we're going to learn from each other. And adjustments can be made. So, I think the debate will continue. I do not see it as the all in all explosive political issue that it is being made out to be right now. It's always been an important issue to many voters, but there's a broader range of issues that voters decide what candidate they want to support. And I see that continuing. Right now, I think that it's just one of many issues that will be impacting the 2022 election.

MS. CALDWELL: I want to change gears a little bit and talk about another issue that the House passed a few weeks ago, a couple of weeks ago, and the Senate could take up at some point in the next month, perhaps month and a half, and that is marriage equality, ensuring access to same sex marriage. Where do you stand on that legislation? Do you think that that should be codified at a national level?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, first of all, it's been accepted because of a Supreme Court ruling that recognized same sex marriages and said the states could not prohibit that, and so I don't see that changing. And so that means there's really not a necessity of a national law on it. It's just another issue that the court has said is a constitutional privilege that individuals have in our country.

In terms of my view on this, I believe, historically, and from my own personal viewpoint, that a marriage is between one man and one woman. That is my personal viewpoint. But I accepted very quickly the Supreme Court ruling. I made it clear that we're going to issue the licenses in Arkansas to same sex couples pursuant to the Supreme Court ruling, and that I see is continuing in future. I don't see that changing. And you know, there's a fear factor as to whether the Supreme Court will reanalyze that previous ruling. I don't expect that. Actually, in the Dobbs case that they decided they made that very clear that this does not mean that those other issues are going to change. And so the--same sex marriage is the status quo in America right now. I don't see that changing any time in the near future.

MS. CALDWELL: And another issue that is--that Congress is addressing is this burn pit legislation. This is something that impacts veterans. The Senate passed and the House passed previously legislation to expand benefits and care for veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits, including especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Senate voted again last week over a technical issue, and 25 Republicans switched their vote from supporting it to opposing it. Your two Arkansas senators, Senator Cotton and Senator Bozeman, are on opposite sides of the issue. Senator Cotton has opposed it throughout the process. It could be voted on again this week. Do you think that it should pass? Is it necessary for veterans in Arkansas to have this legislation to help them who have been exposed to these burn pits?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Absolutely. It needs to pass the--as you described a technical challenge needs to get fixed, and they need to pass this legislation. It is really critically important for our veterans. When I was in private practice, I represented veterans with claims for the Veterans Commission. And this needs to be fixed. They need this relief.

Now, you mentioned it as a technical issue. And actually, I think it was about $400 billion that the Democrats added on at the last minute. And so it made it a much more tough vote. I would of course come out in favor of veterans' support and trying to fix that, you know, egregious spending in some other fashion. But I hope and expect the Senate to rectify this, to get this fixed. Let's keep it simple. Let's keep it straightforward. Let's help our veterans and keep everything else out there. So, I hope that's the outcome, and I'm optimistic that will be, but I certainly support it.

MS. CALDWELL: Yeah. And to be clear, it's an accounting measure, how you count the $400 billion, which is pretty much the cost of the legislation. But the technical issue is how you account for it, and if that money can be spent in the future.

You know, you mentioned the 2022, midterm elections a few questions back, so I do want to turn to that. And we'll start with a viewer question, who asked about the midterm elections. It's Christopher Morris from Ohio. And he says, "Do you believe that the recent Dobbs decision is going to energize the left and increase democratic voter turnout in most of the battleground states in November?" What do you think?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: You know, I haven't seen a great deal of indication of that. I've followed some of the polling, and right now the Republicans are more motivated to vote in November and energized than the Democrat--but there's been some increase in the Democrat intensity level. So, I don't see it as having the impact that the Democrats are hoping for. It certainly well, you know, in some circles, but they were probably already energized. And so, you know, you look--I don't see it much different in past elections, that for some, the pro-life issue or the pro-choice issue has been the defining issue for them to determine their vote. So, it will be for some, but I think the intensity level this year is going to be based upon their rising cost of food and gasoline. It's going to be about the economy. It's going to be about the recession that I'm worried about. It's actually going to start costing jobs in the coming months. Those are the worries that are going to really decide the vast majority of voters' decision, and it's going to impact the intensity level.

