Josh Hawley Is ‘Not Going Anywhere.’ How Did He Get Here?

Most Republicans who spoke at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., avoided acknowledging the events of Jan. 6. But less than 30 seconds into his speech, Senator Josh Hawley confronted them head on.

That day, Mr. Hawley said, had underscored the “great crisis moment” in which Americans currently found themselves. That day, he explained, the mob had come for him.

The “woke mob,” that is. In the weeks since, they had “tried to cancel me, censor me, expel me, shut me down.” To “stop me,” Mr. Hawley said, “from representing you.

“And guess what?” he went on, his tempo building, the audience applauding: “I’m here today, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not backing down.”

The appeal from Missouri’s junior senator reflected what has become standard fare in a Republican Party still in thrall to Donald J. Trump. As Mr. Hawley’s audience seemed to agree, his amplification of the former president’s false claims of a stolen election was not incitement for the mob of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan 6; it was a principled stand against the “radical left.”

Yet to some of the senator’s earliest supporters, it was precisely for its ordinariness that the speech stood out, the latest reminder of the distance between the Josh Hawley they thought they had voted for and the Josh Hawley who now appeared regularly on Fox News.

Against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s G.O.P., the idea had been that Mr. Hawley was different. Sworn in at 39 years old, he ascended to the Senate in part by selling himself as an intellectual in a movement that increasingly seemed to shun intellect. Whereas Mr. Trump fired off brash tweets littered with random capitalizations and adverbs like “bigly,” Mr. Hawley published essays on subjects like medieval theology.

Throughout his life, whether as a student at Stanford or a law professor in Missouri, Mr. Hawley had impressed people as “thoughtful” and “sophisticated,” a person of “depth.” And as a growing number of conservatives saw it, he also had the proper ideas. From the time he was a teenager, he had criticized the free-market allegiance at the center of Republican orthodoxy; when he arrived in Washington, he immediately launched into a crusade against Big Tech. The conservative think-tank class embraced him as someone who had the right vocabulary, the right suits and the right worldview to translate Mr. Trump’s vague populist instincts into a fresh blueprint for his party’s future — someone elite enough, in other words, to be entrusted with the banner of anti-elitism.

Which is in part why, when Mr. Hawley became the first senator to announce that he would object to the certification of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as president, many of his allies underwent a public mourning of sorts. They’d expected as much from, say, Ted Cruz — as one senior Senate aide put it, the Texas Republican, who had filibustered Obamacare while its namesake was still in office, had always been transparent about his motivations. But Mr. Hawley?

To survey Mr. Hawley’s life is indeed to see a consistency in the broad strokes of his political cosmology. Yet interviews with more than 50 people close to Mr. Hawley cast light on what, in the haze of charm and first impressions, his admirers often seemed to miss: an attachment to the steady cadence of ascension, and a growing comfort with doing what might be necessary to maintain it.

Mr. Hawley’s Stanford adviser, the historian David Kennedy, struggled to reconcile his memories with the now-infamous image of the senator, fist raised in solidarity with pro-Trump demonstrators shortly before they descended on the Capitol. “The Josh I knew was not an angry young person,” he recalled. “But when I see him now on television, he just always seems angry — really angry.”

Dr. Kennedy acknowledged that Mr. Hawley was just one of many Republicans in the Trump era who had steeped their brand in “anger and resentment and grievance.” But for many of those once close to Mr. Hawley, that was the point: How did a man who seemed so special turn out to be just like everyone else?

And what, they wondered, did Josh Hawley have to be so angry about?

An un-misspent youth

In the late 1990s, the Jesuit high school Mr. Hawley attended in Kansas City, Mo., turned to him for damage control.

“There was a group of seniors in our class who had a party that got out of hand, and it became a news story,” recalled Ben Capoccia, a classmate. “They had Josh and I go on the news to make it look like we were not all these bad kids.” He added, “I know what he said was much more eloquent than what I said.”

