Amy McGrath poses for photo after interview
Amy McGrath | Photo by Joe Sonka

A day after announcing her campaign challenging six-term Sen. Mitch McConnell in the 2020 U.S. Senate race, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Amy McGrath sat down with Insider Louisville on Wednesday to take questions on a wide variety of subjects about her candidacy.

McGrath, a Democrat, raised some eyebrows in cable news interviews on Tuesday by accusing McConnell of blocking positive aspects of Trump’s economic policy agenda, in addition to undermining the president’s efforts to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.

Insider asked McGrath about those statements and where she stands on other Trump policies related to trade, immigration, the military and the Supreme Court — as well as how she believes McConnell has reacted to the president in those areas.

Her campaign appears to be capable of competing with McConnell when it comes to fundraising, as McGrath announced raising $2.5 million in just the first 24 hours after announcing her run, a record for the first day of a U.S. Senate campaign.

McGrath also answered questions related to tax cuts, entitlement cuts, defense spending and the role of Congress in authorizing military force, as well as whether or not Trump is a good leader that has actually made a good faith effort to “drain the swamp” and how she feels about an effort to impeach him.


Insider Louisville: You did a number of interviews on cable news networks Tuesday in which you said one of the reasons you were running was because Mitch McConnell had blocked various aspects of President Trump’s economic policy agenda — from jobs, infrastructure, lowering drug prices — and prevented him from “draining the swamp.” But Trump tweeted last night that Kentucky voters should stick with McConnell over you saying that “we need Mitch in the Senate to keep America great.” So why should we believe you over Trump himself when it comes to whether McConnell is blocking or furthering Trump’s policy agenda?

Amy McGrath: Well, if you think about why Kentuckians voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, they voted overwhelmingly for President Trump because he promised to drain the swamp. He was an outsider. He promised to do things like infrastructure. He promised to do things like break down drug prices. He promised to bring back all of these jobs. All of those things. I’m simply pointing out that a lot of the things that he promised are being held up by Senator McConnell.

For example, the prescription drug prices — President Trump has said this is one of his priorities. He said the current system is “very, very unfair.” And that’s a quote. He has talked about, as a policy, he wants to re-import drugs — these are reasonable policies — re-import drugs from Canada. He’s talked about Medicare being able to renegotiate drug prices. I’m with him on these things. And many Kentuckians are with him on these things.

Kentucky has the second-highest per capita spending on prescription drug medication in the country. The average Kentuckian spends over $2,000 a year. So this is a bread and butter issue. Who stops him along the way? Senator McConnell is the one who stops and every time.

He doesn’t want to do anything with regards to prescription drugs. He said very confidently, that he’s the one that decides what goes to the floor in the Senate, and this is a nonstarter. And you ask yourself, why is that? Well, it’s not rocket science. Senator McConnell gets the most campaign cash from Big Pharma than any other member of Congress. $1.2 million in this last cycle.

So when the President talks about doing these things, which is the reason why many Kentuckians voted for him, Senator McConnell is the one who is stopping making some of those things happen. And that’s what I was talking about.

With regards to the tweet — My response to the president would be you can’t have it both ways, Mr. President. You can’t say that you want to drain the swamp and then not want to drain the swamp with regards to Senator McConnell. He’s been there 34 years. He is the most perfect example of the swamp. For most of his money, he works for special interests, corporations, and it’s not a secret.

IL: Do you think it’s a matter of McConnell blocking those Trump promises from going into effect, or do you think that Trump made a bunch of phony promises when he was running that he had no intention following up on?

McGrath: Like many Kentuckians… many Kentuckians take Trump for what he said. They voted for him because he said, I’m going to drain the swamp, I’m not D.C. insider, I’m not part of this political establishment. He was seen as somebody that was not part of the D.C. elite, so that’s why Kentuckians voted for him. So, you know, that’s why many Kentuckians believe that he’s serious, that the president is serious about these things.

