The trouble began — as trouble often does — with a tweet. It ended with an $80 million punch to the gut and a lesson that Thom Tillis never seems to learn.
North Carolina’s junior senator had a bad political day Wednesday. A really bad day, in fact, especially for an incumbent U.S. senator facing a semi-tough Republican primary challenge before a very tough general election race. But as with many Tillis difficulties, most of the blame is his.
First, the tweet. It came Tuesday evening, delivered from President Donald Trump as Hurricane Dorian turned toward the North Carolina coast:
The problem with the president’s announcement is that emergency declaration requests don’t come from U.S. senators. They come from governors, and North Carolina’s request came from Gov. Roy Cooper, who happens to be a Democrat.
The mixing of politics and weather events is nothing new, of course. Hurricanes are a great opportunity for Democrats and Republicans alike to get in front of cameras, frown at a storm’s devastation, even hug a victim while your staff takes video. It’s what public officials do, and to some degree, it’s not a bad thing.
But Trump’s tweet went beyond that, as usual. He falsely gave credit to a Republican who didn’t deserve it instead of a Democrat who did. Tillis could have been the big man here with a follow up tweet, something as simple as: “Thanks, Mr. President, for granting the governor’s request for an emergency declaration. I’m glad the conversation you and I had will bring comfort to the people of North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.” That would have allowed to Tillis to be the good guy for directing credit to the proper person while getting some cred for nudging the president to help North Carolina.
Instead, Tillis said nothing. By Wednesday morning, people had noticed. Twitter sizzled with disdain at the president’s and senator’s political cravenness. The Washington Post and others picked up the story. Instead of getting an easy political win, Tillis was left appearing both opportunistic and afraid to even gently correct Trump.
Then his day got worse. Late in the afternoon, news broke that $80 million worth of construction projects at North Carolina military bases were being cut to shift funds to building the president’s wall on the Mexican border. The total includes $40 million for a new battalion complex and ambulatory care center at Camp Lejeune, as well as an elementary school to serve families at Fort Bragg. (Update: Defense Department officials tell the Fayetteville Observer that the Fort Bragg elementary school project had previously been canceled because existing facilities were sufficient.)
Trump’s wall already was the source of one of the senator’s weakest moments. As N.C. voters surely remember, Tillis announced in February that he would vote against the president’s effort to circumvent Congress and pay for the wall by declaring a national emergency at the southern border. Three weeks later, he backed down and gave his blessing and vote to the president’s overreach.
Now that decision will doubly haunt him.
The lessons here? There are at least a couple. First, don’t trust this president. Donald Trump will not hesitate to burn anyone — including people who’ve previously helped him — to get a political victory. And also — when you buy political favor in exchange for your principles, the bill is always more than you thought it would be.
This editorial has been updated with reporting from the Sept. 6 Fayetteville Observer on the elementary school project at Fort Bragg.