Exclusive—Trump Reinforcement on the Way from Tennessee: Bill Hagerty’s Senate Race Highlights President’s Takeover of GOP

US Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 1, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Japan, Bill Hagerty, seems like a done deal for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in Tennessee, as despite a handful of other challengers that are not gaining traction, Hagerty has the full support of the president and first family.

What’s more, Democrats are not expected to—as they did unsuccessfully last time in Tennessee against now Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)—field a serious contender like former Gov. Phil Bredesen. So that clears the way for Hagerty’s rise as retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) heads for the exits after a long career in politics.

Perhaps more interesting than the specific contours of this race—again, for which Hagerty seems like a lock on the right—is the bigger context of how this fits into the broader future of the GOP under Trump and beyond the current president.

During the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, in the lead-up to the vote on whether to hear from additional witnesses that ultimately failed, clearing the way for the president’s eventual acquittal, Alexander waited until the literal 11th hour the night before the vote, issuing a just-before-midnight statement that he would be voting against additional witnesses. His statement included a slight jab at the president, saying he thought Trump did something wrong but it was not impeachable, but he was convinced of the case and did not need to hear anything else to eventually vote to acquit Trump, which he did on both Articles of Impeachment.

Alexander represents something of a bygone era in the U.S. Senate. Someone who championed big government bipartisan deals, he’s been around in politics for decades–first as governor, then as a U.S. Senator. His style evoked anger from the populist right, which tried multiple times unsuccessfully to defeat him in primaries, but Alexander eventually survived.

That all being said, Alexander is not as antagonistic to Trump as some other now former Republican Senators have been. Gone are the likes of the retired Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and the deceased former Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Thad Cochran (R-MS)—replaced with Blackburn and Sens. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS)—and all that’s left of the hardcore anti-Trump resistance inside the Senate GOP conference is the lone junior senator from Utah, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). Romney, the failed 2012 GOP presidential nominee, voted to convict Trump on one Article of Impeachment and to acquit him on the other. His gripe seems more personal, those close to him say, than the portrait of  a paragon of virtue that he and the establishment media who previously hated him have painted about his decision.

The U.S. Senate is a lot slower to change than other legislative bodies across the country. Elections come every six years, and many senators build entrenched brands and political machines in their various states—like Alexander did—and it is very tough to defeat a sitting senator in a general election, never mind a primary. The U.S. House GOP conference, under Trump, has already radically changed in the direction of the president’s vision. As Breitbart News has previously reported, more than 40 percent of House Republicans who were in office when Trump took over in early 2017 have retired, been beaten in elections, or are retiring.

But the Senate is, by design and nature, slower to change. That said, slowly but surely, the Senate GOP conference is becoming the party Trump envisions, and there’s perhaps no better example than Hagerty.

Hagerty worked on Trump’s campaign in 2016 and then later joined the administration as U.S. ambassador to Japan. The position was extremely important to the president, as Trump’s relationship with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has been one of if not the most important of his presidency—especially as Trump builds an informal international coalition to stand up to the Chinese Communists in Beijing.

In a lengthy exclusive interview late last year, Hagerty explained his close relationship with President Trump—and how they have worked together on issues of grave national and international importance.

“I think it goes all the way back to the 2016 campaign,” Hagerty told Breitbart News. “The president—I was the victory chairman for Tennessee. The president knows I stood with him during the hardest times. The Tennesseean, which is the largest newspaper in our state, attacked me in a Sunday editorial trying to peel me away. I stood with him through the entire process. I was a volunteer but worked very actively to try to deliver the victory in 2016. Again, as a full-time volunteer, I worked very closely with him putting together good choices for him to select good people into the Cabinet. I got to know a lot of the people in the administration through that process. I retired from that job when the president went into office, because he had asked me to go represent him in what I think is the most important strategic ally we have right now which is Japan. I had the opportunity to work with many members of the administration—the president, most importantly—but many members of the administration. I developed a strong personal bond, and a great bond of trust, and that certainly carried into my effectiveness while I was in Japan.”

President Trump and his eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., have both publicly endorsed Hagerty—Trump, Jr., was in Tennessee campaigning with Hagerty a few weeks ago—and Hagerty was the first and remains the only GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in a competitive primary that Trump has endorsed before he officially won the nomination.

