John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, spoke at Duke Wednesday as part of the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family Lecture series. During the 2016 election, Podesta—who has also served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and founded the nonprofit organization Center for American Progress—was thrown into the national spotlight after his private emails were obtained in an attack by Russian hackers and released online by WikiLeaks. 

Podesta spoke to The Chronicle and Duke Political Review about Donald Trump's presidency, the future of the Democratic Party and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

On the Democratic Party’s “Fair Trade” deal platform ability to inspire voters in future elections:

"I think that the Democrats are trying to respond to the very real needs of working people and middle-class voters to say that, 'We have set ideas to get your wages growing again, to restore balance in the economy, to concentrate on the middle class and working people.' And that’s multi-faceted, but the core of it is job growth and wage growth for the working people and for the middle. That’s going to be kind of differentiated in individual races based on different places but the heart of it is really in that core economics that build a strong economy from the middle up."

On whether he sees a populist message emerging in the Democratic Party:

"I think it’s emerging as we speak because Trump ran as a populist and is governing as a plutocrat. This tax bill is a monstrosity. It is completely weighted to the top. It completely abandons working people. It raises taxes on people making $75,000 a year or less, in order to give massive tax breaks to the very wealthiest.

And I think if you can’t make a populist message out of that then you probably shouldn’t be running. I think the same thing was true, which really I think bubbled up from the ground up—the defense of the Affordable Care Act came from people who really were on the front lines, knew what it would mean to basically lose the benefits that were afforded to them by the passage of the ACA.

And I think it was that groundswell of grassroots support—those town meetings that the Republicans had to endure—that created the voice that kept the Affordable Care Act in tact. They’re still trying to obviously dismantle it through executive action, but I think even there, there’s a lot of pushback and a lot of fight back in the states and particularly amongst ordinary citizens.

So, I think there is a sense that the elites are just winning even more in this administration and so I think that the fire that’s out on the street partly relates to the divisiveness that Trump exudes, the misogyny, the racism. It all continues unabated, but I think it’s also that having argued that he was going to help working people, he’s kind of abandoned that mission in favor of the wealthy.

On what Republicans and Democrats can do to work better together:

"I worked in the Senate in an area where there were strong disagreements about policy but where people really did try to find some common ground and that has increasingly broken down over the years. I think there are subject matter areas that they could have worked together and Trump might have found some success. I think the most obvious example of that would have been trying to do a big infrastructure bill at the beginning, where both parties wanted to do it, there was sort of strong public support for it, the timing to do it was smart and good because the problem of aging infrastructure in the United States is affecting the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. They get support across the board. They chose not to do it which actually surprised me, I thought that was where they’d start and instead they decided their number one item was to try and un-do everything that President Obama did starting with the ACA. 

So, I think it’s going to be exceedingly difficult. The test case is going to be: can they come to terms and find a path forward on DACA? I think, in the short-term. Will they? I think their is bi-partisan support to do something for the Dreamers. I think their are majorities in both bodies that would support that. There’s certainly a strong core of Republicans who probably don't want to do that, but I think there are plenty of Republican parts in the Senate and the House to combine the Democratic votes to pass that.

So we’ll see whether the Democrats have a decision themselves to make, whether they will press the case in the context of this year and the budget. I hope they do because I think those young people deserve the relief that can be provided by legislation and there’s bipartisan support for it. The country supports it. There’s overwhelming support amongst the American people for doing something. So that’ll be an early test case about whether they get their act together and actually do something."

On whether the current leadership in the Democratic Party with Nancy Pelosi in the House and Chuck Schumer in the Senate can help the party win back the House and the Senate for Democrats, or if Democrats need fresh faces:

"I think that they’re going to lead their respective caucuses into those elections but I think the public are looking for a new generation of leaders and they’re going to be looking for candidates they probably haven't encountered in the past that are going to be fresh faces. And, I think some of the success in the Virginia election was the result of new people not only coming in to work in the elections but to become candidates themselves. They had a tremendous amount of success by bringing in younger people, more women, more people of color, the first transgender person elected to the Virginia House of Commons. I think that it’s going to be those frontline candidates that make the difference.

Are they talking in an authentic way to the people that they’re going to represent? Whoever is leading the party is going to get demonized by the other side and so I think that leader Pelosi, for example, has been a tremendously effective leader of her caucus to be able to keep the discipline of the caucus. But unlike having a presidential standard bearer, I think it’s going to be the individual candidates running in those districts that are going to make the difference. Not who’s the person, who’s the leader in Washington. If anything, I think our candidates are going to say they want to bring some kind of freshness to Washington."

On whether Trump will continue to get away with some controversial actions he has done:

"Well I think Bob Mueller had lots to say about that. I think the Republicans on Capitol Hill will stick with him until they can’t and I have no insight into either the pace or the ultimate conclusion after Mueller’s investigation. The White House is living, I think, in the dream world that this is all going to be wrapped up by the first of the year and it’ll come to a happy conclusion. It doesn’t feel that way quite frankly. And Mike Flynn seems like the next big domino to fall.

But, I think that [Republicans on Capitol Hill] essentially decided they can live with anything as long as they retain power and they’ll keep doing that until that becomes untenable for them...it’ll destroy the party if they stick with it too long. I think their discomfort with Trump’s embrace of Roy Moore is evidence that he has no restraint, so the question is do they finally hit the breaking point? He did it to some extent with [Bob] Corker and with Jeff Flake, but there haven’t been a lot of profiles in courage up there yet. But, I think that there could come a point where they just cannot ignore what Mueller is uncovering."

On whether Republicans will push back if Trump fires Mueller:

"I think that he has tried to undermine Mueller and there are certainly voices, particularly in the House, that have tried to get on his side of that question. I think it’s a very tricky proposition for him to follow. That is, if you didn't need the split screen picture of him and [former president Richard Nixon], you’d certainly produce it from that. So, I think Mueller is likely to stay. I think the Senate is likely to try to protect him. I think the president has the capacity to fire him but I think there’d be dire consequences from that."