It starts with a complaint. A vote that most Republicans would consider routine is actually a violation of important principles. So then a threat is made; a lengthy filibuster on the Senate floor might be launched. Then, at the last minute, an anticlimactic change of heart occurs, and the measure passes along party lines.
This is what one might call the Rand Paul playbook. The Kentucky senator summoned it once again this week as he held out support for President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo in an important committee vote until the eleventh hour over concerns about his relative hawkishness.
Critics were quick to say that Paul’s bark is worse than his bite, and this was not the only example. In the fall, he made a similar show of denouncing the Republican tax reform bill before ultimately voting for it in December. Two months ago, he briefly shut down the government by stalling a vote on a spending package in an hours-long speech on the Senate floor. The package passed.
But those familiar with Paul’s thinking say that these minor rebellions, even the ones that don’t end up changing the outcome, earn him valuable political capital and almost always ignite a worthy debate, whether that’s about U.S. military policy or government spending. When the dust settles, he holds a prominent seat at the negotiating table.
“He’s independent, and that gives him a voice stronger than most,” a Republican on Capitol Hill says. “It drives other Republicans crazy.”
Consider, for instance, Pompeo’s nomination, which renewed old discussions about the appropriate extent of U.S. military action overseas. “The conversation about Pompeo’s hawkishness just wouldn’t be happening without Rand,” one Republican aide tells TIME.
On more than one occasion in the weeks preceding the committee vote, Paul lashed out at Pompeo on Twitter. On March 14, he wrote, unfavorably, that “Pompeo as not learned the lessons of regime change and wants regime change in Iran.” The following day, Paul linked to a Fox News op-ed he had written in which he wrote, very plainly, that he “simply cannot support Pompeo’s nomination to be our chief diplomat.”
“The neocons have been so completely and regularly wrong for decades now that it’s almost unimaginable to believe they would ever be in a position to advise a president again – let alone to wield the kind of power they will have if they lead some of our nation’s most powerful institutions,” he wrote elsewhere in the piece.
Paul brought this ire to Pompeo’s confirmation hearing on April 12, criticizing the nominee’s record from his days in Congress backing military intervention strategies in Libya and Syria.
“My main concern is — will you be one who will listen to what the president actually wants, instead of being someone who advocates for us staying forever in Afghanistan, another Iraq war, bombing Syria,” Paul said. “I guess that’s my biggest concern with your nomination, that I don’t think it reflects the millions of Americans who voted for President Trump because they thought it would be something different.”
But in the end, that concern was evidently assuaged. Trump spoke to Paul three times over the course of Monday, according to individuals familiar with these talks, who say that the Kentucky Senator expected concessions. In exchange for Paul’s support, Pompeo would publicly admit that the Iraq War was a mistake — a topic he fumbled under Paul’s grilling at his confirmation hearing — and begin the effort to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
“Today, Senator Paul got a victory when Director Pompeo agreed to support the President’s statements, that the Iraq war was a mistake and we must stop nation-building in Afghanistan and beyond,” Sergio Gor, Paul’s communications director, told TIME in an email Monday evening.
Trump has often eyed his fellow Republicans in Congress — and especially in the Senate — with a certain distrust, but that has not been the case between him and Paul. After a bout of hostility during the 2016 Republican primary, in which both men ran, Trump and Paul have developed a legitimate friendship, according to individuals familiar with it. They golf together. They talk about issues. The individuals familiar with this friendship say it is Paul’s flashes of obstinacy that endear him to the president — despite the fact that he votes with Trump’s positions the least of any Republican in the Senate.
“People have very short memories here,” one Republican familiar with Paul’s thinking tells TIME. “People might say Rand Paul makes a stink and then falls in line, but that’s just not the reality. The record speaks for itself.”
In any event, the negative consequences are negligible. He remains a favorite of Trump’s, arguably more and more so after every little headline-commanding rebellion. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, is his fellow Kentucky senator, and needs him as an ally to manage their shared home-state politics.
His colleagues might get annoyed, but they don’t object too loudly to his prime committee assignments — largely because they fret how much noise he could make if he were completely on the outside. So they wait for his next play. If nothing else, he will be consistent on this.
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