Politics & Policy

What Is Ben Sasse Thinking?

Sen. Ben Sasse questions Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
When it comes to Trump, Sasse would prefer to think — and talk — about other things.

Ben Sasse is very apologetic and carrying three cold cans of Bud Light when he enters the Senate office room where I’ve been waiting to interview him. “I’m embarrassed,” Sasse says as he hands a can to me and one to his communications director, James Wegmann. “My dad would beat my ass. I’m 67 minutes late. If you’re not ten minutes early where I’m from, my dad chews you out.”

The apology really isn’t necessary. It’s the evening of Tuesday, September 24, the night before the transcript of President Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is going to be released, and all hell is breaking loose in Washington. It’s entirely understandable why the Nebraska senator, a member of the Intelligence Committee, is late. And why he might need a drink.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, on September 10, President Trump endorsed the reelection of Sasse, who’s up for a second term in 2020, in a tweet: “Senator Ben Sasse has done a wonderful job representing the people of Nebraska. He is great with our Vets, the Military, and your very important Second Amendment. Strong on Crime and the Border, Ben has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

Trump’s endorsement all but guaranteed Sasse’s reelection in ruby-red Nebraska, where the only possible threat to his candidacy would be a primary challenge backed by the Republican president. “Ben’s grateful for the president’s kind words,” Sasse’s spokesman James Wegmann said that night. “They don’t always see eye to eye, but they’ve built a relationship where they work together when they agree and they wrestle hard when they don’t. That’s a good thing.”

The Trump tweet also provided an occasion for some pundits and politicians to accuse Sasse, once one of the sharpest Trump critics in the Republican party, of compromising in order to win the president’s endorsement. “Sasse’s campaign team placed him in the endorsement protection program a couple years ago,” Michigan congressman Justin Amash, who left the GOP over his opposition to Trump, wrote on Twitter.

Sasse says he didn’t ask for Trump’s endorsement and didn’t know it was coming, and he seems rankled by accusations that he has sold out. “The biggest news story in Nebraska for the ten days before he endorsed me was the fact I declined to serve on his reelection committee in Nebraska,” he says. Serving on the reelection committee would’ve required the senator to refrain from publicly disagreeing with the president, according to Sasse, and he wanted to maintain his ability to speak his mind.

Over the past year, of course, Sasse has publicly spoken his mind about Trump a lot less. “I’ve said about everything you can say critical of the president. And to just say it again so Morning Joe can use it tomorrow, that seems pretty boring,” says Sasse, who regularly meets with the president at the White House and speaks to him by phone. “Our relationship is surprisingly, I think given public perceptions, I think surprisingly amiable.”

The Trump-Ukraine scandal, however, threatens to undo the Trump–Sasse rapprochement. When asked whether it’s an abuse of power for an American president to ask a foreign government to investigate the family of the president’s political rival, Sasse tells me he won’t speculate about “particular hypotheticals.” But “in general terms,” he says, “American elections should be for Americans. And the idea that we would have foreign nation-states coming into the American electoral process, or the information surrounding an election, is really, really bad.”

Could it be an impeachable offense if the president withheld military aid in order to pressure a foreign ally to investigate the president’s political rival? Sasse says it’s not helpful to comment as “somebody who might be a juror in a case.” The senator’s fairly mild remarks were enough to draw the ire of Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “Like Romney, Sasse is not someone you want in a foxhole with you,” she wrote.

The next night, after reading the whistleblower report, Sasse tells reporters that there are “very troubling” things in it, and that “Republicans ought not just circle the wagons, and Democrats ought not be using words like ‘impeach’ before they knew anything about the actual substance.” Sasse’s comments were, again, fairly mild, but they were enough to place Sasse alongside Mitt Romney as one of only two Republican senators to express any serious concern about the scandal.

What makes Sasse’s commitment to gather all the facts and withhold judgment difficult is that he’s seeking reelection in Trump’s party. It’s an unusual dynamic when the accused might be able to get a juror fired with an insulting tweet or two.

And surely the president wouldn’t have endorsed Sasse unless Sasse had promised to endorse the president in 2020?

No, Sasse tells me, he won’t be endorsing Trump or any other candidate in 2020.

“I’m not endorsing anyone in any race,” he says.

