Trent Lott thinks Joe Biden is the strongest Democratic presidential candidate

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Joe Biden is the only Democrat he thinks would be competitive in the 2020 election against President Trump.

“Joe will be able to perpetuate the image of Uncle Joe, and he is pleasant. He is qualified,” Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game.”

“Half this bunch in there right now is not qualified,” Lott said of the current Democratic field.

When asked whether Trump is qualified for the presidency, since he has less experience in politics or government than any of the Democratic candidates, Lott laughed in acknowledgment of the point.

“I guess you could argue he’s more qualified now than he was three years ago,” Lott said with a chuckle.

But Lott said he thinks Trump’s chances of being reelected are “surprisingly strong.” Even Biden, he said, would be “pulverized … in many respects” by Trump.

Lott touted himself as a supporter of the president, even though, he said, Trump in the 2016 election “was not my first choice, or second, or third, or fourth or fifth.”

“I was for [former Ohio Gov. John] Kasich,” Lott said. But he added he had no interest in supporting Kasich if he decides to run against Trump in the Republican primary.

“I won’t be for Kasich again. I’ve been disappointed in how he’s conducted himself since then,” Lott said.

Lott was Senate majority leader from 1996 to 2000. Democrats briefly regained the Senate majority in May of 2001, after Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party, became an independent, and began to caucus with the Democrats, breaking a 50-50 tie. Lott remained as the Republican leader in the Senate until the end of 2002, when he resigned the post after making racially inflammatory comments.

Lott said at a birthday party for former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., in December 2002 that if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”

Lott said he had simply meant the comment as a gesture of good will, but Thurmond was a segregationist whose 1948 run for president was built around resisting the desegregation of the U.S. military. Lott resigned after intense criticism for his remark.

When asked about the current controversies in Virginia over Gov. Ralph Northam’s admitting to having worn blackface in medical school, Lott said, “It reminds me, if you’re going to get in trouble, you need to be a Democrat, because Republicans will throw you to the wolves in a minute.”

[I feel like maybe this needs some qualifier because I don’t know that’s completely true. Look at Al Franken.]

“In a way, I feel sorry for them,” Lott said of Northam and the two other top two officials in Virginia, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. Fairfax has been accused by two women of sexual assault, and Herring also has admitted he wore blackface in college.

“I don’t think we’re at a healthy point,” with regard to the national conversation about race, Lott said. He added the response to mistakes on race has “gone a little bit overboard.” And on accusations of sexual assault, Lott said Fairfax should have “due process” before any decisions are made regarding his future.

Former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

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When asked if he thinks systemic racism is a problem, Lott said, “I think a lot has improved, a lot has changed, even in my lifetime, from the 60s to now.”

But Lott was vague when asked when he changed his mind about desegregation, which he opposed in the early 1960s at the University of Mississippi and in his fraternity, Sigma Nu.

“You grow up around it, and you’re young, you don’t deny it, accept it, or have a problem. You went from what it was like to what it became and there’s no problem,” Lott said.

Lott was a senior at the university when white students rioted in protest of the admission of the first African-American to the university, James Meredith, in 1962.

Though he may have opposed the admission of African-Americans, Lott touted his actions that night, which have been independently reported elsewhere. “This is the kind of thing people don’t know about me, but I actually got a national award for the things I did that night. … My fraternity, Sigma Nu fraternity, gave me an Achievement of the Year award for the efforts I made that night to keep my fraternity brother from going over there and getting involved in all that,” Lott said. “We didn’t have a single member that was involved or got arrested.”

Lott grew up in a radically different time in America. He was born in rural Mississippi in 1941, when lynchings of African-Americans were prevalent as a means of terrorizing the black community and enforcing white supremacy.

Lott, in fact, was born the same year as Emmett Till, the 14-year old boy from Chicago who was lynched in the summer of 1955 by two grown white men. While visiting relatives in Mississippi, Till was beaten, mutilated and shot in the head in Money, just 30 miles from where Lott grew up in Grenada.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, chose to leave Till’s casket open at his funeral, and the public outrage over the grotesque disfiguration of the boy’s face and body was a turning point in mobilizing public opinion in favor of the civil rights movement.

But Lott, whose family had recently moved to the Gulf Coast at that time, said he was unfamiliar with Till’s story.

“Emmet Till?” he asked. “Well, you know, I don’t remember any of that, to tell you the truth.”

Correction [10:15 am, Feb. 19, 2019]: An earlier version of this article misstated Sen. Jim Jeffords’ party switch. He left the Republican Party in 2001 and became an independent, not a Democrat.

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