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Rep. Adam Kinzinger on investigating Jan. 6 and being a 'Renegade' in the GOP

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. As one of the two Republicans who served on the House select committee that investigated the January 6 attack on the Capitol, my guest, Adam Kinzinger, became one of the most famous members of the House of Representatives and one of the most condemned by members of his own party. He's written a new memoir called "Renegade" that includes what he describes as the inside story of how his party and his faith have been hijacked by extremists who represent a real danger to our democracy. He writes that he feels some responsibility for January 6, if only because he was a participant in and witness to the GOP's gradual descent into a dysfunctional and destructive force in our politics.

Kinzinger represented Illinois's 11th and then 16th congressional districts from 2011 until the first few days of 2023. In 2021, Kinzinger decided not to run again and founded Country First, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization that seeks funding and support from moderates from the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as independents. Its mission statement includes defeating threats to our democracy. Kinzinger served in the Air Force flying missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and Guam. He's now a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard and a senior political commentator for CNN. We recorded our interview yesterday.

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Adam Kinzinger, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ADAM KINZINGER: Hey, thanks. It's good to be here.

GROSS: It's good to have you. With the chaos surrounding the election of the new House speaker, do you wish you were still in the House or are you happy to be gone?

KINZINGER: I would say 0.00% of me wishes I was still in the House. I mean, I guess maybe that's not accurate. There's - the one thing I wish I could be there for right now is to kind of put a very hard line down in support of funding for Ukraine, because that's something that worries me quite a bit, the lack of funding coming out of the House. But beyond that, no. Every day during that whole House speaker chaos, whether it was the first election, the deposition of McCarthy and the ultimate election of Mike Johnson, I'm so glad I wasn't there.

GROSS: So the new speaker, Mike Johnson, played an important role in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. He created some of the legal arguments used by Republicans for justifying not certifying the election. He claimed the election was rigged, that software was rigged by Dominion Voting Systems and by Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. What is it like for you, after serving on the January 6 committee, to see an ardent election denier be House speaker?

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KINZINGER: It's confusing. It's a little disheartening, obviously. I mean, when I went into the - you know, let's take the day after January 6, basically. I guess if I had to put all my money on what would happen, I would say the party's going to wake up, the party has woken up, because January 6 was so bad. And obviously it hasn't. And so it's depressing for me to see that, to see, you know, the people that have stood up and said the truth - or, you know, there's a couple of us still left that voted for impeachment, for instance - being totally marginalized.

And it's the dichotomy of, you know, Donald Trump's folks are pleading out, for instance, in Georgia, saying that they lied about this in plea agreements, and then on the other hand, you can't run for speaker of the House unless you were a big part of the election denial and continue to be is just - it's confusing to me. And I still have optimism it will change, but as of now, it's just - I guess I don't get it. I don't get why people like being lied to.

GROSS: Did you have a lot of interaction with him when you were in the house?

KINZINGER: I did have some. And, you know, he was kind of a backbencher. And but my - the most crystal clear memory - and I wish people would have remembered this before they kind of rushed into, you know, electing him as speaker - is him coming up to me and, you know, with this clipboard and some signatures and asking me to sign on to the lawsuit as a amicus brief we were doing, that Texas had filed a lawsuit to throw out all these other states' election results. And I just kind of looked at him. I'm like, Mike, you know who I am, right? You know who you're coming up to? Like, there's no way. This is insane. And he just kind of moved on.

And an interesting part about that, by the way, that few people talk about is - so I don't remember how many signed that brief, whatever it was. Kevin McCarthy had talked to Liz Cheney and said - and Liz was like, Kevin, you're not going to sign this, right? You know, you're in leadership. You can't. He was like, oh, no, Liz. Don't worry, I'm not going to sign it. So the next day, when the list of signatures to this amicus brief came out, Kevin McCarthy's name wasn't on it and people started flipping out. He's the leader of the Republicans, and he's not joining in this lawsuit. And so he put out a press release that said, my name wasn't on it accidentally. I intend to sign it, and I'm signing it. And they added his name. It just goes to show how Kevin McCarthy knew what the truth was, but only when the pressure came down and he saw it could threaten his potential speakership did he relent.

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GROSS: Well, that leads to a larger question, which is, for all of the members of the House who are supporting Trump, who voted to overturn the election, those people who support Trump and who supported overturning the election, do you think that they really believe that the election was rigged, or do you think they have other motives?

