Tom LoBianco · Reporter
WASHINGTON — Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been making more noise recently about a possible Republican run for the White House in 2024. The former federal prosecutor has been hitting the trail in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and is planning to host a border security summit in Arizona soon.
In an interview with Yahoo News Tuesday, he said he is “seriously” leaning toward running and said his time frame for deciding lands around one of the first big political events of the cycle, the Christian right Faith and Freedom Conference being held in Iowa on April 22.
Hutchinson has long cut a figure as a stalwart conservative in the party, leading the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton a quarter century ago, then running the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Bush administration, before serving two terms as governor.
But he has emerged as one of former President Donald Trump’s sharpest critics on the right, after breaking with him when Trump tried to overturn his 2020 election loss.
“My view of [Jan. 6, 2021] is that it was undermining our democracy, our institutions of government. It brought us disrespect globally and because what America always looked at was, my goodness, how we transferred power from one administration to the other,” said Hutchinson, who had chaired Trump’s 2020 reelection bid in Arkansas. “That was all undermined that day. And so it was unacceptable.”
Trump is facing a raft of legal trouble stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and deny the peaceful transfer of power — from a state-level probe in Georgia to the federal investigation being led by special counsel Jack Smith. Hutchinson said that even if there is evidence of a crime, prosecutors have to weigh the much heavier question of whether to try a former president.
Asked if he had seen any evidence of criminality by Trump, Hutchinson replied, “Well, that’s a big arena.”
He cited the state probes in New York and Georgia and the federal probes of Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and the removal of classified documents from the White House. “They’re complicated legal issues,” he said, “so we’ve got to let those play out.”
Hutchinson urged caution in determining whether to prosecute Trump and said the courts may not be the best venue for that.
“The public deals with these things through the elections. And in this case, I think the best answer is that the voters should speak out and say, Donald Trump’s not the best direction for America in the future. And voters can determine that very quickly,” he said.
Pressed on the fact that Trump continues to lead most early polling of the Republican field and could win reelection if he secures the party nomination a third time, Hutchinson stood by his position.
“It takes the voters to exercise that at some point along the way — whether that’s in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina — someone needs to say we need to go a different direction. And thank goodness, there’s going to be alternatives to [Trump],” he said. “It would not be healthy for our democracy to have him reelected. That’s where I think we’re going as a country [and] as a party. It just takes a while and a little bit of pain to get there.”
Decades before Trump-inspired white supremacist and extremist groups plotted their attack on the Capitol, Hutchinson fought similar extremists as the U.S. attorney for Arkansas. Serving as the youngest federal prosecutor appointed by President Ronald Reagan, whom he called the greatest Republican president of his lifetime, Hutchinson took on a white supremacist militia group in rural Arkansas, called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord.
In the early ’80s, the armed militia group was cooking up plans to bomb federal buildings and assassinate federal officials, even him.
During a three-day standoff in 1985, Hutchinson donned a bulletproof vest and helped negotiate an end to the showdown. “We had SWAT teams from five different states, about 200 law enforcement officers. Very violent, dangerous situation. We got it resolved without a shot being fired.”
Modern white supremacist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys bear many of the same hallmarks of domestic extremist threats from decades earlier — but now it’s much easier for them to recruit.
“There’s probably more at risk today, in that sense, than back in the ’80s. If you wanted to inspire violence by others, and you were a charismatic leader, you did that face to face, you actually brought these groups together, which is a greater risk of being caught,” Hutchinson said. “But today, you know, with social media, with the internet, with all of the means of communication, you see people being inspired off of the internet.”
“What we see is that ... enforcing the law makes a difference. Enforcing the law stops some of this violent suppression and violent actions by extremist groups,” he said. “Sadly, every generation has to face this at some level.”
A conservative lane
Before Trump stormed the Republican Party and ensconced conservative populism as a facet of the modern right, Hutchinson likely would have been viewed as one of the most conservative contenders.
But in the landscape upturned by Trump, Hutchinson has sounded more like an old establishment Republican — even if his positions fit squarely with much of the party.
Asked how he would handle the continued influx of undocumented immigrants across the border with Mexico, Hutchinson said, “It starts with securing the border.” He called for more funding for the Border Patrol and for physical and technological “fences.” He said the U.S. needs to do a better job targeting the Mexican drug cartels that smuggle immigrants and drugs across the border.
“But specifically you need to be able to send them back to their home country,” he said. “You start with putting the resources that are needed to process the cases to put the structures in place to protect our border. Then, down the road, you can talk about more comprehensive immigration reform, but it starts with securing the border.”
With Republicans now in control of the House and the simmering fight over raising the nation’s debt ceiling to pay its outstanding bills, Social Security benefits have moved back to center stage in the national debate.
A handful of House Republicans have talked about reworking Social Security benefits as part of the debt ceiling fight. Former Vice President Mike Pence sparked an uproar last week after he told a Washington audience he wants to “reform” the program and look at implementing “private savings accounts” for future recipients — a Bush-era proposal that generated such a strong backlash that touching Social Security benefits was deemed the “third rail of American politics.”
And President Biden, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, appeared to lay a trap for House Republicans — drawing boos from the group when he said that some of them were looking at cutting the program, then goading them into applauding it.
“There’s challenges whenever you look at Social Security, the long-term funding of it. So let’s first just be committed to strengthening Social Security,” Hutchinson said. “I believe the right approach to addressing that is growing the economy, growing the private sector, unleashing their power. And that’s really the only way we’re gonna be able to reduce this burden of debt. You’ve got to be able to grow your way out of it.”
In 2019, Hutchinson, as governor, signed a state “trigger” law that would launch a near-total ban on abortions in Arkansas if the Supreme Court ever overturned Roe v. Wade.
“I did expect that it would be overturned. I didn’t know they would be that quickly. I thought they might scale it back, and then look at it again down the road,” he said.
While some Republicans, notably Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have been pushing for a nationwide abortion ban, Hutchinson said he sides more with the camp that believes it should be decided state by state.
“If you look at it nationally, I think there’s going to be two debates as you go into the 2024 season. And one is, should there be a national standard, and then, secondly, you know, what should it be? Or should we just stick with every state being able to make their own decision?” Hutchinson said. “I've worked very hard for 40 years to say the states can make their decisions on this.”
But Hutchinson said Republicans still need to tread carefully on the issue.
“We want to be able to win the hearts and minds of Americans and you want to be able to win in November. And so you’ve got to approach this with that level of compassion and understanding, and the needs of, for example, a mom that has a pregnancy that might not have been expected or wanted or at risk. And we’ve got to deal with those in a positive way.”