MS. CALDWELL: Something that has really stuck out to me in a recent spate of polling is that so many people, Republicans and Democrats both, think that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Now, Republicans will say that the reason is because of the economy. Democrats--Republican analysts, I should say, that that polling suggests that it's because the economy. Democratic analysts and poll watchers sometimes say that that is perhaps of course fears about the economy, but other issues including things like abortion, things about, you know, mass--you know, mass shootings in this country. What do you sense beyond the economy, you know, is really stressing voters out at this point?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, if you look on the Democratic side, what they're upset about are some Supreme Court decisions. If you look at what's motivating Republicans, it is violent crime in our major cities. It is the border security issues. It is our respect abroad, and our support of the military. If you look at independents, I think it is the economy that drives them. I do believe the support of law enforcement--I think the Democrats realize a serious error was made in their discussion of defunding the police. And that lack of support for our law enforcement has cost us in terms of what's happening in our--in our urban areas, particularly, but violent crime increases across the country. And you know, even though you live in a rural area, we like to visit Chicago, we like to go to New York. We--this is all of America. We value the safety of those streets. And that is a highly motivating factor for Republicans and independents as we go to the polls this year. So, there's a vast range of concerns that are out there. And one of them, though, as I mentioned is the border security issues. And this is something that whenever you see the mayor of Washington, D.C., asking for National Guard support because of undocumented immigrants coming into that city and frustrating their human services that they need to provide, this is an issue that weighs on America that has to be addressed. And that's going to motivate voters in the fall.

MS. CALDWELL: You are one of the Republicans who have been critical of Donald Trump. You said that he has disqualified himself as a 2024 presidential candidate, because of January 6th. Do you still stand by that?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: I do stand by that. I don't drive that message every day. But I honestly answer questions when I'm asked. And so, yes, I stand by that. I believe that. What's important to me is that we need to talk about 2024 after the election this fall. Now I know that the timeline is accelerating, and former President Trump is a reason for that. He's out there talking about 2024 constantly. And whenever he does that, that becomes and he becomes the issue in this year's election. And it's not good for Republican candidates if Trump is the issue. We need to be talking about our solutions and our philosophy of reduce government and lower taxes, less regulation and driving our economy forward and controlling spending. Those are issues and solutions that we offer that are critically important, the rule of law and supporting law enforcement. If we get sidetracked on a personality that is as divisive as Donald Trump, then that does not bode well for the outcome in November. We're going to do well. I have no doubt about that. But we lose ground whenever Donald Trump becomes the issue.

MS. CALDWELL: Do you think that the party needs to move beyond Donald Trump?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: You know, it's hard whenever you have such a visible former president that's out there holding campaign rallies. He becomes a topic, and that's probably what he loves. But in terms of the grassroots of our party, he's got a significant following. And any candidate that wants to be president has to be able to identify with the issues that Donald Trump is able to drive. I mean, these are real concerns, ones I just articulated from a conservative message on crime and inflation. He's talking about those same things. And so we're all on the same page in terms of the major issues, but he distracts--it distracts the voters over to himself and it becomes about him versus the issues and the problem solving that we need to focus on. And that's what our candidates--if we're going to win gubernatorial races, if we're going to win Senate races and congressional races, we've got to talk about solutions, problem solving, and optimism about our future. That's what voters will respond to. It can't be about the past and dwelling about hurt feelings in the past.

MS. CADLWELL: Have you been watching the January 6th Select Committee hearings?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: I have. I’ve been tuned to the majority of it.

MS. CALDWELL: What do you think?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, I think they've had an impact. You know, whenever you see Republican staffers that work in the White House that are doing the country's work, and they come in and they talk about a president that is disengaged in terms of calling out the National Guard, the lack of action in addressing the rioting at the Capitol, this is--should be a concern of every American that we had a president during that time that allowed that to go on and threatened the peaceful transfer of power. In terms of the hearings, it's just emphasizing those facts. I don't see how the January 6th hearings themselves are making the case against the president. That's a very high burden of proof. I think the attorney general's got a tough call there, but I have not seen the silver--well, I haven't seen the actual case being presented effectively in terms of criminal conduct on the president. I think they've made the case that he was irresponsible, he was derelict in his duties. But it's had an impact. We'll see where it goes from here.

