Utah Senator hopes candidates appeal to Constitution during GOP debate

The final GOP presidential debate of 2015 happens tonight on CNN. Joining Glenn to talk about what he hopes happens at the debate was friend of the program, Utah Senator Mike Lee.

Lee told Glenn he would like to see a larger discussion of how we can solve our nation's problems by adhering more rigidly to the U.S. Constitution.

"The candidate who can make the best pitch for that I think will stand to gain the most from the American people," Lee said.

Glenn laughingly told Lee that sounds like "riveting television" right there, to which the senator delivered a surprisingly matter-of-fact, yet powerful response.

"Well, it is," Lee said. "There's nothing more appealing than someone who is willing to say, 'Look, I don't have all the answers. And because I don't have all the answers, I'm going to look to that 228-year-old founding document written by the hands of wise men raised up by their God to that very purpose.'"

He went on.

"That's the kind of discussion we need to have more of, and I think the American people, regardless of their traditional political ideologies and their partisan affiliations, that's where they want the discussion to go," Lee said.

Listen to more of the interview or read the transcript below.

Below is a rush transcript of this segment, it might contain errors.

GLENN: One of the real good guys in Washington, DC. One of the very few that we -- we totally trust, which every time somebody burns us, we say we're never going to trust anybody totally ever again. But this guy we do. And he's the senator from the great state of Utah. Welcome to the program, Senator Mike Lee. How are you doing, sir?

MIKE: Doing great. Thank you very much, Glenn.

GLENN: Okay. So the NSA. Can we just start here? Do you think the NSA has actually ceased in your own state of Utah the data collection?

MIKE: Yes. This is what the USA Freedom Act did. I was proud to author and introduce the USA Freedom Act as a sponsor in the Senate. And that ended the process of bulk data collection. So now, rather than sucking up every American's telephone data without a warrant, the FBI goes to the court. Gets a court order, based on a showing that they need to get calling data connected to a particular number that is itself related to a terrorist investigation. Then they go to the phone company and get the data they need. There is a big difference for privacy purposes and a big difference for Fourth Amendment purposes. And the USA Freedom did a lot to correct that problem.

GLENN: So can I ask you how many billions of dollars that data collection facility in your own state cost?

MIKE: It was not cheap. I don't know the exact price. But you're correct to express it in --

GLENN: Billions.

MIKE: Words that start with a B rather than an M.

GLENN: Right.

MIKE: This is an enormous facility.

GLENN: Right. And are we using it as a storage hangar now? I mean, I just don't believe that the United States government and with all the black ops that happened and with all the black ops money that the NSA has just shut that thing down.

MIKE: No, they haven't shut it down. It's important to remember that a lot of what the NSA does has nothing to do with domestic communications. A lot of what they do involves collecting information about communications going on with people outside the United States. And that's a different category altogether. The USA Freedom Act dealt with domestic communications and metadata connected to those communications.

GLENN: So we were told that the NSA -- that this was vital. And, in fact, anybody who voted for this bill, Ted Cruz included, and I believe Ted cosponsored or coauthored with you on this.

MIKE: Yes, Ted was a cosponsor and a very hopeful supporter of getting it past. We were grateful for not only his vote, but also for his assistance in getting this -- this issue out there. Getting the argument out there, that this is a problem.

I spent years explaining why it's a problem. I even wrote part of my book, Our Lost Constitution -- it focuses on the Fourth Amendment aspect of this and how this problem has its roots going back 250 years to pre-revolutionary colonial times and at corresponding times in Britain when we had the use of general warrants underway. And why general warrants were incompatible with what we later developed as our Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

GLENN: Okay. So Ted has been thrown under the bus. You have been thrown under the bus. Anybody who voted for this, as somebody who just doesn't support -- somebody that doesn't want to keep America safe. But I look at what happened in San Bernardino. We had all the information at our fingertips, without the NSA. But when we had the NSA, what happened to all that great technology that was supposed to save us?

MIKE: Well, that's just the point. We were no safer as a result of collecting information under the old system, under section 215 of the Patriot Act. Bulk data collection didn't make us more safe. It made us less free in the sense that our privacy interest protected by the Fourth Amendment were being infringed without our knowledge, without our consent, and contrary to the spirit if not to the letter of the Fourth Amendment. But no one can point to a single instance in which that former system, under the Patriot Act, prevented a terrorist act.

