Josh Hawley had been in the U.S. Senate less than two months when he found himself face-to-face with an irate Mitch McConnell.
The Senate Majority Leader from Kentucky chastised the freshman Senator from Missouri for raising concerns about the nomination of Neomi Rao, President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
In an account of the meeting later leaked to The Washington Post, McConnell reportedly told Hawley to pick a side: Was he with Republicans or Democrats?
That same week, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board penned not one, but two, scathing pieces accusing Hawley of bad judgment on Rao. The Judicial Crisis Network, a “dark money” nonprofit that advocates for conservative judges, threatened to air ads against him in Missouri.
Hawley ended up voting to confirm Rao. He said he had secured “commitments” from her on how she would interpret the Constitution, and he was satisfied.
But weeks later, the Senate’s youngest member (39) remained defiant about what he saw as attempts to intimidate him.
“I’m just not going to be bullied,” Hawley recently told Pe ter Robinson, former Reagan speechwriter, in an interview for Ricochet, a center-right website.
“I’ve already had multiple groups on our side of the aisle say, ‘No, you sit down and shut up and do what we tell you to do,’” Hawley told Robinson. “And what I’ve said to them is, ‘That’s not going to happen. I’m going to do my job.’”
Hawley’s run-in with the majority leader over Rao is just one example of his penchant for taking on powerful institutions, whether it is the U.S. Senate hierarchy, Google, Facebook, the pharmaceutical industry or Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Not even his alma mater, Yale, is exempt from Hawley’s appetite for conflict. Last week, he took to the Senate floor to call on the Trump administration to yank federal funding from the elite university in New Haven, Connecticut, for what Hawley viewed as “discrimination against people of faith.”
The anti-establishment theme of Hawley’s first 100 days in Washington is an extension of his 2018 campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. The then-Missouri attorney general cast himself as an outsider – and a close ally of President Donald Trump, whose outsider campaign for president upended Republican politics in 2016.
Hawley’s victory in November won him a ticket into the heart of the establishment, the nation’s capital – otherwise known by its detractors as “the swamp.” It also meant admission to one of the world’s most exclusive and powerful clubs: the U.S. Senate.
How Hawley adjusts to life on the inside while preserving his outsider cred will define his first term.
To Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — the fiery conservative who once called McConnell a liar on the Senate floor — Hawley’s willingness to buck his party’s leadership bodes well for his ability to forge an independent path in the Senate.
“Courage in Washington is a rare commodity, and it is easy to go along to get along,” Cruz said. “The people of Missouri expect their senators to stand up for them against Washington, and Sen. Hawley has demonstrated in his first couple of months here a willingness to do so. And that is to be commended.”
‘All politics all the time’
There wasn’t much Josh Hawley seemed to like about Washington when he took office in January.
He arrived in the midst of what would become the longest government shutdown in history, which he decried as “partisan politics” driven by Democrats.
He balked, at first, at answering questions from the dozens of journalists who swarm the hallways outside the Senate chamber during votes, disdaining the practice as “hallway roulette.” (Hawley since warmed to the practice, but declined an interview with The Kansas City Star for this article.)
The process for allocating federal funds, he said, is “stupid.”
Only in Washington, he said, would it be considered normal for a 1100-page bill to be filed in the dead of night and voted on the next day.
Worst of all, very little gets done.
“It’s all politics all the time,” he has complained.
Hawley’s voting record reflects his frustrations. He was one of 11 Republicans to reject a bipartisan border security bill that averted a second federal government shutdown in February.
The compromise was brokered in part by Hawley’s fellow Missouri Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt, a veteran lawmaker and consummate insider who has served in Congressional leadership for more than two decades.
Hawley assailed the deal on Twitter as “a stupid way to do business.”
The pair also split on whether to block Trump’s use of emergency powers to build his border wall. Hawley, a former Constitutional Law professor, supported the president’s use the National Emergencies Act. Blunt opposed it as executive overreach, and suffered a harsh backlash from Trump fans in Missouri as a result.
Blunt said he recognizes that he and Hawley won’t always be on the same side, even though they’re both in the same party.