Paid family leave is another one. He’s talked about it in two State of the Union addresses, that he’s wanted to do paid family leave and he’s going to bring it, he’s going to have it happen. Who stops it? Senator McConnell. He will never let anything go through. And Senator McConnell has been the one that says, you know, I’m the one that makes the decisions. That’s what I’m saying.

IL: Kind of going back to my follow-up question, Charles Booker, a state representative here in Louisville, tweeted last night: “The only thing Donald Trump has done for Kentucky is lie, further destabilize industries, and exploit fear. McConnell hasn’t blocked him, he has coddled him. He has pacified him to our detriment. He has turned a calamity into sustained threat to democracy. Period.” So what is your response to Democrats in Kentucky who heard your message on cable news and strongly disagreed with you on both what Trump’s agenda actually is and how McConnell has supposedly blocked his agenda? Because a lot of Democrats didn’t like that, that I’ve heard from.

McGrath: I’m sorry that a lot of Democrats didn’t like that. I was simply pointing out that a lot of Kentuckians voted for Trump for those reasons.

You know, I don’t know what’s in Trump’s heart. I don’t know if he just said these things to say these things, or if he said these things and he meant them. All I know, Joe, is that many Kentuckians that I talked to look at the president and say, “He said he was going to do these things and I believe him.” Many Kentuckians give him the benefit of the doubt. So for Democrats — and I understand why Democrats might, you know, think that the president is not serious. And I don’t know.

To me, this race is not about the president. It’s about Senator McConnell. And the biggest thing, the difference between myself and Senator McConnell is I’m somebody that cares about what’s best for Kentucky. Not my political party. I will work with any president, regardless of party, to do what’s best for Kentucky.

Senator McConnell is all about obstruction when a president is of a different party. And then he’s all about just letting the president do whatever he wants when it’s his party. And he is not prioritizing the things that Kentuckians care about. And if you think about the fact that President Trump is so popular here, it’s because he’s talking about the bread and butter issues that a lot of Kentuckians care about. And Senator McConnell is in Washington doing the bidding of special interests, and a lot of people see that. So that’s probably what a lot of his unpopularity is all about.

IL: So let’s get to some specific policy areas beyond some of the ones that you’ve mentioned and talk about Trump’s policies and how McConnell has aided or blocked it. First of all, Trump’s tariffs, pulling out of trade deals like TPP. Do you support those actions, and how do you think McConnell has responded to those?

McGrath: This is, again, the difference between Senator McConnell and myself. Unlike Senator McConnell, when I think the president is wrong, I’m actually going to stand up to him. You know, Senator McConnell was a free market, free trade guy for 40 years. Now, all the sudden, he just cowers to the president on these tariffs. And I think he’s afraid of President Trump. I’m not.

Because I believe the tariffs really hurt Kentucky. They hurt our soybean farmers. Our soybean farmers have lost their profit. They’ve lost their profits and they may have permanently lost their market. And I’ve talked to a lot of them, Jim Wade, as an example. They’re not getting any profits anymore. They don’t want government handouts. They just want their market back. The tariffs are hurting some of our signature industries in Kentucky. They have the real potential to hurt Toyota, which is in Georgetown, as you know, and they’re hurting the bourbon industry. And again, Senator McConnell does not have the guts to stand up for Kentucky.

I understand why President Trump wants to get tough on China. I want to get tough on China. They have been stealing our intellectual property, their military budget has skyrocketed in the last decade. I think there are some real security concerns with China and we’ve got to get tougher on them. But I don’t think the approach that President Trump is doing, by holding our farmers as the sort of bait here and hostage to getting tough on China… because it’s not working.

And who’s paying the price? Our folks here in Kentucky. The Dollar Store, as an example, they are raising their prices. Many people in Kentucky get their products from the Dollar Store, so the prices are rising on everybody. China doesn’t pay the tariffs. We do. And the big concern I have is that Senator McConnell should be standing up for our industries, should be standing up for our farmers. He’s not.

