2020 Elections

The one Republican Senate candidate willing to call out Donald Trump

In a recording obtained by POLITICO, Michigan Senate hopeful John James criticizes the president over his 'shithole countries' remark and other comments.

John James

Few Republicans are willing to say a negative word about President Donald Trump.

John James — a rising star in the GOP who last year was floated to be Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, and is now waging an uphill campaign for Senate in Michigan — is taking a different approach.

During a video conference with black community leaders last week, James was asked whether he disagreed with Trump on anything given the president’s support of his candidacy.

“Plenty, plenty of issues,” James responded. “Everything from cutting Great Lakes funding to ‘shithole countries’ to speaking ill of the dead," apparently referring to Trump's disparagement of the late Sen. John McCain. "I mean, where do you want to start?”

"And so yes, there's gonna be places that I disagree with the president and those are just a couple," he added.

James, a 38-year-old Iraq War veteran, also pushed back against what he described as a Democratic talking point that he was bankrolled by the president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who hails from one of the state’s wealthiest political families.

“I haven’t gotten any money from Donald Trump. I haven't gotten any money from Betsy DeVos. I haven’t gotten any money — that’s political talking points. Very little of that is true,” James said during the appearance, a video of which was obtained by POLITICO.

(While James hasn't received funding from the education secretary, her family has contributed heavily to a super PAC supporting his candidacy.)

James faces the hurdle of running in Michigan, a swing state where the president’s popularity has ebbed. A recent Fox News poll showed Trump trailing Joe Biden by 8 percentage points and James lagging behind Democratic Sen. Gary Peters by 10 percentage points.

The candidate made the case that he is taking a balanced approach toward the president and wasn’t afraid to disagree with him. He said he wasn’t focusing his campaign on Trump, though he acknowledged that many would see the race through the prism of the president.

“I do recognize that it's human to disagree with people and like I've said millions of times, I can agree with the president without worshiping him. I can disagree without attacking him,” James said.

Trump, James said at one point, "has his own campaign to run."

While the president’s poll numbers are sagging across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, Trump advisers regard Michigan as a particular trouble spot. Of all the states the president won in 2016, they say, Michigan will be the hardest to carry again. Republicans have also struggled to recruit candidates in a pair of Michigan congressional seats that Democrats flipped in the 2018 midterm elections.

James has made clear throughout the 2020 race that he’s willing to distinguish himself from Trump in certain areas and has stressed that he intends to run on local, not national issues.

“This race isn’t about President Trump,” James was quoted as saying during the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in September. “This race is about people in the state of Michigan who’ve been failed by their leaders for generations. This race is about people who are hurting in this state, and I’m going to make this race about Michigan.”

Gail Gitcho, a James spokeswoman, said, “John James is willing to have these tough conversations with voters. John James is his own man, and he will point out when he agrees with the president and respectfully point out when he disagrees with him.”

Trump has heavily promoted James, tweeting last month that James “will be a GREAT Senator for Michigan!”

Trump also endorsed James in his unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid. At one point, he tweeted a picture of him with James in the Oval Office.

James has publicly touted his support from the White House and recently said that Trump has “done everything that he has thought was best” in his managing of the pandemic.

Democrats say they are eager to paint James as a Trump puppet and frequently highlight his comment during the 2018 race that he was "2,000 percent" with the president's agenda.

During the late April conference, James was peppered with an array of skeptical questions about the president. James, who is African American, was reminded reminded that many in the black community don't trust Trump. James was asked whether he would publicly speak out against the administration and advocate for the needs of African Americans.

James responded that his access to Trump as a Republican senator would be an asset to African Americans in the state.

“Look, Donald Trump doesn’t need less black folks around him, he needs more,” said James.

He added: “Hopefully you’ll see through my actions that I am for you, that I am for black people, and that we share the same destiny. And hopefully as the result of that, you give me the benefit of the doubt.”

James challenged Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in 2018 and lost by 6 percentage points. Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed for James to run again. GOP leaders regard the Michigan seat as one of their top pickup opportunities, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has booked nearly $3 million for ads this fall.

Trump's campaign advisers were less enthusiastic about his second bid. Last year, the president’s political team wrote a memo to the Senate GOP campaign arm making the case that a James statewide candidacy would further amp up Democratic energy and involvement and potentially hurt Trump’s prospects in the battleground state. Trump advisers instead pushed for James to run for a House seat.

Trump aides, who are constantly on the lookout for signs of Republican dissent, are suspicious that James is trying to have it both ways.

They were rankled when James, after announcing his Senate bid in June, tweeted, “We are heading in the wrong direction as a country and our leaders in Washington are failing to lead us toward a better and brighter future.”

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