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Is Trump a Transactionalist or a Pragmatist on Senate GOP Endorsements?
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Is Trump a Transactionalist or a Pragmatist on Senate GOP Endorsements?

Plus: House Democrats and Republicans question Robert Hur.

Happy Wednesday! Are you ready for Vice President Aaron Rodgers? He could be coming to an independent presidential ticket near you.

Up to Speed

  • Rep. Ken Buck, the conservative Republican from Colorado, announced Tuesday he is resigning from Congress next week, less than 10 months before his term ends. Buck, who already said he would not run for reelection, said in his brief post on social media that he looks “forward to staying involved in our political process, as well as spending more time in Colorado and with my family.” But in an interview with Dana Bash on CNN, Buck criticized the dysfunction in the House of Representatives. “It is the worst year of the 9 years and 3 months that I’ve been in Congress,” he said. “And having talked to former members, it’s the worst year in 40, 50 years to be in Congress.”
  • Buck’s resignation will leave the House with four vacancies and dwindle the House Republican conference to 218 seats. That means House Speaker Mike Johnson will have just a two-seat majority, making his difficult task of passing legislation even more so. The other three vacancies are also due to resignations: former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy late last year, plus Republican Rep. Bill Johnson and Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins. 
  • Buck’s resignation from the 4th Congressional District will trigger a special election later this year to fill the vacancy, a development that creates potential complications for Rep. Lauren Boebert. The provocative Republican currently serves in western Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, but after Buck announced in November that he would not run for reelection, Boebert declared plans to switch seats and run for reelection in the more reliably Republican 4th District in eastern Colorado instead. Boebert now says she will not run in the special election to finish Buck’s term, which would have required her to resign her current seat, and will simply stick with her campaign for the GOP nomination in the 4th. The governor could set the date for the special election on the same day as the June 25 primary, which would mean Boebert would be competing for the nomination against another Republican candidate who is also running for the seat outright.
  • The super PAC supporting Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign announced it was ceasing work on ballot access for the independent presidential contender. American Values 2024 said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that it had collected “the required number of signatures for RFK Jr.’s ballot access in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and South Carolina” but that it was halting further efforts and letting the Kennedy campaign take the lead. The Democratic National Committee recently filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal coordination between the two entities related to the work American Values 2024 has been doing to obtain ballot lines for Kennedy.
  • The endorsements are rolling in a week before the Republican Senate primary in Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine endorsed Matt Dolan, joining former Sen. Rob Portman in supporting the state senator and part owner of the Cleveland Guardians baseball team. Dolan, who ran for the GOP nomination for Senate in 2022, has once again staked out ground as a “traditional” Republican in contrast to Donald Trump’s style of populism. But Bernie Moreno, a wealthy businessman who also ran unsuccessfully in 2022, nabbed the Trump endorsement and is now seen as the favorite to win the nomination. Trump will be in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday to campaign for Moreno. The minimal primary polling available shows an unclear race among Moreno, Dolan, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. The Republican primary is on March 19, and the GOP nominee will face the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Sherrod Brown, in November.
  • President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have clinched the Democratic and Republican nominations, respectively, after romping to victory Tuesday in their parties’ presidential primaries in Georgia. Though Biden and Trump were already running virtually unopposed, and though they won’t be officially their parties’ nominees until after their respective conventions later this year, it’s now all-but-guaranteed we’ll have a 2020 election rematch come November.

‘Transactionalist’ Trump on Display with Rogers Endorsement

Former President Donald Trump gestures during a "Get Out the Vote" rally in Waterford Township, Michigan, on February 17, 2024. (Photo by ALEX WROBLEWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump gestures during a "Get Out the Vote" rally in Waterford Township, Michigan, on February 17, 2024. (Photo by ALEX WROBLEWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Sen. Steve Daines of Montana endorsed Donald Trump all the way back on April 25, 2023, when the former president’s prospects in the Republican primary still seemed quite murky. He was the first Republican leader in the Senate to do so. Political observers questioned the move. 

Daines had recently taken over as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm. Why tie himself, and Republican incumbent and challenger candidates running for Senate in 2024, to a politically volatile presidential contender? After all, Trump’s meddling in the 2022 midterm elections had proven costly. Republicans not only failed to recapture the Senate majority—they lost control of a seat to the Democrats in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state.

With Trump’s endorsement of previously ardent Trump critic and antagonist Mike Rogers in the Republican Senate primary in Michigan this week, we have our answer. 

Trump, as a Republican operative in his political orbit conceded to Dispatch Politics in an interview, is “transactional.” Daines no doubt understood that backing the former president’s 2024 bid early might be appreciated, and reciprocated, by Trump, who is much more likely to reward personal loyalty than he is to prioritize fidelity to the ideological conservative populism important to some of his supporters—much to their chagrin.

“Donald Trump just endorsed the worst Deep State candidate this cycle. @MikeRogersForMI is a never Trumper, and a card carrying member of the spy state that seeks to destroy Trump. You have to ask yourself who gives Trump this awful advice?” Sen. Rand Paul said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. In a second X post, the Kentucky Republican added: “If he’s good with Mike Rogers (R-Deep State), maybe he should pick Liz Cheney for VP?”

But Daines wanted Rogers, a former congressman and former FBI agent, viewing him as the most electable Republican in a state where the GOP hasn’t won a Senate seat since 1994. And now, with Trump’s endorsement, Rogers is in the driver’s seat for the nomination and will likely face off against Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin. 

This isn’t the first time Daines’ early Trump endorsement has paid off, either. 

In the race to pick a challenger for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the NRSC chairman wanted the presumptive GOP presidential nominee to stiff-arm Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Trump loyalist, in favor of former Navy Seal Tim Sheehy for the Montana Republican primary. Trump delivered, making Sheehy all but a shoo-in for the Senate nomination and pushing Rosendale out of the primary completely. 

