Q&A: McDaniel on Roger Wicker, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon

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Mississippi Today political writer Adam Ganucheau spoke with state Sen. Chris McDaniel recently about his political plans. The text of that conversation published here has been edited for clarity and timeliness: 

Sen. (Roger) Wicker has pushed back on some of the stances you’ve taken. When you see him reacting, how does that make you feel?

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville

Sen. Chris McDaniel: It shows me that there is a genuine lack of faith in his candidacy. They recognize that once his record is shown to people in Mississippi that they’re going to leave him because he’s been there 24 years. The idea that he can attach himself to Donald Trump over the last six months and erase the last 25 years is laughable.

He has a record to account for. And his record, according to every objective conservative review site, scores him among the most liberal United States senators on the Republican side of the equation. You can’t run from that. He can try to run from it, but once people see his record, they’re not going to be happy with his representation. So the idea that he would spend the last year of his life moving to the right, trying to pacify a person that hasn’t even announced against him is interesting, to say the least.

And the thing is, people have to understand is that our party is having a philosophical discussion about its future. And my side of the equation is the side that Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and to a large extent Donald Trump inhabits. We see ourselves as classical conservatives in the sense of Goldwater, Taft, and Reagan. Sen. Wicker was appointed to that position by Haley Barbour. He sees himself more of a big spending, big government type of Republican, just like a Lindsey Graham. It doesn’t mean these individuals are bad people. I never mean to imply that. It’s just that we disagree philosophically on the direction of this country.

We’ve tried it Roger Wicker’s way for 100 years. We’ve always utilized our seniority to draw down federal funds, and for 100 years we’ve remained dead last following their playbook. Our suggestion is it’s time to give somebody else a shot. And it may not be me, but some likeminded individual who’s going to be beholden to the people of Mississippi than any of the lobbyists, the cronies, and the insiders in Washington. That’s one of the things that I think our base sees and are frustrated about. We believe that Roger Wicker is more beholden to Mitch McConnell than he is to the average Mississippian, and his voting record speaks to that very clearly. So whoever runs against Wicker, if they’re fortunate enough to be successful, the first vote they should cast is one against Mitch McConnell as a strike against the establishment that’s got us in this terrible position. 

A lot of the policy President Trump has pushed, he’s had the support of Mitch McConnell. You talk about unity, but then you mention the first vote cast should be against McConnell. What if McConnell and Trump sync up on certain policy? How do you reconcile that?

McDaniel: Sometimes when there’s policy, I realize that Washington is really big on playing games. But the ultimate goal has to be to drain the swamp. That’s what he promised us he was going to do. So to the extent he made those promises, I have every intention on helping him keep his word. Certainly there are times where he may need a vote, and he may have to play that game temporarily. But he has to also understand, and I think we do, that there’s a long term goal here, and that’s to replace these individuals like Mitch McConnell. People should understand that Mitch McConnell has the same voting record  as Roger Wicker when it comes to supporting Donald Trump. They claim they vote with him 96.4 percent of the time, but everybody knows McConnell’s only doing that as a way to save face with Republican voters that, right now, love President Trump.

I’m more concerned, frankly, with the 4 percent of the time that they fought President Trump because on one of those accounts, you might recall, Trump was begging to do away with the 60 vote filibuster requirement. And McConnell, Wicker, Cochran fought him on that, and because of that fight, we can’t pass decent legislation out of the Senate. So it’s funny, you can claim you vote with somebody 96.4 percent of the time, but if on one vote you gut the best of the agenda, then really you’re the obstructionist. Mitch McConnell is an obstructionist, and I can promise you he doesn’t like Donald Trump. He’s never liked Donald Trump. He’s playing the game, trying to save face.

So again, long term goals here. It’s one thing to have to work together to seek legislative goals. My response is to save this country, Washington has to be challenged, and that’s on both sides. I don’t mean to imply it’s just on the Republicans. The Democrats have an establishment, as well. We want to challenge them, too. The Republicans have an establishment. We want them gone, too. We want to see new blood, new energy, and new leadership in Washington, and that’s how you save a country.

Do you think President Trump has bought into the establishment?

