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Independent sees enough unity between parties to back anti-Trump Republicans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Trump's most prominent Republican critic in Congress lost her reelection bid this week. Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming conceded the race to her Trump-backed primary opponent on Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ CHENEY: Tonight, Harriet Hageman has received the most votes in this primary. She won. I called her to concede the race. This primary election is over, but now the real work begins.

MARTIN: As she hinted in her concession speech and in a subsequent interview, Cheney still sees a political future for herself, possibly in a presidential run. If she does run - and at this point, that would seem mainly as a way to keep Trump out of office - she would not be the first. In 2016, former CIA undercover officer Evan McMullin showed surprising strength running an independent campaign as a Trump alternative, at least in his native Utah and among select Republicans.

This year, McMullin is running again as an independent, but this time for the U.S. Senate, hoping to oust Republican Senator Mike Lee this November, who McMullin says has traded his former independent ways to become a Trump acolyte. And McMullin's campaign is competitive, with some polls showing him within striking distance of Lee if he can keep a coalition of independents, Democrats and Trump-skeptical Republicans together.

We wanted to hear more about McMullin's experience in 2016 and what his strategy is now in the current political climate. So we called him, and he's with us now. Evan McMullin, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

EVAN MCMULLIN: Thanks for having me back, Michel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Is there any overarching lesson that you drew from your candidacy as an independent in 2016? And if so, what is it?

MCMULLIN: That campaign really taught me that many Americans were very vulnerable to disinformation and to conspiracism (ph) and that we had a broader fight for truth, for objective truth that I thought and still believe is the greatest threat to our country, our unmooring from truth. That is what's at stake right now. The real political dividing lines in America are not Democrat versus Republican any longer. It's about whether one is committed to democracy and objective truth or not. And I think by the end of the 2016 election cycle, it was very, very clear to me that we had to build this new coalition.

MARTIN: So do you draw any conclusion from Liz Cheney's experience in Wyoming? I mean, as she pointed out in her concession speech, she won her primary with - what? - more than 60% of the vote two years ago. And then she goes from being in the House leadership and then losing a primary - and I think mainly because she refused to and has been an outspoken critic of the former president. And she has been very clear that she sees him as dangerous, I mean, as a person who is willing to compromise the security of the United States for his own political agenda and possibly financial agenda. It's impossible to say. So do you draw any conclusion from her recent experience in Wyoming, from what happened?

MCMULLIN: I do. I think what - the results that we see in Wyoming validate my view that neither principled Republicans, Democrats or independents on their own have the votes to protect American democracy. I mean, look, let's be very clear about what the party of Trump wants to do. And I say that because even the president's own son, I believe, said recently on television that it is no longer the Republican Party, but rather it is the party of Trump. Principled Republicans, Democrats and independents alone, none of those political factions have the votes to protect American democracy. And I think that's what we saw in Liz Cheney's primary. There were principled Republicans there who voted for her, but it was not enough to prevail in that competition.

MARTIN: Do you think there's an actual appetite among Democrats in states like Utah, and are there enough independents? You are now an independent. You're a former Republican. Are there enough independents? And is there enough of an appetite among Democrats in states like yours to vote for an alternative like you because you still identify as a conservative? I mean, it would seem that somebody is going to have to compromise here.

MCMULLIN: Well, yes, I do consider myself to be a conservative. What conservatism has always meant to me is what it meant to one of the sort of founders of modern conservatism, Sir Edmund Burke, who believed that what conservatism should be is a commitment to preserving the institutions that protect our freedom. But you mentioned the need for compromise. I would say that there is enough common ground, especially with regard to commitment to our ideals and our democracy and truth, between principled Republicans, Democrats and independents that no compromise on any of those issues is needed. Now, I will say that there are still differences. That's certainly the case. But what I will say is I know that there is far more common ground than we've been led to believe by the extremes who have so dominated our politics and increasingly do.

MARTIN: I want to turn to an issue that seems to be kind of roiling Trump supporters over the last few weeks, the FBI's search of the former president's home in Mar-a-Lago for classified documents that were removed from the White House. You know, since then, there was an attempted attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati. And we frankly see just some very mixed reactions from Republican elected officials. What's your take on this? How do you respond to this?

MCMULLIN: Well, you know, I think the way many Republican officials responded, which was to criticize the raid before they knew anything about it and to criticize the FBI, really showed their hand that they believe that Trump is above the law. They are not committed to the rule of law. And that is part of the extremism of the far right. That is a feature, not a bug, as they say. Other Republicans have stepped forward to say that, no, what happened was justifiable, and, of course, I agree with them. He was - I think the former president was treated very fairly, and he was treated with kid gloves even. And it is completely understandable and necessary that the FBI would want to retrieve and secure the documents that Donald Trump took from the White House.

MARTIN: Evan McMullin is a former CIA officer. He is now an independent Senate candidate in Utah. Evan McMullin, thank you so much for talking with us once again.

MCMULLIN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.