Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) joined Bob Costa for a conversation on the 2020 election, common good capitalism, China’s relationship with the United States, and more. The interview was part of a Washington Post Live event in partnership with the Texas Tribune Festival. Watch the full interview here and see below for excerpts.
On the threat of foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election:
“What the adversaries basically do is they look at all the preexisting fractures in our society and they just seek to drive it, they push on that. They use social media. Increasingly what you’re seeing is that they’ll create a website somewhere, they may even hire Americans to write on that website, and put that out there as real news content...
“And the theory behind it is, if you get a country to fight against each other internally, which we already do a pretty good job of by ourselves, but if you drive that, it weakens that country and that society over time...
“More concerning to me is the situation where you could get into a county’s election system, you could delete a bunch of voters from the voter rolls, and you would do it strategically… And then if it’s a close election, you then use your influence operation to promote the narrative that in some parts of the country, in certain counties, partisan officials were preventing Democrats or Republicans or people from a certain racial or ethnic makeup from voting. All of that is designed to create chaos and questions about the legitimacy of the election.
“And that would be their dream — that would be the biggest achievement that any adversary has ever scored against us in an election cycle — to bring us to the point where people honestly believe, half the country believes, that the person who is going to be sworn in was not validly and legitimately elected. It’s a grave threat to our republic.”
On the use of social media in foreign meddling:
“It’s evolved beyond Russia. It’s not just about some fake account where it’s a bot that has a name on a Facebook account. I’m talking about [where] you create a website, you create some news agency of some sort on the Internet and it really is promoted and sponsored by a state. And then you hire some Americans who wittingly or unwittingly use it to write up stories that look like news reports. And then you get people to organically spread it online as real news and that spreads.
“That’s one of the challenges that all of us need to be aware of. Just because it looks like a news organization doesn’t mean it becomes one. We’ve reached the point now where it’s very difficult to distinguish — and I’ll be frank, and with all due respect, a lot of Americans already question the mainstream outlets, they view them as places where they promote narratives, not places that promote news stories.
“So it’s this huge muddle, where people are naturally drawn to reports, to news, to stories, that further their pre-existing notions and that affirm your pre-existing beliefs. It becomes attractive for people to read articles, even if it’s a source you’ve never heard of, to read articles that confirm your preexisting bias on politics.”
On the Russian government’s role in stoking racial division in social media:
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that beyond Russia — Iran, China, particularly Iran and Russia in this case, are constantly in search of what are fractures, what are things that get Americans to fight against each other.
“It helps them by weakening us internally. They figure that the more we’re at each other’s throat in this country, the less capable we are of governance internally or around the world. But it also helps Russia, and to some extent Iran, domestically. They say, ‘these are the people that are lecturing us about democracy and freedom, they’re chaos, they’re destroying each other — this is what so-called democracy, at least their version of it, the Western version of it, looks like’.
“It helps them by weakening us, and that helps them geopolitically. But it also helps them domestically by going to people and saying, ‘our system of government is better than the American system because look what’s happening over there, they have riots they aren’t capable of doing anything, they’re fighting with each other all the time.’ So there is no doubt that if there’s anything that’s deeply divisive in America, they don’t create it, but they will drive it. They will do everything they can to drive it.”
On Chinese interference in the election:
“When it comes to China, their tactics and their goals are a little different… I don’t have any doubt in my mind that China doesn’t want Donald Trump to be reelected. I think they measure that against a concern that if their involvement is revealed, that’ll be counter productive for them.
“The Chinese goal ultimately is to try to influence American policy towards China’s preferred position. And that could eventually extend to going after individual candidates in an election.
“They have the capability of doing everything Russia does and more so. They have hack and leak capabilities. You can foresee them using that against individuals who they view as China hardliners and what have you.
“They have the capability to do everything Russia does, they have more capability than Russia does in many cases. They certainly have more capabilities than Iran. It’s just a question of deciding how far they want to go, because I do think, not that they’re more measured, but because they worry more about backlash if their hand is revealed, they can be more cautious. If they were aggressive, we probably wouldn’t know about it until after the fact.”
On potential regulation of social media companies to further prevent foreign meddling:
“Well that’s a great question … and here’s the complexity it raises: What is the fine line between foreign interference and narratives on social media that are domestic, but that may not be true? The truth of the matter is, as an American, the First Amendment does give you the right to say things that are not true. …
“The problem now becomes when they start going after the speech of political figures because they don’t agree with their political narrative… Whether regulation will make it closer is something that I am always cautious about … I would much prefer to enter into a collaborative compact with them that clearly delineates the difference between domestic political speech and foreign efforts to interfere or spread divisive propaganda within our country. …
“I do think, however, that if social media companies are going to get in the business of being publishers, where they are going to edit out information they want in versus not in, then they should be treated like a publisher, including for purposes of liability.”
On the prevalence of conspiracy theories in today’s political environment:
“My deeper concern is that we are a society and a country in which people are vulnerable to this sort of thing. At the core of every conspiracy theory is fear — fear is what drives it. That we’ve reached this point of fear and insecurity in our country that people are likelier to believe some ridiculous conspiracy theory than what they see reported or what their leaders tell us, is a warning to leaders and to those that report the news about how important it is they do everything possible to build up, protect, and secure credibility both for those of us in public service and those who report on our work.”