IL: So moving on to Trump’s immigration policy, ranging from child separation at the southern border to the wall. How do you feel about Trump’s immigration policies, and how do you think McConnell has reacted to those?

McGrath: Well, I’ve been to the border. I’ve seen what’s going on. I went down there last year without any press or any agenda, and I toured both sides of the border. Talked to border patrol agents, talked to ICE agents, talked to refugees. This whole crisis is manageable, provided we have sensible leadership. I’m somebody who fought for my country, I believe we need to have secure strong borders. We absolutely need to know who’s coming into our country. And I’ll be the first one to stand and make a stake in the ground on that.

What we need in the short term with this crisis is more resources to the border. Now that’s what the Border Patrol agents are telling me. We need more agents. We need more caseworkers that can handle these cases. And we need to stop separating children from their families. It’s un-American. We shouldn’t be using Border Patrol agents as babysitters. It’s not what they’re trained to do. So I’m adamantly, as a mother, adamantly against that. There are better ways to do this, and I saw it when I was at the border.

Long term, what we need is comprehensive immigration reform, which is something Senator McConnell has blocked for 30 years. He’s done nothing on this. We don’t have serious lawmakers in Congress that actually want to fix our very broken immigration system. And that’s my biggest hit on Senator McConnell, because this crisis, I lay squarely at his feet. He has done nothing.

Bills have come through, comprehensive immigration reform where we basically say we have a path to legal status for Dreamers and those folks that have been around a long time here in the United States, and we also secure our borders and make sure we know who’s coming across our borders. And by the way, we can do that with better technology, drones and that sort of thing. So that’s long term. You’ve got to get leaders in Congress that actually want to work and fix the system, which is very broken.

Second thing we need to do is we need to go where the crisis is starting. It’s not starting at our borders. There’s massive civil war… in Guatemala and El Salvador, the Central American countries. We have to work with those countries to mitigate this situation, and we have to work with Mexico. And Mexico has to be responsible, too, with this crisis, and that requires engagement, it requires diplomacy, it requires helping those countries to keep their people where they live so they’re not here.

IL: What about the wall? Should that be funded?

McGrath: You know, in certain areas of our border, I think it’s OK to have physical barriers. We already have physical barriers, by the way. When I went down to the border it was in El Paso, there are some physical barriers down there. I think all of these things are reasonable in certain areas. The idea or the approach of a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border I think is a huge waste of money. It would take a decade to build and we don’t need it. It can be defeated by a ladder in some of these road areas.

IL: You were quoted in your last race [losing to Congressman Andy Barr in Kentucky’s Sixth District] as saying the wall is “stupid.” When you say that, do you mean the entire wall (across the whole border)?

McGrath: I’m talking the approach of the entire wall across an entire border. And oh by the way, what are we going to do about our coasts? We’re not going to put a wall on our coasts. I mean, think about it, I’m a practical person. We should not be spending billions of dollars to put something up in a remote area that can be defeated by a ladder when we can use drones and better technology to do the same thing on a much cheaper level. I mean, I’m a fighter pilot. What we can do now technology wise dwarfs what I could see in an F-18 (fighter jet) 20 years ago. I mean, the technology is amazing. And we can do this, provided we have people that want to, you know, actually solve this problem.

IL: Moving on to another policy area, Trump’s efforts to ban transgender troops from the military. How do you think McConnell has responded to that?

McGrath: How has he responded? I don’t know, how has Senator McConnell responded to that?

IL: I don’t believe he’s commented on it, to my knowledge.

McGrath: I don’t know what Senator McConnell has said, so I can’t respond to what he said. I can tell you that I served with transgender persons in the service, both transgender men and transgender women. You know what we care about in the military? Can you shoot? Can you drive the tank? Can you fly the plane? We don’t care about what gender you are, or what sex you, what race you are, or what religion you are. It’s can you get the job done, do you have my back when I’m getting shot at, are you somebody with integrity, are you somebody with character and honor, and are you going to lie to me? That’s what we care about. So I think that anybody that wants to sign their name, a blank check to Uncle Sam with their life, and enlist in the United States military and is qualified should be able to do that.