Mr. Hawley was an academic star, champion debater and National Merit finalist who won Rockhurst High’s Kloster award, given to “a young man who consistently puts the welfare of his fellow students above his own interests.”

But in recent weeks, some of Mr. Hawley’s old classmates and teachers have been aghast at his role in undermining confidence in America’s elections.

“I’ve been very disappointed to see who he has become,” said Kristen Ruehter-Thompson, a close friend growing up who was once Mr. Hawley’s prom date.

Even his middle school principal, Barbara Weibling, has weighed in. “I’m not surprised he’s a politician and that he’s shooting for the presidency,” said Ms. Weibling, a vocal supporter of Democrats. “The only thing is, I think he had a strict moral upbringing, and I was really disappointed he would suck the country into the lies that Trump told about the election. I just think that’s wrong.”

There was never any question that Mr. Hawley was going places. Born on the last day of the 1970s, he was raised with an eye toward the future and a destiny aimed beyond Lexington, a small town about an hour east of Kansas City, where a Civil War cannonball remains embedded in a column at the courthouse. His views and trajectory were shaped by his parents, Ron and Virginia, who met at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. She was Kansas Junior Miss in 1973 and graduated summa cum laude, majoring in English. Ron was a football player who worked as a probation officer after college, before becoming a prosperous banker.

Theirs was a traditional, patriarchal and churchgoing household. After pursuing a career as a teacher, Mrs. Hawley “became a speaker and leader of Christian spiritual renewal conferences and retreats in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas,” according to an account in a Kansas paper. She also ran prayer groups at the family’s Methodist church.

Ms. Ruehter-Thompson said Mr. Hawley’s “dad was more of the influence,” adding, “There were always discussions of Rush Limbaugh.”

From early on, Mr. Hawley harbored a deep fascination with politics. At 12, he wrote about the 1992 presidential election for his school paper, breaking down how many moderators there would be at the debates; three years later, in writings recently unearthed by The Kansas City Star, he expressed sympathy for militia movements in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. (“Many of the people populating these movements are not radical, right-wing, pro-assault weapons freaks as they were originally stereotyped,” he wrote.)

Later in middle school, he dragged friends to movies like “Nixon.” He also signed their eighth grade yearbooks with variations of “Josh Hawley 2024,” according to Ms. Ruehter-Thompson and another classmate, Andrea Randle, as well as Tim Crosson, the vocal music teacher at the school. (“Sounds like revisionist history,” a Hawley spokeswoman said. “How about they produce a hard copy.”)

Mr. Crosson said he and Mr. Hawley would spar about politics. “He would come into my room and announce the number of days left in Bill Clinton’s term, and I would fire back, ‘Four more years,’” Mr. Crosson recalled.

Ms. Randle, a Black classmate, was frustrated that Mr. Hawley didn’t do enough to respond to the police killing of George Floyd last May. After initially expressing sympathy, he later accused an alliance of Democrats and the “woke mob” of dividing the country.

“We played around after school, and I remember him pulling my hair after history class, that’s what I remember, so it’s so bizarre,” she said. “Me and my friends have talked about it, even over Christmas. Was he always like this and we didn’t know?”

At Rockhurst, an all-boys school, a populist ideology began to evolve that didn’t align neatly with either political party. Mr. Hawley seemed most disturbed by the veneration of individual liberty and pluralism in American society. In a “Young Voices” column for The Springfield News-Leader, he called the “rights of the individual vs. the rights of the community” a “fierce debate that so dominates our age.” “The philosophy of radical individualism,” he wrote, was both “cause and symptom of the continuing decline of America’s shared civic life.”

The world according to Hawley

College is often one’s first exposure to knotty questions of identity, politics and faith, but Mr. Hawley moved through Stanford University with unusual conviction. Writing for The News-Leader the summer after his freshman year, in 1999, he invoked a recent speech by his school’s provost, Condoleezza Rice, to argue for a “fresh discussion of first principles and a fundamental rethinking of the role of government and the aims of freedom.” He was 19.