KINZINGER: Oh, it's completely other motives. So in the last Congress before this one, I would say, man, if there was anybody that believed the election was truly stolen, it was - you could probably count them on one hand. And they were pretty nuts anyway. The rest were just playing the game because, I guess, evidently, the only thing that matters when you get into a position of power now is just keeping your title to these folks. Now, I think that some of the new folks that have been elected that serve in this Congress, there's probably a few more of them that do believe it because they were part of the, you know, candidate generation, if you will, that ran, quote-unquote, "because the election was stolen."

I don't know which is more frightening, to be honest. Am I more frightened by people that truly believe the election was stolen? Well, obviously that's a little frightening. But people that know the election wasn't and didn't have the courage, or don't have the courage, or don't have the desire to tell people the truth, to me, is almost a little more frightening because it just goes to show how people can be complicit with authoritarian movements, when I used to think that that was something that certainly couldn't happen. Well, it can now.

GROSS: Let's talk about January 6. You expected violence.

KINZINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: And you brought your gun. And I'll mention again, you served in the military. Why did you think you would need your gun on January 6?

KINZINGER: Yeah, it's really simple. So two things - No. 1, I read Twitter.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KINZINGER: And Twitter told me...

GROSS: Did your research (laughter).

KINZINGER: I did my research, right? Twitter told me there were a lot of people that wanted to kill me, that said, you know, we're coming after you. Twitter told me that there were people that were going there because they truly believe the election was stolen. And what I know about, you know, I guess I'll say, in my side of the aisle on that is, you know, we take a lot of pride as Americans in the fact that we were founded on this idea of, you know, representation, right? When you convince a country, a significant part of the country, that an election was stolen, and it wasn't just stolen, it was stolen by - which a significant amount of Q followers believe - blood-drinking Satanists - they actually believe that.

I think it would be insane to think there wouldn't be violence because it's just like, I mean, look, take everything about America we know. We refuse to basically be oppressed. Well, a former president of the United States just convinced a significant amount of the party they were being oppressed. So I knew there would be violence. And on a conference call with Kevin McCarthy and every other Republican member of Congress - this happened to be the call when Kevin finally revealed that he was going to vote against certification of the election, which was a huge surprise because typically leadership, so the people with these leadership positions, take the unpopular votes.

So in this case, the unpopular vote was to certify an election, surprisingly. And I told him on that - I go, Kevin, you are convincing a significant - just what I told you, a significant amount of people the election was stolen. There's going to be violence. And his response to me, exactly these words, was, OK, Adam, operator next caller. And I knew, at that point, we were in real trouble. So, yeah, I took my gun that day. I never took my gun to the Capitol because, you know, we were usually so well-protected. But I just had a sense that I was going to need it. Thankfully, I didn't, but maybe it gave me a security blanket.

GROSS: You were in your office. How close did the mob come to your office? How close did you come to thinking you would have to use it?

KINZINGER: So I had gone on the floor for the start of the proceedings. I left as they started. I'm kind of seeing some stuff on Twitter that was happening with the barricades being breached. So I went back to my office. By the time I got there, I remember shortly after, that's when I started to see, you know, the mob, basically, in Statuary Hall, which is the place outside of the actual floor of the House. For about 30 minutes, once I remember seeing that, I was under the impression that I may have to fight. Because if you think about it, once you breach what we thought, at that point, was an imbreachable (ph) line in the Capitol - once you breach that, the only thing standing between you, if you intend to commit violence, and the person you intend to commit violence against - if you know where that person is, and my office has my name on it - would just be a couple more Capitol Police officers somewhere in a tunnel.

And I knew that if they could have breached a big line by then, they can certainly breach two more Capitol Police officers in a tunnel. I think, thankfully, they didn't necessarily know, for the most part, much of the geography of the area besides the actual Capitol building. But we can't rely on that if that happens again. Because I think if something like this happens again, which is certainly not unthinkable, in 2024, for instance, they're going to do a lot more of their research to know where the tunnels are and where they need to go.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Kinzinger, former Republican congressman. His new memoir is called "Renegade." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans who served on the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. His new memoir is called "Renegade: Defending Democracy And Liberty In Our Divided Country."

You write that you were reluctant to serve on the January 6 committee, but you agreed to. Why were you reluctant?

KINZINGER: I don't know if reluctant's the best word. I guess it is. It's - I didn't want to do it because I knew how life-changing it would be, and not in a good way. I knew that, you know, I just had a brand-new kid. I knew that my family would be the target of what we ended up being the target of - a lot of harassment, a lot of threats. But I also knew that I couldn't say no, and there was not a point at all - not an iota of a moment - when I thought that I wasn't going to do it if I was asked. I knew I had to. I knew that everything - you know, my 12 years in Congress and all my time in the military and all these oaths I've taken have led to this moment where I can make the easy choice and just say, no, no, you know, I voted to impeach Trump. Like, frankly, eight other people did. They made the choice to now lay low and try to win a reelection. Or I can go out in the way that, frankly, everybody dreams going out - doing the right thing, even if it means standing alone. So I never had any regrets, but I certainly was hoping that call never came. But it did.