Our conversation moves on to other topics, including why Sasse, who often seems frustrated and bored with his job, even wants a second term (more on that in a minute). But as he gets up to leave at the end of our interview, I want to be sure I heard him correctly that he will not endorse any candidate in any race between now and November 2020. “That’s correct,” he says.

“The only asterisk I’d put on that is the socialism point I’m making,” Sasse adds. He begins talking about how Omaha’s Republican congressman, Don Bacon, is running against an “actual socialist” and he’ll be helping Bacon’s campaign.

“I’m running against the Democrats’ crazy turn toward socialism. But, as a matter of formal endorsements—I mean, I’m working to support the Republican ticket, period. But I’m not endorsing candidates in individual races.”

Wait, Sasse is supporting but not endorsing candidates?

Does supporting the Republican ticket mean supporting Trump in 2020? “All of the turn toward socialism is disastrous,” Sasse replies.

So does Sasse support Trump-Pence in 2020?

“I’m supporting the Republican ticket.”

Up and down the ticket, including the presidential race?

“I’m supporting the Republican ticket,” he replies. “See ya, dude.”

Sasse’s comments leave me confused, and I’m pretty sure my bewilderment has nothing to do with consuming one can of watery light lager.

In 2016, Sasse cast his vote in the presidential race for Mike Pence, not Donald Trump. Did that count as “supporting the Republican ticket”?

During a follow-up phone interview on September 30, I ask Sasse whether he has decided he will vote for Donald Trump (presuming Trump is renominated in 2020) or he might vote for Pence again, as he did in 2016. But Sasse still won’t directly answer the question. “I think that leaving it at supporting the Republican ticket is the right place for me to be,” he says.

“I plan to do some work for the Republican ticket down the road. Focused on my race right now and really not talking about anybody else.”

Efforts to get Sasse to talk about why he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and whether his assessment of the president has changed don’t prove very successful, either. Sasse says he is “really grateful for the fact that the president has completely kept his word” about judicial nominees, and that Elizabeth Warren’s socialism and majoritarian politics “would completely baffle the Founders.”

“I think I’ve said almost everything that I can say about Donald Trump,” Sasse says.

It is not clear which Republican Sasse intends to vote for in the 2020 presidential election, or whether he’s even made up his mind. What is clear is that it is not in Sasse’s political interest to go to war with Trump in 2020 the way he did in 2016. Yet it’s also clear that it is not in Trump’s self-interest to go to war with Sasse.

Both Sasse and Trump are supported by about four out of five Nebraska Republicans. A February poll conducted by We Ask America found that Sasse has a 74 percent approval rating among Nebraska GOP primary voters, and Roll Call reported in August that Sasse’s job approval had seen a 14-point uptick in separate Morning Consult surveys among Nebraska Republicans over the first six months of 2019.

In other words, Sasse isn’t anywhere close to facing the same primary threat that former Arizona senator Jeff Flake faced during the last election. Flake was down by double digits against Kelli Ward at this point in a Republican primary two years ago and decided to retire rather than face likely defeat. If Trump backed Sasse’s GOP challenger Matt Innis, it’s not clear that Sasse would lose.

More important, going to war with Sasse could cost Trump a precious vote in the Electoral College. Nebraska divides some of its electoral votes by congressional district, and Trump won the Omaha congressional district by only two percentage points in 2016. Support for Republicans has declined in the suburbs during Trump’s presidency, and it’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which a single electoral vote would make the difference between a Trump victory and an Electoral College tie in 2020, or the difference between a tie and a Trump loss. The president, of course, is not known for always coolly following his interest instead of his emotions.

Why does Sasse, who has publicly mused about leaving the Republican party and who is so plainly conflicted about the Republican president, even want to serve another term in the Senate?

That question has been raised by many of his critics, but especially by those who say the Nebraska senator is a show horse, not a legislative workhorse. New York magazine columnist Josh Barro wrote that Sasse “ran for office as a ‘healthcare expert.’ Then, where was he during the health law debate? Even setting Trump aside, he seems to have no interest in all the non-commencement-speech aspects of the job.” During his first term, Sasse wrote two books, but he never put any sort of compre-hensive alternative to Obamacare into legislation.