“It’s a different relationship for me than I had the first eight years when I was in the Senate,” Blunt said. “Sen. McCaskill and I in almost every case were able to get to the same place on Missouri issues, and we just sort of understood we often would not be at the same place on national issues. And Josh and I won’t always be on the same place on national issues. But we more often than not will be at the same place.”
Blunt said his staff and Hawley’s are working closely together both in Washington and in the state. Their D.C. offices are in the same 110-year-old building.
“I give him lots of advice,” Blunt said. He demurred when asked what that advice was.
No sitting on the ‘back bench’
Among those offering advice is Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who, until Hawley arrived in Congress, held the title of youngest senator.
Like Hawley, he’s a parent with two young children, and he told Hawley not to worry about the political consequences of doing what was best for his kids, even if it meant leaving official events early so he could make bedtime, or moving his family from Missouri to the D.C. area.
“I told Josh if you make that a priority and you explain that as a priority, most Missourians will understand and respect that,” Cotton said.
Hawley’s family now lives with him in the Northern Virginia suburbs. His wife, Erin Hawley, is on unpaid leave from the faculty of University of Missouri Law School. Their sons, Elijah, 6, and Blaise, 4, can occasionally be spotted careening around the marble hallways of the Russell Senate Office Building, not far from the former Senate offices of Harry S. Truman, where Blunt now works. Two of the conference rooms in Hawley’s suite have been named for the boys.
Cotton, who helped recruit Hawley to run against McCaskill, said he also shared advice that GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee gave him when he joined the Senate.
“He told me he hoped that I and other senators would not sit quietly on the back bench on our matters of expertise,” Cotton said. “By the same token, I passed on that wisdom from some of those older generations to Josh ... It’s a new day in the Senate and senators are not expected just to sit quietly, especially when you have one that’s as smart and talented a lawyer as Josh.”
Hawley has taken that advice to heart, as far as Cotton can tell.
“Josh has been very effective and willing to challenge the establishment in Washington and stand up for what he believes,” he said.
Hawley’s convictions can put him at odds not only with senior members of his party, but with conservative advocacy groups that spend big money to help GOP candidates nationwide — or to keep them in line, as the Judicial Crisis Network threatened to do when Hawley raised red flags about Rao.
The Koch-backed free-market group, Americans for Prosperity, recently launched an ad campaign urging Hawley and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose what AFP described as “politicized antitrust enforcement against American tech companies.”
The ads came after Hawley sparred with a Google executive over privacy concerns at a Judiciary hearing and told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month that Facebook and Google are “a law unto themselves.” He has complained that they discriminate against conservatives and monetize people’s private information. And he thinks the federal government should do more about it.
Hawley’s clash with tech giants relects his deep admiration for Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president famous for breaking up business monopolies. Hawley published a book in 2008 titled “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.”
So far, he hasn’t said he would endorse Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google.
But already Hawley’s fight against big tech has earned him at least one friend across the aisle.
Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts quickly grew to appreciate Hawley’s commitment to privacy as a central part of his work in the Senate. The two speak often, and have cosponsored a bill that would prohibit internet companies from collecting personal and location information from anyone under 13 without parental consent. The measure would also create an “Eraser Button,” so parents and children can easily delete personal information.
“In order to enact the strong privacy protections that Americans deserve, it is going to take dedication and collaboration from members of Congress from both sides of the aisle,” Markey said in a statement to The Star. “Senator Hawley has proven himself to be a tenacious privacy advocate.”
Hawley’s war against tech giants, and his animus for big institutions in general, comes from his belief that the Republican party is in the midst of a populist realignment. He knows the GOP will have to find a way to keep those voters in a post-Trump era.
For too long, Hawley said in his Ricochet interview last month, the GOP’s message has failed to resonate with anybody except voters on the coasts, on Wall Street, in California.
“If you live in the middle of the country, you’re working hard to try to feed your family, to try to pay for education to try to pay for childcare, nobody’s been talking to you,” he said.
“That’s why Donald Trump got elected and Republicans have heck of a lot of work to do to actually be the party that actually represents working people, that actually fights for working people and will protect the best of America and the American way of life. And I think we’re not there yet.”