When Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) endorsed Donald Trump at the end of February, Trump was having a rough time. The billionaire businessman had been hit hard during the Republican debate in Houston and pressure was mounting (from Mitt Romney of all people) for Trump to release his tax returns. Most of the Republican establishment still believed Trump could be defeated. If not before the convention, on the floor in Cleveland.
DesJarlais endorsed Trump anyway.
He knew a thing or two about being the underdog. In 2014, he won his primary election by 38 votes after reports surfaced that DesJarlais, a doctor, “had sexual relationships with two patients, three coworkers and a drug representative.” It was reported that in one instance the anti-abortion advocate had encouraged one of the women he’d had a brief affair with to have an abortion. He was hardly considered a rising star within the Republican Party. The conservative National Review called him “America’s worst congressman.”
He became the first member of the conservative Freedom Caucus to endorse Trump, and while DesJarlais says the decision wasn’t “risky per se,” he admitted that Trump was a bit “lean” on policy specifics when he lent his support.
Now, not even two years after DesJarlais was engulfed in a scandal, the congressman is balancing his own re-election while playing an unofficial but key part of the Republican presidential campaign. As establishment Republicans in Washington come around to a bombastic Trump, DesJarlais has emerged as a liaison between skeptics, the media and the Trump campaign, massaging fears that Trump is a loose cannon with promises that Trump is more reserved and thoughtful behind the scenes.
DesJarlais says he helped organize a meeting between the Freedom Caucus board and Trump’s campaign operative Paul Manafort last week. And before Trump met with House Speaker Paul Ryan last month, DesJarlais was one of a handful of members who sat down with the speaker and encouraged Ryan to unite behind the nominee. He has recruited members from his Doctors Caucus to join him at Trump campaign outreach meetings at the Capitol Hill Club, is trying to organize a meeting between congressional Republican women and Trump and says he’s busier with the media than he’s ever been.
“It does seem to raise your profile a little bit around here,” DesJarlais told TPM regarding his early endorsement.
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA)
DesJarlais is hardly the only person in Washington to notice a Trump bump from embracing the nominee when many others were reluctant to do so. Other congressmen who have been a controversial presence in Washington have also taken advantage of the Trump spotlight. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) was the former Hazleton, Pennsylvania mayor who actually wore a bulletproof vest when he helped enact the Illegal Immigration Relief Act in his community, a law that punished business owners or landlords that hired or housed immigrants who were in the country illegally. Once seen as an extreme voice in his party on immigration, Barletta now spends more time in the middle of the action and has sent his policy ideas over to Trump on immigration.
Many on Trump’s campaign staff itself –including Corey Lewandowski–were once considered GOP second teamers. On television, devoted Trump surrogates (or “Trumpkins” as the Daily Beast coined them) like former Tea Party News Network news director Scottie Nell Hughes and student of Harvard Law Kayleigh McEnany have made television careers for themselves by constantly going on the networks to defend Trump.
Trump surrogate Kayleigh McEnany, left
In the Senate, Jeff Sessions (R-AL) may not have been a backbencher, but his extreme positions on immigration relegated him to the fringe of his party during the 2013 immigration debate when many Republicans came out publicly in support of giving immigrants a chance to stay in the U.S. legally if not a path to citizenship. After the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report outlined the need to make inroads with Hispanic voters, Sessions’ positions were seen as a relic of the past. Now, he is smack dab in the middle of the Trump campaign.
“We are working hard now to try to get information and make sure it is being shared and people who need access to Donald Trump are getting it,” Sessions told TPM in describing how his role has shifted although he notes that anyone is free to reach out to the campaign directly. .
Still, Sessions is considered the go-between for senators–including those in Senate leadership– who want to influence Trump’s policy or tone on the campaign trail.
“He’s right now the congressional guy most connected to the campaign so right now if there is any question about anything we want to raise with the campaign, he’d probably be the guy you’d want to go through,” says Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the GOP leadership team.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Sessions–who is reluctant to prognosticate on how his own political role in the Senate is shifting–did concede that he gets “more media requests” than he used to. He also says he hears from ambassadors both current and former who want to talk about Trump’s foreign policy.
“I have had a lot of representatives from foreign governments that just want to chat and visit,” Sessions said. “I am pleased to do that although I don’t attempt to make any commitments or anything like that.”
In many ways, Trump’s crew of early adopters are unlikely leaders, but at its core that is what Trump’s campaign has been about. Trump’s intention was always to take Washington and shake it up. The clamoring now by establishment leaders to latch on, however, that remains unchanged.
“This is Washington. That is what happens in this town, people gravitate toward those who are or about to be in power,” says Tom Korologos, a longtime Republican advisor to past presidents, former ambassador and current strategic advisor at DLA Piper. “All those people who run for president, end up creating their own power base. The people who are around the candidate from the beginning sure have a leg up.”