The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare was a collective failure of the Republican party—with leaders in Congress and the White House deserving an extra share of blame—and there’s no reason to think one Senate freshman could have changed the outcome. But Sasse, a former assistant secretary of health and human services, in the Bush administration, did indeed run for the Senate as a candidate uniquely qualified to go after Obamacare. National Review even put him on the cover, as “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis.” In 2015, he introduced a bill to temporarily provide tax credits in the event the Supreme Court invalidated Obamacare, and earlier this year he introduced a bill expanding health-savings accounts, but he really wasn’t in the thick of the Obamacare-repeal debate in 2017. Why not?

“When I was running, I actually thought that most Republicans believed in free-market stuff,” Sasse replies. “It turns out that a very large share of Republicans actually are fine with government price-setting in health care as long as there’s a Republican administration behind it.”

“The president likes to talk about how John McCain was the vote against [repealing] Obamacare, right. At the end of the day, there weren’t 35 or 40 votes, let alone 60 or 51 . . . votes for an actual market-oriented health-care system that would deliver a higher quality, lower cost over time. It was just clear there was no actual coalition for this.”

Sasse’s point that there weren’t the votes for a real free-market plan is fair enough, but it’s hard to believe that the senator didn’t realize that Senate Republicans weren’t all committed free-market conservatives until he had been a member for several months. Sasse, after all, ran his 2014 campaign against establishment Republicans for failing to provide leadership.

Although Sasse didn’t live up to his billing as the GOP’s anti-Obamacare hero, he did distinguish himself as a freshman senator in several ways.

Many Republican senators are skittish about speaking out and leading on pro-life issues, but Sasse served as the lead Senate sponsor of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, a bill that finally got a vote this year, after Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, made what Sasse describes as “insane and wicked comments” about leaving infants born in the third trimester to die. “This is a core commitment and belief. I think we should be coming at it from lots of different sides,” Sasse says of protecting the right to life.

Sasse was also out front pressuring the Department of Justice to investigate Jeffrey Epstein’s “sweetheart deal” with the federal government, even though a Trump cabinet official, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, was a former federal prosecutor involved in that deal.

Among senators on the Judiciary Committee, Sasse delivered the most substantive and impressive contribution to the debate during the first round of the Kavanaugh hearings; his “Schoolhouse Rock” speech about the separation of powers went viral. When Democrats on the committee tried to disqualify a judicial nominee for being a member of the Knights of Columbus, Sasse skewered the anti-Catholic attack. “Are you now or have you ever been involved in the organization of a fish fry?” Sasse asked judicial nominee Peter Phipps at one hearing.

But American politics hasn’t focused on abortion, judges, religious liberty, or any other issue during Sasse’s tenure. American politics has been dominated by the personality of one man—Donald J. Trump—for almost the entirety of Sasse’s first term. Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign in June 2015, a mere five months after Sasse became a senator and five months before Sasse delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor.

That’s why, in the minds of many, Sasse’s willingness to speak out when he thinks Trump crosses certain lines has come to define him as a senator.

In 2016, Sasse was one of the staunchest Republican critics of Trump. “If the Republican party becomes the party of David Duke, Donald Trump, I’m out,” Sasse told Morning Joe in March 2016. His spokesman said he would skip the July 2016 Republican National Convention so he could “take his kids to watch some dumpster fires across the state.” Trump tweeted that year that Sasse looked like a “gym rat.”

Sasse was one of more than a dozen Senate Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump in November 2016, but he has found himself increasingly alone as a Republican willing to break ranks with the president. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker retired. John McCain died. Mike Lee intends to endorse Trump in 2020. And Lindsey Graham became a neo-Trumper.

As recently as 2018, Sasse was quite critical of the president in public. He called Trump’s trade war disastrous on Fox News. When Sasse was on MSNBC after the president called his former alleged mistress Stormy Daniels “horseface,” the senator simply said: “That’s not the way men act.”

In June, after Trump had held a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki at which he accepted Putin’s denial—contradicted by U.S. intelligence agencies and the available evidence—that Russia was not behind the hacking of DNC emails in 2016, Sasse delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor.

“We did not negotiate from a position of strength. We acted from a position of weakness. As a result, one of the world’s worst despots walked away today from Helsinki with a win,” Sasse said. “This should be a time for all Americans to stand together against what Putin’s doing. It’s a fundamental part of the president’s job to articulate basic truths.”

But in 2019, Sasse has been much more accommodating toward and reticent about the president. In March, much to the consternation of Sasse’s Trump-skeptical supporters, he voted to uphold Trump’s declaration of a national emergency that allowed the president to redirect military funds to the southern border. Sasse was willing to vote for a bill that would generally curb the power of presidents to declare national emergencies, but he was unwilling merely to rescind Trump’s national emergency.