On campus, Mr. Hawley wrote columns for the conservative Stanford Review and was active in student ministry groups. He described his worldview in gauzy phrases like “a proper sense of shared citizenship,” but drew a clearer line on at least one issue. Above his bed he hung a sepia-toned poster of a shirtless male model cradling a newborn; when asked by classmates, he said it reflected his fervent stance against abortion. (The Hawley spokeswoman said the poster is “not something he remembers. But he’s proudly pro-life.”)

Political aspirations seemed likely. Classmates recall his careful attention to his image, how he wouldn’t sit for a photo until a stray red Solo cup had been disposed of. Still, he was not viewed as a firebrand; he seemed more animated by the pursuit of an intellectual identity than a partisan affiliation. His first principles were guided by his Christianity.

Mr. Hawley sharpened his thinking in conversations with his adviser, Dr. Kennedy. Americans, Mr. Hawley argued, were suffering a crisis of “loneliness,” prisoners of a culture of individualism unmoored from any shared sense of purpose. Hastening this plight, in his view, was the American right’s devotion to the free market.

Dr. Kennedy was somewhat surprised to learn years later that his advisee was evangelical; for him, Mr. Hawley’s ideological instincts had called to mind “Rerum Novarum,” the encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 condemning unfettered capitalism and endorsing measures like trade unionism as means of reinforcing the dignity of the working class.

“I do think there was something reflexively present in Josh from early on that was aligned with that kind of thinking,” Dr. Kennedy said.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 2002 and spending a year as a teaching intern at an all-boys school in London, Mr. Hawley went on to Yale Law School. He seemed torn between politics or a life in the ivory tower he would ultimately spend so much time castigating. Both Dr. Kennedy and a Yale classmate remember him on the “knife’s edge,” as the former put it, of pursuing a doctorate in history.

In other words, his first imperative was not — did not appear to be — power.

“My impression of Josh back then was he was kind of what we need in our democracy,” recalled Ian Bassin, a Yale classmate turned harsh critic. “I always found him to be curious to hear why I came to conclusions I did, and vice versa. And I always felt what brought him to his conclusions were very honest, very genuine, very principled views.”

Several classmates, however, observed a change in Mr. Hawley toward the end of his time at Yale. On a campus where success is often measured in Supreme Court clerkships, ambition is a given. But it was nonetheless striking when Mr. Hawley suddenly seemed more interested in winning prestigious posts than in doing the work once he won them.

A former classmate recalled Mr. Hawley’s excitement when both were named editors at the Yale Law Journal. Eventually, however, their friendship frayed. Mr. Hawley was very engaged, this person said, when his role meant collecting the business cards of Federalist Society members as he asked them to contribute articles. But when it came to finalizing footnotes the night before deadline, fellow editors often found that he forgot to check his email.

Irina Manta recalls a similar experience. She and Mr. Hawley were rivals at the campus Federalist Society chapter and served together as vice presidents of events. “I tried really hard to work with him,” Ms. Manta said. But as the year went on, she found herself organizing events and debates alone. “When I would send emails, I just wouldn’t hear back from him,” she said. “He wasn’t exactly into working hard if he could help it.” (Ms. Manta wrote an article about her time at Yale with Mr. Hawley for USA Today on Jan. 5.)

In joining the Federalist Society, Mr. Hawley had moved into the orbit of an ascendant legal community that, for a conservative on campus, offered the clearest avenue to power. Eventually he defeated Ms. Manta for the Yale chapter’s presidency, a title he embraced proudly. (The Hawley spokeswoman said that Ms. Manta was “bitter” about losing the election, and that Mr. Hawley had an “outstanding record in law school” that “speaks for itself.”)

The members he was looking to impress were not necessarily his own chapter’s. In August 2005, when John Roberts was asked during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings about his ties to the Federalist Society, Mr. Hawley had his back. In an op-ed in The Hartford Courant, he chided Democrats for attempting to portray the group as a “secret society of scary people.” “Far from subverting the country’s legal order,” he argued, “Federalists seek to strengthen it.”

