Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here.
Despite the whirlwind in Washington this week, Marco Rubio isn’t worried—at least for his own party. As of now, Democrats have reached a deal to stave off a government shutdown until December, but they still need to prevent another crisis: a first-ever default on the national debt. Rubio is among the Senate Republicans who blocked efforts to raise the debt ceiling, effectively forcing Democrats to make the move on their own. “If you’re going to make a decision to ram your agenda down our throat, then you’re going to have to do the debt limit by yourself as well,” the Florida Republican told Kelly O’Donnell, a White House correspondent for NBC News.
In Rubio’s eyes, the Democrats are trying to “radically transform the role of government in our country”—something he doesn’t believe they have a mandate to do. He’s also not sure that the nation is in a better place than under the previous administration, accusing President Joe Biden’s government of mishandling the pandemic, the border, and the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Rubio spoke with O’Donnell during The Atlantic Festival today. Their conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
O’Donnell: We’re coming together on a day that is not just an ordinary day in Washington. It’s the end of the fiscal year for the federal government. There’s a lot happening on Capitol Hill. Do you expect that the issue of simply keeping the government open, government funding, will that be resolved before the deadline?
Rubio: I think so, and it could have been resolved a month ago, a week ago. I think it will be resolved today. I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone here who is in favor of the government shutting down. The debates have been about issues attached to it, not to the actual issue of funding the government. So I—if I were to—we’re going to vote it out of the Senate today. And I imagine the House will take it up and send it over to the president before midnight.
O’Donnell: That’s a good thing that we can take that off the list of many things that are sort of crashing together at the same time on Capitol Hill. What is your view about your own responsibility as a senator representing Florida when it comes to the debt ceiling? There is a lot of debate about this being a bipartisan issue. Republicans like yourself have said, no, Democrats need to do this on their own. Why do you hold that view?
Rubio: The cost [of the reconciliation bill] is significantly higher than $3.5 trillion. And they’ve known the whole time. Look, if you’re going to do $3.5 trillion spending all by yourselves, we’re going to have no input into the size of it, or what it’s on—if that’s what you’re going to do, then you can do the debt limit by yourself as well. And that’s a position that we took very early. They’ve known that for months. You can’t say “We want you to help us raise the debt limit, but together. But when it comes to spending the money, we’re going to do it by ourselves and we’re going to decide how money is spent.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s certainly not going to work for us here. And so we’ve told them that for months; they’ve known it. So the reason why we’re reaching this deadline with so much uncertainty is because they either didn’t take it seriously or didn’t care.
O’Donnell: Even though the debt ceiling is about past spending, not the 3.5 trillion or whatever number they finally settle on for infrastructure, climate, and other programs?
Rubio: Well, that would be a more legitimate argument for them to make if this was about the status quo. But it’s not about the status quo. They want to raise the debt limit because it allows them to spend even more. And they know they’re going to have to borrow money to do it. The debt limit, by and large, is something that should be worked out. I don’t think anyone wants the nation to default. But if you’re going to make a decision to ram your agenda down our throat with 51 votes, you have no input on it. You’re going to have no say on it, then you’re going to have to do the debt limit by yourself as well. If they were really interested in working this out, then they would have worked with us on a budget agreement. They would have allowed us to have input on the budget agreement. We don’t own the budget agreement because they didn’t allow us to have any input on it, and they passed.
O’Donnell: So, Senator, is the debt limit a political tool, in your judgment?
Rubio: I think it’s a commonsense conclusion. Look, in Congress they have a decision to make about how they’re going to run the institution. One way you can say is, “Okay, we’re 50-50 in the Senate; we need a vice president to break a bunch of ties. And so 50 Republicans are going to have to have some input into the things we do.” [Democrats have] chosen not to do it that way. What they’ve chosen to do is to say, “We have an agenda; we’re going to pursue this agenda; and we’re going to run you over with this agenda. So if you make that decision, you can’t then come back and say to that minority, and in the case here, the 50 Republicans, “We want you to be a part of it.”
O’Donnell: Turning to Afghanistan, you have been outspoken on your views. We’ve now had a chance to hear from Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, General [Mark] Milley, and General [Kenneth] McKenzie. You had previously called for General Milley to step down based on some of the reporting coming out about his conversations with China during the end of the Trump administration. Have your views on the status of General Milley changed at all now that you’ve heard that he cleared that call, that he briefed his superiors about that and so forth?
