Chris Collins: Trump's Man on the Hill
Many Republican leaders are struggling to come to terms with Donald Trump as their party’s nominee: Some are declining to immediately endorse him, while others say outright that they won’t support him and are searching for a third-party alternative to back this fall.
Not Rep. Chris Collins.
A western New York congressman and the first member of the House to endorse Trump for president, Collins has become his liaison to the GOP conference: He sets up meetings with lawmakers hesitant to endorse the billionaire businessman, talks with leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan, to tout the presumptive nominee, and has become an increasing presence on cable news as a Trump promoter.
And he does it all mostly on his own, without much direction or approval from the unconventional Trump campaign, though in recent weeks their staffs have been talking with more regularity. Such autonomy for a surrogate is rare in the high stakes realm of presidential elections—so much so that Collins recalls Ryan telling him, “You blow my mind.”
In an interview in his Capitol Hill office Tuesday, Collins told RealClearPolitics his colleagues now view him through a new lens: “the Trump guy.”
A two-term rank-and-file member, he revels in the characterization. After all, he’s one of the few Republicans enjoying himself this cycle—particularly the increasing amount of attention that comes with his role as a top Trump supporter.
He wasn’t always. A former businessman, Collins supported Jeb Bush earlier on. He’s also an Eagle Scout, still heavily involved with the Boy Scouts, who displays framed merit badges and scouting keepsakes around his office. It’s an interesting contrast to Trump, who few would say exudes the qualities of a Boy Scout, particularly “courteous” and “reverent.”
But he says he’s long been running on themes similar to Trump’s—outsider, chief executive, someone who knows voter angst and frustration—since 2007, his first political race (for Erie County executive), and he ruffled some feathers during his time in that job. He displays in his office poster-size editorial cartoons criticizing his cuts in arts funding while county executive, including one that portrays him as the Grinch (which sits next to a more recent cartoon mocking his endorsement of Trump).
Collins happens to represent a safe GOP district where the electorate resembles Trump’s core base of support. Many of his constituents, he says, have felt the negative effects of the trade agreements Trump bashes. The presumptive GOP nominee swept New York in the primary, and took 63 percent of the vote in this particular district. At home, people will approach Collins in the grocery store or at the post office and thank him for supporting Trump.
Unlike his district, however, Capitol Hill will take a lot of convincing. Collins and Trump’s other supporters in Congress have been involved in weekly meetings about the campaign, and have been actively soliciting new supporters. Many of the conversations, according to Collins, are with members who are concerned about Trump’s impact on their own re-elections, particularly those who represent moderate, swing districts.
His message to those members? Embrace it.
“Trust me, they’re going to be attacking you anyway,” Collins said he told a member in a meeting earlier that day. “The best defense is a strong offense. Get right out in front of it. Politics is a nasty business. They’re going to tag every Republican — every Republican — with every potential made-up, exaggerated negative about Donald Trump.”
Democrats have indeed made linking congressional Republicans with Trump the linchpin of their strategy to win back seats in the House and possibly put the majority in play. But Collins thinks they’re getting ahead of themselves. He predicted a “Trump tsunami” this fall on the order of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide, and said his colleagues should jump on board.
“Are you going to wish upon a star that you’re a Republican running in a presidential year and they’re not going to mention Trump and your name simultaneously and put out direct mail of the two of you standing next to each other, even if they’ve got to Photoshop it?” Collins said. “What world are you from?"
As other Trump supporters on the Hill see it, Collins has been effective in his new role. Rep. Tom Reed, another New York Republican who has endorsed the presumptive nominee, called Collins a “strong voice” for the campaign. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, who was among the earliest Trump endorsers, called Collins a “strong leader.” And Sen. Jeff Sessions, who gave Trump his first endorsement from Congress, said he didn’t know Collins before the campaign but is impressed by the work he’s done.
“I’ve been very pleased and impressed with his articulateness, his clarity in the way he assesses the importance of a Trump victory, and his full support,” Sessions told RCP. “I think it’s been very impressive. … I’ve really gained a real appreciation for him in the time we’ve been together."
One GOP lawmaker less enthusiastic about Trump, who requested anonymity to discuss meetings he’s attended with Collins about the real estate tycoon, said he’s been a “forceful advocate.”
“He trumpets Trump,” the lawmaker said. “And pretty enthusiastically."
Collins did concede, however, that there are legitimate concerns within his party about the nominee. Collins said that he doesn’t agree with Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S., nor does he think it’s feasible to deport all 12 million undocumented immigrants. And he said there are women within the GOP conference who are wary of backing Trump because of the offensive comments he has made about women in the past. He pointed out that some, like North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, support Trump, but agreed it would be harder for others to get on board.
He said he expects many of these female colleagues will back Trump out of opposition to his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and that they don’t necessarily need to be out on the campaign trail supporting him.
But he also insists that if members met in a more private setting with Trump, they would come away with a better impression. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, was at Trump’s meeting with House GOP leadership on Capitol Hill last week. Collins said he talked to McMorris Rodgers afterward, and she expressed positive feedback, saying he was a listener and that they had a “great conversation.”
“I feel much stronger, much better, having participated in that meeting,” McMorris Rodgers said, according to Collins. (In a Facebook post Wednesday night, the congresswoman called the meeting positive, and said she cast her vote for Trump by mail in Washington's primary, which takes place next Tuesday.)
The Washington state congresswoman and Collins have been bridges to Ryan, whose decision to not immediately support Trump sent tremors through the nation’s capital and created fresh concerns about party unity. Trump and Ryan quickly scheduled a meeting last week, which both called a positive development. Before Ryan met with the likely nominee, however, he met with Collins and several other lawmakers who back Trump to talk about the candidate.
Collins said Ryan was curious about his role as a surrogate. He said the speaker was surprised Collins didn’t coordinate his TV appearances with the campaign, including not sharing talking points or messaging beforehand. (Ryan’s office didn’t dispute these details of the conversation.)
“You’re blowing my mind here,” Ryan said, according to Collins. “You’re telling me you’re getting no direction from the campaign, you’re going on TV shows randomly that you want to go on with a message that’s your team’s message with no input from the campaign?”
“I go, ‘Yeah, that’s about right,’” Collins said, to which Ryan replied, “I’m not going to sleep tonight. I can’t wrap my head around this. You blow my mind."
Intimate meetings with the speaker and more than 60 appearances on cable news show how the New York lawmaker’s profile has risen exponentially since endorsing Trump back in February. But he insists that once the campaign is over, he wants to settle in for a long career in the House with an eye towards the more down-to-earth, low-key job of leading a subcommittee en route to potentially chairing the Energy and Commerce Committee. He laughed off the question of whether he’d want to be a committee chair during a Trump administration, joking that that might be too soon.
Still, he’s enjoying the moment. Last week, Collins flew back to Washington two days before the House came back into session to appear on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” not wanting to do his first Sunday show via satellite. During the interview with RCP, he proudly showed off the “Face the Nation” mug on his desk he’d taken home from the appearance as a souvenir.