His first television ad out in late January touts Trump’s endorsement too:

Another ad touts Trump, Jr., highlighting Hagerty’s support of his father and his father’s endorsement of Hagerty:

Hagerty has a unique story to tell, too, in that he would be the first U.S. Senator who actually worked in Trump’s administration prior to his election, should he win in November.

“The message is one that I think is quite important to hear. I think it’s one of the reasons that the president wanted me to do this job, has endorsed me to do this job,” Hagerty told Breitbart News. “I’ve been on the implementation end of our policies. I’ve actually seen them work. The president wants someone in the Senate who understands that. You’ve got someone in me who’s got a strong business background—I’m a lifelong business person—but also someone who has a great relationship with the administration and understand how to work with the president and work with his team and will have a unique voice in the Senate. I’m somebody who understands the principles behind our policies and somebody who can have the president’s back when it’s harder sometimes to get that through.”

Specifically, Hagerty’s job on the Pacific Rim—as U.S. ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration’s earliest days—put him at the center of perhaps the Trump administration’s biggest under-told story: how Trump has completely changed the game in U.S.-China relations, as the two world powers duke it out for geopolitical power and dominance, not just in the Asia-Pacific region but around the world as well.

“The alliance we have with Japan is critical in that we have more U.S. military stationed there than any place outside the United States any place in the world,” Hagerty said. “Japan is at the doorstep of one of the most strategic regions in the world, where over half the world’s population is in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s also the place in the world where I think we have our greatest threat and that’s not North Korea—that’s an immediate threat—but it’s China. Long-term, our big issue is with China. They’ve risen to become the second-largest economy in the world. They are threatening us at every turn, whether it’s economic, whether it’s intellectual property, or whether it’s the militarization of assets out there that have grown astronomically. It’s something that I think bears more discussion and more understanding. But I’ve been at the doorstep. I’ve dealt with China in the past as a business person, and I’ve worked with the president to help bring the threat to bear.”

Hagerty echoes Trump in relaying the concern that the United States and the West made a number of major mistakes with regard to China’s rise in recent decades, especially with allowing the communist powerhouse into the World Health Organization under President Bill Clinton and other historical errors in the past several years.

“We brought China into the World Trade Organization back in 2001,” Hagerty said. “President Clinton was in office then in the lead up to that. The aspirations were laudable, right? They thought that if we could get the Chinese to agree to the type of democracy that we have, to the type of capitalist system that we have, they would change. But I think there was some naiveté there, because they failed to put in tough and enforceable standards. So when the Chinese began to cheat, we began to look the other way. Politically, that was maybe the most easy thing to do, but it wasn’t the right thing to do for our economy or the world economy. People are upset right now about the trade war that’s under way with China, but if we dealt with this 10 or 12 years ago it would have been a lot better. If we waited 10 years again, it would have been far worse. So, the president has viewed this as a time to stand up to China. He’s talked about this from day one. He talked about this during the campaign, it resonated with me very clearly. I’ve had too many business dealings with China and too many of my friends have seen the actual result of their policies. The answer is really quite simple with the Chinese: they have got to stop stealing, and they have got to stop cheating. But you can focus on a number of areas—probably 5G and Huawei is the threat that I’d be focused on most. The threat that that poses to us is existential to us in some ways.”

Hagerty, in his role as U.S. ambassador to Japan, was critical in building—and then strengthening—Trump’s relationship with Abe, which was forged through the fires of several crises with not just the Communists in China but also the regime in North Korea. Trump, Hagerty told Breitbart News, has “changed the whole dynamic” in dealing with American adversaries along the Pacific Rim.