MS. CALDWELL: Liz Cheney, the vice chair of that committee, could very well lose her reelection in a couple of weeks against a more conservative primary opponent, who's backed by Donald Trump. What does it say of the Republican Party if people like Liz Cheney lose because of their stance on January 6? And also, we're going to see more tests of other Republicans in the coming weeks of who voted to impeach Donald Trump because of January 6th. So same question. What does it say of the Republican Party if people like this can't win in a Republican primary?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, I think you've had, you know, from the Secretary of State in Georgia that won after he took a stand against Trump's pressure to change the election results. You've seen Brian Kemp who President Trump did not support win. And so you have mixed results out there across the country. But to me, it shows that we have a Republican Party that is in transition. We have a Republican Party that's having an internal debate, and those are always painful. We also see that if we're going to have candidates that win, we can't be simply talking about the last election. And you know, Liz Cheney's done an amazing job in terms of taking a courageous stand, co-chairing or vice chair of that committee. But it's a tremendous political cost because her electorate wants her back there talking about the rising costs of fuel and the challenges that they have. And so, you know, every candidate cannot be so focused on the past that you're not addressing those issues, and I think she's paying a price for that.

MS. CALDWELL: You are term limited, so you are not able to run for reelection. You also just passed on your chairmanship of the National Governors Association to Democratic Governor Phil Murphy. So, you all have talked about bipartisanship in those roles. Would you say that it's easier as a governor to work in a bipartisan way than perhaps in Congress? I know you haven't served in Congress, but you're very involved in politics.

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, actually, I did serve in Congress.

MS. CALDWELL: Right, before you were governor, as a member, not a senator.

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Yes. That’s right. And so I’ve had that experience, and perhaps. But I remember in Congress, we probably had the last bipartisan training sessions and conferences when Democrats, Republicans got together. And so the partisanship has increased over the years in Congress, and it's made them less effective in terms of the ability to get things done. You know, as governors, we have the pressure of getting things done every day, of solving problems, hitting the issues, and so it forces us to find solutions. And whenever you have to find solutions and take action, that brings people together. There's plenty of differences, but I think the National Governors Association is one of the last bastions of bipartisanship that has proven to be effective. And you have to pick your issues. You know, we're not going to agree and we--on Roe vs Wade, too big of differences there. But we can share information, but we can work on infrastructure. We worked on the CHIPS Act together, some of these bipartisan bills that needed governors’ support, and our message made a difference. So it's been a great experience for me, and it reflects my view that while there's serious fights in Washington, we still need to get things done. And if that takes crossing the aisle and working together, then that's my cup of tea. That's what America needs to do. And that's what America wants to see.

MS. CALDWELL: And, Governor, last question. You have spent nearly 40 years in public service. As I mentioned before, you are term limited. So, what are your plans next? Do you have any ambitions to run for president in 2024?

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Well, as I sort of made the point, it's really critical that we save that until after November of this year. And so obviously, it's--I'm thinking about it, but not going to be--have any decision until next January. We're going to focus on this year. But 2024 is so critical in terms of shaping the Republican Party. And so whether it's as a candidate or whether it's in some other role, I certainly want to be a voice. And this is an important point. Somehow people think that if you're not 100 percent pure behind Donald Trump, then somehow, you're a moderate. My record is as conservative as anyone in the United States of America. But I am able to reach across the aisle to help and work to get things done. And so it's effective message. But I think the test in 2024, can a conservative that has a more optimistic view of America, that doesn't resort to personal grievances, can that person win, and that's what I want to be able to support in the fight for 2024.

MS. CALDWELL: Governor Hutchinson, that sounds like a definite maybe. So, we will be watching. Thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

GOV. HUTCHINSON: Thanks for the opportunity. It's great to be with you.

MS. CALDWELL: And to our viewers, thank you for watching. You can watch--find this transcript or the entire program and other Washington Post Live programs at Thank you.

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