Thom Tillis isn’t the kind of Republican who typically challenges Donald Trump.
The North Carolina senator backs the president’s agenda and holds his tongue when it comes to the tweets. As others abandoned Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, Tillis maintained his endorsement.
But now he’s a lead sponsor of a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from interference by Trump — enraging conservatives and potentially risking the president's ire. It’s the biggest gamble Tillis has taken as a Republican senator, but one he believes is philosophically consistent with how the GOP would be treating a Democratic president.
Tillis doesn't think Trump will ultimately fire Mueller even as the president rages over the expanding Russia probe. But he has an impassioned response for his conservative critics nonetheless: "Spare me."
“Courage is when you know you’re going to do something that’s going to anger your base,” Tillis said in an interview in his Senate office.
“The same people who would criticize me for filing this bill would be absolutely angry if I wasn’t pounding the table for this bill if we were dealing with Hillary Clinton,” he argued. “So spare me your righteous indignation.”
The effort has not yet caught fire with most in his party. Many Republicans tell Tillis that the president will never sign it, so his is a fruitless endeavor. Democrats, however, believe it amounts to a stern warning to the president even if the bill never becomes law.
But some Republicans warn that it could hurt Tillis among Trump voters he’ll need in what’s likely to be a brutal reelection campaign in 2020.
“I can tell you conservatives in my district are not happy about it,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
Some of his colleagues are also concerned.
“It’s not good politics in the end,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “It says you don’t trust the president."
But Tillis has a lengthy rationale for working with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on the bill, which would allow a special counsel a 10-day window to fight a potential removal by the Trump administration and could soon see a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He argues that passing the law now would offer future protections against liberal presidents under investigation, specifically “a President Warren or a President Sanders or a President Booker.” And if successful, he’d remove a major talking point from Democrats who have been slamming the GOP for not doing more to safeguard Mueller and the rule of law.
But more than anything, Tillis wants to take a stand against what he calls “situational ethics”: Politicians changing their stances based on who is in the White House without sticking to any deeply held philosophical moorings.
“The only way you get these things done [is] when you have somebody who is willing to take the heat when you’re in the majority,” Tillis said. “You see it all the time. Hammer the table when it benefits you, not when it disadvantages your guy that has the same jersey on. There’s no rational explanation except being duplicitous.”
A square-jawed former statehouse speaker with a light Southern accent, Tillis was the 2014 victor in what was then the most expensive Senate race in history. He’s now the deputy leader of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, and while he hails from a swing state, he’s no stranger to throwing bombs at his Democratic colleagues for not supporting tax reform or the president’s nominees.
But he’s also tried to work with them on immigration reform, an increasingly important issue in his diversifying state. And right now, most Democrats have nothing but praise for a junior senator who is willing to stick his neck out and face the potential peril of Twitter attacks from a president who’s grown angry about the special counsel digging into his affairs.
“I absolutely think it’s a risky thing for him to do. And I don’t think he cares,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
Trump called Tillis last August to press him about the legislation, though the president never asked him to stand down and never raised his voice, according to Tillis. Trump has not yet called him since the bill began picking up steam.
It was Tillis himself who first proposed the bill to protect Mueller in a conversation with Coons last summer, an important bipartisan partnership that's survived tough battles over taxes and health care.
Coons was struck by Tillis’ fight for reparations for black victims of a North Carolina eugenics program. And Tillis was impressed that Coons was willing to fend off Democrats who wanted to pile on to the special counsel bill and turn it into a partisan attack on Trump.
“He was pretty clear,” Coons said, recalling how Tillis threatened to drop his support unless each new Democratic co-sponsor was matched by a Republican.
Though Tillis insists he is trying to do the right thing, Democratic political operatives believe there is something more cynical afoot. Tillis is among a small group of Senate Republicans who will come under heavy attacks in their 2020 reelection bids, and Democrats believe he is trying to get right with voters before he has to share the ballot with Trump.
“He thinks it’s good politics,” said a veteran Democratic North Carolina political operative who doubts it will help Tillis. “You don’t just do what you think is right when you are facing a reelection race like he is.”
Tillis proclaims that he hasn’t thought through the politics, and he said it may be the last time he ever gets praise from Democrats. He said that he’s “at peace with my conscience” on the special counsel bill — and if his voters aren’t, he’ll know it.
“Frankly, I haven’t even thought through the political consequences,” Tillis said. “So if my constituents are at odds with me, there will be an opportunity to voice their opinion on it in November of 2020.”
Tillis previously dipped his toe into the Senate spotlight during bipartisan immigration talks. But after discussing a potential deal for months, Tillis eventually opposed negotiators‘ final product and took Trump’s position — leaving Democrats fuming that he was never serious about a compromise.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a lead sponsor of the bipartisan immigration bill, said he was “disappointed” that Tillis couldn’t agree with the Senate’s centrists. But he praised Tillis as a “serious, independent-minded guy” and said that the involvement of a generally partisan Republican on the special counsel bill carries real weight.
“His involvement is significant because he’s not one of the usual [suspects]. I think that will give him extra influence,” King said.
Whether that translates to more Republican votes is unclear. The other members of the class of 2014 who flipped the Senate to Republicans generally disagree with him about the substance of the bill.
It’s difficult to imagine enough Republicans signing on to the bill to pass it in the Senate, much less get it through the House or survive a presidential veto. Still, there is evidence that his argument is resonating: Republicans seem to understand that passing a bill to protect Mueller would sweep away damaging headlines for the GOP every time Trump lashes out.
“He wants to get the issue off the table,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who entered the Senate alongside Tillis and partnered with him on immigration, though he opposes the special counsel bill. “So it stops becoming a distraction. Because it is.”
Tillis already helped break a legislative logjam, by merging his and Coons’ bill with a competing version from Booker and Graham. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is now expected to put it up for a vote on the panel by the end of the month, and it is likely to pass the committee.
Getting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor, however, will be far more difficult. McConnell and other Republican leaders have expressed concern that the bill may not be constitutional because it erodes executive powers. It’s also an explosive issue that would divide the party, which McConnell always attempts to avoid.
Tillis, a member of the Senate GOP whip team, said it is on him to convince McConnell that it’s worth bringing up.
“It’s on the member to present a case for using chamber time for the bill. It is on the member to convince the leader that we have the votes to pass it,” Tillis said. “This isn’t the leader’s problem. ... This is my responsibility.”