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Adam Kinzinger's book 'Renegade' tells his journey to standing up for his beliefs

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For the first time in nearly a month, Congress is beginning its week with a speaker of the House. Republicans ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this month, and it took a chaotic and painful three weeks for Republicans to replace him. The scenario surprises few at this point, least of all former Congressman Adam Kinzinger. The Illinois Republican often found himself in opposition to his party, especially after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Kinzinger was one of only two Republicans to serve on the select committee on January 6, and he's memorialized that work, his life and his political career in a new book called "Renegade." Adam Kinzinger, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADAM KINZINGER: Hey, thanks. Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: The introduction of your book - like, I can just envision you sitting there with the TV on, watching the initial 15 rounds of votes to put Kevin McCarthy into the speakership as you finished up the book and wrote that introduction. I'm assuming you were not surprised at all when he was eventually ousted from the job, given all the compromises he made to get it.

KINZINGER: No, I think that writing was on the wall. When you cut a deal with what, you know, I think Boehner aptly called the terrorist caucus and you start cutting deals that make it where they hold you hostage and then you come up against real deadlines like debt limit, like government shutdowns, I think it was inevitable.

DETROW: You're talking about a minority of the caucus holding the rest of the caucus hostage, as you put it. I think that is the story of a lot of Republican officeholders in the Trump era. And what - this is going to be the rest of the conversation, because I feel like once you start talking about Donald Trump, that's all you can talk about when it comes to things like this. But what - I mean, this is the crux of the question. What is the power that Trumpism and these forces of destruction hold over Republican voters right now? Why is it that they can attack an incumbent on social media and suddenly that is the end of that incumbent's career?

KINZINGER: I think it's a number of things. So first off, you know, people were fighting back against Trump a little more at the beginning, and then he kept winning. And so once he starts winning and once people start - you know, cease opposing him, then there becomes this air of inevitability. The other thing that I think isn't discussed enough, which is extremely important, is that leaders - leadership - is all about the word leading. When Donald Trump, for instance, gets indicted on a number of different felonies, people's reaction that are supportive of Trump may be to initially defend him. But then they're going to watch the Republican debates. They're going to watch what other Republicans are saying. And when every other Republican is saying, this is a witch hunt, people will say, OK, well, they are reaffirming what I felt about Donald Trump. And again, the kind of question on this is, if you're a Republican member of Congress, for instance, and you speak out, you might lose your job. But if nobody speaks out, you're forcing yourself to actually do what you know in your heart is wrong.

DETROW: And I think that gets to one of the threads of the book that I was most interested by, because I think people would expect you to speak out about Trumpism and Trump in this book, and you do. But there are also a lot of points where you look back with some regret, with sometimes some embarrassment about different ways that you went along with not necessarily Trump, but some of the things that led to Trumpism in the Republican Party over the course of your career. Tell me how you're changing - how your thinking on that changed over time.

KINZINGER: When you're in the heat of battle and, you know, you need to raise money, for instance, and you recognize, which is something that I think is wrong and addictive and true, though, is that rage and fear is the best way to raise money, well, I don't think I played as deeply and as kind of darkly as a lot of my party did, even in the early days. I was part of that. I recognize, too, that, you know, my vote against the first impeachment was really a vote of self-preservation. I was looking for a reason to vote against that first impeachment. I was on the fence. I found a reason, and I voted that way. And looking back, you know, I guess I'm glad I did, only in that it allowed me to survive to the next election and fight on the January 6 side of things. But I thought that was a vote of cowardice on my end. So I think it's important.

DETROW: This was - yeah. And I want to talk about that for a minute, actually.

KINZINGER: Yeah.

DETROW: This was the first Trump impeachment. This was tied to the pressure that he put on Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a time when Zelenskyy was desperate for American military support, for reasons that became much more obvious to people over the years. But this is where Trump had that conversation and basically pressured him to investigate the Biden family. When you were sitting in a room by yourself in that period of time, did you think, gut feeling, this was an impeachable offense? Or were you actually wavering on whether or not it rose to the level of impeachment?

KINZINGER: Oh, no. I thought it was an impeachable offense. What happened, though, is the Democrats rushed the process a little bit, and I allowed that to be the thing that convinced me that, oh, well, you know, I'd be all for impeachment, but we have to do a more thorough job of it. And so that was - again, it was a vote of cowardice. At the same time, in a way, I probably wouldn't have survived the next election and been there for January 6. But that's not an excuse for that vote.

DETROW: In the end, was it partisanship? Was it fear? Was it calculation? Like, what was the main reason why you ended up voting against impeachment that first time?

KINZINGER: Yeah, it was a little bit of fear and calculation. The calculation was, I've got to survive. And the fear was, like, what happens if I'm the only one? Will I lose? Will I be on the front lines of all the threats that I eventually was on the front lines of? So I think that's a lot of what played into it.

DETROW: I want to talk a little bit about the January 6 commission. You, of course, voted for impeachment. You and Liz Cheney become the only two Republicans on the commission. Take a step back - a year later, there's a way to look at the commission as a huge success. And I think there's also a way to look at it as a huge failure, right? On the success side, Trump's facing multiple criminal charges now, including two different cases directly tied to trying to overturn the election. On the failure side, though, he looks like he's on a path to winning the Republican presidential nomination. It looks like there is a possible chance that he returns to the White House after all of this. So I'm wondering how you think about this.

KINZINGER: Well, I think of the part we could control as a great success. Now, in terms of changing opinions, we evidently couldn't do that. I know that we did a very good job of bringing that information out. I think Donald Trump is going to face justice only because of the work we were able to do. And America will have to make its own opinion. But I'll say this, I think in 10 years, if you could fast-forward, there's not going to be a single person on Earth that ever admits that they believed that Donald Trump was innocent.

DETROW: Do you see a world where you get back into active politics?

KINZINGER: You know, if you'd have asked me this six months ago, I may have kind of hedged and said, possibly. But I was exhausted. You know, the last two years, I'm coming to grip with the toll that it really did take on my family and I. But as I've kind of come to grips with it in times gone on, yeah, I could see a possibility where I get involved again. I don't want to be in the House ever again 'cause I certainly did 12 years there. That's enough. And I'd be happy to support anybody that goes in with the right cause.

DETROW: You think you could get elected though?

KINZINGER: As far as me, it's not a plan, but it's something I'd be open to.

DETROW: Do you think you could get elected at this moment in the next five years?

KINZINGER: No. Well, I don't know about the next five years. If I ran today, particularly as a Republican, I'd probably get crushed in the primary. And I'm OK with that because it's a party that, frankly, I don't feel a whole lot of allegiance to at the moment.

DETROW: Do you still consider yourself a Republican?

KINZINGER: I do, only because I'm not willing to give up and only because I haven't changed. But I also know that if everything kind of tracks the way it is in 2024, I won't be voting Republican because, again, I think it's a simple question of democracy or no democracy. And the Republican Party represents, right now, a real slide to authoritarianism.

DETROW: Would you vote for Joe Biden then?

KINZINGER: Yeah. If it was Joe Biden and Donald Trump, I don't think there's any question. I would vote for Joe Biden.

DETROW: That is Adam Kinzinger, a former member of Congress and the author of the new book "Renegade." Thanks so much for talking to us.

KINZINGER: Yeah, it was great. Thank you. 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.

Tyler Bartlam
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.