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LAS VEGAS — Former Sen. Harry Reid said he is worried that U.S. institutions have been “decimated” under President Donald Trump and blames Republicans for being lax on Russian election meddling — but he also warned his party against heading down the road of impeachment in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
As some Democrats, most notably Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Steyer, are publicly pushing to remove the president from office, Reid has a message: “I say to everybody, stop it.”
“I’ve been through impeachment, and they’re not pleasant," the Nevada Democrat said. "And the less we talk about impeachment, the better off we are.”
The longtime Democratic Senate leader is also breaking his silence about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, expressing “disappointment” with Republicans for being unwilling to warn the public about past Russian activities.
Reid said that Trump, former FBI Director James Comey and the billionaire Koch brothers are all to blame for the fact that Americans didn’t learn earlier about Russian attempts to influence the U.S. election.
And he singled out Senate Republicans for not doing more. “My colleagues were afraid. They were afraid of Trump. They were afraid of Comey, the FBI,” said Reid, who spoke in his first network interview since leaving the Senate in 2016.
In October of that year, Reid sent a letter to Comey blasting him for withholding “explosive” information about Trump and Russia even as the FBI chief held a news conference about Hillary Clinton’s emails.
He’s largely withheld comment on the issue since then. “Well,” Reid now says with a chuckle, “I’m right.”
And he said Republicans remain afraid of the Koch brothers, whose political network spends millions supporting GOP candidates and causes, accusing the donors of “buying the country for their own commercial interests.” Upon leaving the Senate, Reid said he approached a GOP colleague to ask why he hadn't helped try to make more information public on Russia's meddling, and the Republican said he was afraid the Kochs would go after him.
Reid said he has been relatively silent since leaving office because he didn't want to jump on the bandwagon of “sour grapes.”
In a 35-minute interview, Reid also said he believes the Senate is “irreparably damaged” and will eventually become like the traditionally less deliberative, less bipartisan House of Representatives. Reid, who served 30 years in the Senate, called Republican members of Congress the “limpest waffle you’ve ever seen” who’ve done “everything they can” to hurt the judiciary and legislative branches of the government.
“It’s Trump’s party now,” said Reid.
Reid repeatedly returned to GOP leadership, even as he declined to specifically criticize Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“With the Republicans, I’m not mad, I’m just terribly disappointed in what they’ve done to the institution,” he said. “I believe the federal government has been so harmed, the legislative branch has been decimated, judicial decimated, checks and balances sliding out the door,” he said.
"Our democracy will survive," Reid said, "but it’s going to be tough."
Warning on Russia
Reid spoke at length about the period before the election, noting that at the time, “We all thought” Hillary Clinton would win.
“But I wanted to cover my bases and that’s why I wrote the letter to Comey. Because I thought, well, maybe not.”
He repeatedly praised the media for taking the lead in informing the public, saying that now “the press has most everything that I knew” before the election.
“The good work has been done by the press, not the federal government,” said Reid.
He did jab at McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who rejected then-Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson’s recommendation to send a letter alerting U.S. governors about Russian meddling.
“Ryan and McConnell said, ‘No, elections are a state process, we should stay out of it.’ So that pretty well says it all, doesn’t it?” said Reid, who spoke from the library of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he has an office.
Reid would not directly blame former President Barack Obama, though he did say, “I think we should have done a lot more.” On Comey, Reid said, “My feelings haven’t changed.”
"He's not a nice man"
In the interview, Reid repeatedly marveled at Trump’s ability to withstand scandal.
“If Bill Clinton or either of the Bushes or anyone had had someone with 1/100th of his ethical problems he would have been gone,” he said.
To show “what kind of a person he is, when I injured myself, I couldn’t sleep in a bed for four months,” said Reid, referring to injuries he suffered exercising at home in January 2015.
“I had 12 hours of surgery on my face, broke all the bones in my face. What did he say? Did he send me a note of sympathy? He said, words to the effect ‘hope Reid tries another accident, gets hurt again.' How about that?”
“He is not a nice man," Reid said, "and that’s an understatement.”
Last of an era
Reid is out of the politics game now and when asked what he wanted to be remembered for, he didn't pick a career highlight, instead talking about his wife and children.
“I hope people look back and say, ‘Yeah, he did OK with his family. As bad a guy he was politically, he was good with his family,'" Reid, said jokingly. “We tried hard to treat each other well,” he said.
Jim Margolis, a longtime Democratic ad consultant who’s worked with Reid, also had some thoughts on Reid’s legacy.
“This is a guy who grew up in a place without plumbing, he hitchhiked to high school, the boxer, the Capitol Hill cop,” said Margolis, ticking off previous jobs Reid has held. He even got a “crude bomb” put in the family car when he was “trying to clean up Las Vegas” in the 1980s, said Margolis.
“There’s nobody like him left,” he said.