GROSS: You said you knew it would be life-changing if you served on the committee. How has it been life-changing?

KINZINGER: It's been life-changing in a number of ways. So, you know, my father's cousins, I guess, basically sent me a letter disowning me at one point, which was...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, she said you served in Satan's army when you joined the committee.

KINZINGER: Yep. That's it. That's it. I was a member of the devil's army. But it said things like, you serve in the devil's army, you've lost the trust of great men like Mark Levin and Sean Hannity. And it goes to show, to me, the brain rot - right? - the rot going on, the absolute abuse of people that put their trust in some of these - you know, these radio folks or these TV folks. I had - you know, a year ago, I had - my copilot in Iraq sent me a text that said he was ashamed to have ever served with me. I mean, I can't imagine what goes through somebody's head, how angry you have to be to wake up, for whatever reason, to send a person that you fought with in a war that you were embarrassed to have served with them.

I mean, that's just some of it - having a 24-hour security detail when I'm in D.C., wondering if my family's protected while they're back in Illinois. I mean, these are a lot of the sacrifices. But - and a lot of the ways it changed. And now I'm obviously a much more public figure than I was even prior to that. But I have no regrets. If I had to go back in time, knowing everything I know now and how it would turn out, I would still do it.

GROSS: I don't want to ask you anything that further threatens your security, so if this question does, let me know. But you got a lot of threats after joining the committee. You got voicemails saying things like, I hope you die quickly.

KINZINGER: Sure.

GROSS: Threatening your wife and child, saying, we know where your family is. Did those threats eventually die down with time?

KINZINGER: Yeah, they do die down. And I think partially because, you know, the - I mean, half of those threats that come in are, you know, guys sitting around drunk at night that get angry. And I think, you know, they go on to whatever the next target is. You know, we don't live in the same place we lived, so we're harder to find and harder to reach out to. And, you know, and I think, look, it's like - yeah, a few that said, they hope I died quickly. There were a couple that were wishing my 6-month-old at the time son would die - you know, he would wander out into traffic and get hit by a truck.

I mean, I think about - and I share that because it's, like, what kind of depravity, you know, have you been fed that you believe that you think the answer is not to just get involved in something politically, it's to threaten the child of a politician that's probably in the same party you are but telling you the truth that you don't want to hear? And so, yeah, I don't feel threatened anymore. And I - you know, we take certain measures to protect ourselves. But I certainly feel like that phase of it has passed. And, you know, I'm grateful for that. But I'm also not going to let it stop me from speaking out.

GROSS: Did you ever confront any people in your party who supported Trump and wanted to overturn the election and also helped spread conspiracy theories, the kinds of things that would lead to threats against people like you?

KINZINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you ever confront them and say, look at the threats against my child, my 6-month-old child? Do you feel responsible for this? Do you feel like it's your responsibility to tone down the inflammatory language and encourage others to do the same?

KINZINGER: It's a great question because, yes, I did. And, you know, you'd get a couple of responses. You know, the people that - I don't know. I call them the true believers. They're not - they don't really believe it, but they're, like - let's say it's the Matt Gaetz type, right? They don't get - they just don't care. Like, to them, this is all a game. It's all fun. The only thing they want to be as famous. And, congratulations, you're famous. Everybody knows your name.

The ones that would - they're kind of, like, the 80% of the House at the time, which were the ones that knew better and maybe didn't speak out in support of Stop the Steal but also voted against certification because it was easy to do and everything else. I'd bring it up to them, and I don't think they felt real responsibility for it because in their mind, they weren't the ones saying the crazy stuff that was over at a different news channel or whatever. And they just said, look. Hey, Adam. You know how many times I heard people say, hey, Adam; I have to say this because otherwise I'm going to lose my primary, and the person that comes after me is going to be a lot worse. And look. You can convince yourself of that. And that's a way to assuage your internal moral compass, but it's just completely untrue.

The fact that - you know, people look to leaders to lead. And even though none of us were Donald Trump, with the influence of Donald Trump, the aggregate of a bunch of what I'll call the second-tier influences in the party could have changed the trajectory of the party. I think we came very close to doing it but for some lack of courage from even some of the others that voted to impeach Trump.

GROSS: Could you compare for us what some of your fellow Republicans in the House said to you in private versus...

KINZINGER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...What they said in public?

