When Mitt Romney unleashed a column chastising President Donald Trump, John Kasich — like Romney, a Republican who has never warmed to Trump and is viewed as a potentially disruptive primary challenger in 2020 — welcomed the new Utah senator “to the fray.”
But Kasich, who next week will leave elected office after two terms as Ohio’s governor, told BuzzFeed News in an interview this week that he never actually read Romney’s missive.
“Not much,” Kasich replied when asked for his thoughts on the piece, in which Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, criticized Trump’s character and vowed to be a voice for civility, much like Kasich has done since losing the 2016 Republican nomination to Trump.
“What did I think about it? I didn’t read it,” Kasich added. “I heard about it.”
Such ambivalence permeated an hourlong interview Tuesday as Kasich slouched into a leather couch inside the study at the governor’s mansion, a Tudor revival just outside Columbus where he never lived but has regularly received visitors. Kasich said he has not ruled out another run for president, either as a Republican or as an independent. But he also said he has no opinion of the Republican National Committee’s efforts to discourage a Trump primary challenge before one starts. He is “not on the phone dialing everybody up right now” in New Hampshire, a key early state where he finished second to Trump in 2016. He even dances carefully around the question of whether he’s still a Republican, using words like “they” when he discusses the existential problems his longtime party faces.
Kasich, 66, declined to elaborate on how he’s thinking about his future. He suggested several times that he’s waiting to see what the new year holds and that the timing might not yet be right to launch a challenge to a sitting president. Certain variables — special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the possibility of a Democratic House impeaching Trump — could quickly change things.
“There’s all this angst, insecurity,” said Kasich, offering an attempt to analyze the political climate. “Demagogues can magnify it, and leaders can try and calm it down and lead people to a better place. I think that’s kind of a struggle today. But right now, in the middle of all of this, it’s pretty hard for clear, calm voices to win. So sometimes you’ve got to let the fever break. And I think we have a fever, and it’s going to have to break.”
Kasich hinted that an announcement about his immediate plans could come as soon as Monday, his final day in office. Speculation has focused on a TV deal, as Kasich has become a frequent Trump critic on cable news. But Kasich declined to confirm or deny anything.
“It’s got to wait till Monday,” he said. “Nothing yet I really have finalized. There’s a few things that are firm. But it’s very complicated what you can do while you’re in [office].” He added later, coyly: “There will be a flurry of activity next week. Bread’s in the oven.”
In between interruptions to provide running commentary on the rapidly changing weather visible outside, Kasich reflected on eight years as governor. His first term started on a caustic note, with Kasich and a Republican legislature pushing a bill to restrict public employees’ collective bargaining power. Kasich’s job-approval numbers dropped, and voters repealed the measure. It’s a fight Kasich now regrets — and one that could undermine his desire to be remembered as an apolitical governor.
“It wasn’t the way to be a good leader,” he said. “A round peg in a square hole.”
Kasich ditched the combative posture in advance of his 2014 reelection bid and 2016 presidential campaign and since has cast a more moderate and pragmatic image. He expanded Medicaid. He launched a bipartisan task force — helmed by Democrat Nina Turner, a former Ohio lawmaker who has become a national surrogate for Bernie Sanders — to improve police–community relations. And after last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, he flip-flopped to become a prominent voice for gun control. Once a conservative firebrand and budget hawk in the House, he describes himself as a member of Congress who had to mature into a governor.
“If you were having an issue with race, we tried to help you,” he said. “If you had a problem with addiction, mental illness, autism, small business struggling, whatever it is, there was a program for you. Now we can’t fix everything. I’m not Moses. But I think we did our level best to communicate to people in the state that we weren’t just favoring one group over another.”
Where this places Kasich within his own party, if he can be placed there at all anymore, is uncertain. He hesitated when asked if he still considers himself a Republican.
“Well I’m certainly a conservative,” he replied. “A creative conservative, on the order of a guy like Jack Kemp, or my newest big fad is Teddy Roosevelt,” the progressive Republican president who later left his party and waged an unsuccessful third-party campaign.
Kasich has an op-ed piece scheduled to publish next week arguing that if Republicans “keep their heads buried in the sand like they’ve been doing and [are not] willing to generate new ideas, they’re going to disintegrate” as a political party. “I think the Republican Party, my best view of it now is it’s kind of in a stupor,” he said. “I think the strong economy has allowed a lot of the kind of the elites in the party to say, ‘I don’t like what’s going on, but things are OK.’”
He also keeps in touch with Republicans such as Brian Sandoval, a fellow centrist who endorsed Kasich in 2016 and just finished two terms as Nevada’s governor. “My best friend in elected politics today is Sandoval,” Kasich said. “And we just laugh. Things are so screwed up.”
At several points in the interview, Kasich seemed ready for life to calm down. He talked of a recent Saturday evening out with his wife, Karen, and being initially irritated that while trying to enjoy a glass of wine he was approached twice, by a man who thanked him for his service and by a young couple who wanted a photo with him. This, Kasich volunteered, is the conflict he often feels between “Good John” and “Bad John” — a conflict that he acknowledged makes him flawed but “normal.”
And yet at other points, Kasich was eager to be seen as hip, high-tech, and youthful, in much the same manner that other over-60 presidential hopefuls, such as Democrats Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, are practicing with their live Facebook and Instagram feeds.
Kasich has a new Tesla: “I’m getting software updates in my car!” And after years as a flip-phone loyalist, he now carries an iPhone. And has a Spotify account. On a quick tour of his music library, Kasich called up Queen, Muse, Imagine Dragons, and Drake’s “In My Feelings.”
“How’s our Instagram?” Kasich randomly asked his aides at another point. He then showed off a few videos he had taped for his social media accounts, including a shoutout to Golden Globe winner Bohemian Rhapsody. (“It is a visual and audio sensation! Go see it!”) And then he casually mentioned that “Arnold” — action movie star, former California governor, and known Kasich friend Arnold Schwarzenegger — is big on Instagram.
“If you try to call Arnold on his cellphone, you cannot talk to him,” Kasich added. “But if you FaceTime him, he’ll get back to you in five minutes.” (Upon request, Kasich tried to raise Schwarzenegger. He didn’t answer. Or call back in five minutes. Jim Lynch, Kasich’s communications director, said Schwarzenegger eventually did, later in the day.)
The Arnold aside presented another tack to press Kasich on 2020. Does Schwarzenegger, who has encouraged Kasich to challenge Trump again, still want him to run for president?
“Oh yeah, sure,” Kasich said. “But he doesn’t want me to do anything stupid. He told me, ‘Look, you have a fire extinguisher in your hand. If a fire breaks out, you can put it out. If not, you still have a fire extinguisher.’”
But what does that even mean?
“It means if there’s no fire, you don’t need to put anything out,” Kasich said. “You’re ready in case something happens.”
OK, so what would constitute a fire?
“I’m not getting into all that stuff. You can go there. I’m in the middle of dynamic and great change, and my head is not there right now.”