IL: What about all the federal judges that Trump has nominated to various benches and the Supreme Court? Do you think McConnell has allowed too many of those to go through?

McGrath: I think this is what you get when you have a Republican president and a Republican Senate. I mean, you get to pick your judicial nominees. So that’s what they’re doing. I’m not sure that there’s anything that anybody can do to stop it. That’s our system, fortunately, or unfortunately, but we’re in the position we’re in.

IL: Would you have voted for Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court?

McGrath: I was very torn over the nomination of Kavanaugh. And let me just say that I’m not somebody that listened to all of hearings. I’m not on the judicial committee in the Senate. I was worried when Kavanaugh was nominated because I felt like his stances on unions and women’s reproductive rights and some of those things were pretty far out of the mainstream. At the same time, there wasn’t anything that disqualified Judge Kavanaugh from becoming a Supreme Court justice. So that’s where I stood. I mean, I didn’t have to make a vote one way or the other, but there was nothing to disqualify Judge Kavanaugh.

IL: On Fox News yesterday — and correct me if I’m wrong here — it sounded like you were open to entitlement cuts, speaking favorably of the old Simpson-Bowles plan and the Rivlin-Domenici plan. Would you be open to an effort to tackle the debt and the deficit by cutting Medicare or Medicaid benefits and raising the Social Security eligibility age, if that’s paired with scaling back some of the Trump tax cuts for the wealthiest?

McGrath: I think that our debt and our deficit is extremely worrisome. Neither side in this political debate has been honest with the American public about our debt. Senator McConnell single-handedly — because he was in charge in the two years the Republicans, the “fiscally conservative party” had power — they added over $2 trillion to the national debt and almost doubled our deficit with this massive tax windfall for corporations and the wealthiest 1%. That they, by the way, said would pay for themselves. We know that’s not true. And the concern that I have is that the debt continues to get bigger and bigger, and nobody’s talking seriously about how we fix it. Again, I think it’s manageable if we have sensible people in office. And I think the last time when we looked at this was 2010 around the debt ceiling and the crisis that was brought in by the Tea Party.

I think that there were some plans on the table that looked at how do we, long term, fix the debt? I’m not saying that I’m for one plan and the other, you know, because I’d have to look at them. I’m just saying that in order to fix the debt, you’re going to have to have a comprehensive plan, where both Republicans and Democrats — serious Republicans and serious Democrats that care about this country — come together and look at “how do we do this?” And I think that those plans were one step in that process.

IL: In that same interview you said you would be only open to defense spending cuts when “we stop the wars that we’re in.” So what specific wars do you want to end? And what role should Congress play on whatever military action we might take with Iran?

McGrath: What I was saying was, I don’t think we should cut defense as long as we’re in the wars that we’re in. I think that Congress has failed and Senator McConnell is absolutely part of this. Congress has failed in doing their constitutional responsibility of authorizing the use of military force. They have punted this issue since 2001. And as somebody who served her country and did three combat tours, it’s very personal to me. The Constitution says that Congress is the one that authorizes the use of military force… or declares war, same thing. And Congress hasn’t done anything since 2001.

So my big thing is not “should we pull out from Afghanistan right now?” Or “should we pull out of Iraq right now?” Here’s the problem: The American people are completely disconnected from the wars that we’re fighting right now. And part of the reason why is because Congress does not have the courage to debate and authorize whether we should be in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Niger. These are all places Americans have died in the last two years in combat. Most Americans don’t know that. That is what I think is wrong.

IL: You’ve said that you got involved in politics because we needed better leaders. Is Trump a good leader?