KINZINGER: Yeah. I mean, look. It's - you could take anybody, and what they would say to me in private - and I'm trying to think of a specific name, and I'm not afraid to say names. I just don't want to put the wrong conversation with the wrong face. But, like, you know, any of these members would come up to me and say things like, Adam, good job. I appreciate what you're doing. You know, thanks for saying it - you know, Gus Bilirakis from Florida, for instance. And, you know, he's not a very outspoken election denier, but he certainly plays along with the game and - you know, and kind of keeps his head down.

That subsided a little bit towards the end because I think people were starting to feel a pang of guilt because the committee itself was becoming more controversial and, I think, felt like a threat to their careers. But, man, at the beginning, I got to tell you, the number of people that would come up and say, good job; thanks for doing it, blah, blah, blah and then out in public would say something different - that drove me nuts. And, you know, I guess I had to come to - I could either sit around and be angry about it and be mad at these folks, or I can understand that, at the end of our lives, both of us are going to be looking in the mirror. And I know that I'm going to be proud of what I did with that moment I was given. I know that my son will be proud to read his last name in this context. I can't say the same for all of my colleagues, and that makes me sad.

GROSS: Was there a particular revelation that you found most remarkable from the January 6 committee investigation?

KINZINGER: I mean, there were so many of them. And this is why I'm looking forward to when the Department of Justice brings out its, you know, findings - because they were able, I believe, to pick up a lot of where we weren't able to pursue because we just had a time limit on us. But the things that I think stand out to me as the most holy cow moments, I guess - you know, I went into the January 6 hearings kind of wondering, OK, I don't know if Donald Trump was just too dumb to realize what was happening. He was too engaged somewhere else. I mean, I think he still bears responsibility.

But what I came to learn was that he was behind this. Without Donald Trump - it's not like there was this machinery working and he just happened to be at the head of it. He was the machinery. And the two biggest things that still stand out to me are the ones, I guess, that I was on the hearings for, which was he sat down with potential - you know, he named a different attorney general that thankfully he reversed. And he's sitting around in this meeting of high-ranking deputy attorney generals. And he said, look, guys. Here's all I need you to do. Just say the election was corrupt. Just say it was corrupt, and then leave the rest up to me and the Republican congressmen.

Now, let me translate that. All I need is that eagle, you know, emblem you have and that little stamp you've got for the Department of Justice. I need you to stamp this doubt right here into the American people's minds and then allow me and the other Republican congressmen to exploit that doubt and destroy their faith in the election. That, to me, was mind-blowing that he was just so obvious about it. And secondarily, the fact that he sat in his office, didn't talk to anybody and watched - glued to television to see if, quote-unquote, "his people" - you know, the people that he told Kevin McCarthy are obviously more committed to election integrity than you are, Kevin - to see if his people could win. And only when it was obvious they weren't going to win because there were enough law enforcement to fight back - only then did he tepidly say something to basically cover his backside.

GROSS: Well, there's a lot more I want to talk with you about, but we have to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who was one of two Republican congressmen to serve on the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. His new memoir is called "Renegade." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. GOSK SONG, "HAKUNA MATATA FT. KANDELO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Adam Kinzinger. He was one of the two Republicans, along with Liz Cheney, who served on the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. It made him an outcast in his own party. He served in the House from 2011 until the first days of 2023. It was in 2021 that he decided not to run again.

How did serving on the committee change your relationship with Democratic members of the committee and of the larger Democrat membership of the House? And I'm wondering if they saw you differently, if you saw them differently. This was probably the most intense exercise in bipartisanship in your career.

KINZINGER: Yeah. It certainly changed a lot. I'd always gotten along with Democrats well. I was never one of these that took politics personally or made it personal. But, you know, just naturally, you're around Republicans more. And that's just kind of typically how these things fall, although I had Democratic friends. That changed a lot because what I thought - you know, when this was going down, people that I thought were friends abandoned me, you know, folks that didn't want to be seen on the floor with me. Or they wouldn't go out and get a drink with me because somebody may put that in Politico and then they're going to lose their election. So that changed my whole view of, you know, frankly, Republicans.

And then working with these Democrats, you know, the thing - I think it's pretty natural in politics where if you're a Republican, you assume the Democrats have bad motives. And if you're a Democrat, you assume the Republicans have bad motives. One of the best things you can learn is that everybody thinks they're the good guy in every battle. You know, whether it's war or whether it's politics, everybody thinks they're the good person. When I got into this, you know, exercise and I got to know people like Adam Schiff even better than I did - Jamie Raskin, Zoe Lofgren, everybody on the committee - you come to realize these are people that truly believe in democracy.