In 2007, a year after finishing law school, Mr. Hawley moved to Washington to clerk for Chief Justice Roberts.

One of his fellow clerks was Erin Morrow. She had been just one year ahead of Mr. Hawley at Yale, but it wasn’t until the two shared an office that they became close.

Mr. Hawley would later occasionally adopt the folksy affect of farm child, but Ms. Morrow was the real thing. She had grown up on a cattle farm in New Mexico and, as a student at Texas A&M, had been a member of the All-American Livestock Judging Team. (One of her professors would recall her as among his most impressive students “in her understanding of what is really important in beef-cattle breeding.”) Yale classmates remembered her as brilliant and unpretentious. She and Mr. Hawley wed in 2010.

When Thomas Lambert, who was on the appointments committee at the University of Missouri School of Law, learned that the Hawleys were open to moving to Columbia, he jumped at the chance to hire them. “It’s really quite a feather in your cap to hire law clerks from the Supreme Court,” he said. “And here was an opportunity to get two.” The couple began teaching in the fall of 2011.

Much of their first years in Missouri centered on their faith. They led a Bible study at an Evangelical Presbyterian church and mentored Christian law students. Mr. Hawley wrote about faith and politics, arguing in a 2015 Notre Dame Law Review essay for a “return to political theology.” Contending that religion had been “quarantined” and “roped off” from politics and law, he railed against the postwar liberal order and called for putting “the state’s sovereignty in its proper and subordinate place.”

Not long after returning to Missouri, Mr. Hawley had begun asking Republican consultants to coffee. One of them suggested a state legislative bid. The consultant recalled Mr. Hawley laughing. He wanted to run for attorney general.

In Missouri, 30 counties account for most of the primary vote. The consultant advised Mr. Hawley to contact the local Republican Party chairs and ask to speak at their events. He had a winning pitch. In 2014, he helped represent Hobby Lobby in its successful Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Conservatives enjoyed hearing him talk about the case.

The consultant recalled Mr. Hawley contacting him after traversing the state. “OK,” he asked, “now what?”

Becoming a politician

As successful as these tours were, Mr. Hawley’s growing coterie of advisers realized quickly that their candidate disdained, as one termed it, the “people part” of campaigning — the unannounced visits to local diners, the niche roundtable conversations with voters.

Yet when it came to selling himself to kingmakers, he thrived.

In a campaign season that coincided with Mr. Trump’s political ascent, Mr. Hawley found an eager audience among Missouri’s donor class and Republican elders. He dazzled them by seeming to be everything Mr. Trump was not: tempered, thoughtful, a reservoir of adjectives like “Burkean.” When asked about their first meetings with Mr. Hawley, powerful people in Missouri recalled being enchanted not so much by his vision for office, but by the fact that he sounded smart.

He can get up and talk about issues and look you straight in the eye the whole time,” said Daniel Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. He added, “He impresses you as someone who knows what he’s talking about.”

Among Mr. Hawley’s first — and most important — enthusiasts was John Danforth, the former senator and elder statesman of Missouri Republicans. His blessing was crucial for an ambitious young man looking to scale the state’s political ranks.

The two had met years before, when Mr. Danforth visited Yale for a dinner. They stayed in touch. “He referred me to a couple of books: One was by a British politician and political philosopher named Danny Kruger, and the other by Yuval Levin,” Mr. Danforth recalled. “And I thought, well, this is interesting.” He saw in Mr. Hawley “a real intellectual,” a conservative version of his old friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Yet when asked, Mr. Danforth couldn’t recall what it was he thought Mr. Hawley wanted to accomplish, as attorney general or as a senator. “I don’t know that I had an impression of that,” he said after a pause.

Mr. Danforth helped Mr. Hawley gain the support of the state’s major Republican contributors. Chief among them was David Humphreys, Mr. Hawley’s largest donor, who has given millions of dollars to his campaigns and political action committee.

