Government & Politics

Trump, in visit to Missouri, endorses Josh Hawley while promoting GOP tax plan

President Donald Trump casually endorsed Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley as the state’s next senator during the opening minute of his speech Wednesday in St. Charles and then promised to campaign with him in the future.

Hawley, who is campaigning to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018, was among the GOP officials to greet Trump during his second trip to Missouri in recent months to promote his plan to cut taxes. McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent in a state Trump won by double digits, is expected to vote against the bill when it comes to the full Senate this week.

“Josh, our next senator, where is he?” Trump said as he took the stage in St. Charles before a crowd of roughly 1,000. “He’s going to be a great senator and he wants to see a big tax cut. ... Your current senator does not want a tax cut. That’s not good.”

The line has the dual effect of pressuring McCaskill ahead of the vote and effectively functioning as an endorsement of Hawley over the other GOP candidates seeking the nomination. Hawley, who skipped Trump’s first visit to the state as president in August, has faced attacks from the other Republican candidates for the perception that he has not fully embraced Trump.

And Hawley’s political mentor, former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, has been among the most critical of the president, saying Republicans should disavow Trump.

But the president repeatedly praised Hawley during what had been billed as a policy speech rather than a campaign event. “I said, Josh, when you’re ready I’m going to come here to campaign for you,” Trump said later in the speech.

Hawley later tweeted from his campaign account that he appreciated Trump’s support.

Trump’s nod to Hawley comes at a time when Republicans have numerous candidates running for the chance to take on McCaskill next year.

One of those candidates, Austin Peterson, was in attendance when Trump praised Hawley. He said the audience section behind him groaned when they heard Trump say he would campaign for Hawley.

He said he wasn’t counting on getting the president’s endorsement, and suggested Trump may not even be aware anyone else is running in the GOP primary.

“Obviously you’d love to get the endorsement,” Peterson told The Star after the speech. “But when you’re attorney general and you get to meet the president and you’re the first guy he sees, he probably thinks you’re the only guy running.”

Peterson, a former Libertarian candidate for president, said Hawley originally tried to distance himself from the president by skipping the Springfield event in August, but “that was a failed strategy, because Donald Trump is so popular in this state.”

Courtland Sykes, another Republican candidate for Senate, issued a statement dismissing Hawley.

“Yes, all of us already know that Hawley is the Jeb Bush and Luther Strange of the 2018 election cycle,” Sykes said. “Hawley is very popular in the Washington Swamp as we all know, but has lost much of Missouri’s respect.”

Trump took multiple shots at McCaskill throughout the speech. “Sen. Claire McCaskill — have you ever heard of her? — is doing you a tremendous disservice,” Trump said at one point before rattling off a list of attacks on the Missouri Democrat.

“She wants your taxes to go up. She’s weak on crime. She’s weak on borders,” the president said. “Other than that, I think she’s doing a great job.”

McCaskill responded to the attacks in a campaign fundraising email Wednesday evening.

“Well, President Trump can try to intimidate me all he wants, but I won’t back down. I’m not going to stop fighting against the most dangerous parts of the GOP’s agenda because I know how badly it will hurt hardworking Missourians,” McCaskill wrote in the email before soliciting donations.

Wednesday’s trip comes a day after the Senate Finance Committee advanced a sweeping tax package to the full Senate, handing Republican leaders a victory as they try to pass the nation’s first tax overhaul in 31 years. But the bill still faces hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans have just two votes to spare in their 52-48 edge over Democrats.

“The big day will be either tomorrow or the next day,” Trump said. “I would say do it now.”

McCaskill, who voted against the bill in committee earlier this month, reasserted her concerns about Trump’s proposed tax cuts in the hours ahead of his speech.

“I’d jump at the chance to support a plan to deliver relief to Missouri’s working families, simplify the tax code, close loopholes exploited by the rich, and lower the corporate tax rate,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this tax plan doesn’t live up to the commitment I got from President Trump, when he told me he wouldn’t support tax reform that benefited the very rich at the expense of the little guy.”

Trump claimed that he would not personally benefit from the tax cut plan he’s pushing despite the fact that he has several hundreds of business interests that could potentially gain from a proposed tax cut for pass-through businesses. The proposal has drawn comparisons to a policy that Kansas abandoned this year after several years of budget cuts.

“This is going to cost me a fortune, believe me,” Trump said. “... I think my accountants are going crazy right now. It’s all right. I’m president. I don’t care.”

But independent analysis of the Republican tax plan has found Trump could benefit immensely.

According to one study, Trump could personally save more than $20 million. His heirs could save $1.1 billion thanks to the proposed elimination of the estate tax, which is levied on property transferred to beneficiaries after an individual dies.

Those figures are based on two pages from his 2005 tax return that were revealed on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show; the president has refused to release any of his returns.

The alternative minimum tax also could be eliminated, and in 2005 that tax cost Trump $31 million.

Traci Gleason, a spokesman for the liberal Missouri Budget Project, called the GOP tax plan “skewed and fiscally irresponsible.”

“The Senate tax plan is a windfall for the very wealthiest, paid for by low- and middle-income Missourians,” she said.

But Republican officials in Missouri celebrated the idea of tax cut legislation making its way to Trump’s desk.

“Far too often, elected officials think this is their money,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. “It’s not. The government should use as little of the people’s money as possible and give back as much as possible.”

Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt, who sponsored tax cut legislation repeatedly during his time in the Missouri Senate, said tax cuts mean more take-home pay for working families. He hopes Democrats like McCaskill won’t stand in the way, but “I’m not optimistic.”

“She’s got a big decision to make,” he said. “Is she going to stand with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi or Missouri families? I think we’re prepared to be disappointed.”

Trump, who spoke on a stage filled with Christmas trees, said the tax cuts would be a present for the nation. He also promised that he would return to his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature policy, after the Senate passes tax cuts.

“As soon as we get the taxes, we’re going to work on health care,” Trump said. “We’ve had two runs at it. We’re coming closer. Closer.”

The president weighed in on a number of issues, including the 16 years the nation has spent engaged in violent conflicts in the Middle East.

“I’m taking care of it,” Trump said. “We’re doing numbers like ISIS has never seen before.”

Trump said he wanted to say “in a non-braggadocious way” that no president has ever accomplished as much as he has in the first 10 months in office, boasting about job gains and growth in the country’s gross domestic product. He said the economic gains would have been even greater if not for the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

He said that the accomplishments exceeded even his own expectations and that soon people would say that “Trump is the opposite of an exaggerator. The exact opposite.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.