National News

Once a Trump Antagonist, Rand Paul Emerges as His Russia Wingman

Posted July 26, 2018 7:25 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — When he ran against Donald Trump in 2016 for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky quipped that “a speck of dirt would make a better president” than the bombastic businessman from New York.

Then came President Vladimir Putin of Russia, his government’s interference in a White House campaign in which Paul barely made a ripple, and last week’s presidential summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, which pretty much everyone but Paul deemed a diplomatic disaster.

Suddenly, in the mind of the junior senator from Kentucky, Trump has soared from lower than that speck of dirt to high enough for Mount Rushmore.

“The hatred for the president is so intense that partisans would rather risk war than give diplomacy a chance,” Paul fumed on the Senate floor last week in a long defense of Trump’s Helsinki meeting. “This is crazy.”

As the lonely Senate voice extolling Trump’s diplomatic acumen, Paul has become the commander in chief’s wingman. He has nabbed broad visibility for views once deemed fringe, and coveted White House access: “Thank you @RandPaul, you really get it!” the president tweeted.

It was the senator’s idea to suspend the security clearances of Trump’s political enemies, an idea embraced at the lectern by the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Paul hopes to visit Moscow as Trump’s envoy, “following up from the meeting that he had with Putin,” he said in an interview last week. “Our goals are not necessarily, you know, finding world peace in one trip to Russia, but our goals are to try to find some things that we could advance on.”

Paul has other plans, too. “I continue to encourage President Trump that he would be a hero if he could end the Afghan war,” Paul said in an emailed statement on Thursday. He and the president, he said, “have a similar belief that we have been at war too long in too many places.”

Even Paul’s libertarian icon of a father, Ron Paul, a former representative from Texas and three-time presidential candidate, has gotten into the act, making regular appearances on Russian state television to cheer for Trump’s stand against America’s “secret government.”

Trump’s friendliness with Putin was “great,” the elder Paul told RT, a television network funded by the Russian government, the day of Trump’s news conference in Helsinki. For good measure, he added, the “best step ever” would be “getting rid of the sanctions on Russia.”

The Paul family’s quirky views — father and son favor abolishing the Federal Reserve and legalizing marijuana, and oppose government spending from foreign aid to health care — have long attracted a hardy band of Birkenstock-wearing devotees.

But Rand Paul is a solitary, at times cranky presence in the Senate, a legislator whose libertarian zeal once made him the sole opponent of a bill penalizing people who aim laser pointers at airplanes. He has denounced federal support for aging and disabled refugees, and called legislators “weak-kneed” over their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement. He is a firm “no” to taxpayer-funded junkets abroad (not that anyone invites him).

Earlier this year, Paul’s next-door neighbor in Kentucky body-slammed him while he was mowing his lawn, breaking multiple ribs in a fracas Paul said was over politics, and the neighbor said was a lawn care dispute gone horribly wrong.

Now, Paul’s vocal support for Trump’s overtures to Putin and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and his opposition to the Justice Department’s Russia investigation have made the senator famous for Washington.

On Tuesday night, Paul drew an uproarious standing ovation from several hundred young people at the Trump International Hotel, where he spoke at a dinner for Turning Point USA, an organization for college-age conservatives.

“The bigger your government, the less freedom you have,” he said, while standing next to a towering placard that read “Big Government Sucks.” Kicking off a 10-minute, not-entirely-factual tirade against the CIA and the FBI, he asked: “Why do people mistrust their government? Because they’re lied to by people in government.”

Paul’s support for the president’s efforts to shut down an investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russian election interference “fits with what I’ve been saying for a decade now,” he said. “We’ve allowed too much power to gravitate to these intelligence agencies.”

Just hours before the idea became an official White House initiative, Paul suggested that former intelligence officials be stripped of their security clearance, including the former CIA director John O. Brennan, who called Trump’s Russia stance treasonous.

“I don’t think that ex-CIA agents of any stripe who are now talking heads should continue to get classified information. I think it’s wrong,” Paul said on Fox News on Monday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another Trump-critic-turned-golf-buddy, said last week: “I’m not shocked that Rand Paul feels that the FBI and CIA are a bigger threat than Russia. His foreign policy is, I think, out of sync. But if the president is embracing that kind of approach, I think he risks making some serious mistakes.” Paul’s anti-intelligence zeal has its roots in 2013, when the senator mounted a nearly 13-hour filibuster opposing Brennan’s nomination as CIA director, raising broad questions over the Obama administration’s drone policy.

In March 2014, after Russia’s forced annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Paul wrote an essay for Breitbart News warning America to stay out of it. “What we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.”

“There is a time for military action, such as after 9/11,” he wrote. “There is a time for diplomacy and the strategic use of soft power, such as now with Russia.”

That stand neatly encompasses where right meets left: A year ago, Paul and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were the only opponents of a bill imposing further sanctions on Russia and Iran. This spring, Paul threatened to do “whatever it takes” to block the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, saying that Pompeo’s support for military intervention in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan did not square with Trump’s own views. Paul next delayed, then voted against, the nomination of Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo as CIA director, saying, “I’m still concerned about her role in extreme rendition and torture.”

Paul now says he is questioning Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, over Kavanaugh’s stances on privacy and government surveillance.

But as with his threats to vote against the Affordable Care Act repeal that did not go far enough; against the president’s tax cuts, which did not cut deep enough; and against Pompeo, few believe Paul will make good on his threat against Kavanaugh if his vote matters. It has, in fact, been a rough patch for Paul. Last fall, Paul had gotten off his riding mower at his home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to move some branches when he was tackled from behind by Rene A. Boucher, his next-door neighbor. Boucher, who took a running start down a steep slope in Paul’s front yard, landed on him with such force that he broke several ribs and bruised the senator’s lungs.

Boucher’s lawyers said the fight was the climax of a long-simmering dispute over Paul’s stacking brush too near his property. Boucher was sentenced last month to a 30-day jail term, and Paul is suing him for damages.

“The velocity of the hit was just more than pushing somebody down in their yard,” said Paul’s mother, Carol Paul. “He had no idea he was coming until he landed on him.”

She is struggling not to see the blindsiding as a metaphor for the nation’s politics.

“This is not the America I grew up in,” she said. “Everyone loved our country, loved our president and didn’t say horrible things and make up stories,” she said. “Rand is so intelligent and has so many good ideas. He’s not the kind that won’t listen, but he’s not going to go along to get along.”