And no one can point to a single instance since the passage of the USA Freedom Act where we've been made less safe. So really what it did, among other things, the old system, was it made it harder to find that needle in a haystack. They created a much bigger haystack. And our current system, the one devised by the USA Freedom Act narrowed the haystack and keeps the NSA focused on what's most relevant.

GLENN: Money runs out to fund the government I think tonight or tomorrow night. Tomorrow night. Why is it, Mike, that we keep putting ourselves in this situation?

MIKE: It -- it really is disappointing. It is one of the most frustrating things associated with serving in Washington, with being a member of the United States Senate. I knew that this place had a lot of problems. This is one that is much, much worse than I anticipated when I got here. The fact that we're operating a 4 trillion-dollar government and the fact that we operate it on the basis of one binary decision a year, we --

GLENN: Right. Fund it or don't fund it.

MIKE: Right. Fund it or don't fund it. Fund everything basically as is or fund nothing at all and shut it all down. That is an absolutely preposterous way to run any organization, especially the most powerful nation on earth and its government.

And, you know, I would like to have seen us put an omnibus spending package, if that's how we were going to do it, on the floor weeks, if not months ago to allow individual members to offer amendments to improve it so that it's an open, publicly debated process. Instead, what I'm predicting is that we'll get stuck with probably a 1500 to 2,000-page deal. One that spends roughly a billion dollars per page and that we'll only have hours, if not minutes to read it before we have to vote on it. And that's wrong. That is absolutely wrong

GLENN: Whose fault is that?

MIKE: Well, this is a process that has evolved over the course of years. We've had Republicans and Democrats who have been involved in it. But any time you've got that process moving forward, people who vote for bills like that, vote for bills that they can't possibly read, that they can't possibly know the contents of, is in one way or another responsible for the problem because that's what perpetuates the problem.

GLENN: You going to vote for it?

MIKE: Not if I don't have an adequate opportunity to review it certainly. And depending on what's in it, I may have other reasons to oppose it as well. With any bill, I wait until I see it to make a final decision. But I know in advance, if I don't have time to read it before it's time to vote, I will vote no every single time.

GLENN: Paul Ryan, is he a help, a hindrance, or nothing?

MIKE: Well, look, we will see -- we will see whether this kind of thing continues under his watch. We've got to keep in mind that before he became speaker, a lot of this was in process anyway. A lot of this was in the pipeline. And if this kind of thing continues to happen on his watch, I don't think that's going to be good for him. I -- I hope that he will make sure that this doesn't happen again. Never ever again on his watch.

GLENN: You're running for reelection. Now, let's just play this out. You're running for reelection. And you're the only person that I've -- that I've ever endorsed. And you didn't ask for my endorsement. And you could clearly tell me not to endorse you, if you think that would help you. Anything to help you. But I've never endorsed anyone before, but I've endorsed you.

Now, but let's play this out. Ted Cruz becomes president. One of the Supreme Court justices kick it. And he says, "I want you to be the Supreme Court justice." What do you say?

MIKE: Well, I don't think I know any lawyer, certainly I don't know any law gig who wouldn't be highly flattered by even a hypothetical like that being asked. And I would count myself among those who would be highly flattered by something like that. I would be very grateful. We'll see what happens.

PAT: Can you imagine, Mike, at your age, how the left would react to you being nominated for the US Supreme Court? I mean, you could have 50 years on the court, and I think they would just be delighted with that.

GLENN: Oh, I think --

PAT: Would be delighted.

MIKE: Yeah, it's interesting. I don't think I would be their first choice.

PAT: No. I don't think so.

GLENN: I will tell you, I've had a conversation with Ted about you and others. I said, "We need people like Mike on the Supreme Court, but I don't think anybody has the guts to say -- they'll look and they'll triangulate, "Well, who can I get on," where the left just doesn't move.

PAT: No.

GLENN: And he just smiled at me and he said, "Well, I have the guts." And I believe him. I believe him. So I'm hoping to see you in robes some day and not a bathrobe.

MIKE: Well, thank you. That's kind of you.

GLENN: Yeah.

MIKE: They say black is a flattering color.

PAT: Slimming. I think it's slimming.

MIKE: Yes, exactly right. We all need that.

But, by the way, Glenn, I wanted to mention to you, Sharon and I read The Immortal Nicholas over Thanksgiving. We loved it. It was a fantastic book. Thank you for sending it to us.

GLENN: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you. You bet. Thank you.

Okay. So tonight, the debate on CNN, what are you hoping happens? What are you hoping that we talk about?

