Bill Hagerty Is No Mitt Romney (and That's Fine by Trump)
From a distance, Bill Hagerty seems eerily familiar.
The businessman made his money in private equity, turned his mind to foreign affairs, and now talks about his faith, his family, and the international threats to his country. All of it in the sincere but calculated tones characteristic of a business consultant. Minus the impeccably coiffed hair and the trademark Donald Trump skepticism, one might mistake Hagerty for Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
But again, from a distance.
After business pedigrees and foreign policy expertise, the similarities end. Hagerty is one Republican that the leader of the GOP desperately wants in the upper chamber, so much so that the president endorsed Hagerty before he announced his U.S. Senate bid. If Hagerty wins the race in Tennessee, squint a little and he may start to look a little like a #MAGA version of Mitt.
For the Senate run to happen, Hagerty first had to quit a job he was quite good at. Trump appointed him ambassador to Japan, a post he held for two years as he became arguably the most effective of the administration’s diplomats. Hagerty helped hammer out an international trade deal with Japan and assured the Japanese government of U.S. steadfastness as ballistic missiles from North Korea blasted over the island nation. All the while, Hagerty monitored closely the actions of China. Trump and Hagerty evidently became close, but eventually the president wondered if his ambassador would consider serving him closer to home. Sen. Lamar Alexander had said he would not seek another term. Would Hagerty run?
“It had come up actually during golf,” Hagerty told RealClearPolitics hours before attending a Christmas party at the White House and before clarifying that there were several conversations off the fairway. “He just knew my heart, and he knows how much I love Tennessee. In fact, that’s how he opened his endorsement.”
This is true. “Tennessee loving Bill Hagerty, who was my Tennessee Victory Chair and is now the very outstanding Ambassador to Japan, will be running for the U.S. Senate,” Trump tweeted out of the blue one afternoon. “He is strong on crime, borders & our 2nd A. Loves our Military & our Vets. Has my Complete & Total Endorsement!”
The endorsement came on July 12. Hagerty announced he would resign four days later, on July 16; he officially launched his campaign on Sept. 9.
In Hagerty, the president sees a future senator whose loyalty he can count on. “He wants somebody that is capable of working closely with him to secure our borders, to stand strong against crime, and all the things he said about me in his endorsement,” Hagerty said.
“The president reminded me of this the other day,” he said with pride. “I am the only member of his administration who he has endorsed to be on the ticket with him in 2020 -- I am the only member of the executive branch.”
Hagerty helped deliver a 26-percentage-point victory for the president in Tennessee as Victory chair for Trump. He then joined the transition team, working with Trump “to help him select his Cabinet.” After Trump settled into office, the nod came for ambassador.
Hagerty had to handle the journey delicately, even diplomatically, because, like so many other Republicans, Trump was not his first choice. He had served as a Jeb Bush delegate before throwing his support behind Sen. Marco Rubio when the other Floridian flamed out. Was there something that those two had that Trump did not? Perhaps they had better foreign policy chops than a real estate tycoon from New York?
“My focus early on was on winning this election for Republicans. I have always supported our nominee and, as soon as it became clear that Donald Trump had what it took to win, that’s when I came on board,” Hagerty said, sidestepping a question about policy to give an answer about party loyalty. That trait has continued in the Trump era. If the two men see the world differently, the former ambassador won’t say. He has a clear definition of the diplomatic duties of an ambassador, and it doesn’t include public disagreements with the president.
“Our job as his representative and the representative of the United States is to carry that policy forward. He is the commander-in-chief of the United States,” he explained. “Were we to differ on issues, I know how to do that and it’s by speaking with him directly, not by issuing a press release or going on TV to voice my differences but to have a direct conversation.”
This approach didn’t lend itself to splashy headlines. For most of his time in Tokyo, Hagerty flew under the media radar. But abroad, the ambassador was very much in the middle of several tense international moments of the Trump presidency. After North Korea launched a pair of intercontinental ballistic missiles and detonated a hydrogen bomb, Hagerty traveled to the Hermit Kingdom with his family.
With his wife and four children watching, Hagerty crossed into the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in January of 2018. The message to the Japanese, the only people to ever be on the receiving end of a nuclear weapon, was deliberate: “I was able to say with complete confidence that the men and women of our U.S. military are capable of protecting and defending me and my family,” he said, “just like they are capable of protecting and defending that peninsula and just like they are capable of protecting and defending the people of Japan.”
A year and a half later, Trump became the only sitting U.S. president in history to step on North Korean soil. Hagerty praised that visit as “brilliant.” Although he cautions that “we still aren’t where we want to be,” he insisted to RCP that the presidential courtship of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “has completely changed the dynamic.” After RCP's interview with Hagerty, however, North Korea said publicly that it sees no reason to continue its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing and promised that the world would soon see it unveil “a new strategic weapon.”
Developments in Japan have been more positive, as the country with the third largest economy in the world recently signed a trade deal with the United States. The agreement cuts tariffs on agriculture and manufactured products, easily making it the crowning achievement of Hagerty’s tenure in Japan.
“My effort for a year and a half -- and I worked my heart out on this -- was to get the Japan trade deal through. A big aspect of that agreement is agriculture, and what I articulated to the Japanese is that our farmers were carrying the brunt of the trade war with the Chinese,” Hagert recalled. “I asked the Japanese to please step up and help us because they are going to benefit too.”
It was particularly good news for Tennessee, where farmland makes up over 40% of the landscape. A trade deal offers some much-needed relief for those who make their living in agriculture, the first casualties of the Trump trade war with China.
Send him to the Senate, he says, because his experience with Trump and his business background will enable him to hit the ground running -- “no on-the-job training required.” He wants to “build the wall,” defend the Second Amendment, and “stand strong on crime.” He also wants to “stand up against radical Islamic terrorism,” “stand up to China,” and “certainly stand with Israel.” Meanwhile, Hagerty promises to stand with Trump.
The former ambassador is galled by the impeachment effort, which he says complicates diplomacy abroad. “Any time we create a sense in the minds of our negotiation partners that there is a chance of removal other than an election, it weakens us,” he said. His frustration isn’t reserved for House Democrats, who voted to impeach Trump just five days after the interview. He can’t abide disloyalty to Trump from his party’s own ranks.
“The norm is Democrats, but when Republicans join into that discussion in any way, it causes significant further deterioration in our negotiation posture. This is what has upset me when I’ve seen that behavior,” Hagerty said.
Anyone in particular?
“When Mitt Romney talks about impeachment, he falls into that rhetoric,” Hagerty replied. “I think that is damaging for our interests overseas.”
It is an answer consistent with his own political persuasions, and one that might play well with voters already inclined to support the president. It is also a little awkward, as Hagerty served as a national finance chairman for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.
The former presidential nominee has become a pariah to the current president. Romney interviewed unsuccessfully for the job of secretary of state and, after that fell through, won his Senate race in Utah. Now one of the Republican Party’s most vocal critics of Trump, he recently rebuked Trump for his “brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.” Trump responded by calling Romney “a pompous ass.”
A Romney spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, but if Hagerty wins his race the two men would be Senate colleagues. Some awkwardness would be inevitable, especially after Hagerty promised to make a priority of opposing “the Republicans who tend to side with Democrats from time to time against our president.”
Making a senator out of one of his former ambassadors would no doubt delight Trump. He would have a foreign policy voice in the upper chamber, one with sterling credentials and, this time, unfailing political loyalty.