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A conversation with Gavin Newsom, part 1

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Gavin Newsom is Lieutenant-Governor of California. Prior to that, he was Mayor of San Francisco. He co-owns wineries, and his PlumpJack Hospitality Group operates night clubs, wine stores, resorts and restaurants throughout California. As Mayor, Newsom shot to fame—some would say notoriety—by backing the issue of gay marriage; that will probably be the most salient part of his political legacy, which seems likely to include being elected Governor of California next year. He leads all his rivals, both Republican and Democratic, at this time in fund-raising and in the polls. Which leads to the inevitable question: Does he have his eye on the White House? When and if he is elected Governor, he will immediately become “Presidential timber,” as they say—a young, handsome, articulate visionary from the nation’s biggest state. We spoke yesterday (Jan. 5) in his office in San Francisco.

Full disclosure: I met Governor Newsom (the correct salutation for a Lieutenant-Governor) 26 years ago, when he was becoming involved in the wine industry and starting his first PlumpJack wine store. I liked him then; I like him now. Although I had a list of political questions, I began our conversation by asking him about the news, breaking that morning, of John McCain’s extraordinary hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the Russian hacking situation.

SH: Let’s start with the McCain hearing today. We have this seeming split in the Republican Party between the establishment and the intelligence community, on the one hand, and Trump. What’s going on?

GN: It’s par for the course, exactly what one would expect; if the President-elect doesn’t like the conclusion, he tries to change, not only the conclusion, but the process that actually determined the facts. And he clearly is not interested in the evidence; he hasn’t even had the comprehensive briefing yet, because it’s not convenient for him, and undermines his, quote-unquote, “success and credibility” as President-elect.

SH: Did you see the Wall Street Journal this morning?

GN: No.

SH: Banner headline: Trump Plans Spy Agency Overhaul—he intends to “pare back the nation’s top spy agency” [Office of Director of National Intelligence]. This is full-scale war.

GN: It is extraordinary. There are a couple thoughts. Don’t forget, it was not that many years ago when the Democratic Party was almost unanimous in their condemnation of and contempt for the intelligence community, so we have to be cautious not to over-indulge in a critique of the President-elect because now he might now share a similar point of view. That said, when you have seventeen intelligence agencies all on the same page, that is quite unique, and that is—

SH: –and today, McCain specifically asked [the intelligence chiefs] “Are you more confident today than you were five, ten, fifteen days ago [that Russia was responsible for the hacks],” and every one said yes.

GN: Now, don’t get me wrong, on the history of intelligence in this country, we have been wrong on many, many occasions—

SH: –WMD—

GN: –even with that degree of confidence. But, look, it seems compelling. I haven’t been privy to the intelligence briefings—none of us have—nor has Obama today and the President-elect as of tomorrow, so we’re taking the word of folks that are right more often, it seems, than are wrong. But that said, it’s interesting to watch this and try to be objective. But it is rather remarkable, in such a public way, the President-elect is critiquing the intelligence community, and that is demoralizing to any organization.

SH: [James] Clapper (DNI chief] said this morning at the hearing, “It’s one thing to be skeptical about the intelligence community. It’s another thing to disparage it.”

GN: Disparage, overtly undermine, and reduce public trust in intelligence gathering. And by the way, it creates vulnerability for American intelligence, because those are things that are easily exploited by foreign governments. These are things we would exploit if intelligence was being questioned in other countries.

SH: I’m sure we have.

GN: And we are experts in all of these things, including undermining foreign elections.

SH: One of the Republican Senators on the committee who was trying to defend Trump said he’d read that the U.S. has interfered in something like 89 foreign elections.

GN: Eighty-nine, yeah. We all read that same article or analysis.

SH: But that doesn’t excuse Russia—

GN: No, just because we did it doesn’t make it right. Of course, we’re sovereign, we have the right to protect ourselves and criticize others who would undermine this republic.

SH: Okay, well, let’s get into politics!

MONDAY: Part 2: The election, Trump, the Democratic Party’s future, how to win back disaffected voters, and California’s resistance to Trumpism.

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