McDaniel: I don’t think he’s bought in. I think he understands there’s a whole system that’s pushing back against him. The lobbyists are pushing against him, the senators are pushing against him, the mainstream press is pushing against him. So he understands he has a very difficult fight ahead of him. And as part of the chess game he’s playing, he does have to occasionally reach out and endorse a (former Alabama Republican Sen.) Luther Strange. Sometimes he has to do that to maintain his votes in the Senate. But if you get around to the heart of it, he went there to drain the swamp, not perpetuate it. Though he may have to endorse a Luther Strange, in his heart of hearts, he would much rather see new people in Washington. He made that promise to us on the campaign trail, and I believe him. I don’t think he’s equivocated. I think he’s fighting a monstrous system that doesn’t like him very much, and as part of his fight, he sometimes has to endorse the Luther Stranges and the Roger Wickers to get his point across.

How do you perceive the latest Steve Bannon drama with the comments he made about Trump and his sons in (Michael) Wolff’s book (Fire and Fury)? Does it affect how you move forward?

McDaniel: It’s very clear that I’m not a Bannon candidate. I was running for office against the establishment when Bannon was starting with Breitbart. We predated Trump in that respect. We predated Bannon in that respect. Because of that, we don’t feel like the association, however loosely configured it is, can hurt us because people understand that we were doing this well before Bannon came on the scene. He was obviously supportive of our efforts, but that doesn’t make me a Bannon candidate. Not a chance.

I’m a conservative. The Goldwater, Taft, Reagan model, and that’s who I’ll always be. I was that way years ago before I even heard of Steve Bannon. That’s the thing, it’s a very close knit group of people. We’re always in communication. That doesn’t mean we’re all lock-step with each other in that position. Mercer has given a total of 500, Dick Uihlein has given quite a bit. What’s remarkable about that is that I haven’t announced for anything. And here I am, I am very blessed and have this good fortune of having these wonderful conservative leaders that have been supportive, and they’re going to support me, evidently, whichever office I choose to run for. To think that PAC has been so successful without me even announcing as a candidate gives us great hope that when an announcement does take place it would just strengthen. I just feel like we’re in a great position.

Have you spoken with Steve Bannon in the last month or so?

McDaniel: When he made the comments, I called him and I shared my displeasure. I wasn’t happy about the comments. It boils down to being polite and doing the right thing. It’s never excusable to call another person’s son or son-in-law a traitor. You just don’t use the word “treasonous.” It’s not appropriate under any circumstances. If Steve had a disagreement with those men, he should’ve gone to them. He should’ve discussed it with them and not taken it to a reporter. I thought he made a mistake, and I think in retrospect, I think he believes he made a pretty bad mistake. So yeah, I told him that. People who know me know I’m pretty frank about these things that I believe in. I told him that I was not happy with his comments and that he should apologize, and he did. Hopefully they can become friends again and move forward and unite and do some big things for the country. 

In any campaign you may run, would you consider the help of Steve Bannon?

McDaniel: It’s a general rule: Campaigns are about addition. You want to get help from whoever you can get help from. But at the same time, I want Steve Bannon and Donald Trump to get on the same page. I want them to be unified. Because a unified group that’s trying to drain the swamp will be much more successful than one that’s splintered. And so I’m not here to really be judgmental or disavow or to point fingers, I really just want those two gentlemen to be on the same page because when they are on the same page, they can do remarkable things. For example, while they were on the same page, Trump became president. So the sky’s the limit if these two gentlemen can just sit down, shake hands, and move forward. My prayer is that they just come together and be friends again. 

It was announced you hit the one million dollar mark with the Super PAC. What’s that like?

McDaniel: Incredibly blessed. To sit here and think that after all we’ve gone through, that I would sit here as an unannounced candidate and already have a PAC out there backing me with $1.4 raised is pretty impressive. It goes to show that the sky’s the limit. Goodness, what could that PAC raise if I actually announced for something? That’s normally when the donations open up, post announcement.

