Sen. Thad Cochran

Sen. Thad Cochran, who has faced scrutiny about his future while battling health issues, has not mentioned retirement, his chief of staff said on a statewide radio program Monday.

Cochran’s chief of staff Brad White chastised critics, citing health issues “that are common to men his age” and saying political operatives have spread misinformation about the senator’s health “to promote their own selfish agenda.”

“The bottom line is, today, the senator’s never mentioned retirement, he’s always expressed his desire to get better and return to work as soon as possible,” White said on the Paul Gallo Show. “We’re having, as a staff, to balance managing his desire to get back to work and getting back to a regular schedule while working with his doctors to make sure we don’t do anything that would negatively impact his recovery. And that’s going to take time.”

The 79-year-old Republican senator, who chairs the Senate Appropriations committee, returned to Washington last week after spending several weeks at his Oxford home recovering from two urinary tract infections. His scheduled return to Washington was delayed a day, spurring speculation on Capitol Hill and in Jackson about the senator’s future.

Cochran participates in Senate floor session on Wednesday

Reports from the Capitol last week insisted that the senator is not back to full speed — a notion White corroborated on Monday. A Politico piece published last week chronicled Cochran seemingly being disoriented and unresponsive to basic questions. A Bloomberg reporter said Cochran mistakenly voted yes on an amendment that would cut $43 billion from the appropriations budget during Thursday night’s vote-a-rama, but changed his vote after an aide spoke in his ear.

“Some of the metrics that have been applied to Senator Cochran the last week, I think, are unfair,” White said. “I saw something where somebody reported that he looked pale. Hell, he’s been home sick, he hasn’t been laying out on a beach in Maui. And I don’t think they would’ve been satisfied unless he came back and jogged up the steps of the Capitol.”

Cochran’s ability to vote and lead Appropriations committee meetings is paramount as lawmakers continue to pass budget items, which ultimately pave the way for tax cuts — a campaign promise of President Donald Trump.

Adding to Republicans’ concern over Cochran’s status, the establishment wing of the party already faces stiff challenges from more conservative Republicans in 2018 midterm elections. In that race, Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s junior senator, has been named as a target in 2018. Another establishment Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., already has announced his retirement.

Another unexpected vacancy — in deep red Mississippi, nonetheless — could be a headache for an already reeling Republican leadership.

In Jackson, eyes have turned to the governor’s mansion, where Gov. Phil Bryant has been inquiring about replacements should Cochran’s seat become vacant. Still, White on Monday insisted that Cochran remained a capable leader.

“The fact of the matter is he is back and he is working for the people of Mississippi,” White said. “We’re getting as much done with a sick Thad Cochran as we could with any other junior senator.”

Other highlights from White on the Paul Gallo Radio Show Monday:

“I’m fully convinced that if the time comes that the senator feels, indeed, it’s time for him to retire, I’m confident that he takes that message directly to the people of Mississippi and not have it spread about through political rumor. And again, as of now, that’s just not been considered.”

“This is why it’s hard to get good people in politics. I think it’s important for people to remember these are real folks – family and friends – behind all these names that are trashed about in the news. I think we lose sight of that in politics today. It’s really unfortunate when other people’s ambition make them lose sight of that.”

“As long as Sen. Cochran’s health is good, he’s going to keep helping the people of Mississippi. It’s sad when there’s a few ambitious politicos out there that are trying to use this as an excuse to push the senator out of the way so they can promote their own selfish agenda. I don’t mind the press speculating, so long as they stick to the facts. Unfortunately, not all of them do. That’s their job. I do mind when elected officials or political operatives spread an exaggerated version of the truth in hopes of advancing a selfish agenda. That’s just classless.”

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Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.