SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump won a major legislative victory this week when Congress passed the Republican tax bill. But his personal approval rating is at a historic low, averaging less than 40 percent for almost the entire year, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Karl Rove, who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush, hopes that Mr. Trump stays off the 2018 campaign trail. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week, making the midterm elections about Donald Trump is a very bad idea. Karl Rove joins us from Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.
KARL ROVE: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And why don't you like the idea of President Trump on the trail for Republicans? He just got a big tax bill passed.
ROVE: Well, he did. And what he ought to do is be out there extolling the virtues of that tax plan and explaining it, appearing at events that help demonstrate its value to the American people and American workers and American competitiveness. But there's a big difference between that and what was outlined in a Washington Post piece last Sunday, where the Trump White House was talking about how the president wanted to spend 2018 campaigning. It said he wanted to go to lots of rallies on behalf of candidates. And my point is - is that he does his party and himself a great deal more good by focusing on being a better president rather than being a constant campaigner.
SIMON: You suggest something happens to the president when he's on the campaign trail.
ROVE: Well, look at the rallies. He loves rallies, and he feeds off of the energy of the crowd, and they're adoring. But it causes him to be in a frame of mind where he tends to make mistakes. Take, for example, going to the Boy Scout jamboree. Tens of thousands of Boy Scouts cheering the president of the United States. And what does he do? He launches into a political attack on his predecessor. Not exactly the best place to make that kind of a speech.
He goes to a rally in Arizona and, for some reason or another, retreats to defending his remark following the Charlottesville white supremacy protests that, quote, "both sides," end quote, were to blame for the violence. So if you want to let Trump be Trump, put him in front of a rally. But if you want Trump - President Trump - to be an effective president and an effective campaigner, don't put him in political rallies like those.
SIMON: You have some very strong words in this op-ed in the journal, where you refer to the president as launching needless personal attacks, narcissistic focus on ephemera, indefensible mangling of facts and a childlike need for constant praise. Should that man be president?
ROVE: Americans had a choice last fall between two people. One of them had a 54 percent disapproval rating in a RealClearPolitics average on the eve of the election. And the other one had a 56 percent disapproval. They picked the guy with the 56 percent disapproval. And so I understand how people now sort of say, well, you know, is he fit to be president? Well, we had a choice, and then we had a choice between two flawed individuals, and they picked Donald Trump over the other equally flawed individual.
SIMON: How do you react to the possibility that Steve Bannon is going to go on the campaign trail? He said as much in a Vanity Fair piece that's gotten a lot of attention.
ROVE: Look, Roy Moore was his choice, and he campaigned for him twice. He's backed a candidate in Nevada, Danny Tarkanian, for the Republican nomination for Senate, who has lost five races for various offices. He's backed a candidate in Arizona for the U.S. Senate, and their only accomplishment was holding - presiding over a hearing to explore the theory that contrails from jets are really aerosol sprays by our government with chemicals being dispersed for some nefarious purpose - whether it's mind or population control or God knows what. I mean, this is a guy who - he was a White House aide. And now that he's left the White House, he says, quote, "I have power." He sounds more than slightly unhinged.
SIMON: Do you have confidence in the Mueller investigation?
ROVE: I do. I hope he recognizes he has big challenges. These revelations about the FBI agent who is deeply involved in this investigation, Peter Strzok - Mueller did the right thing by when it was uncovered in the summer of 2017 that in 2016, this agent had written some very highly partisan and tainted emails to his mistress, another FBI agent. Mueller reacted by immediately removing him from the investigation. That was proper.
But I think people have a right to be concerned, and Mueller ought to be sensitive to this. We don't know all of the attorneys who are working on this investigation. But of the 15 names that have emerged, nine of them have given political contributions, and all of them have given contributions to Democrats. So I have confidence, ultimately, in Mueller. But I hope he's sensitive to the fact that he's dealing with political dynamite. And he has got to go out of his way to make certain that his investigation is appropriate and not tainted by partisan associations.
SIMON: But you worked in the White House. You've been in government. Don't you believe in professionalism - that people can have personal ideas but set them aside and do their job well?
ROVE: You know, I do. But, Scott, I bet if we went back and reran the NPR tapes during the Ken Starr investigation, there were a lot of people on NPR grousing about the political bona fides of the members of the Starr investigation. And, in fact, I remember Ken Starr being lacerated for his political affiliations. Fortunately, Bob Mueller does not have any political affiliations, but the people around him have. And I'm saying he ought to be sensitive to it - that he ought to be very sensitive to it because at the end of the day, it will hurt our country if people don't have a confidence in the outcome of whatever he finds.
SIMON: Karl Rove is a political strategist, former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush. Thanks so much for being with us
ROVE: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.