WEST CHESTER >> Just back from a Congressional trip to Bogota, Colombia, where he saw that nation’s new president inaugurated, in between looking over the packed boxes that indicate the coming closure of his office in the Historic Chester County Courthouse, and before traveling to a television studio in Wilmington, Del., for an afternoon interview on CNN, U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello took a few moments last week to give his thoughts on the topics of the summer.
Russian meddling. Fake news. Child separation. The coming midterm elections.
And what came through in Costello’s answers was a sense of frustration with the way those issues are being handled, and a resignation that things may get worse before they get better, both for his beloved Republican Party as well as the nation as a whole.
“I’ll just keep voting for what I think we should do, and I’ll be more outspoken in what I think the challenges to my party are,” he said at the end of the 25-minute conversation in his office overlooking East Market Street. “Philosophically I am a Republican, and I believe in what the principles of the Republican Party are. And I don’t say anything derogatory about the Democratic Party’s principles. There are good people who are Democrats.
“But if we think that the future of our party is to divide people over immigration, and saying news we don’t agree with is fake news, and just embracing Donald Trump as the savior, that’s not going to end well for our party,” he said. “A political party has to be bigger than a person, and a political party has to be about ideas.”
Costello, R-6th, of West Goshen, announced in the winter that he would not seek re-election to a third term in Congress, becoming one of a number of moderate Republican members of the House of Representatives who are walking away from their seats for any number of reasons. His time in office will end in December.
On Monday, he accompanied fellow U.S. Rep. Carlos Cabello, Republican of Florida, to Colombia to see new President Ivan Duque sworn in as that country’s youngest leader, taking the time to press the new head of state on the progress in dealing with illegal coca production. On Thursday, his office was in the process of the downsizing that will see it close in September, with only his Washington, D.C., and Wyomissing, Berks County, offices remaining open.
In a few moments, he would be on camera with CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer to discuss topics including the indictment of one of his fellow GOP congressmen, and the continued attacks on the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the 2016 election. But he answered questions from the Daily Local News about other topics, starting with Russian interference in elections.
“I did a delegation trip at the end of June, early July, to Europe for 10 days which was eye-opening,” he said. “It’s very interesting how much Russia is interfering in elections in Bosnia, Italy. I met with some folks in Germany who are very concerned about Russia’s ability to upset the NATO alliance.
“(The Russians) are actively seeking to undermine the integrity of our elections,” he noted. “That has not changed. I am very concerned by (President Trump’s) statements about the importance of NATO. We are creating some sort of ambivalence or relativism between our intelligence community on the one hand” and Russian denials on the other. “I take issue with it. It’s dangerous.
“Internationally is where it is most significant. I think that there are some things that go beyond politics. When you are in a press conference with Vladimir Putin, (you represent) America. When you then subtly implicate the Mueller investigation within that context I get very concerned. I was very turned off by that press conference. That trouble me, greatly.”
That being said, Costello brushed back against those who would demand he and others like him, “Do something about” Trump’s behavior. The back-and-forth on that would simply be fruitless, he suggested.
“You can’t stop any president, let alone this president, from saying what he wants to say,” he said. “There are those who say you need to do something or that I don’t do enough. But freedom of speech applies to the president of the United States, too. And he’s allowed to say what he wants.
“I’m at the point now where sometimes I feel like he says things just to drive the left even crazier. Then it becomes a little bit of a trap. Then they overreact. This is just a very bitter, toxic political environment. We are getting close to midterms so everybody just retreats to their political corners, which I don’t really have to do.”
But he decried Trump’s insistence on crying “fake news” at stories he does not like, and casting the press as “the enemy of the people.
“If you are in public office, and particularly when you get to the federal level, you are going to have stories written about you that you don’t like,” he said, recalling negative headlines that have appeared about him over the past several months. “You are going to get things said about you that are false.
“But I’ve never used the words ‘fake news’ (to refer to any criticism of his work,)” he said. “I do think this is not going to end well for our democracy if we start not trusting (the media). There has to be some sources that are the standard-bearer. At the national level people just retreat to their own websites. They are just reading what they want to read. That is going to hurt us as a society generationally speaking.
“It goes beyond this president,” he said. “It’s dangerous.
Costello’s remarks came two days after elections that were being watched nationally as omens for what may or may not happen to the balance of power in Washington with the midterm elections. Even with some accomplishments on their behalf and the economy in good shape, the GOP message seems to be taken from a page in Trump’s playbook — divisive and angry.
That, Costello said, will not likely play well in areas like his home turf.
“In the suburbs that are Chester County and like areas, I think the answer to that question (that tactic will hurt.) For Republicans, if your base isn’t coming to the polls, then there is not much you can do about it. I think that you are starting to see suburban America, moderate Republicans, identify less with the Republican Party. And that’s a challenge. Especially independents. Independents are breaking against the Republicans 2-to-1 in the suburbs.
“When you see people like George Will and some others make that argument, that’s going to be a challenge for a lot of Republicans. Just look at what happened in this county last year. I have not heard what’s the strategy. How did that happen? What’s going on differently?”
On the immigration issue, Costello blamed the Trump Administration for a failed effort on “zero-tolerance” and family separation.
“It was a self-inflicted (wound) by the administration,” he said “They were seeking to use it as a deterrent so less people come. But what’s really troublesome is the lack of diligence associated with the policy. The fact that you have hundreds of children and parents separated and then have no data to get them back to one another, that story is not going away. I think there are a lot of Republican suburban moms that were offended by that.
“My biggest frustration is on the issue of immigration,” he said. “Because it is so easy, it is so simple, what 75 percent of the country wants. That is, more border security, solving DACA for once and for all, replacing the visa lottery system and replacing it with some form of merit-based visas.
“We had a bill that accomplished a great deal of that, that the conservative elements of our party totally undermined,” he said. “And Democrats at this point have zero interest in working with Republicans right now, because they want control of the House back.
“Ultimately, you have to compromise with an opposition party in order to get things through. You have to have enough courage to tell your voters, ‘Yes, I would have liked to have gotten a bit more done, but we didn’t have the votes so here’s how we had to compromise and here’s what we got done.’
“But you do not get rewarded for compromise. Instead, you get attacked by your base,” he said. “And what happens is that nothing gets done.”
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.