You know, they're all on this committee because they actually are worried about the future of democracy in this country. It changed my outlook on them a lot, and I became really good friends with them. You know, Adam Schiff, I made sure that - and I learned this from my time in the Air Force. It's like, if you're not on offense, you're on defense when it comes to making fun of each other. So I immediately, in our first meeting, dubbed him Adam Senior so that I could be Adam Junior and it would drive him nuts the rest of the year.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KINZINGER: And it did, and everybody played along, and they would call him Adam Senior. So you know, we had that kind of rapport. And I'll tell you, the thing that stands out to me is just, like - I never expected this to be my last act of Congress. But the very last day when we accepted the report, we voted on it, and we walked out of the hearing room. I just remember thinking like, OK, this is my last act as a member of the House. I'm walking out, the room starts applauding, which actually made me kind of emotional.

And it's like, OK, my last moment in the bunker, if you will, in this war - my last moment in the bunker was surrounded by Liz Cheney and a bunch of Democrats. And it's like, it's not how I would have expected it. But I guess, looking back, it's better of a way to go out than you ever imagine. Most people that go into politics only dream of a chance to do something as alone and publicly as I was able to do. And while it was hard and I'd never want to go through it again, I would never hesitate to go through it again either.

GROSS: Was that the moment you decided not to run again, when you were ending the investigation and walking out?

KINZINGER: No, it was before that. It was basically when I realized that I was going to be on the committee and that the committee was going to, you know, ruffle some feathers. You know, look, I don't know if I'd have run again anyway, even without January 6. I had been in Congress 12 years. And, you know, I had made a commitment to my district, you know, at the point this becomes about me and I lose the passion for the day-to-day of the job, I won't run again.

And I think it was getting to that point where it's tough to maintain the passion for the same fundraising dinners and the same, you know, drinks and everything else for 12 years. But I also knew I couldn't win a primary, let's be clear. You know, then the Democrats, they actually gave me a pretty bad district on purpose in Illinois. So it was the time to walk away, and I'm glad I did. I've got a young kid and a young wife, and I can focus on them now.

GROSS: Yeah, you were redistricted.

KINZINGER: That's right, yeah.

GROSS: And you might not have won anyways even if wasn't for January 6.

KINZINGER: That's correct, yeah. It was twice in a row. I mean, I was redistricted immediately after my initial election into a bad district that I won, and then they did it to me again. So you know, sometimes you just got to accept what you're given.

GROSS: Right. I want to ask you about special counsel Jack Smith's investigation into January 6 and Donald Trump. He was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland. The grand jury in the investigation indicted Trump for conspiring to defraud the U.S., conspiring to disenfranchise voters, and conspiring and attempting to obstruct an official proceeding certifying the election.

There were complaints during the January 6 House committee investigation that the Justice Department wasn't doing enough or going fast enough in their investigation, and that the House committee shouldn't have been outpacing the Justice Department, which was what some members of the House committee thought was happening. What do you think now about the Justice Department investigation? What do you think now about special counsel Jack Smith's investigation?

KINZINGER: Well, look, I think the special counsel is doing a good job. I think, you know, the attorney general was smart to put him in there, to have - you know, whether anybody believes it or not, but to have a layer of kind of separation so that any accusations of partisanship kind of ring hollow to most people. But I fully agree - I don't think we would be here today without the committee. We were disappointed in how we were outpacing the investigation. We were calling witnesses in that should have been called by the Department of Justice and we had assumed would have been called by the Department of Justice that had never had any interaction with anybody investigating this.

It felt like, and I think what we're seeing now and what people are talking about and kind of from the inside, is that they were just going to do a typical investigation. Let's start arresting some of the lower-level offenders, see if we can build a case higher and then go from there. And, you know, in this case, unlike if you're taking down a drug trafficking organization where everybody has human interaction with each other, in this case, it's not really that. You've got to prove that - you know, it's through Twitter. Sometimes it may be through a group app like Telegram, but it's also through the president's words on television that launched this. You're not going to be able to get there through a ground-up investigation.

And I think, to his credit, Merrick Garland is concerned about, you know, the impartiality of the Justice Department, which I appreciate. But I also think while we don't want to be a country that goes after former presidents, in this case, we have to be, because the alternative to saying it's acceptable to try a coup as long as you fail - and by the way, if you succeed, now you're in charge. The alternative is, I think, a failed democracy. And so, yeah, I take a lot of solace in the fact that I think but for the January 6 committee and but for - I mean, we saw this after our first hearing in the series, all of a sudden, this flurry of activity out of DOJ. They're like, holy cow, they have this - there were these Meadows text messages? And, you know, the rest, as we say, is history on the committee and future in the DOJ.

GROSS: What's one or two things you've learned from the Georgia investigation or Jack Smith's investigation that you didn't already know from the January 6 committee?

