State Politics

Why NC Sen. Thom Tillis says to call him a RINO

Several North Carolina Republican members of Congress gave speeches to a conservative group Friday in downtown Raleigh while outside, protesters called for the impeachment of the president.

Headlining a lunchtime discussion at Raleigh’s downtown Sheraton Hotel were U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson. The crowd of more than 100 included some of North Carolina’s most prominent Republican politicians, fundraisers, consultants and writers.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr spoke in the evening, talking about global threats and the need for the United States to stay ahead of those dangers.

Also expected to speak later were U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, major GOP fundraiser Art Pope, former Denmark Ambassador (and Carolina Hurricanes President) Jim Cain and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton.

The daylong event – including panel discussions and addresses on the topic foreign policy and trade challenges in the era of President Donald Trump – was hosted by the Jesse Helms Center, named after the late North Carolina senator famous for his conservative influence on Cold War-era foreign policy.

Note: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Rep. Richard Hudson. He said North Carolina farms and other businesses need access to “foreign markets,” not “free trade.”

Neither Tillis nor Hudson mentioned what led to the afternoon protest outside: Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian government agents.

But Burr briefly alluded to the events of the week, which also thrust him into the spotlight as co-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

“It’s been a little challenging week for me,” Burr said to an appreciative crowd. “Every day is Monday. Monday is not the favorite day of the week for most. …

“It’s safe to say that, with the events of the last week, it’s reminded me of the importance of what I do. It’s also reminded me that, with the hearing yesterday on global threats, that I can’t just focus my efforts on an investigation and Russia’s involvement in our elections. Because the world is a very unstable place as it relates to security.”

Tillis mentioned the Russia investigation in general and praised Burr for his role in overseeing his panel’s inquiry.

“And thank God he is,” Tillis said. “Because he’s one of the most measured people in the United States Senate.”

After the speech as Tillis was leaving the room, television crews chased him and asked about Comey’s firing.

“That was not the way I would’ve done it,” Tillis said before being ushered into a closed room.

On the sidewalk outside, protesters carried signs that called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to take over the investigation, or simply for Trump to be impeached. One sign called for a special prosecutor in both English and Russian.

Robert Gould, a protester, said he wants a special prosecutor. Burr has joined many of his Republican colleagues in opposing the idea, while Tillis has indicated he’s open to an independent investigation.

“I think what we have to do first is let the investigation (finish) that is being chaired by Sen. Burr ...” Tillis said in a Facebook Live question-and-answer session Thursday. “I would not object to an independent counsel if that’s where the data leads them, but I am going to wait to get a recommendation out of the Intelligence Committee.”

“I’m asking them to grow a spine and do what’s right,” Gould said.

Tillis speech

Tillis had more to say about other topics, including one particularly memorable quip. When he dies, he said, he wants his epitaph to read: “Thom Tillis. Former speaker, former senator, RINO.”

Nervous laughter went up from the crowd. RINO is a dirty word in GOP circles; it means Republican In Name Only and suggests someone who is too moderate to be a true member of the party.

But Tillis, who has been on the receiving end of such criticism before, said he invented a new meaning for the term. To him it means “Republican In Need of Outcomes.”

If a debate between Republicans comes down to choosing between an idea that is unrealistic but will sound good to the party base and one that needs a compromise but has an actual chance at creating change, he said it’s “politically courageous” to support the latter.

“What we need to do is be the party of results,” Tillis said.

Tillis mentioned the American Health Care Act and said he and his colleagues in the Senate will wait for a nonpartisan financial analysis to be released, then get to work on addressing changes to the version the House of Representatives passed last week before that analysis was complete.

“I’m confident we’re going to get a bill to the president’s desk,” he said.

Tillis also mentioned how the North Carolina Republican Party in 2016 lost both the governor’s race and a majority on the state Supreme Court.

Those results should create a mandate, he said, “to prove to the American people and the citizens of North Carolina that conservative solutions are the best solutions.”

Tillis also criticized Trump’s plan to cut the budget for foreign aid. While he didn’t mention Trump by name, Tillis – who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee – said every general and admiral he speaks to supports foreign aid funding.

And if not, Tillis said, they tell him “just make sure you buy me more bullets.”

Hudson joined Tillis in criticizing some of Trump’s policy points.

He said “a 2,000-mile concrete wall” on the Mexican border might not happen and might not need to happen, although he did say there needs to be more border security in general.

While Trump favors tariffs, Hudson said he’s a fan of “trade agreements that help tear down barriers” because being pro-trade is a conservative philosophy. “I’ve been troubled that over the last several years conservatives in Washington have turned anti-trade,” he said.

He said while “bad trade deals” have cost jobs at the textile mills that used to bolster North Carolina’s economy, trade is vital to the farms and food processing plants that now provide many jobs.

“For North Carolina manufacturers and for our agricultural industry here – our No. 1 industry in the state – we need foreign markets,” he said.

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