The best thing about it is the donors that have come into this fight are the donors that supported Donald Trump. I mean, the Mercers were Donald Trump’s base. They helped him acquire the presidency. Richard Uihlein helped him acquire the presidency. So these are Trump donors, traditionally conservative donors, and I’m just very thankful they’re on my side. And, uh, I anticipate they’re willing to engage and they’re more than happy to see good legislation passed. And you know what’s cool about them? I’ve known the Mercers, for example, since 2013. I knew the Mercers before I knew Steve Bannon. You heard all that talk about the Mercers maybe backing out, but I knew the Mercers before I knew Steve Bannon. They’re gonna be with me because they’re my friends and they believe in the things that I believe in.

You know the greatest thing about Robert Mercer is I’ve dined with him on many occasions and he’s never asked me for anything. And it’s really a remarkable thing for a politician not to be asked for anything. The only thing he ever said was, “All I want is good government.” He’s never sought a single agenda item. So that shows he’s a person of high caliber and high character. To have him and Mr. Uihlein and others supporting me is an incredible feeling.

Any update on timeline to make the decision? March 2 deadline …

McDaniel: Well certainly something has to happen before March 2. When I was thinking about running against Sen. Cochran, up until the very time I was announcing, there was a chance that I could’ve backed out. But late that evening, prior to that announcement, I received that clarity I was searching for. A lot of folks don’t get this, or they’re not spiritual people. And don’t get me wrong, I’m a flawed individual. I’ve got a lot of flaws, and I have to ask for forgiveness every night just to sleep.

But I still believe in God, and I still believe he has the answers. So when I pray for his will, what I seek for is to try to find peace. I know that to a lot of people these days it sounds strange, almost unbelievable, almost supernatural, but God can bring peace to a heart. When I’m thinking about these decisions, what I’m really asking is that he give me clarity to make a decision for peace.

And once I get that decision, I’m in for the long haul. I recognize also that that decision isn’t always a victory. I realize you do these things sometimes in a loss because you’re perpetuating sharing a message of conservatism and volunteer interaction and how freedom and liberty can save a republic. So I’m just looking for peace. Again, it may seem strange to some people. It may hit me tonight, tomorrow morning, and when I feel it, I’ll make that announcement fast and then we’ll be moving. Until then, I feel at ease, calm, at peace. I’m waiting for that light bulb to go off.

Do you consider if you’ll let people down should you decide not to run?

McDaniel: I do, and that is something on my mind. These people that have stood by me all these years, they’re the most incredible supporters and friends. I’ve been blessed beyond measure. I can’t tell you what it means to have that type of base and supporters. They’re like family members. I was an only child growing up, so I enter politics, and these are my brothers and sisters now. My moms and dads. My grandparents and aunts and uncles. So yeah, I do not want to let them down.

I don’t want to do something that makes them feel like I’ve cost them a race. But at the same time, I hope they trust that whatever decision I make, it’s to further what they believe in. And ultimately, that’s not just about me. It can’t be just about me. It has to be about something bigger than just Chris because I’m just a man. If they believe strongly in that message and that they believe that message can grow into a movement even larger than what we’ve created, they should trust me to make this decision realizing that’s my goal and that’s my objective.

I’m not doing this selfishly; I’m trying to make sure we get the biggest bang for the buck, and that whatever we run for, all of us together, that we change the country. And that might be running for lieutenant governor. Discussion is important. Part of my core philosophy is that if I can’t stand in front of people and debate these matters and defend these positions, then I shouldn’t be in office. And so I think in this polarized age, we’ve gotten so accustomed to pointing fingers and calling names. I want to move past that.

If I run against Sen. Wicker, I want to debate Sen. Wicker. I want to have a discussion about the issues, about the economics, about the model of government that he believes in and what I believe in. I don’t want to call him names and have insults tossed around. And it’s the same with a Democrat if he runs. This country needs a good debate on the philosophical issues that divide us. Some will agree, some will disagree, but at least they’ll hear something, for a change, besides insults and name calling. As long as we’re giving that to the people, then my kids have a better shot. Your kids, one day, will have a better shot. Not only understanding civics and government, but they’ll form their positions and opinions on more than just social media and on more than just memes. There will be substance to it. I want to have the conversation, I want to advance conservatism, and do it in a kind, articulate way that our kids can be proud of.