KINZINGER: Yeah, I think at this point, there's not a lot from that that at least has been leaked out or anything that I didn't know. I would say it's - I think it's big news that apparently Mark Meadows is cooperating, because I will tell you that he was probably our MVP on the committee, our most valuable player, because he initially had released a tranche of text messages to us and then denied, you know, the second half of the text messages that we never got to see. But that first tranche of text messages actually put a lot of pieces together for us, you know, texts coming in from Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, for instance, or, you know, all these different things. We talk about Clarence Thomas's wife, Ginni Thomas - yeah, Ginni Thomas. You know, these are things that we didn't know, connections that we didn't necessarily know existed until we got his texts. The fact that he's cooperating and now will give not just what we had, but a equal - an equally huge treasure trove of stuff that he denied from us, I think is going to lead to a lot of revelations. So in terms of what's leaked out that we know about the investigation, not much. In - obviously the classified investigation, which is completely separate, is all new to me, but I have no doubt that they have a very solid case against Donald Trump. And I think the real question now is, does this happen before or after the election?

GROSS: You served on the January 6 committee in the House. You voted for the second impeachment, but you voted against the first impeachment of Donald Trump. Why did you vote against impeaching Trump the first time around?

KINZINGER: Yeah, and it's something I talk about in the book because I think it's important - if you're going to write a memoir or, in my case, what I'd consider a what happened to the Republican Party, it is essential for me to admit my role and also admit when I took what I thought were cowardice moves as well. You know, everybody looks for a reason. If it's a tough vote and you're kind of wrestling with your conscience - right? - my conscience says I need to vote one way, but my political career says I need to vote another - you - it is very common to try to find a nuanced reason to both assuage your conscience, but then also say, but I'm going to vote this way because.

And you see this, by the way, in a lot of members that voted against impeachment on January 6. A lot of them - Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, for instance - said, well, while what he did was terrible, he's out of office, and it's time to move on. We have to heal the country. Well, no, that's not the question in front of you. It's not is it time to heal the country? It's is this an impeachable offense?

And so in the first one, I let the fact that Democrats rushed - I think they did. They rushed the timeline. They wanted to get it done before Christmas because the speaker, Pelosi at the time, had said, you know, she was concerned with this going into an election year. I allowed that to be the excuse of voting against the first impeachment. So I think it's important to admit that I should have voted for it. At the same time, I do recognize that had I voted for this, I probably would not have been around to make the stand I did on January 6. So it's not like I bear a lot of guilt that I walk around with. But I do think it's important to mention that that for me was a vote of cowardice.

GROSS: Donald Trump is still leading in polls in terms of the primary. And what do you think about when you think about the possibility of Donald Trump not only becoming the Republican candidate again, but possibly winning and becoming president again?

KINZINGER: Look, it's something that I think we have to, as a country, take very seriously. I think it's a greater than 50% chance he's the Republican nominee. You know, the only thing is, you know, Nikki Haley is starting to apparently consolidate some amount of support, and it may end up being him against her. We'll see. But in terms of if he is the nominee, we cannot - I say this to my Democratic friends. Do not take the election for granted because we took 2016 for granted, assuming Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump, and she didn't. No matter what the world looks like, the economy looks like, there are people that will simply vote their pocketbooks - I get it, I understand it - and not the health of democracy per se. So this is a serious race. And I tell people now, 2024, in my mind at least, is one issue on the ballot. Do you support democracy, or do you not support democracy? That is the one issue on the ballot. Vote accordingly.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. His new memoir is called "Renegade." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans who served on the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. His new memoir is called "Renegade: Defending Democracy And Liberty In Our Divided Country."

One of your observations in your book is that the tactics Republicans used for sowing and exploiting fears and treating opponents as enemies, not as rivals, are now tactics Republicans are using against one another. Can you give us an example of what you mean?

