Chuck Grassley’s act of defiance

 In Politics

Chuck Grassley doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

Ignoring protests from the most powerful people in his own party, the Republican senator from Iowa is plowing ahead with a plan to shield special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the bill will never make it to the Senate floor.

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And Grassley himself acknowledges it won’t become law, but he’s presiding over a committee hearing on the proposal Thursday anyway. The move by the 84-year-old senator, who can still do more pushups than many people half his age, is a rare act of defiance of Trump in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Even so, Grassley told Politico during an interview in his Capitol office that his “relationship with the president is excellent as far as I’m concerned.”

“Now, I don’t know what he thinks about it. But that’s the way I look at it,” Grassley said. Asked whether Trump has talked to him about Mueller, he demurred in quintessential fashion: “If I had a conversation with the president, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”

It’s not just the special counsel bill Grassley is taking a risk in advancing. The Judiciary Committee chairman is also refusing to back away from a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that other senior Republicans oppose. And he’s negotiating with Democrats on a raft of politically charged judicial nominations.

As Grassley tells it, his public displays of independence aren’t part of any master plan. He’s spent 37 years in the Senate hewing closely to the GOP line on most issues — like the party’s yearlong blockade of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland — but going rogue on others.

That persona has won him grudging respect from Democrats, even as some of them wonder how much they can count on the Iowa senator to conduct vigilant oversight of Trump’s White House. As for whether his latest moves defying the Republican Party line would bolster his standing with Democrats, Grassley challenged the premise of the question.

Instead, Grassley said, it’s worth asking “does my stock with any colleagues make a big difference to me?”

“You’ve just got to do your job and let the chips fall where they may,” he said. Grassley noted that he’s been challenging GOP orthodoxy on spending and government transparency since the Reagan years, adding a flash of his dry humor by quipping that reporters who “just got out of college” would be too young to remember.

Grassley’s occasionally nonconformist approach makes him a potential ally for every other senator, whether it’s liberal Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — who remarked that “there’s a sweetness” about the senator — or conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), his ally on criminal justice issues.

Democrats are hoping that Grassley is taking a new turn: a willingness to challenge both Trump and McConnell more regularly after showing fealty to GOP leadership two years ago. He stood by McConnell as the Senate leader refused to take up Garland’s nomination in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

“We’re friends, we really are,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “And I don’t think he’s been happy with some of the assignments he’s been given here by the Republican leadership. They’re just not consistent with what I know about Chuck. He’s had to take a step back a couple times now. And I don’t think it’s consistent with his political name and image.”

In a Capitol where manufactured talking points frequently rule the day, Grassley stands out. He proudly recounts that it took 21 years in the Senate for him to receive a Capitol office with a window. He writes his own tweets, in charmingly garbled, plainspoken prose. And he frequently raises his voice to underscore his point in a manner that’s harmless but might frighten the uninitiated.

The fifth-longest-serving GOP senator in U.S. history, Grassley often can be seen walking into the Capitol by himself with no driver at the crack of dawn. Away from the Hill, Grassley spends his time running and grudgingly watching the History Channel, which he says should be renamed the “Frivolous” channel for not running real history programming.

“Every weekend I try it,” Grassley said of the network, “but it’s just, it’s always disappointing.”

Despite Durbin’s suggestion that he has chafed at edicts from party leadership, Grassley described his relationship with McConnell as good, if not particularly close and not always in sync.

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