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Republican Rand Paul picked the right battles in Trump era

Voting against the president's appointees and being his gut check on regime change wasn't easy. So what now?

Analysis | Analysis

In 2018, National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty explained how Sen. Rand Paul was doing something no other libertarian figure had in American history.

After Paul had originally refused to support the uber-hawkish Mike Pompeo as President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, the senator then changed his mind and gave Pompeo his vote.

Many libertarians and non-interventionists were understandably outraged.

But Dougherty said that rage was misguided, “Ultimately, Paul is a ‘political libertarian’ in a way that we haven’t seen before.” 

“His position in the Senate requires compromises that his father, Ron Paul, or other libertarian gadflies like Representative Justin Amash, have never had to make,” Dougherty explained. “Even in an age of intense polarization, the House is big enough to accommodate a few quixotic holdouts. The Senate just isn’t.”

Dougherty then noted, “Realists, libertarians, and non-interventionists can continue to question whether the compromises Paul is making are worth it. But that he has to make them should be beyond dispute by now.” 

“So far, his judgment seems just about right,” Dougherty concluded.

Paul’s judgment throughout the Trump era was about as sound as one could hope.

Four months after Paul’s controversial Pompeo vote, Politico reported that the libertarian-leaning senator and the president connected at the “gut level” on foreign policy.

Referring to Trump’s hawkish staff, which included not only Pompeo but also then-national security adviser John Bolton, Politico quoted an administration aide. “While Trump tolerates his hawkish advisers, the [Trump] aide added, he shares a real bond with Paul: ‘He actually at gut level has the same instincts as Rand Paul.’”

On Iran, Politico noted, “Trump has stopped short of calling for regime change even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Bolton support it, aligning with Paul instead, according to a GOP foreign policy expert in frequent contact with the White House.”

What was reported next was something to behold, “’Rand Paul has persuaded the president that we are not for regime change in Iran,’ this person said, because adopting that position would instigate another war in the Middle East.”

So just one person, albeit a senator, was stopping the president from starting new wars? What other Republican member of Congress — what other person — was consistently in Trump’s orbit doing this? 

There was one: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. The Daily Beast reported in June 2019 that, “the Fox News host has privately advised Trump against taking military action against Iran.”

After Trump called off an airstrike on Iran at the last minute on June 20, 2019, Paul tweeted, “I have strongly encouraged @realDonald Trump to trust HIS instincts and avoid another war. Top aides reportedly urge Trump to go to war with Iran.”

How much of the advice that Trump received from Carlson was more impactful due to Paul’s consistent influence over the years?

Non-interventionists have long wondered, “How do you actually stop a war?” Rand Paul might be the only one with an answer.

The very notion that Republicans should be anti-war was also something new, a fresh stance libertarian leaders could hopefully extend beyond Trump. As the Washington Examiner’s Jim Antle recently explained in Responsible Statecraft, “The best case scenario is that some eager Republican sees the opportunity presented by some of Trump’s revisions of the GOP brand divorced from his personal toxicity.” 

“For all of the faults of his foreign policy in the end, Trump got Republicans talking about ending endless wars and extricating the U.S. from the Middle East,” Antle added.

Paul’s influence wasn’t just on foreign policy. Criminal justice reform became a Republican issue finally and fully when President Trump signed the historic First Step Act in 2018.

The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had considerable influence in promoting this reform as did celebrity Kim Kardashian. But it was Rand Paul and fellow libertarian-leaning Republican Senator Mike Lee who had pushed the issue for years. Some nationalist-leaning Trump allies like GOP Sens. Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton tried to talk Trump out of signing the First Step Act, but the president ultimately sided with Paul and his allies.

These are not-so-minor revolutions on the Right.

Would Paul’s influence have worked if he had opposed Pompeo in 2018? Probably not. The same goes for Paul’s controversial vote to confirm authoritarian Republican Jeff Sessions to the DOJ in 2017. 

Paul’s vote was crucial on each. Trump was not going to nominate anyone much better. Given what we know about Trump’s temperament, his relationship with Paul would have probably been permanently severed. 

But for all the battles he avoided, the libertarian picked more.

Sen. Paul is one of the loudest voices for ending U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He proposed FISA amendments to curb surveillance. The senator held up defense bills that did not rescind the AUMF. Paul introduced legislation combating indefinite detention. He condemned the U.S. airstrikes on Syria in 2019. And Paul scolded Pompeo that year, “You do not have the permission of Congress to go to war with Iran.”

Sen. Paul also opposed far more warmonger nominees than he voted for. 

Paul declared in 2016, “I’ll do whatever it takes to stop someone like John Bolton being secretary of state.” Paul was the sole Republican senator to vote against Pompeo for CIA director in 2017. Paul vocally opposed his successor, Gina Haspel, for her role in U.S. torture programs. Paul opposed Steven Bradbury’s confirmation to the Transportation Department because of his authorship of the torture memos. Paul fought to keep neocon Elliott Abrams away from the State Department. He voted “no” on confirming Bill Barr as Trump’s Attorney General.

But for some, all of this is secondary.

There are libertarians and others who argue that Trump’s habitual recklessness encourages dangerous tribalism and that this is what must be opposed above all. 

Former Republican House members Justin Amash and Mark Sanford have argued this, coupled with concerns about debt and executive overreach. They are not wrong in their concerns. Unfortunately today, both are disliked by too many Republican voters and are often lumped in with “Never Trump” neoconservatives and Democrats, two groups that might admire their opposition to Trump but would never support their libertarian agendas.

Trump did not invent tribalism. This immutable human impulse can always be amped up or tamped down — and this president has brought out the worst in many — but the partisan sentiments that have always driven politics are not going away.

Hawks know this. They have had one foot — many feet — in Trump’s camp and now put one in Joe Biden’s to cover their bets. Some libertarians yearned for Paul and allies like GOP Rep. Thomas Massie to oppose Trump in the same way Amash and Sanford have. Uniform opposition.

It would have been unilateral disarmament. You have to have a base — a significant and willing constituency to sell your ideas to and derive votes from — however imperfect that base might be. 

As of Sunday night, 73 million Americans have voted for Trump in 2020.

Paul dying on every hill would have meant foolishly throwing away unprecedented libertarian opportunities.

Sometimes there are limits to screaming into the abyss.


As Michael Brendan Dougherty observed two years ago of Paul and his unprecedented strategy, being “a ‘political libertarian’ is inevitably going to disappoint those of his supporters who want a politician to embody their beliefs in a way calculated not to change government policy and our political culture, but to perpetually and clearly condemn it.”

Should Rand Paul have just shook his fist at Donald Trump the last four years, or should he have done what he did?

History will show that he made the right judgment. It already has.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) looks on during a U.S. Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing, September 23, 2020. Alex Edelman/Pool via REUTERS
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