KINZINGER: Yeah, just look at the speaker race. I mean, you know, the interesting thing is the dynamics that came out of that, you know, with folks that were kind of standing up against Jim Jordan and then the Matt Gaetz group that got rid of McCarthy - those dynamics have always existed. I was a part of all of that. But the moderates - so to speak; they're not really moderate, but they're moderate in how they govern. They've actually once in that whole process - they found their voice in preventing Jim Jordan from becoming that person. But look at the vitriol that's being said. I mean, if you have a Republican - you know, fundamentalists - 'cause you can take a fundamentalist in a religion, a fundamentalist in a political belief system - fundamentalists, more than they hate the other person, the other side of their argument or the other religion, they hate people within their movement or religion that claim to believe what they believe, but they consider apostates. You know, if you look at ISIS, for instance, ISIS's biggest targets weren't Christians and weren't Jews. ISIS's biggest target were other Muslims that they thought were apostates. You see that in the Republican Party, where there is a whole culture that makes money in the media ecosystem, the echo chamber that exists, that makes money on making people angry about what so-called RINOs are doing. RINO stands for Republican in name only, and it's a pejorative meant to be, you're not really a Republican. And they make a ton of money on it. So the incentive structure is backwards to actually try to, you know, create a governing coalition. The incentive structure is to actually make people angrier and angrier and angrier. And sometimes politicians have to use the - what I call the dark arts of fear. There's sometimes - it's important to talk about fear - fear of poverty, fear of, you know, an uncertain future. But you have to know when to let that fear go. And you have to know when to inspire. And that is an art form that Republicans have lost. I can't think of the last inspirational Republican leader, frankly. Maybe Mitt Romney, I guess I would consider. That's about it.

GROSS: How often did you have direct dealings with Donald Trump when you were serving in the House and he was president?

KINZINGER: You know, for a member of Congress, quite a bit. I'd been to the Oval Office a number of times. One of the very first times was related to - well, there was China's ZTE, which was a telecom issue where Donald Trump - I heard him say, hey, you know, we were going to basically ban Chinese ZTE telecom equipment from government, which we ultimately ended up doing, because of spying concerns. Well, Donald Trump had promised President Xi of China, on the phone, that as a favor to him, he was going to get us to pull this out of the National Defense Authorization Act. So a group of senators and House members went in, and we saw him ask us to pull this out as a favor. I mean, that's not presidential leadership, by the way. You know, presidential leadership says, I don't care if I'm trying to maintain a relationship or not with him. He's spying on our country.

Secondarily, I went in at one point with Syria. We were trying to - it was me, frankly, Liz Cheney and a few others that were trying to convince him that it's important to stand by the Kurds. And he would tell me all the time how good I was on TV, and he'd be obsessed and nice with me, and I...

GROSS: How good you were?

KINZINGER: Yes. And I realized what he's doing. Like, he would always say, Adam, you're so good on TV. And then he'd tell everybody in the room how good I was on TV. And then about 50% of his attention, even if there's 20 people in the room, was on me the whole time. And I realized what it is. I was never on board with Donald Trump. He knew it, and it obsessed him. He was wondering why he couldn't win. And what you'll notice is he's obsessed about people that don't like him or don't fall for him. And then the people that do fall for him, he ultimately ends up throwing under the bus because it's like being in high school, when you're - you don't have a well-developed, you know, capacity for social interaction. And, you know, you ask a young lady out to the prom and she says no. And all of a sudden, you want to go out to the prom with her even more. Or if she says yes, you're like, well, she said yes. What's wrong with her? And you don't like her. I mean, that's junior high stuff, but that's how Donald Trump was.

And so my interactions with him were always interesting. But the one that made - I think was the darkest was I had told him, Mr. President, you need to leave some troops in Syria because, ultimately, Syria is going to be a negotiated end. And if we have troops in Syria, we can have a seat at the table. You can have a seat at the table in terms of what Syria looks like. And he just looked at me and said, Adam, why the blank would I care about the Kurds? - in essence. Why do I care about Syria? And he was serious. And you know what? I mean, to his credit, he told me the truth. He doesn't care, and that was sadly very obvious.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. His new memoir is called "Renegade." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FATHEAD NEWMAN AND RAY CHARLES' "HARD TIMES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans who served on the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. His new memoir is called "Renegade: Defending Democracy And Liberty In Our Divided Country."

You write that you long considered yourself to be a religiously inspired conservative. Would you describe the church that you grew up in?

KINZINGER: Oh, yeah. So I grew up Independent Fundamental Baptist, and I left that. And, really, my family left that probably when I was in college. It is still one of the churches that is the no drinking, no dancing, no smoking, no rock music - that kind of church. And, yeah, I was raised in that environment. And ultimately, obviously - I say obviously because if you're raised in that environment, this is just inevitable - rebelled against it.

But I did - I do let, you know, my faith kind of guide my values, and I think it's really in the context of what I've seen in the last few years where I've understood that that is being so abused as well, and that the example, for instance, of Jesus in the Bible has nothing to do with what you see a lot of, quote-unquote, "religious" conservatives talking about. Because, frankly, he didn't care about tax rates. He actually said to give to Caesar what's Caesar's. He cared about people. He cared about the down and out, the downtrodden. And, you know, while there's many good examples out there of religious leaders who care about that - I think of Russell Moore, for instance, a good friend of mine - there are unfortunately way too many people that are failing their flock from the pulpit and telling them the thing that matters the most is, you know, a politician's view on this issue or that issue and not, you know, their compassion for humanity.