People close to Mr. Hawley recalled his skill in convincing donors that he saw the world as they did; as one early booster put it, it was as if he held up a mirror as he spoke to them. His rejection of Republican economic orthodoxy was well documented, but he convinced libertarian-minded conservatives like Mr. Humphreys and David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, of his devotion to the free market.

The most memorable commercial of the campaign featured the candidate surrounded by ladders being climbed by men in suits. In the ad, he castigated “career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another.” Yet shortly after he was sworn in as attorney general in January 2017, Republicans including Mr. Danforth and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, began urging him to challenge Missouri’s vulnerable Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill. Mr. Hawley obliged.

His actual job appeared to take a back seat.

“I don’t think he had much interest in that office, really,” said J. Andrew Hirth, who served as deputy general counsel under Mr. Hawley’s predecessor, Chris Koster, a Democrat. “From the moment he got there, he was looking toward the Senate.”

He was increasingly absent from the office. Sometimes he was meeting with potential backers for his Senate campaign; one local paper reported that he was leaving work midday to exercise at a gym about a half-hour away. A photograph of a casually clothed Mr. Hawley buying wine on a workday afternoon circulated on social media.

The attorney general’s office was quickly hollowed out of talent as Mr. Hawley appointed key officials with stronger religious than managerial credentials. The most notable was Michael Quinlan, who was a “mediator and conflict coach” at a Christian marriage counseling group when he was recruited to oversee civil litigation.

He was hired despite having been frequently quoted defending a local bishop who was found guilty of a misdemeanor after shielding a priest who took pornographic pictures of girls. Mr. Hawley’s aides said they hadn’t been aware of those comments. Mr. Quinlan later departed after a female employee complained about receiving an unwelcome lecture from him about her sex life; he denied accusations of acting improperly.

Experienced lawyers who defended state agencies against lawsuits headed for the exits. Only one litigator who had worked under Mr. Hawley’s predecessor stayed on in the main office, in Jefferson City. As morale continued to sag, eight of Mr. Hawley’s own hires quit too.

Amid the turmoil, outside public relations consultants took an unusually prominent role. In 2017, before a raid on massage parlors in Springfield, the consultants told the attorney general’s staff that they were angling for an appearance with the CNN anchor Jake Tapper. They instructed aides that Mr. Hawley, “should be wearing some kind of law enforcement garb — like a police jacket and hat,” according to internal emails.

During the raids, Mr. Hawley gathered reporters in a strip-mall parking lot, his expression grim and a large badge hanging around his neck.

“Josh was the chief law enforcement officer of the state,” the Hawley spokeswoman said. “He wore a badge.”

A ‘champion in the Senate’

When Mr. Hawley arrived in Washington in January 2019 as Missouri’s junior senator, he positioned himself as the intellectual heir of Trumpism — the politician who could integrate the president’s populist instincts into a comprehensive ideology for the G.O.P. In his maiden speech, he summoned the lamentation of cultural erosion he’d been refining since high school, arguing that the “great American middle” had been overlooked by a “new, arrogant aristocracy.”

For conservatives who felt Mr. Trump had identified uncomfortable truths about the party despite ultimately governing like a typical Republican, Mr. Hawley’s arrival was timely. That July, conservative writers and policy experts gathered at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington for the inaugural National Conservatism Conference, meant to map a departure from the corporate-class policies that for decades had defined conservatism. Mr. Hawley, who in his keynote speech decried the “cosmopolitan consensus,” was introduced as the fledgling movement’s “champion in the Senate.”

He did not discourage whispers about 2024, and some younger Trump campaign aides, who saw him as the “refined” version of their boss, mused privately about working for him should he run. It wasn’t long before Donald Trump Jr. was inviting him to lunch at his father’s Washington hotel.

Even so, he baffled his party’s leadership as he tried to derail the confirmation of some of Mr. Trump’s conservative judicial nominees, deeming their records on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage insufficiently pure.

But it was Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept the election results that offered the first real stress test for the brand Mr. Hawley had labored to cultivate — whether it was possible to be both the darling of the conservative intelligentsia and the “fighter” the party’s base craved.

