Republican Sen. Josh Hawley threw a political grenade into Washington last week when he announced his intentions to object when Congress counts the Electoral College votes on Wednesday – a move that pits the youngest senator against Senate GOP leadership as well as some rank-and-file members who will now have to cast a highly consequential vote as a result of his decision.
Hawley, 41, who was elected to represent Missouri in 2018 and is widely believed to have higher political ambitions, became the first senator to announce plans to object to the election results – a significant development since both a House member and a senator are required to mount an objection when Congress counts the electoral votes.
Though his objection won’t change the outcome of the election and will only delay the inevitable affirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump, his commitment to Trump’s baseless crusade to challenge the election represents perhaps his most significant political maneuvering since coming to the Senate two years ago.
He was one of just seven GOP senators who voted against overriding Trump’s veto of a defense policy bill last week. He was also the rare GOP senator to initially join with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in calling for higher stimulus check payments to Americans – a caused vocally championed by Trump, but scorned by GOP leadership, who killed Democratic efforts to bring legislation for $2,000 checks to the floor before the clock ran out on the 116th Congress.
On the election issue, though, Hawley is ensuring that one of the first votes his GOP colleagues will take in the 117th Congress will be one that follows them for their political careers. They’ll have to choose between siding with Trump and his base or with the popular will of the voters, which could come back to haunt them in future elections no matter how they vote.
Already, Hawley’s decision has provoked the ire of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pressed the Missouri Republican to explain his rationale on a Senate GOP conference call last week, though the junior senator wasn’t dialed in. And by Sunday, a number of Republican senators had publicly opposed it, including several moderate Republicans and Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican in Senate GOP leadership.
But none of the pushback seems to have changed Hawley’s mind: on Sunday he was still reviewing how many states he might object to and whether he will object to more than just Pennsylvania, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
A play for 2024?
Asked by CNN in November if a 2024 presidential run was in the cards, Hawley said flatly: “It’s not.”
But his early commitment to object to Biden’s Electoral College win represents a clear bet from Hawley that the President will continue to hold considerable influence over the Republican electorate in the coming years.
Trump, even after he leaves office, will retain his Twitter account – and with it, the potential to become a GOP kingmaker.
And Hawley’s political ambitions were already tied to Trump before the 2020 election. In 2018, when he defeated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, he ran his Senate campaign as a self-proclaimed champion of the President’s agenda who could help deliver conservative Supreme Court picks.
Vice President Mike Pence was among the Republicans who in 2017 pushed Hawley, a former Supreme Court clerk, to leave his post as Missouri attorney general, to which he had just been elected the year before, to run for Senate.
But while Hawley’s efforts to challenge the 2020 presidential election results are sure to cement him in Trump’s good graces for the time-being, he’s helped unleash a public rift in the Republican party that also risks alienating him from congressional allies and harming any future presidential ambitions.
GOP lawmakers have openly criticized their colleagues in recent days, as a divide emerges in the GOP over whether to follow Hawley or stand against what even Trump supporters have acknowledged is a futile effort.
“I’m concerned about the division in America, that’s the biggest issue, but obviously this is not healthy for the Republican Party either,” said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has been critical of Trump’s false election claims. “What’s good for America is the main question here, but this is bad for the country and bad for the party.”
Republican Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, has also pushed back. She sent a 21-page memo to Republicans Sunday outlining why she believes objecting to the Electoral College count is unconstitutional and an “exceptionally dangerous precedent.”
Hawley, though, has only leaned further into his stance, tweeting Saturday: “It’s time to STAND UP.”
“So true,” Trump tweeted in return. “Thanks Josh!”
And on Sunday, Hawley sent out a fundraising email saying he “will not bow down to career politicians in Washington” and asking for Americans to join him and donate.
Missouri attorney general
Before entering the national political arena, Hawley was Missouri’s attorney general from 2017 to 2019, a role that served as a spring board for his larger ambitions even as it brought some controversy.
Hawley touts on his Senate website that he used his role as attorney general to fight “the Washington overreach threatening farms and family businesses.”
He had garnered wide-spread attention in 2018 when he accused then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, of obtaining a charity donor list without permission. “If proven, these acts could amount to the unauthorized taking and use of property – in this case electronic property. Under Missouri law, this is known as computer tampering and given the value of the list in question, it is a felony,” Hawley said at the time.
Greitens ultimately resigned as governor – something Hawley called “the right thing” to do at the time.
In another high-profile case, Hawley sued the owners and operators of a duck boat that sank on a lake near Branson, Missouri, and killed 17 people, saying they had been aware of safety hazards but their “own profits” were their priority. A National Transportation Safety Board probe ultimately found a “systemic problem with the company as a whole.”
But his tenure as attorney general also brought scrutiny. He faced fierce criticism for a December 2017 speech in which he blamed the sexual revolution for human trafficking. “The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined,” he said in a speech to Christian pastors at an event hosted by the Missouri Renewal Project.
“You know what I’m talking about, the 1960s, 1970s, it became commonplace in our culture among our cultural elites, Hollywood, and the media to talk about – to denigrate the biblical truth about husband and wife, man and woman,” Hawley said.
He argued that there’s a “human trafficking crisis” because “our culture has completely lost its way.”
“We must also deliver a message to our culture that the false gospel of ‘anything goes’ ends in this road of slavery,” Hawley added.
A spokeswoman for Hawley’s campaign stood by the candidate’s remarks when asked for comment at the time, adding that he had aggressively cracked down on sex trafficking since he took office as attorney general.
Vocal tech critic
Hawley’s tenure in Congress has been defined by his role as a vocal tech critic eager to impose consequences on Silicon Valley over its dominance in the global economy.
He’s railed against Section 230, a law that shields internet companies from being liable for what is posted on their websites by them or third parties, which is a grievance Trump shares. The President delivered on his promise to veto the National Defense Authorization Act because it did not repeal Section 230, and in a bipartisan rebuke, the Senate overrode that veto last week – the first successful override of Trump’s presidency.
But Hawley joined with six other GOP senators in voting to let Trump’s veto of the defense bill stand.
In October, Hawley sent letters to Facebook and Twitter characterizing some of the companies’ content moderation decisions as an illegal campaign contribution benefiting Biden. And in November, he targeted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a misleading line of questioning during a Senate Judiciary Committee session.
Hawley repeatedly asked Zuckerberg if Facebook coordinates with YouTube and Twitter for “censorship” and “to control information,” citing information he had obtained from a “whistleblower.”
It is well-known that social media companies do communicate with each other on issues related to foreign meddling, terrorism and other topics. But Hawley tried to deceptively characterize the practice of Facebook communicating with its peers as nefarious and implied that the coordination was a major revelation.
During his first year in the Senate, Hawley even introduced a bill aimed at fighting “social media addiction.”
“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away,” Hawley said in a news release at the time.
“This legislation will put an end to that and encourage true innovation by tech companies.”
Jeremy Herb, Phil Mattingly, Lauren Fox, Manu Raju, Brian Fung, Nicole Chavez, Deanna Hackney and Victoria Stracqualursi contributed to this report.