Politics & Government

All is forgiven? Trump endorses Thom Tillis as ‘strong on the border’

President Donald Trump endorsed North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis on Tuesday evening, in a big boost to Tillis’ 2020 re-election campaign.

Some on the right had criticized Tillis for not being sufficiently pro-Trump, and he faces a primary challenge from the right.

“Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina has really stepped up to the plate,” Trump tweeted at 6:20 p.m. “Thom is tough on Crime, Strong on the Border and fights hard against Illegal Immigration. He loves our Military, our Vets and our great Second Amendment. I give Thom my Full and Total Endorsement!”

Garland Tucker, who so far appears to be Tillis’ biggest threat in the Republican primary next year, has already been buying critical TV ads on Fox News in the leadup to the election that’s still nine months away. And in April, a national poll by Morning Consult found that Tillis had less support among the GOP base than all but one other Republican senator up for re-election.

Trump’s choice of saying Tillis is “tough on crime” and “strong on the border” could be aimed at helping Tillis avoid some of the criticism he has taken from the right.

When he was the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Tillis backed criminal justice reform in the state. And as recently as 2017, Tillis joked that he wants to be called a RINO, The News & Observer reported. That usually stands for Republican In Name Only and is meant as an insult; he said he had invented a new meaning for it, “Republican In Need of Outcomes.”

On immigration, his office was sharing news articles describing him as “relatively moderate” at least as recently as December 2016.

And he made national headlines earlier this year when he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, stating he would vote to block an emergency declaration for border wall funding that Trump wanted and Democrats opposed. He said Congress objected to former President Barack Obama asking for emergency declarations and should do so for Trump, too.

“Some prominent Republicans went so far as to proclaim that Obama was acting more like an ‘emperor’ or ‘king’ than a president,” Tillis wrote. “There is no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there’s an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach — that it’s acceptable for my party but not thy party.”

However, a few weeks later Tillis flip-flopped and voted in favor of letting Trump use the emergency declaration for border wall funding.

He had faced immense pressure from the right to change his stance. And even after he did, the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper wrote that his op-ed may have damaged him despite his reversal.

“Conservatives in North Carolina have not forgiven Sen. Thom Tillis for initially opposing President Trump’s border emergency,” the paper wrote.

Now, however, it appears the president has.

Tillis responded Tuesday night by tweeting his own pledge to help Trump win another four years in office in 2020.

“I’m proud of the results we’ve delivered to reignite our economy, rebuild our military, and make America great again,” Tillis wrote, quoting Trump’s original tweet. “I look forward to campaigning across the state to re-elect @realDonaldTrump, defend our Republican Senate majority, and keep North Carolina red.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party, however, said Tillis only won Trump’s endorsement because “he’s abandoned the state he represents for the president he thinks he needs.”

Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard said in a news release after Trump’s announcement that Tillis “has spent the past few months spinelessly bending over backwards to appease President Trump at the cost of North Carolina families” including “caving like a $4 suitcase and putting military spending at bases like Camp Lejeune on the line” by supporting the emergency declaration.

Democratic candidates for Senate in 2020 include state Sen. Erica Smith, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller and two former state senators, Eric Mansfield and Cal Cunningham.

Tucker, for his part, tweeted Tuesday: “I understand President Trump has to work with establishment Senators – and Thom Tillis is a part of the Washington Establishment.“

“But the issues in this race have not changed. Thom Tillis opposed spending cuts like President Trump’s 30% cut in foreign aid spending, Co-Sponsored the bill with liberal Democrat Cory Booker to protect the Mueller investigation twice, and flip-flopped on President Trump’s Emergency Declaration to build the Wall.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
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