Commentary: Why Is Rob Portman Endorsing Trump Now?

Feb 6, 2019

Ordinarily, a U.S. senator endorsing the president of his own party for re-election would be nothing out of the ordinary.

That's what you would expect the senator to do, right? Under ordinary circumstances, that is.

But these are anything but ordinary circumstances.

The senator involved here is Rob Portman of Ohio and the president is Donald Trump.

A president who has, according to Washington Post fact-checkers, made over 7,600 false or misleading claims since taking office (that's about 10 per day); who, with members of his inner circle, is the subject of 17 investigations; and who has stood up in public and sided with Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies.

And a U.S. senator who has had an odd on-again, off-again relationship with Trump over the past three years.

So, recently, when he became one of only two Republican senators to step out front and endorse Trump for re-election (the other being Cory Gardner of Colorado), people sat up and took notice. Some looked askance; others scratched their heads, wondering why so early.

What if Trump's presidency, in fact, implodes, and his already unsteady job approval ratings keep heading toward the basement? What if it becomes clear to Republicans nationwide that they have to find the door marked Exit when it comes to Donald Trump and his presidency?

Why not just sit back and wait to see how this drama plays out?

Portman has had a strange relationship with Trump since 2016.

In Cleveland, where Trump was crowned the GOP nominee at the Republican National Convention, Portman, for the most part, steered clear of the convention site, Quicken Loans Arena, and declared he would hold his own "convention" outside at various locations around Cleveland.

His people helped Habitat for Humanity build a home; he threw a party for his campaign volunteers; he went kayaking in the Cuyahoga River with some wounded military veterans.

And he did not actually endorse Trump until the last morning of the convention, when he showed up at the Ohio delegation breakfast and told his fellow Ohioans that they should vote for Trump and go out and work for his election.

Then, in October, Portman withdrew his endorsement of Trump after the release of an Access Hollywood video, which contained audio of Trump talking with host Billy Bush. He boasted about his sexual conquests and talked about women in about the most crude language possible.

That's when Portman checked out. He said he couldn't support Hillary Clinton for president, but would vote for vice presidential candidate Mike Pence for president.

Then, last week, for no apparent reason, he chose early February 2019 to tell the conservative website Independent Journal Review that he would support Trump for re-election.

Asked why he had changed his mind since October 2016, Portman is quoted as saying, "Well, he's the incumbent. I mean, he's in office; I work with him every day.

"I disagree with him publicly and privately when appropriate,'' Portman said. "But I also get a lot done, and I get that done with him. So we work with the White House and I think that's important for Ohio."

Back home, this sent one of Portman's long-time Republican supporters over the edge. Former Cincinnati councilman and Hamilton County commissioner Phil Heimlich wrote an op-ed column for the Enquirer raking Portman over the coals, asking Portman why he never speaks out against "such overwhelming dishonesty."

Phil Heimlich.
Credit Courtesy of Phil Heimlich

In an interview with WVXU, Heimlich said that Portman has been a long-time friend and a mentor, someone who helped him launch his political career.

"But I couldn't sit by and listen to Rob defend this,'' Heimlich said.

Heimlich said it recalled to him the words of 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to remain silent."  

"Rob Portman is a good man,'' Heimlich said. "That's why I don't understand this. How can he remain silent?"

Portman says he has spoken up when he believed Trump has been wrong. When Trump sided with Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies, Portman called it "troubling."

"Troubling,'' Heimlich said. " 'Troubling' is being in a restaurant and having your food brought out cold. This is far more than 'troubling.' "

The late Sen. John McCain went considerably further in his criticism of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki. McCain called it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."

Portman won re-election in 2016, trouncing former governor Ted Strickland. He won 84 of 88 counties. He's not up for re-election until 2022, but perhaps he is thinking ahead.

"Maybe, if Trump's presidency completely falls apart, Rob can go out and say, 'Well, I spoke out when I disagreed,' '' Heimlich said. "And if Trump goes on to win a second term, he can say he was there with him from the start."

David Niven, assistant professor of American politics at the University of Cincinnati, said he thinks Portman and other Republican leaders are between a rock and a hard place.

"Mitch McConnell and Rob Portman are like dieters who are looking at a big plate of cookies,'' Niven said. "They can't hold off on what Trump's got going for him, but, at the same time, they know it's not good for them. What to do?"

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU