Ahead of Finally Making Trump Endorsement, Sen. John Thune Has Long, Rocky History with Former President

John Thune and Donald Trump
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, PETER FOLEY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Despite Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) endorsement of former President Donald Trump, Thune has frequently criticized Trump, his policies, his tactics, and Trump’s ability to win a general election.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) endorsed former President Donald Trump this week, long after  many members of Senate Republican leadership have endorsed the former president, such as Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chairman.

Thune of the “Three Johns” who may replace Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) should be stepping down as leader of the Senate Republican Conference. The other two Johns are Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), who has endorsed Trump and has a good working relationship with the former president, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who, like Thune, has doubts about Trump, has also endorsed Trump.

The South Dakota senator has always had a complicated relationship with the 45th president, often criticizing Trump’s policies and discounting his methods.

Thune did not endorse a candidate during the 2016 presidential primary; however, he said in March 2016 that there is “still a path” for a non-Trump nominee to win.

Thune did not attend the 2016 Republican National Convention and instead focused on his home state of South Dakota.

In the same month he declined to attend the Republican National Convention, he praised Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton.

“For a moment on Friday, U.S. Sen. John Thune almost sounded like a Democrat, or at least a supporter of Hillary Clinton,” the Rapid City Journal wrote in July 2016.

Thune, who used to serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), said Clinton “is studious, she does her homework, and always comes prepared.” Thune reportedly never mentioned Trump in his remarks at the time.

“I think with the election this fall, there’s a clear choice. I may not agree with Donald Trump on everything, but with the Supreme Court, the economy and national security, we need a new direction,” he said during a veterans event in his local office.

Thune has repeatedly raised concerns about Trump’s administration

After Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, the South Dakota senator said, “I think there are questions about timing that the administration and Justice Department are going to need to answer in the days ahead.”

In February 2018, Thune raised concerns with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’s report alleging the FBI and the Justice Department improperly used information related to a dossier of opposition reseaerch partly funded by Democrats to get a warrant to surveil the 2016 campaign.

“They have to take into consideration what the FBI is saying, and if there are things that need to be redacted, I think they need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say about how this bears on our national security,” Thune said. The establishment media outlet Politico used Thune’s remarks to showcase how the issue appeared to “divide Senate and House Republicans.”

After Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, instead of confirming a new secretary of state that may help Trump’s foreign policy, he said would “rather be working on legislation.”

Thune cautioned Trump against nominating his personal pilot, John Dunkin, to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“I’d prefer that they send somebody up that we can confirm easily. I’m sure that the Democrats would probably want to make it challenging,” Thune said in February 2018.

Thune worried about Trump interfering in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“I would certainly hope that the president doesn’t intervene in any way or make it difficult for Mueller to complete his work. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a fan of when the president tweets. In this case I’m sure he’s venting some frustration. But I don’t think it’s constructive,” he said in March 2018.

Thune questioned Trump’s China trade strategy in 2018.

“I don’t know that there’s a real plan or strategy in place that gets the result that they want,” he said. “It seems like this is, ‘OK, there’s a trade deficit, we know China cheats, and we’re going to punish them.’”

Thune continued, “It seems to me there needs to be a lot of thought given to unintended consequences. My impression is that hasn’t happened.”

The South Dakota senator, who in 2018 was the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, criticized Trump’s weighing in on the Federal Communications Commissions’s review of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s bid for Tribune Media.

He said, “I don’t think it’s a normal thing for presidents to weigh in on these types of issues. Preferably I would like the FCC to operate in an independent way.

Thune pressed administration officials to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and questioned Trump’s preference for bilateral trade agreements. Many have criticized the TPP, believing it would send jobs overseas and lower wages.

“I’ve heard that now for the last couple of years, since we decided to pull out of TPP, that we’re working on bilateral trade agreements. But I don’t see any evidence that we are,” Thune said.

Thune has criticized Trump’s use of X, then-Twitter, to speak with the American people about his policies.

He wrote in January 2019:

I don’t know how many times you can say this, but I would prefer that the president stay off Twitter, particularly with regard to these important national security issues where you’ve got people who are experts and have the background and are professionals. In most cases I think he ought to, when it comes to their judgment, take it into consideration.

Thune served as one of the many Senate Republicans to raise concerns about the apparent rise of Stephen Miller in the Trump White House. Miller was one of the more hardline immigration restrictionists in the Trump administration.

“I hope that he’s got more voices than that one in his ear on these issues, because, yeah, I think it’s important that he get a whole perspective and range of opinions,” Thune said in April 2019.

Impeachment drama

During the first impeachment of Trump, Thune raised concerns that Trump conditioned military aid to Ukraine.

“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we’ve seen is, yeah, I would say it’s not a good one,” Thune told reporters in October 2019. “But I would say , until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this with full transparency, it’s pretty hard to come to hard and fast conclusions.”

CNN at the time described Thune’s critique of Trump’s actions as the “most significant criticism of any leading Republican.”

However, a day later, he quickly walked back his criticism of Trump.

“Right now we are hearing one side of the story. Until we get the picture, it’s hard to draw any conclusions,” he said.

During the second impeachment of Donald Trump, Thune indicated that he may support a censure of the 45th president.

In February 2021, Thune, then the Senate Republican whip, said he could support a resolution to censure Trump. He said that the resolution would be “effective.”

“I know there are a couple of resolutions out there … I’ve seen a couple of resolutions at least that I think could attract some support,” Thune explained.

Asked by reporters if he could support one of the resolutions, the South Dakota Republican said, “Yeah.”

Thune appeared to be moved by the impeachment managers’ presentation in favor of impeaching Trump.

“I think they were very effective. They had a strong, strong presentation put together in a way that I think makes it pretty compelling. I think they’ve done a good job of connecting the dots,” he said.

 Silent on Colorado Supreme Court’s move to remove Trump from 2024 ballot 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Thune were two leaders that were notably quiet as the state Supreme Court moved to bar Trump from the ballot, believing that Trump allegedly incited an “insurrection.” Other lawmakers in Senate GOP leadership spoke up against the move to remove Trump from the ballot.

The silence incensed Donald Trump Jr.

He wrote in December 2023, “Mitch McConnell, John Thune and John Cornyn remain silent. Of the 4 most senior members of Senate Republican leadership, Barrasso is the only one with the courage to weigh in against what the radical left is trying to do to my father.”

Decrying Trump’s prospects the in the 2024 election 

Thune in May 2023 endorsed Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-SC) presidential campaign. He then pivoted to praising former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) as Scott’s campaign fizzled out.

In December 2023, Politico reported that a Republican close to Trump’s campaign said that Thune could be a target of Trump’s future ire.

Asked in January how Thune could work with Trump after being so vocally critical of him, he said, “Whoever the people of this country elect — and if it’s President Trump – we will work with him. I’ve done that in the past. We had some big successes,” Thune said.

However, he has expressed doubts about Trump’s ability to win a general election.

“If we want to get the majority, we need a strong showing at the top of the ticket that translates into some down-ballot success. So it’s all connected.”

Thune said in June 2023 that Trump’s legal battles may cost Republicans.

“I think if you look at the record, in ’18, ’20, and ’22, when he’s the issue, we lose,” Thune said, referring to the 2018 midterm elections, the 2020 presidential election, and the 2022 midterms.

Despite this rocky relationship with Trump, his personality, and his policies, Thune now says he intends “to do everything I can to see that he has a Republican majority in the Senate working with him to restore American strength at home and abroad.”

Sean Moran is a policy reporter for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @SeanMoran3.


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