GROSS: The church that you belonged to when you were young, that your family belonged to, also preached that wives should be submissive to husbands. Women shouldn't work. Your mother did work.

KINZINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: She was a third grade teacher. What was it like for you to - assuming that you did evolve to the point where you think that women were equals.

KINZINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: What was it like for you to get to that point?

KINZINGER: Well, I don't think - you know, and I do mention this in the book. While we went to the church, we didn't prescribe to some of that stuff. Like, my dad - you know, we never had a problem with my mom working and even if she wanted to go do something besides be a teacher. There were a lot of things we didn't necessarily follow. We just kind of like the teaching of the church. I think - look. So I never - there was never a point for me where I came around to believe that women should have the same rights or they should work. I always did believe that.

But I guess the real epiphany for me was just the understanding that a lot of things - and, you know, anybody in a very strict kind of - I'll say works-based religion, where it's all - you know, kind of becomes all about how you act and what you do. You always live with this kind of fear that something you did or something you thought or something you said is going to lead to an eternity in hell. And that creates a real fear in somebody. And when I came to understand that what I truly believe is not that - you know, it's faith in and of itself - it actually takes a real burden off you, right? And it and it allows you and frees you up to be more of who you are and to be more compassionate for people and to care. And I think that was, for me, really the big transition that would've happened.

GROSS: How has your faith affected your votes on abortion?

KINZINGER: I mean, it's, I think, part of it. Look. I'm pro-life. I would consider myself in the pro-life cause as more of a moderate pro-lifer. You know, I recognize that there are important exceptions to it. I recognize that, you know, you've got to have a timetable, you know, that's not one week, two weeks, six weeks, whatever. But the thing that's most important is I recognize that there are folks in a very serious situation that turn to abortion as an option - that, you know, we need to have alternatives for them, whether that's adoption, encouraging adoptions, things like that. But yes, faith certainly had a role in my view on abortion.

GROSS: And what about LGBTQ rights?

KINZINGER: I think maybe at the beginning, but I am - I'm pretty - I would say pretty moderate to moderate left on those issues. And I think faith in that role kind of came to understand that, look. All of us have, you know, who we are. And Jesus - what I believe - loves every person. And it's not my job in government to determine who is and who isn't worthy of that love. And I think that's what kind of opened my mind to it a lot.

GROSS: Do you still consider yourself a Republican?

KINZINGER: That's a great question. And I will answer it this way. Yes because I refuse to let somebody like Donald Trump take that title away from me. But I will say that I feel like a very homeless person politically right now. I don't intend to vote for Donald Trump. I did not vote Republican in the last election cycle. And the way things are shaking out, I probably won't in the coming election cycle. At the same time, I know the party that I joined. I know the party that I remember. It's not the party that exists today. And I would consider myself a member of that party, not this unmoored party that doesn't know what it believes anymore.

GROSS: Well, that party doesn't really - the party you want to be part of doesn't really exist anymore.

KINZINGER: Not yet. I mean, it doesn't exist anymore. And, you know, I'll continue to fight to try to bring something like that back. But I'm not wed to the name Republican. I don't really particularly care for elephants. For me, it's what I believe. And so I'll continue to fight for that. I think this country needs two healthy parties, and it's got one very sick one right now. But at the same time, I think there's only one issue on the ballot coming up. And that is, do you believe in democracy or not? Because all these other issues we disagree on - we will wish we had the luxury to disagree on them if we find ourselves in an authoritarian situation.

GROSS: Adam Kinzinger, thank you so much for talking with us.

KINZINGER: This was great. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Adam Kinzinger's new book is called "Renegade." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear the interview I just recorded with David Byrne. It was so much fun hearing him talk about his life before, during and after Talking Heads. Now I know why I never understood the lyrics to "Burning Down The House."

DAVID BYRNE: I thought, let me see if I can make a song that is basically a lot of non-sequiturs that have some kind of emotional impact.

GROSS: The restored and remastered version of the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense," is playing in theaters. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Watch out. You might get what you're after. Cool, baby. Strange, but not a stranger. I'm an ordinary guy. Burning down the house. Hold tight. Wait till the party's over. Hold tight. We're in for nasty weather. There has to be a way. Burning down the house.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Three hundred sixty-five degrees. Burning down the house. It was once upon a place, sometimes I listen to myself. Gonna come in first place. Place people on their way to work say, baby, what did you expect? Gonna burst into flame. Go ahead. Burning down the house. My house is out of the ordinary. That's right. Don't wanna hurt nobody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.