“The relationship with Abe has been absolutely critical. Abe is a strong leader. He’s been an excellent ally for the United States,” Hagerty said. “The president has changed the whole dynamic there. He’s even changed the lexicon. The terminology ‘leading from behind,’ or ‘strategic basins’—that’s out of the dictionary now. We’re standing firm. We’re standing strong there. When the North Korean regime launched two rockets over Japan, I was able to stand beside Prime Minister Abe and beside the foreign minister and say America is here to abide by our security treaty. We will protect and defend this region and we will bring the full force and weight of America’s strength to bear. I don’t know that my predecessors could have said that. I don’t know how to interpret ‘leading from behind.’ Certainly, the Japanese and our other allies in the region didn’t know what we meant by that. But now, we’re dealing from a position of strength and what we’ve done is chill China’s efforts to militarize the islands which they began during the Obama administration. It’s incredible what happened during the previous administration in terms of the Chinese militarization of one of the most important trading routes in the world, the South China Sea and also in the East China Sea where the Chinese were harassing the Japanese in 2016. When I got there in 2017, the situation changed completely because the president showed a very different side of America; Our strength, and our willingness to stand up. The Japanese joined us arm in arm, and if it weren’t for the strength of the relationship between the president and Prime Minister Abe we would not have been able to pass three consecutively sets of stronger sanctions on the North Koreans that brought them to the table. The president again changed the dynamic with North Korea. We’re no longer relying on other parties in the region. He’s now dealing directly with Kim Jong Un. We’re not relying on other parties in that region—there are no more six-party talks—and Kim Jong Un can do whatever he wants to with Russia or China or someone else, but we are now dealing directly with the situation. Have we resolved it to where we hope to be right now? Not yet. But we’re in a fundamentally different place.”

Hagerty intends to focus on 5G technology, and specifically the threat that Communist-China-backed Huawei represents to the west.

“Coming back to Huawei, and this is putting a businessperson’s perspective on the issue,” Hagerty said. “The national security threats with Huawei are pretty well-known and pretty well-discussed. There is a law on the books in China, I think it was put on the books in 2017, which requires any company in China to share their data with the central government. Huawei is a state-owned enterprise. Regardless of what they call it, 180,000 employees and they’ve got the balance sheet of the government of China behind it. This is a massive entity and they’re doing the bidding of the government of China. To allow them to come in and take a strategic foothold in the nation’s infrastructure—not just our nation, but our allies as well—we’ve got to do two things. One is we’ve got to work very closely with our allies to share with them the intelligence that we have that lets them know you can’t contain this by saying oh, we’ll check the software updates, we’ll escrow and check it. The tech is such that you just can’t do that. They talk about separating the core of the system from the edge, but if Huawei is into the edge there’s no way to keep that from penetrating and contaminating the core.”

But national security concerns are not the only issue, he says, with Huawei. He argues there are economic concerns with the Chinese tech firm as well.

“The other piece of it is economic,” Hagerty said. “This doesn’t get covered very much, but the economic piece of it from a businessperson’s perspective is so obvious. Why isn’t there a competitor in the United States that has a business product as strong or stronger than what Huawei is trying to offer up right now? Because they’re government-backed. It’s an un-level playing field. You’ve got the balance sheet of Communist China—if you’re in the business of allocating capital, which I have most of my life, you’re not going to stand up and try to compete against a bottomless source of capital coming from the Communist government of China. You’re not going to try to build a business you can’t compete against. They’ve already got a 180,000-person enterprise with this massive balance sheet. We’re expecting private enterprise to do what we do best: to innovate. But they’re going to avoid a space that’s contaminated by state-owned enterprises. So what did the president do? He kept them out of our arc. I worked very hard with Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese team to get Huawei and other state-owned enterprises out of the Japanese market. That’s the largest market in the world and third largest market in the world. I’m setting Communist China aside—they’re number two, and our competition too.”

This interview with Hagerty was conducted in mid-October, as the House Democrats ramped up their since-failed efforts to impeach President Trump. They did succeed in adopting Articles of Impeachment out of the House before Christmas, which they later, in January, transmitted to the U.S. Senate after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi withheld them for a month. That transmission sparked a Senate trial of Trump, which eventually cleared the president on all counts—he was acquitted by the U.S. Senate. But Hagerty said that even back then, during this October interview, the effort by Democrats in Congress to undo the will of the people in the 2016 election with the partisan impeachment push was only hardening support for President Trump in states like the one he intends to represent in the U.S. Senate.

“I talked with the president just a few days ago about this, he called to congratulate me on a good start,” Hagerty said in the October interview. “But we talked about how the impeachment was playing in Tennessee. Frankly, I think it’s been going on since the day after the election. I felt it this early as we walked through the lines of people yelling ‘Not My President!’ spitting at me, and that sort of thing as we worked to help the president transition from being a candidate to being the leader of the largest enterprise in the world. I think this has been going on since then. The latest move, this impeachment exercise, as I said to the president, I think has increased the intensity of support for him in Tennessee. What we see in Tennessee is an effort that just continually moves the goalposts but aimed at only one result: That’s to discredit this presidency and that’s to change the results of the 2016 election—they’re so unhappy with that. They’ll stop at nothing. So, it’s intensifying his support there.”