He had reason to believe it was. He was comfortable paying “the price of admission,” as one Republican official put it, to a place in Mr. Trump’s G.O.P., in part because nothing in his short political career had suggested there would ever be a cost. Early on, few had blinked when he embraced the president during a visit to Missouri. He had courted far-right figures during his campaign, yet still received plum speaking slots at high-minded conferences.

And so on Dec. 30, Josh Hawley became the first Senate Republican to announce his intent to challenge Mr. Biden’s congressional certification.

Mr. Hawley’s team was adamant that he had not been motivated by a potential presidential bid in 2024, but among other things had been moved by a December video conference with 30 constituents who said they felt “disenfranchised” by Mr. Biden’s victory.

“He knows the state well after two campaigns, and I think he knew that Missourians supported the president,” said James Harris, a longtime political adviser to Mr. Hawley.

He tried to thread the needle as he always had, wrapping his objection not in fevered “STOP THE STEAL” tweets but in questions about the constitutionality of mail-in voting in Pennsylvania.

And, had there been no violence, perhaps his gambit would have worked. But when Mr. Hawley and others lent their voices to Mr. Trump’s lie of rampant voter fraud, people listened.

Mr. Hawley spent much of Jan. 6 hiding with his colleagues in a Senate committee room as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. He sat hunched against the wall, eyes fixed on his phone, as Republicans and Democrats alike blamed him for the madness. Later that evening, when senators safely reconvened to finish certifying the election, Mr. Hawley forged ahead with his objection.

The reckoning was swift. Simon & Schuster dropped plans to publish his book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” Major donors severed ties. Mr. Danforth called supporting Mr. Hawley “the biggest mistake of my life.” His wife, Erin, was collateral damage: Kirkland & Ellis, the law firm where she had briefly practiced, purged an old biography from its website. She was scheduled to teach a course in constitutional litigation at the University of Missouri, but “after the events of Jan. 6, people were not so happy about that,” said Professor Lambert, who brought the couple to the school; in response, he had stressed that “you cannot hold her responsible for her husband’s views.”

Yet something else happened, too. Mr. Hawley saw a surge in small-dollar donations to his campaign, making January his best fund-raising month since 2018. As Axios first reported, the $969,000 he amassed easily offset defections from corporate political action committees. Added to that was the applause of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has since bundled more than $300,000 for Mr. Hawley.

Mr. Hawley had a choice. He could commit to his burgeoning fighter persona. “My No. 1 piece of advice was: You can’t go back on this now. You go back on this now, and you make absolutely everyone angry,” recalled his adviser Gregg Keller.

Or he could try to reclaim the scholarly identity that had long propelled him. Oren Cass, the founder of American Compass, a think tank that aims to advance a more working-class-friendly conservatism, had frequently praised Mr. Hawley for defying Republican dogma. But he called the senator’s objections to the election “obnoxious” and “self-serving.” He urged him to acknowledge his “failure of judgment.”

As his advisers saw it, the lessons of the Trump era — that success in today’s G.O.P. means never having to say you’re sorry — were clear. And Josh Hawley was nothing if not a star student.

In the weeks since, Mr. Hawley has vowed to sue the “woke mob” at Simon & Schuster for dropping his book. He’s written for The New York Post about “the muzzling of America.” He has appeared on Fox News to discuss said muzzling. And while he said shortly after the riot that he would not run for president in 2024, his advisers have continued to hype him as “one of the favorites” of a potential Republican primary field, as Mr. Keller put it.

Mr. Hawley tested his new cri de coeur on a live audience on Feb. 26, at the gathering of the conservative faithful in Orlando. “You know, on Jan. 6, I objected to the Electoral College certification,” he began. “Maybe you heard about it.”

The room erupted. “I did,” he went on, “I stood up —” His words were drowned out by cheers.

It had not been the mood of his speech. But as he paused to take in the standing ovation, Mr. Hawley seemed happy.

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