Rubio: No, they haven’t. After that hearing, we know for a fact that he was now the source. Not only that, but he’s talked to multiple reporters. I don’t know of any other chairman of the Joint Chiefs that has spent that much time talking to reporters about books regarding the previous administration. This is not a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. This is the current and acting one. And it really begins to inject military and military officials into a place that is very dangerous for them to be. And so I can reach only two conclusions, either a) this was nothing but a normal call to the Chinese and him exaggerating to these reporters, or b) him actually undermining the chain of command because he decided that the direction the president was going was dangerous. It’s one of those two. And neither one of them is good. And I don’t think that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs should be a position that is this politicized. We shouldn’t be talking about him in these things that much. And the reason why we are? It’s because he decided to sit there and give these lengthy interviews on background, by the way, not just to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa but apparently multiple other reporters working on books as well.
O’Donnell: I’m going to move along to politics. You will be a candidate for reelection on the ballot next year. You’re in the national conversation. What role do you think President Trump has in the Republican Party today, and going forward?
Rubio: Donald Trump is the most popular, most widely supported, most influential Republican in the country. That itself is explanatory about what role he can play and is going to play. What role he wants to play is up to him to decide. But you can’t have someone who’s the most popular, the most well known, and the most influential Republican not be a factor in these races. There are a lot of people out there, including in my party, that strongly support the president, because even though they don’t agree with him on every issue, they view him as someone who was willing to fight, someone who was willing to take the slings and arrows of those who are unfair in the coverage of the conservative movement. I also think that in retrospect, some of the disasters we’ve seen over the last six to eight weeks in the current administration have allowed people to draw a point of comparison. You look at the migratory crisis at the border, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, a series of things, and you say to yourself, Donald Trump tweeted things I didn’t agree with or did said this or said that, but we didn’t have that sort of policy chaos that we’re now seeing in place after place under the current administration. But to answer your question, I think Donald Trump is the most influential and popular Republican in the country right now. Public polling says it. Common sense tells me that.
O’Donnell: And is he using that influence, Senator, in a way that you think is constructive: the way he talks about January 6, the way he talks about the election that he lost to Joe Biden, the way he talks about COVID? Is he using that influence to help the country? He does not espouse vaccinations beyond acknowledging he got vaccinated. He has many followers who have not sought vaccination. He talks about the insurrection and the events on January 6 as if that didn’t happen. Is he using that influence in a way that you think is good for the country?
Rubio: He certainly has strong opinions, and he’s giving those strong opinions. And some people agree with him and some people don’t.
O’Donnell: Do you?
Rubio: I believe people should be vaccinated, for example. I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve repeatedly said I think people should be vaccinated. What I don’t believe is that I or any other government official should have the power to force people to get vaccinated. And I think it’s ironic that we are in a country where a Border Patrol agent who is unvaccinated can be fired, but someone who migrates here illegally from another country can enter the country without being vaccinated and is released into the general population. Americans are being fired from their jobs, but foreigners can enter the country illegally and not be vaccinated. That’s an absurd outcome.
O’Donnell: In your home state right now, the case count is going down after a very, very difficult period. In the last week, it has dropped in terms of COVID positive cases. But Florida remains in the top 10 for the rate of death. Is there more that you or other Republican officeholders could do to encourage vaccination? You don’t blink about saying you’ve been vaccinated and you believe in vaccinations, but is there something more you could do to try to get those who have not gotten vaccinated to be open to that?
Rubio: I don’t know how else we can encourage more vaccination other than to tell people it’s safe and effective and they should be vaccinated. But there’s a difference between encouraging vaccination, which I don’t think anyone disagrees with, and certainly I don’t, and mandating it and telling people “We’re going to fire you if you don’t.” At the end of the day, there is something called personal responsibility in this country. I wish people exercised more. I wish people would lose weight. I wish people would monitor their blood sugar so they don’t have a diabetic episode that can cost them their lives down the road. But just because we think that’s the right thing for people to do, there are some things we can’t force people to do. I personally know people that haven’t been vaccinated, and because I care about it, it frustrates me. But I have to separate that from the idea that I’m going to try to punish, persecute, stigmatize them, because in many cases that becomes highly counterproductive. I’m not sure why there is this hysteria about forcing people to get vaccinated. And I think practically it doesn’t work. It becomes counterproductive, and it creates an additional irritant in an already deeply divided country.
O’Donnell: And do you think politics has hardened people’s choices, where there are some who believe they’re in one tribe that says “We don’t like mandates; therefore I’m not going to get vaccinated”? Do you think that kind of conversation has actually made it more difficult to get people to that choice of protecting themselves, their family, their loved ones?