McGrath: As a military officer, I have been disappointed in many of the ways President Trump has led. The disparagement of our allies. The cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong-un. And again, this is another difference between Senator McConnell and myself. I’m not all about my party in power. I’m about this country and doing what’s right. And Senator McConnell I think must know, deep down, the cozying up to Kim Jong-un is wrong, but fails to ever stand up to the president on these things because he’s of the same political party. I won’t do that. I’m going to do what I think is right for our country, no matter what. So in terms of the President’s leadership, that’s one thing that I’m not for.

IL: Do you think that Trump has really made an effort to drain the swamp?

McGrath: Well, I was happy with one of his cabinet pics, when he picked General Mattis to be secretary of defense. I thought he was very competent. I haven’t been too happy with some of President Trump’s other cabinet picks. But if you really want to drain the swamp, you’ve got to get rid of guys like Senator McConnell. So I think that if the President really cares about draining the swamp, that’s one of the ways that we got to start.

IL: Are you concerned at all that Trump has used his office to attract business to his family-owned companies and properties and benefit from that?

McGrath: I am concerned, I am very concerned. It’s all a part of this corruption that is a problem in D.C. and I’m very concerned about it. And he’s not the only one. There’s a lot of senators who are corrupt.

IL: Is McConnell one of those that’s benefited?

McGrath: Senator McConnell has worked for special interests for so many years, he is the perfect example of the swamp.

IL: Do you think he’s financially benefited from being an office for so long, beyond just his senatorial salary?

McGrath: I don’t know. I know a senator’s salary is something around $150,000 when he started out, and now he’s worth what, $57 million? So…

IL: On policy in general, do you consider yourself and call yourself a progressive or a moderate?

McGrath: I don’t think you can put me in a box. And I think this is what’s wrong with politics today, frankly. Folks couldn’t really put President Trump in a box. And he ran and people really liked his message, at least here in Kentucky, when he talked about draining the swamp and all these other things. For me, I was not a very partisan person. I was independent for 12 years.

My husband’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat. I voted for Republicans in the past. I’m somebody that’s pro-free trade, free markets. I’m somebody who’s very strong on defense, I think we need to have strong defense. I think we need to have strong borders. I am not for that complete revamping of our health care system and socializing it in a Medicare For All way. I just don’t think that’s reasonable.

So I don’t know if you can put me in a box. I consider myself a moderate. My husband considers himself a moderate. But again, there are issues where I’m more conservative and there are issues where I’m more progressive. That’s most Americans, by the way. And here’s the big takeaway: I’m not owned by a political party. Nobody recruited me. Nobody’s telling me what to say. I’m my own person. I ran because I think we need better leaders two years ago. I’m running right now because I think we need better leaders.

IL: What do you think about impeachment for President Trump? Are you opposed to that?

McGrath: Well, impeachment is a political question, it’s not a legal question. And I think that given the current state of affairs here in the United States, with us being so partisan, we’re so divided at this point, that impeachment would be the wrong course. It would just be a circus and we already know where it’s going to end. The Senate is not going to do anything about it.

I think the most important issue that came out of the Mueller Report that we really need to focus on is what are we going to do in the future because we know that Russia tried to influence our election and was successful in doing that. And what Robert Mueller — who’s my fellow combat veteran Marine, who I believe in as somebody who is nonpartisan and he worked for people on both sides and he cares about the country — said at the very end of his press conference, which was the most important thing that Americans need to take away is that Russia influenced our elections in sweeping and systematic fashion. And for somebody like me who spent my entire adult life in the national security ground, that’s some serious stuff.

And the big thing that I’m very concerned about is Senator McConnell blocking any election security bills, basic stuff that could secure our elections for the future. And this isn’t a partisan issue. This is an issue where last time it was the Russians that came in to bat for the Republicans.

Next time, it could be the Chinese coming back for the Democrats. It’s wrong and we as Americans need to stand up and secure our elections. And Senator McConnell, again, is the one blocking it. So that’s what I’m more concerned about. If we want to have hearings that talk about election security, we should be doing it yesterday.

Interview edited for clarity.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]