October 26, 2017
WASHINGTON, DC – Former US House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), senior strategic advisor for Squire Patton Boggs LLP, delivered the following remarks (as prepared) at the Transatlantic Business Conference in Frankfurt, Germany on October 26, 2017:
I’m delighted to be here with you in Germany. . .a country where everybody knows my name is not pronounced “John Boner.”
More seriously, this is the land of my ancestors. . .the original home of the Boehner family, before my family crossed the Atlantic in search of the American Dream.
I’m one of millions of Americans who share a special bond with the people of this nation by virtue of our common forefathers. . .and our common foremothers.
This is something I noted in a letter I sent as Speaker to Chancellor Merkel in 2014 to mark the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I’ll get into that a little later.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT ME
My grandmother was born in Bavaria. My grandfather was born in the US, but his parents – my great-grandparents – were from Bavaria.
I grew up in a German Catholic family in Cincinnati with 11 brothers and sisters. My dad ran a bar – a tavern my grandfather established.
I worked in that bar growing up. Went on to run a small business in the packaging and plastics industry.
Politics is the last thing I thought I’d do. But I got involved in my neighborhood homeowners association. . .and I ended up as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
This too could happen to you.
For the past year I’ve been traveling the world in my role as Senior Strategic Advisor for Squire Patton Boggs, giving advice to our clients around the world.
That’s what brings me here today.
THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY NEAR THE ONE-YEAR MARK
Everywhere I go, I get the same question: what in the hell is going on in America?
Without question, the past two years have been the craziest time I’ve ever witnessed in American government.
We’re 10 months into Donald Trump’s presidency, but it’s still too early to render a verdict on it.
He’s had some stumbles – health care.
He’s had some wins – US Supreme Court, and the economy.
There’s been no government shutdown – yet. There’s been no default on America’s debt. Having spent five years in the Speaker’s Office – seemingly lurching from crisis to crisis – I can tell you, these are not small things.
But the defining chapters of this book have yet to be written.
We won’t really know what to say about Year 1 of Donald Trump’s presidency until we are well into Year 2.
The effort to overhaul the US tax code is the centerpiece of Trump’s domestic agenda. It’s going to be tough, but they’re doing well so far.
I was pretty skeptical about tax reform after the health care effort failed.
But lately I’ve been pretty impressed. I haven’t seen the GOP this determined to get something done in years.
The failure of the health care effort actually seems to have had the effect of making tax reform more likely.
A tax reform bill may actually happen. . .but we may not know until early 2018.
We also may not know until 2018 where all of the Administration’s saber-rattling on trade is taking us.
Will we end up with a stronger, more modern NAFTA – or the end of NAFTA?
Will we end up with a stronger Korea-US trade agreement – or will the president pull the US out of KORUS?
Will we see the US and China forge a stronger relationship that increases pressure on North Korea – or will US-China relations get worse, escalating tensions in the region?
Will the president impose tariffs on imported steel, aluminum, washing machines, and solar panels, risking a trade war – or take a more measured approach?
Will the president take steps against our allies doing any type of business deal with Iran – or take a more measured approach?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. . .and candidly, I don’t think the people around the president know the answers yet either.
America has never had a president like Donald Trump. . .and I don’t just mean in the obvious ways.
Donald Trump is the least ideological person ever to sit in the Oval Office.
As Charlie Cook said in a forum at our firm a few days after the election: Trump is blissfully unencumbered by ideology.
He runs the White House the way he ran a business: letting his advisors duke it out, on the theory that the best answers will rise to the top. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s policy Darwinism.
INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE
Consequently, inside the Trump White House, two factions are constantly competing for influence. . .it’s “America First,” versus America as leader of the free world.
The best way I can say it is that Donald Trump sees merit in the arguments both sides make. So he plays them off against each other.
We see this playing out on issue after issue – on trade, on national security, on immigration.
My friend Senator Corker said recently that people like John Kelly, Mattis and Rex Tillerson are “standing between the American people and chaos.” And frankly there is something to this.
Even if you’re uncomfortable with President Trump’s style and rhetoric, I think you have to give him credit for having put people like Kelly and Mattis in such positions of influence in his administration.
The competing factions within the Trump White House are a microcosm of the clash going on inside the Republican Party and America itself.
WHY DONALD J. TRUMP IS PRESIDENT
The 24-hour news cycle and the advent of social media have put government under a microscope like never before. People are bombarded by information.
The Internet has accelerated globalization. But in America, globalization hasn’t automatically translated into higher wages or prosperity.
The combination of these trends has resulted in an American electorate that is deeply skeptical of globalization and our governing institutions themselves.
It came to a head in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump.
It wasn’t just an American phenomenon; we also saw it in the UK with Brexit; in Colombia, with the failure of the peace initiative there.
We haven’t really seen the wave continue in 2017, and it could be because what happened in 2016 took some pressure off, and made people think twice.
So that’s how I think we got here. And now that we’re here, you’re probably thinking, how do we deal with it?
ENGAGEMENT WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION IS VITAL – AND OFTEN EFFECTIVE
What we’ve seen over and over again with this Administration is that engagement works.
If you are a country that is a major traditional ally of the US – or a corporation with major business stake in the US – the worst thing you can do right now is look at President Trump and his administration and decide to check out, ignore Washington, or dis-engage.
Disengaging gives ammunition to those who are arguing in favor of American isolationism in the fight for the president’s ear.
Consider the example of Japan and the experience of Prime Minister Abe. The Japanese were terrified at first, but reached out immediately – even before Trump took office – and these days they’re feeling much better about their relationship with the Administration.
Consider what happened recentliy with Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi: once they finally got in a room with the President, they found out he likes nothing more than cutting a deal.
The point is, they were in the room.
It’s usually well worth getting yourself into the room and to the table.
I want to offer you one more additional prediction, and it’s one you probably aren’t hearing very much:
Donald Trump may turn out to be the immigrant’s best friend.
HOW DONALD TRUMP MAY SOLVE THE IMMIGRATION REFORM PUZZLE IN AMERICA
We have a saying in America: “It took Nixon to go to China.”
Richard Nixon, the hardline anti-communist, was the last president anybody would have expected to open up US relations with China. But he did it.
The dynamics of the immigration issue today in the US are sort of like that. Donald Trump may be one president with the running room to get a deal done.
Remember, you heard it here first.
CLOSING: THE “GREAT THREAD” THAT LINKS GERMANY AND AMERICA
I mentioned earlier the letter I sent to Chancellor Merkel in 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before we go to questions, I’d like to close my opening remarks by repeating a passage from that letter.
The fall of the wall, I wrote; “demonstrated for our children what the human spirit can achieve. It showed them that the desire for liberty never dies. This is the great thread that links all of us, no matter where we’re from, no matter how dire our situation. [In the United States], we are aware of the debt we owe to ordinary German citizens who longed for freedom and risked everything they had for it.”
The “great thread” I was talking about is alive and well today. It cannot be severed easily, and must never be severed.
Thanks to all of you for the things you do to keep that “great thread” intact. I look forward to your questions and our discussion.
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