On the recent DHS whistleblower report claiming that the White House pressured officials to stop providing intelligence analysis on threat of Russian interference:
“There is a process in the law for how a whistleblower complaint is handled. It’s referred, when it's revealed to Congress, to the committee who has jurisdiction — in this case ours, because it’s an intelligence matter. We have a process for handling it. We’ve already begun that process. We will handle it the way we will handle any whistleblower complaint that comes forward. We’re going to take it seriously,we're going to run it by the book. Our staff is already working on it, and we’ll get to the end conclusion on it after we’ve done that work. So we’ll treat any whistleblower complaint that way, and that process has already begun.”
On common good capitalism:
“The fundamental question is why do we have a market and an economy. Is the purpose of our country and our people to serve the market and the economy? Or is the purpose of the economy and the market to serve the country and the people? The answer is self obvious. The economy is the means, the ends is the well being of our country.
“I’m a supporter of free enterprise and capitalism because I believe it is the best system to deliver the best results for our people, and for our country, and for the common good of our nation. That said, I recognize that the free market will always reach the most efficient outcome. It will allocate capital to the most efficient use. And oftentimes that’s of great benefit to the United States of America. Every now and then, it is not in the best interest of our country…
“It is not in our best interest to depend on China, or any other country for that matter, for an overwhelming percentage of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in our generic medicines, or our personal protective equipment. And I would extend that: it is not in the best interest to depend on China for a significant percentage of rare earth minerals that we need for technology, or our manufacturing and installation capabilities for telecommunications and 5G.
“So in those instances in which the most efficient outcome is not in the best interest of our country, the government has an obligation to create incentives for the private market and for free enterprise to do that activity within the United States. Sometimes that best interest is because of national security. Sometimes that best interest is because the jobs that industry creates are the kinds of jobs that allow people to raise a family and have strong communities that they are a part of. And that’s good for the country too.”
On incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to stay in the United States:
“If we’re going to incentivize behavior, it should be behavior that’s good for Americans and behavior that’s good for American jobs to be created. Because that’s what’s going to help our country be stronger and our communities be stronger.”
On the future of the U.S. relationship with China:
“I’m not anti-China, I don’t even consider myself a hardliner, I’m a realist. China is a rich and powerful country… The 21st century is going to be defined by the relationship between the United States and China, and it will either be a relationship of conflict, even potential military conflict, or it will be a balanced relationship between two great powers. I want the latter. That’s not the direction we’re headed right now.
“We made a decision in this country, a long time ago, that we thought once China got rich and prosperous that they would become more democratic and they would adhere to fairness and rule of law in international relations and international commerce. That has not worked out that way. It was a terrible mistake. That needs to now be rebalanced. We’ve allowed them, through our own means, to deindustrialize us. We came up with this notion that we would be the place that innovates and they would be the place that builds. And we forgot that eventually the place that makes things is also the place that innovates them in the long-term. We need to be able to be a place that does both...
“It’s an important moment for rebalancing this relationship. We’re almost too late to it, and if it feels overly aggressive it’s because we are trying to make up for 15 or 20 years of mistakes all at once. This work of rebalancing the relationship with China is not the work of one administration or one Congress, it’s the work of a generation...
“It’s not about holding China back. It’s about ensuring that their rise does not come at our expense, particularly self inflicted expense… Ideally you want to reach the situation where you do have two great powers, China and the United States, who have a balanced working relationship, but that’s not where we are today and it’s going to take some time to get to that point.”
On the Administration’s actions toward China at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“If you recall, when [President Trump] implemented the travel ban, he was immediately criticized by Joe Biden and others of xenophobia. I thought that was the right move... I think they’ve been pretty aggressive about it in hindsight… What I would have preferred to see is that early on it would have been said that there’s this virus, we have no idea the extent that it’s spreading, [China is] not sharing information about the viral markers that will allow researchers to begin to work on it.
“There’s no doubt that, like any totalitarian regime, the default position of the Chinese government is to try and cover up and protect their image… I also don’t think it takes away from the things [the Administration] has done right, like mobilizing our industrial base to wipe out what at the time was a very severe concern about a shortage of ventilators. We didn’t have enough and the President was able to rally the private sector to create a ventilator surplus now in this country that’s actually allowed us to share those with other countries.”
On the prospect of a stimulus deal amid the threat of government shutdown:
“I think Democrat leadership has made a decision that they’re better off doing nothing, because things will get bad, the President will be blamed for it, and it will help them in November… I hope that that breaks momentarily so we can keep the government funded and we can find a way to do something. There’s no way we’re going to do $3 trillion, but we have to do something, and I hope that we can realize that our country desperately needs us to act and to do something.”
On the state of the 2020 election in Florida:
“I ultimately think the President will win Florida for a variety of different reasons, but it’s going to be a very close race. And we may not know right away who the winner is.”
On the future of Senator Rubio’s political career:
“I enjoy very much being in public office, because I wake up every morning, I can see something in the world that I think needs to be addressed, and I’m in a place where I can actually try to do something about it. I’ve enjoyed doing that a lot, and I hope to have the opportunity to continue doing it in some form or fashion down the road.”
Watch the full interview here.