To be sure, Sheehy was never defined as a Trump critic. It’s also true Rogers put in the work on his end to earn Trump’s endorsement by making amends with the former president. Rogers endorsed Trump for the 2024 nomination, regularly praises his leadership, and has simply ceased any public airing of the doubts and criticisms he previously harbored, and voiced, about his presidency and its aftermath. 

And yes, it’s also true that there were additional mitigating factors to explain Trump’s decision to endorse Sheehy and Rogers.

Rosendale had already lost to Tester once, in 2018, despite the 45th president’s multiple trips to Montana to campaign for him. If there’s anything Trump hates as much as criticism, it’s being associated with losing candidates. Meanwhile, Trump’s options in Michigan were somewhat limited. One Republican candidate for Senate, former Rep. Justin Amash, has been consistently critical of Trump; another, former Rep. Peter Meijer, voted to impeach him because of his role in fomenting a riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Meijer has since waffled, pledging to support Trump in November.)

Trump could have endorsed businessman Sandy Pensler, whose record on Trump is unsullied by past condemnation. But Pensler only recently ramped up his campaign and his viability in the general election remains unknown, whereas polls show Rogers competitive with Slotkin. So, if Trump wanted to pick a strong horse, Rogers appeared to be the safest bet. Some Republicans pointed out that what Trump did in Montana and Michigan was simply what’s best for the party and its goal of winning the Senate majority.

But none of these pragmatic concerns, which surely weighed on Trump, negate his blatant transactionalism nor the impact it had on his endorsement in the Michigan Senate race. Or, as a Republican operative in Michigan pleased with Trump’s decision told us: 

“Trump does operate in an interesting way. ‘Transactional’ never quite seems to be the right concept to me, it is more like how a fraternity operates. Transactional in my mind means, if I do X for you, I will get Y from you. The price is set and the benefit is known. It feels more like how a fraternity operates. You understand there will be certain things that have to be done to get in, but you are never quite sure what they are. You also know there will be some return to doing those things, but you are never quite sure when you will see those returns or what they will be.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The NRSC declined to comment.

Robert Hur in the Hot Seat 

The 2024 general election began in earnest Tuesday in an unusual place: a committee hearing room on Capitol Hill.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing room, to be exact, is where former special counsel Robert Hur faced questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about his explosive report on President Joe Biden’s willful retention of classified documents. The Republican attorney, who had resigned from the Justice Department a day earlier, sat in the crosshairs as committee members tried to score political points for their party’s presidential nominee.

Democrats, for instance, tried to cajole Hur into admitting he had exonerated Biden of all crimes—a point Hur pushed back on several times. After Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington called the report a “complete exoneration” of Biden, Hur responded by taking issue with that particular word.

“I did not exonerate him,” Hur said. “That word does not appear in the report.”

But others called Hur’s objectivity into question, highlighting his 2018 appointment by President Donald Trump as U.S. attorney for Maryland and his political affiliation to suggest he had gratuitously included embarrassing and misleading details about Biden’s mental acuity. Hur defended his decision to include details of Biden’s struggling to recall specific facts in his two-day interview with Hur and federal investigators, saying that it was an important part of his analysis. But Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat currently running for Senate, was among those who took issue.

“What you did write was deeply prejudicial to the interests of the president,” said Schiff. “You must have understood the impact of your words. You must have understood the impact of your decision to go beyond the specifics of a particular document, to go to the very general, to your own personal prejudicial, subjective opinion of the president, one you knew would be amplified by his political opponent. When you knew that would influence a political campaign, you had to understand, and you did it anyway. You did it anyway.”

Some Republicans, meanwhile, sought to get Hur to draw an equivalence between Biden’s retention of classified documents and the case involving Trump. The former president and Republican nominee was indicted last year not only for mishandling classified documents, but for obstructing the investigation and retrieval of those documents. But House Republicans sought to highlight what they consider a double standard.

“The standard behind the decision not to prosecute Joe Biden, especially in light of special counsel Jack Smith’s decision to prosecute President Trump for similar conduct gives the real appearance of two standards,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Republican from New Jersey.

More often, however, the GOP side of the hearing focused on highlighting Biden’s apparent cognitive decline and suggesting Hur went easy on the president because of it. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida accused Hur of applying a “senile cooperator theory” for explaining why he declined to recommend prosecution despite finding Biden had violated the law.

Hur pushed back, noting that his report concludes that he would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Biden intended to break the law—a key threshold for bringing a prosecution. But Gaetz continued to press his point, repeating the idea that Biden is “senile” and making thinly veiled insinuations that would sound right at home in a political ad.

“What I’m trying to figure out is whether or not Biden’s lying because he’s still so senile that he hasn’t read your report, or whether it’s a little craftier and a little more devious and perhaps a little more intentional than we might otherwise think,” Gaetz said.

Speaking of ads, a video produced by Democrats and played during the hearing summed up how the proceedings prioritized presidential politics over government oversight or fact-finding. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York introduced the montage video featuring several public instances of Trump misremembering or otherwise showing declined mental acumen. He finished up with a point that would not be out of place at the Democratic National Convention.

“That is a man who is incapable of avoiding criminal liability,” Nadler said once the video was done playing. “A man who is wholly unfit for office, and a man who, at the very least, ought to think twice before accusing others of cognitive decline.”

Notable and Quotable

“This is not some political skirmish that [only] matters on the American political scene. Mr. Johnson’s failure to make a positive decision will cost thousands of lives. He takes personal responsibility for that.”

—Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, speaking to reporters in Washington about the refusal of Congress to fund military aide to Ukraine and specifically calling out House Speaker Mike Johnson, March 12, 2024

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.