Grassley’s embrace of Trump shakes GOP landscape
Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) enthusiastic appearance at a Trump event in Iowa over the weekend shows that the former president has further strengthened his grip on the GOP following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The Iowa senator’s eagerness to stand next to former President Trump at a boisterous rally in Des Moines only days after Trump repeatedly trashed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — a friend and ally of Grassley’s — served as a wakeup call to some Republicans that Trump is back and very much in charge of the party.
Grassley, 88, has worked carefully over his four decades in the Senate to cultivate a reputation as a politician completely in step with Iowans who cherish family values, hard work, ethical behavior and integrity.
A few months ago, Grassley criticized Trump for refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election, accusing him of “poor leadership” and “extreme, aggressive and irresponsible” language.
He said at the time that Trump belittled and harassed elected officials across the country “to get his way” and encouraged his own vice president, Mike Pence, “to take extraordinary and unconstitutional actions” to interfere with the Electoral College count in Congress.
Even so, Grassley was glad to accept Trump’s endorsement at a rally where the former president once again insisted that the 2020 election was rigged, a claim that courts have thrown out repeatedly and that even many Senate Republicans have rejected.
“I think it surprised a lot of people,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who served with Grassley for 18 years in the Senate. “Chuck has always marched to his drum, he’s always been extraordinarily independent and a very strong figure in the Senate over the years, clearly.
“So I don’t think he needs Donald Trump, and I was a little surprised he decided to take that leap. But Chuck does what he does and lives to his own drumbeat,” he added.
Other Republicans who have long known Grassley, however, say that he has always been well-attuned to the political climate.
“Chuck is a quality politician and he has said some things that were critical of the president, which is rather unique, but he’s now running for office,” said former Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Leach.
“I’m not surprised by it. I’ve known Chuck for over half a century and he is a consummate political figure,” he added.
Yet Leach, who represented Iowa in the House from 1977 to 2007, pointed out that Grassley and Trump are still very different in character and temperament.
“Chuck Grassley’s ethics fit Iowa, Donald Trump’s ethics do not. It’s that simple,” said Leach.
While Grassley is best known for promoting ethics in government because of his longtime support of protections for federal whistleblowers, he is also a pragmatic politician.
Grassley last month announced he will run for his eighth Senate term. While he is considered a heavy favorite against state Sen. Jim Carlin (R) in the primary, the senior Senate Republican isn’t leaving anything to chance.
Carlin said he decided to challenge Grassley because he was angered by the senator’s decision not to investigate Trump’s claims of election fraud.
With Trump’s early endorsement, Grassley now appears to be on a glide path to reelection next year.
“I was born at night but not last night,” Grassley said at the weekend rally. “So if I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.”
When asked in Iowa about Trump’s repeated attacks against McConnell, Grassley sidestepped the question.
“We Republicans have to stick together. We should do everything to unite each other,” he said.
Trump used Saturday’s rally to rip McConnell and the other members of the Senate GOP leadership team who voted last week to end a filibuster of a two-month extension of the federal debt ceiling, which now gives Democrats time to focus on President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Garrett Ventry, a former aide to Grassley, noted that his former boss and Trump have had disagreements in the past. For example, Grassley, a big proponent of wind energy, once dismissed Trump’s claim that wind turbines cause cancer as “idiotic.”
But Ventry also pointed out that Grassley worked closely with Trump to reshape the federal judiciary and overhaul the tax code.
“They worked on a lot together. They got criminal justice reform done, a number of justices and Supreme Court justices and worked heavily on tax issues,” he said.
Ventry said Grassley is both an “independent Republican” and a “team player.”
Gary Grant, a Republican strategist based in Iowa, said Grassley didn’t need Trump’s endorsement, given his political strength in the state.
“In my personal view, I don’t think it’s much of a challenge,” he said. “Sen. Grassley is just such an institution in Iowa it’s difficult for a lot of folks to imagine he would face a serious primary challenge. He does a good job for Iowa, he’s back in the state [a lot], he’s everywhere.”
Grant said many Iowa Republicans overlook Trump’s shortcomings because they see him as fighting for them.
“If a voter thinks our institutions are fundamentally flawed in the way that they conduct their business … then better to have one of them who works for us than one of them who works for the other side,” he said.
“I think everybody would like their elected representatives and president [to] be free from scandal, but it seems like there are very few people in modern politics and today’s politics who are free from some sort of scandal,” Grant added. “You pick the one who has your interests in mind.”
Vin Weber, a Republican strategist, said Grassley’s decision to embrace Trump at the rally in Des Moines shows the former president has firmly reestablished himself as the party’s leader, something that appeared to be in serious doubt only a few months ago.
“I’ve known Sen. Grassley since 1974 when he was first elected to the House. … He summarized exactly where Republican politicians were. You may like it, you may not like it, but the leader of the party under which he’s running and the rest of the Republican candidates are running is led by Donald Trump. That’s just a reality,” Weber said.
Earlier this year it appeared that Trump’s political career might be over and that his influence over the party would be greatly diminished after seven Republican senators voted to convict him on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Twitter permanently suspended Trump, depriving him of his favorite social media platform and means of communicating directly with the GOP base. Facebook, a platform on which Trump had spent millions of dollars to get out his political message, took a similar step by announcing in June that he would be suspended for two years.
Weber said Biden’s struggles in office, such as the messy exit from Afghanistan, a surge in COVID-19 infections and the slow pace of his agenda on Capitol Hill has opened the door for Trump to make a comeback.
“I don’t think you can overstate the degree to which the performance of the Biden administration has resurrected Donald Trump, at least with Republicans,” he said, pointing to Biden’s pursuit of a social spending package that will be paired with tax increases for corporations and wealthy Americans.
But Gregg, who served as an adviser to McConnell during his Senate career, said Trump’s comeback was predictable after he transformed the Republican Party in the 2016 election, further cementing his status during four years in office.
“He’s turned the Republican Party into a cult and he’s the cult hero,” Gregg said. “There are enough people in the party that are foolish enough to follow him blindly that there’s nobody else in the room when he’s in the room.”
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