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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

On Eve Of Trump Visit, Tester Talks Cooperation With, Resistance To The President

Senator Jon Tester recording a video message in his Washington, DC office in May
Eric Whitney
Senator Jon Tester recording a video message in his Washington, DC office in May

Democratic Senator Jon Tester was in Missoula Friday to rally his campaign staff and volunteers ahead of President Donald Trump visiting the state on Thursday

"A day of action," is what he asked them to help him with. "A day of action July fifth. If anybody is not out camping and you're in town and you can knock on a few doors and drop a few door cards I'd really appreciate it."

The President is coming to campaign for Tester's Republican opponent, State Auditor Matt Rosendale.

Tester has other plans.

"I'm going to be holding a roundtable discussion (in Billings) on tariffs and its impact on manufacturing and construction and agriculture," he said.

As a well-funded two-term incumbent, Tester is in a good position to defend his seat. On the other hand, President Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016.

That's why Tester has aired a TV adtouting his ability to work with the President. 

"Washington's a mess," he says, addressing the camera, "but that's not stopping me from getting bills signed into bill by President Trump."

Tester has to walk a fine line this election season, to not alienate Montanans who voted for Trump, nor his Democratic base.

"We don't have any problem working with Donald Trump when we can work with him, and we do that regularly, and we hold him accountable when we must," Tester says.

"And so I don't think the relationship is is anything more than a good workable relationship. This is a place where you have to have thick skin because your enemy one day is going to be your best friend tomorrow. People you fight one moment, you're working with on a different issue. We'll be able to get some really good things done in a bipartisan way with this President or any other President over the next six years."

Eric Whitney: What kind of relationship do you think Democratic voters in Montana want you to have with the Trump administration?

Jon Tester: "The same one I just described. Work with him when he can work with him, hold him accountable when you have to hold him accountable."

EW: I hear from a lot of Democrats who want opposition and resistance.

JT: "Look, that's that's not my style. I mean, that's not who I am. I mean I didn't get sent here to do nothing. If a situation comes up where it's a nonstarter we'll we'll put the brakes on it. But if it works for Montana I'm going to I'm going to work to get it done regardless who's got the idea."

EW: I hear from people who who characterize the Trump administration as dangerous, and say it's something that needs to be stopped, and that Democrats need to have a really strong spine to resist, is the word they use.

Sen. Jon Tester.
Credit Eric Whitney
Sen. Jon Tester.

JT: "I think you need to pick the issues. There's no need fighting. I mean, it happens way too much politically around here, that just because somebody says something you're opposed to it because that's who said it. That's that's that's not how the forefathers intended it, I don't believe. I think they intended us to work for the people not for the parties. You don't work against a person, because nobody is wrong all the time and nobody's right all the time you work with them when you can.

"That's how rural America was built. I mean, I can guarantee you that when the homesteaders came out there they weren't all best of buddies. But when somebody got in trouble, or somebody needed help building a barn they all got together and they did it, and they built communities, built communities like the one I grew up in.

"And I think that's the same perspective that people need to have that are serving back here. Resist for the sake of resisting, or saying no because it's popular to say, that's not how I'm wired. I'm wired to get things done."

EW: Can you give me an example of where you've held him accountable?

JT: "Ronny Jackson."

Ronny Jackson was President Trump's pick to replace his first Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who Trump fired.

In April, Tester made public a list of anonymous allegations against Jackson, which said he drank on the job, irresponsibly prescribed drugs and created a hostile work environment. 

"We had 20 military folks, and retired military folks tell us these stories," Tester said in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered.

And Tester said he couldn’t reveal the names of his sources because some faced reprisal in their jobs, and that he told White House Chief of Staff John Kelley: "We need to get to the bottom of it, and we’re working very hard to get to the bottom of it, because these are military personnel that deserve to be heard. 

"And I just told him, it’s my job as United State Senator, and it is the Senate’s job to properly vet these folks and determine whether they’re fit to be secretary, whether it’s the VA or any other agency."

Jackson withdrew his nomination, but President Trump lashed out, during a lengthy phone call to the Fox and Friends TV show.

"Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state," Trump said. 

Expect President Trump and Matt Rosendale to continue painting Tester as out of touch with Montana values, and more in touch with Democratic party leaders Congress, like New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

"Part of their goal is to try to demonize people," Tester says. 

"I mean, that's part of what they're going to try to do to me, that's why I say they're going to try to convert you into something you're not so they can run against that person. But you know, the bottom line is I think I think Chuck cares about our veterans. I think Chuck wants to see a good infrastructure bill. We may differ a little bit on where the money should be spent, but there's also plenty of differences between between Chuck and I. I mean, I had a knock down drag out fight with him on the reg relief bill for our community banks and credit unions."

He’s talking about his March vote for a bill that CNBC called, “the biggest rollback of bank regulations since the global financial crisis.” It took some teeth out of the Dodd Frank Act, which passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and prevented banks from engaging in some of the risky behavior that brought it on.

A minority of Senate Democrats voted for easing Dodd Frank. Tester said he did because it would help Montana’s small town banks and credit unions.

Critics point out that big banks are among the bigger contributors to Tester’s election campaigns.

Tester serves on five Senate committees, including appropriations, Indian Affairs and Veterans Affairs. I had a chance to see him do some committee work in Washington in May, and talk with him about it walking back to his Senate office.

Sen. Jon Tester at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, May 15, 2018.
Credit Eric Whitney
Sen. Jon Tester at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, May 15, 2018.

"Banking committee now is arguably one of my favorite committees," he said.

"Because we’re always dealing with stuff and it’s always important, everything from potential sanctions on bad actors around the world to monetary policy, to insurance policy, that impacts Montanans every day. And so it’s very, very applicable to our lives."

EW: A lot of members of Congress come from a legal background, or some kind of technical field. You don't think that's required? 

JT: Absolutely not required. I think that folks that have a law degree have some potential pluses, but I think folks who have life experiences, in my particular case in rural America, also have some pluses that other folks don't bring to the table."

Back in his office, I ask Tester why he wants a third term.

"It's always been about the next generation, and I think whether you're talking about economic development, whether you're talking infrastructure, whether you're talking public lands, whether you're taking affordable college education, I think there's much more work to be done here. 

And I think it's making sure that our kids have an economy that's a 21st century economy, the next generation of folks that live in this country, and I just think there's a lot more work to be done. 

Everybody's replacable, but I can tell you there's certain things in this country that deserve some attention right now."

President Trump will be in Great Falls Thursday to campaign for his Senator Jon Tester's Republican opponent, State Auditor Matt Rosendale.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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