DES MOINES, Iowa — Mark Sanford thinks it’s pretty rich that President Donald Trump is attacking him for having an extramarital affair. But he’s savvy enough to know it comes with the territory when you’re publicly mulling a primary bid against this president.
“There's a certain level of irony — given his record — in raising those issues, but he's entitled to do whatever he's going to do,” Sanford said.
But Sanford noted that there’s one big difference between his own well-documented infidelity and those of the president.
“I learned from that very public failure. And that stands in strong contrast to what the president said, which is he regrets nothing,” Sanford said. “We’ve all got to own our stuff and I’ve tried to own mine.”
Still, Sanford is self-aware enough to understand that the guy best known for going AWOL from his job for a week in 2009 to have an extramarital affair in Argentina while telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail might not be people’s first choice to primary Trump.
“We’ve all got to own our stuff and I’ve tried to own mine.”
Trump seems to know it too. He tweeted a jab at Sanford Tuesday, calling him, “Mr. Appalachian Trail.”
But hey, that’s even what Sanford told his friends who he said keep bugging him to run. (He would not reveal who, because he said he doesn’t want to get them in trouble). Initially, he thought, let one of the other prominent Republican critics of Trump run against him.
“I was like, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. And let's get, you know, [former Arizona Sen. Jeff] Flake, [former Ohio Gov. John] Kasich, you know, the Governor of Maryland [Larry Hogan], whoever, somebody else, to grab that charge and run with it.’ But nobody showed up,” he said.
So Sanford is on the verge of taking on that burden. He spent a few days this week touring Iowa, talking to political operatives about whether he should take the plunge, following up on trips to other early primary states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina. He’ll probably decide by the end of Labor Day weekend whether he’ll do it, he said, speaking at a Panera before heading to the airport.
Sanford doesn’t have much to lose. Not at this point, anyway. He rode out the scandal and finished his gubernatorial term in 2011. He became engaged to the woman with whom he had an affair, but the relationship was soon broken off.
In 2013, he returned to Congress, where he had served in the 1990s. But he was beaten by a pro-Trump challenger in a 2018 primary, after his criticism of the president landed him in a public feud with Trump. (That challenger lost to a Democrat later that year). Now, most of his old pals in the Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus aren’t really part of his life anymore.
“What that tells you is political friends oftentimes are good friends for a chapter of your life," he said. "Politics, particularly on a national level, is transactional, and when you no longer part of the equation of help or hindrance, you don't exist.”
And that’s just as well, Sanford said. Congressional Republicans have shown a disappointing level of complacency in the face of Trump’s takeover of the party — not to mention they didn’t stick up for him when Trump came for his head.
“Everybody is very quiet in D.C., as you well know. They're not going to speak up against him,” he said. “Take as witness of that what happened to the Freedom Caucus, the way it completely morphed from being about certain ideas that were supposedly to advance and in the pursuit of freedom to lapdogs for the president.”
But don’t expect Sanford to make a principled presidential run as an independent, or vote for a Democrat over the man who derailed his political career and the party that abandoned him. He would still never support a Democrat, he insists.
Burned bridges aside, Sanford could instantly become the Trump detractor most likely to possibly, maybe, get even a modicum of support — but that’s not saying much. Trump’s grip on the party is that strong. Ninety-five percent of Republicans in Sanford’s home state of South Carolina said they would cast a ballot for Trump, according to a poll released this month. Only 5 percent said they think Sanford would make a good president.
The few announced Trump primary challengers don’t seem destined to fare much better. Conservative shock jock Joe Walsh, who held office as a congressman from Illinois for one term, is already drawing jeers for his Trump-like past behavior, including stating recently that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who has not held elected office in more than two decades, has proven just as objectionable, but to the right wing. He’s out of step with mainstream Republicans, most notably on the issue of favoring legal access to abortion.
Sanford, for all his baggage, is a pretty mainstream fiscal conservative, someone who could justify asking for a protest vote from an everyday Republican who is frustrated with Trump’s lack of focus on policy and substance.
But Sanford said he’s fine being one among a lonely crowd. He knows none of them are actually going to beat Trump, but just maybe, the message that there are Republicans frustrated with the president will get through to him.
“If he's out there alone, the President can easily dismiss it. If you‘ve got two or three people, it's like, ‘Wait a minute,’” he said.
Sanford’s self-awareness of his own past might also be why he, unlike other Trump opponents, is not focusing on the moral case against the president — even if he believes there is one to be made.
“Other people can make the personality-based charge, but that wouldn't be my thing,” Sanford said. “My thing would be, where are we on spending exactly? Where are we on trade, which used to be a significant tenet of the Republican Party? Where are we on our embrace of institutions and changing things slowly? That's what conservatives do.”
If nothing else, Sanford wants to elevate the issues of the debt and government spending so that it is talked about somewhere in a campaign, because he thinks neither Trump nor Democrats will address it. And when he hears that Trump is promising Republicans he’ll cut entitlement spending in his second term, Sanford rolls his eyes.
“Give me a break. It’s not credible. It's not believable, because this is the same guy that said in 2016, ‘If you elect me, I'll completely eliminate the debt,’” Sanford said. “Instead, we've seen record numbers in terms of debt and deficit and spending that there's been no curtailment, no pull back from his end.”
Cover: Former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford speaks with attendees at U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan's annual fundraiser on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Anderson, S.C. Sanford is mulling a 2020 GOP challenge to President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)