Rubio: I’m giving you an opinion that’s anecdotal, but I know people that may get vaccinated at some point, but they don’t want to be told they have to be and almost react negatively to being told they have to be vaccinated. It’s a strange situation because I believe people should be vaccinated. On the other hand, I hear so many stories about people that are about to lose their jobs unless they allow someone to stick a needle in their arm, not once but twice, and put something into their body that’s only a year and a half old. I don’t agree with them; I have to respect that point of view. And for me to try to bash them over the head is only going to create a point of friction that makes it harder to find cooperation on a bunch of other things as well.
O’Donnell: You’re going into another election season. There’s been so much focus on the past election, where the country stands on election security, on people’s belief and their faith in the process. Do you think damage has been done to the public in Florida and elsewhere, [to their] believing that our elections work and that the outcomes are in fact valid?
Rubio: Yeah, and it’s a long time building. I have a lot of experience in this issue, being from Florida. I was in the Florida legislature. My first year there was right after the 2000 election, where there were people that openly argued that George W. Bush was not a legitimate president because of what happened in the state of Florida. I come from a community in Miami where we’ve had a long history, unfortunately, of all sorts of electoral problems that forced us to change state laws. There was a time in Miami, Florida, where we had Republican operatives and Democrat operatives that were collecting and harvesting ballots at senior centers. And there were court cases about how some of the ballots were tampered with or thrown away and things of that nature. So we passed laws to fix all of that.
There are two things that are important about elections. The first is that the results be accurate and the other is that there be public confidence. And it doesn’t take much for people to lose public confidence in an election’s legitimacy, even if it’s only 10 examples, and the margin of victory was 10,000 votes. That’s all it takes, especially in this environment, and especially with foreign operatives driving some of this misinformation, to undermine public confidence in elections. So that’s why election-integrity laws are so critical and why they need to be in place. And I don’t think it helps anyone to go around equating requiring an ID or putting a limit on the deadline for when you can register, when the ballot has to be in, to Jim Crow–era laws. I think that is frankly absurd and offensive. I’m a Hispanic man. I am perfectly capable of producing an ID in order to go vote, just like I have to in order to get on an airplane or cash a check or do a bunch of other things. We can require people to prove they’re vaccinated with a card. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
O’Donnell: Do you have any concerns as a candidate for reelection that your election will in fact be valid and the public should trust the results?
Rubio: No. Florida has great election laws and great election systems. In 2018, we had two counties that had very serious problems on how they administer those elections. And frankly, one of the problems was a ballot-design problem, which may have cost Democrats thousands of votes and very close races. By and large, Florida has a very good election system. It’s been improved even now with new laws. And I think the reason why we have such a good election system is because we’ve had such a history of close elections, and obviously, in the case of the 2000 election, one that became the center of national attention for a period of time.
O’Donnell: I first met you after your election to the Senate in 2010. That was a year of the Tea Party energy in the Republican Party. We’ve seen your home state vote for Barack Obama and then vote for Donald Trump in successive elections. We saw the momentum of how Donald Trump changed the party. As you go into 2022, what will define the energy and the atmosphere of what this election will be remembered for?
Rubio: We can never predict something that’s going to happen. A pandemic couldn’t have been predicted at this scale and nature. And we hope not to have international crises, but those things are always possible. But a couple of things are on the horizon. Inflation is going to be a big issue. I’m not sure people realize yet how much more expensive retail products are going to be very soon. The cost of producing things that are on their way are substantially higher, 20 to 25 percent higher than they were just a few months ago. And that’s going to be reflected when people go Christmas shopping this year and into the new year. The other issue is that Democrats today had a three-vote majority in the House. They have a 50-50 Senate and a narrow victory in the presidency. And yet they’re governing like they got a mandate to radically transform the role of government in our country. That’s sort of out of touch with reality. And I think some of the incompetence of the current administration, I think the border situation is going to get far worse. There are between 90,000 and 120,000 migrants from Haiti alone that are all desiring to come towards the United States. And right now, the Biden administration is doing very little about it. There are multiple other countries as well that are contributing to this. So we’ve got a border crisis. We have inflation. And I hope I’m wrong, but I do think that we are going to see a counterterrorism threat emerge from Afghanistan at some point in the near future as well. And on a broader perspective, I would just say that we are living through a time of extraordinary economic, social, and geopolitical transformation, and public policy is struggling to keep up.