MIKE: I would like to see a fulsome discussion tonight of how we need to adhere more rigidly to the Constitution, of how a lot of the problems that we've got in Washington relate to the fact that we have ignored the most important features of the Constitution, namely the structural protections in our founding document. The vertical protection, which is federalism, the principle that says most of the powers should remain close to the people at the state and local level. And the horizontal protection, which we call separation of powers. We flip both of those principles on their heads. And I would like to see more of a discussion of that, of the structural deviations from the Constitution and how we need to restore those. The candidate who can make the best pitch for that I think will stand to gain the most from the American people.

GLENN: I will tell you this, Mike, that sounds like riveting television right there.

(laughter)

MIKE: Well, it is. Actually there's nothing cooler from the standpoint of the typical, rank-and-file Republican primary presidential election voter. There's nothing more appealing than someone who is willing to say, "Look, I don't have all the answers. And because I don't have all the answers, I'm going to look to that 228-year-old founding document written by the hands of wise men raised up by their God to that very purpose. And I'm going to return us to that. And here's how I'm going to do it. I'm going to put the law-making power back in Congress where it belongs, instead of delegating it to executive branch agencies, where people who are not elected by the people and not accountable to them are making them. And I'm going to put most of the power back, close to the people. If you're from Vermont and you want a single-payer health system, knock yourself out. Do it through the state system, not the national government."

That's the kind of discussion we need to have more of, and I think the American people, regardless of their traditional political ideologies and their partisan affiliations, that's where they want the discussion to go. And that's what intuitively understand when the argument is made.

GLENN: So tell me about this. Because I think we have a real problem with immigration in our country, and I think that we have really bad guys in our country and we have no idea. And my gut tells me, "Shut the system down and cleanse it all. You know, get all the -- fine all the people that have overstayed on visas. Get them out of here. Find out who is here. Then look at how we're vetting everybody and reopen the immigration system."

Donald Trump said we should -- we should stop all Muslims from coming in. Constitutionally speaking, can he even do that?

MIKE: Strictly constitutionally speaking, there have been times when distinctions have been made on religious affiliation, particularly when taking -- when agreeing to take certain persecuted religious minorities. It's also been suggested that for similar reasons, perhaps the government might be able to do that. But I don't think that is the right approach for a variety of reasons.

Number one, as you point out, you've got to fix the problem more holistically than that. And I don't think religious paths, when you're talking about solutions necessarily the way to go. In part because they're incompatible with how we've traditionally treated religion in this country. And part because they're easy to cheat. So I think what you may be suggesting, at least what I tend to believe is that given the security threats that we face right now, we ought to, at least with respect to certain regions of the world that are volatile right now, we have to just halt all immigration until we figure out how to make sure that those who are coming in from those parts of the world present no threat to us.

As some have suggested in the past, when you look at reforms like this, you might analogize it to a leaky basement. If you've got water in your basement, you got to figure out where the leak is. You got to fix the leak before you start bailing out water. And sometimes you've got to turn off the water main for a while while you diagnosis and then address the problem. And I think that's what we ought to be doing here.

GLENN: Senator Mike Lee, always good to talk to you, sir.

PAT: We should get to the real issue though before we get off the phone with Mike. And that's, of course, you attended BYU. Your father was the president at BYU. Who should be the next head coach of the football team at BYU?

MIKE: I was hoping that either you or Glenn might take it.

GLENN: Do you wear black? Because if it's slimming, I'll take the job.

MIKE: That's right. That's right. Look, our friend who is at the Naval Academy, whose name I routinely butcher --

PAT: Niumatalolo?

MIKE: Yes. I think he's an ideal candidate for the job, and I hope he takes it. I think he would do a great job.

PAT: Yeah. Yeah. All right. Appreciate it.

STU: Breaking news.

MIKE: That is, if the two of you aren't willing to take it together.

GLENN: Oh, I think I'd do wonders.

PAT: I'm not sure if the university will be willing to take us.

GLENN: No, I don't think the university would be willing to take us in any capacity.

PAT: Not even allow us on campus.

GLENN: No, not even janitorial service.

Mike, thanks so much.

MIKE: They do need more of a conservative voice on the political science faculty. As an alum of that faculty, I can vouch for the fact that the student body that's fairly conservative, a faculty that is less so. So, you know.

GLENN: Big time less so. Big time less so.

MIKE: Yeah. Yeah.

GLENN: Thank you so much, Mike. Appreciate it.

MIKE: Okay. Thank you.

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