In July, President Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen, all of whom happen to be racial minorities and three of whom were born in the United States, should “go back” to the countries from which they came.

A number of Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate condemned the remark. Tim Scott of South Carolina called Trump’s comment “racially offensive.” Iowa senator Joni Ernst, who is up for reelection in 2020, was asked whether Trump’s tweet was racist. “Uh, yeah. They’re American citizens,” she told CNN. Sasse did not speak out at the time, right as he was gearing up to announce his reelection campaign.

Did Sasse think that comment was bigoted or racist? “Yeah, it was a terrible comment,” he tells me in his Senate office. “And a Republican senator just saying the same thing again” to “satisfy MSNBC” is “not nearly as useful as saying what it means that we actually are a nation of immigrants.”

Sasse says he hasn’t been on Twitter for 13 of the last 18 months, both to be a better role model to his children and so that he doesn’t contribute to a hyperactive news cycle of “24/7 screaming.” Yet the Trump-Ukraine scandal has compelled Sasse to speak up enough to anger Trump loyalists but not enough to satisfy Trump critics.

When I speak to Sasse on September 30, I ask him whether he had any comment on the president’s tweets that morning asserting that impeachment could cause a “Civil War like fracture” in America and another in which Trump asked whether Democratic congressman Adam Schiff should be arrested “for Treason.”

“I guess I don’t have anything interesting to say,” says Sasse, who is driving through Nebraska and hasn’t heard about the president’s comments until now. He goes on to criticize both Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Schiff for participating in a “clown show,” but he doesn’t directly criticize the president.

But then, on October 3, after President Trump publicly said that “China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” Sasse responded with a blunt statement to the Omaha World-Herald: “Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.”

In the same statement, Sasse hit Representative Schiff for “running a partisan clown show in the House—that’s his right because the Constitution doesn’t prohibit clown shows, but fortunately, in the Senate, we’re working to follow the facts one step at a time.”

Sasse’s willingness to pick and choose his battles and make a point of showing Republican voters he hasn’t joined the “resistance” will probably save him from suffering the same fate as Jeff Flake. Sasse is more than willing to acknowledge that Democrats are often crying wolf about the president, but he still feels compelled to say something, even in the middle of a Republican primary, when he believes the president is actually behaving like a wolf.

But don’t get him wrong: Sasse would really, really like to be talking about other things. He is seeking a second term in part so he can play a role in the post-Trump fights within the Republican party. Sasse tells me he has a “calling,” as “a Tocquevillian or a principled pluralist or a constitutionalist,” to fight for his own faction within the conservative coalition, which he now realizes is smaller than he once thought.

“I don’t trust that the big-business part of our coalition is ever going to defend federalism and argue against regulatory capture. I don’t trust that populists are going to defend religious liberty and the rights of creedal minorities,” he says.

When populist Missouri GOP senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill earlier this year to require big social-media companies to prove to the federal government that they are not politically biased, Sasse was the only Republican senator out of more than a dozen I contacted to express opposition (most declined to comment). “The idea that you’re going to empower the state to regulate speech and think that’s not going to boomerang on cultural conservatives seems to be really shortsighted,” he says. “A new Fairness Doctrine for the Internet is going to harm conservatism badly in the long term.”

Sasse also thinks he has a role to play promoting civics, serving on the Intelligence Committee, and debating issues about the future of work, such as universal basic income, a policy he fears is on the way but strongly opposes because it would balloon entitlements and make Americans even “lonelier and more purposeless.”

“I just don’t really want to spend very much of my time on Donald Trump,” Sasse tells me in his Senate office on September 24. “If I get elected again,” he says, his next term “ends in 2027. Whether Donald Trump wins or loses next November, he’s almost three years gone from the national stage by the end of this term, and so I just find the obsession with Donald Trump to be a distraction” from “doing the basic work of civics that we’ve been neglecting for far too long.”

Sasse may be so eager to move on to other fights that he has made a small error. If both men are reelected in 2020, Sasse will only have one year and 50 weeks left in his next Senate term after a second Trump presidential term ends, not three years. After accounting for this error, Sasse may need to increase his Senate stockpile of Bud Light, or switch to something harder.

— This article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of National Review.


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