Hagerty said the Democrat Party’s “socialist agenda” terrifies him, and that he intends to be a leading voice against it in the U.S. Senate.

“Coming back to [the] reason I want to do this job—we talked about the reason the president wants me, to have a strong voice in the Senate and to have someone he has experience working with. I think I’m the only person who has a track record of working with him, certainly in my state in the primary I’m the only person who has a track record of working with the president,” Hagerty said. “But also, in addition to the president’s confidence in me and desire to have me there, why do I want to do this? Why did I feel compelled to come home? What I looked at is exactly what you’re talking about: It’s what’s coming out of Washington, the Democrats. It’s not just the impeachment and the effort to do something I think is very illegitimate which is to change the results of the election. But they have a socialist agenda they’re trying to impose on the nation. I have four children, four young children, I want them to have a world that allows them to have the same opportunities that I did. Democrats are doing everything they can to try to remove that opportunity. They’re trying to implement more government control over our lives, whether it’s through the Green New Deal, or whether it’s through Medicare-For-All where they’ll cause us to lose our private healthcare, it’s incredible the rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington. Somebody has got to stand up to it. Look at the immigration system. It’s an embarrassment to our nation. It’s critical and it’s damaging our economy and it’s making our nation unsafe. I have a brother, a 30-year law enforcement veteran in California. He’s dealing with MS-13. His life is at risk because of the policies that are in place that are coming out of the Democrat Party. They want open borders. They want to invite people in here and offer them free healthcare and free education. Those are all the wrong incentives. We’ve got to straighten out our immigration system and secure our borders first. We’ve got to eliminate sanctuary cities. Thankfully, the conservative legislature in Tennessee eliminated sanctuary cities. We have cities in Tennessee like Nashville that tried to create sanctuary cities, but our legislature stood up to them. You’ve got ICE that’s being disrespected. We’ve got to stand with ICE and all law enforcement like my brother in law, we’ve got to stand with them and support their efforts. We’ve got to build the wall. I’m going to come in and support President Trump in getting that done.”

He added that he wants to pursue policies that protect Christian conservatives and the right to life against forces pushing radical pro-abortion views.

“Tennessee needs and I think they want a Christian conservative running for this seat and representing them in the Senate,” Hagerty said. “With me, you’ll get a strong Christian conservative who’s 100 percent pro-life. I’ll stand for the Second Amendment. I worked with the great team to get Beretta to Tennessee, but I led that effort. You’ll have somebody who understands these issues with immigration and who’s going to stand with the president to address them. And you’ll have someone who over the long haul is going to stand to address conservative constitutionalism in office and confirming those types of judges. The president has done a great job—over 150 conservative constitutionalist judges have been appointed during his tenure. We need to continue that effort. That is so critical to our nation. Then, I think at the very end I think you’ve someone with business experience who understands what it takes to be successful in America and will fight back against these socialist anti-capitalist measures that are coming out of Washington that would destroy our country. I appreciate what a good job means to a family. I grew up in a family where my dad lost his job. I know what that feels like. I know how important it is for a family to have a good job and the dignity and self-respect that comes with it too. So I think that’s a perspective I can bring to bear.”

He also sees Blackburn, who replaced Corker, as a future ally in the U.S. Senate with whom he can work to advance President Trump’s vision for the country.

“I’ll have a great partner in Marsha Blackburn. She’s a terrific senator. She’s a great representative for us,” Hagerty said. “I look forward to working with her as a team to help the broader efforts by President Trump, but also every day to try to help the needs of Tennesseans. So I think that potential partnership with Marsha is very appealing to me because I think we’ll make a great team. The other thing is the president has got a known quantity in me and someone he can pick the phone up and call and help navigate and position resources in a way that will be effective. Do I need to come up and create some massive body of legislation? That’s not what I’m looking to do. I’m coming up to make a difference. I’m not looking to make a career as a media commentator or a lobbyist or whatever people might do. I’m only coming to make a difference for my children and the children and grandchildren of my constituents in Tennessee should I be lucky enough to do this job.”

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