NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In his first week, Tennessee's freshman U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty watched in horror as the Capitol riots unfolded around him and decided to back down from his plans to oppose the electoral college results that affirmed President Joe Biden's win despite then-President Donald Trump's weekslong push to block the certification.
Three months after that January vote, the Republican senator hasn't lost standing with Trump, who tapped Hagerty as his ambassador to Japan and lifted him with a Senate endorsement in 2020.
Hagerty said he met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida this week. They even talked about the decision Trump is facing over whether to run again in 2024 — Hagerty said Trump is focused on the 2022 elections and hasn’t yet decided whether to run.
In the one-on-one meeting, Hagerty gave Trump a rundown of his new election bill. It would largely seek to withhold federal election security funding when states install new election policies, including changes to absentee voting, without first going through their legislatures. The proposal includes an election audit of 2020, but is more cosmetic than realistic in the current Congress, which is controlled by Democrats.
“President Trump certainly felt good about the direction I’m taking it, when he and I were discussing it yesterday,” Hagerty told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday.
The election proposal is one of the first bills offered up by Hagerty, who is fully staffed but running his shop in temporary office space until the end of the month due to limitations during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the businessman's whirlwind start, he's settled in to a pattern of regular criticisms of the Biden administration, chiding him for blocking the Keystone Pipeline, lamenting a surge in border crossings and speaking out against Democratic spending proposals.
He has blasted China since his campaign, and isn't in favor of the corporate tax increase or the scope of projects involved in Biden's infrastructure proposal. He added that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate won't work with China.
“I think it’s folly to believe that China is going to sign up for anything that puts them in the same boat that the Biden administration is trying to put us, in terms of higher corporate taxes,” Hagerty said.
He's still assessing what the right course is for the U.S. on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, saying athletes have trained hard.
“I don’t want to penalize those athletes, but I am open to ways that we can continue to message our displeasure with the Chinese communist regime,” he said.
For weeks after Jan. 6, though, some Trump-supporting detractors on social media nagged Hagerty over the electoral college vote, which several Republicans made despite promising to oppose certification. Fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn has drawn similar comments after likewise changing her stance after the insurrection unfolded. In January, the two said in a joint statement that the riots were a “shocking day of lawlessness” and that Inauguration Day would prove America remains "the shining city on the hill.”
Unlike Hagerty and Blackburn, the retired Republican senator who Hagerty replaced, Lamar Alexander, had definitively declared “the election is over” weeks before the deadly riots.
This week, Hagerty said he initially planned to vote against certification because he wanted a commission to conduct an emergency audit in key states that were close. Those were where Trump targeted his unfounded allegations of voting irregularities and fraud, which were summarily rejected in courts. After the riots, Hagerty said it became clear that the audit wasn't going to be discussed.
“One thing I was never going to do is vote to nationalize our elections, to allow Congress ... to come in and reverse the results of an election,” Hagerty said.
For those who criticize his vote to certify Biden's win, Hagerty said his new election bill, with Trump's blessing, will show them he stands for the “integrity of the electoral college."
Following an advocate of vaccinations in Alexander, Hagerty also said he’s gotten his COVID-19 inoculation, a decision he said is a personal one.
“I’m more than happy to let folks in Tennessee know, and I am letting them know, that I view the vaccine as safe and worthy of taking,” Hagerty said.