While there was scattered GOP criticism of Trump in the first six months of his presidency, more and more Republicans appear to be reaching a breaking point with the head of their party -- aggravated over the lack of leadership coming from the White House and weary about having to answer day in and day out for the President's questionable actions and comments.
"We saw in the most substantive way the rebuke of the President with the Russian sanctions vote, which was unanimous in the Republican Party," said Tim Miller, a Republican operative and Trump critic, to me in an interview. "I wish there was even greater vocal opposition, but I am encouraged by the recent changing of the tides and believe that unless there is a drastic change in behavior out of the White House you will see more and more Republican elected officials speak out against the President."
But distancing yourself from the President, let alone openly criticizing him, is a tricky thing to do for a congressional Republican, particularly when Trump maintains a 76% approval rating among self-identified GOP voters. And the President has made clear he is willing to support primary challengers to Republican incumbents who don't support his agenda.
The severity of criticism directed at Trump has ranged from full-throated condemnation by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, to a seemingly frustrated Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, who told CNN he wants Trump "to be successful because I believe in his policies he ran on and won on. But it is hard when there is so much chaos and confusion."
Still, it is not just the West Wing drama that has caused Republicans to split with the President; there are also sharp disagreements on some of his signature policy promises.
For Rep. Will Hurd, it was Trump's vow to build a wall along the US-Mexico border that prompted the Texas Republican to reiterate his opposition to the proposal just days into the Trump presidency. And, in May, Hurd was one of 20 Republicans to vote against the House GOP leadership's health care bill.
Opposing the President and your party leadership is a lonely place to be, but Hurd, a former spy, shrugged it off in a recent interview on SiriusXM's "Full Stop with Mark Preston."
"I follow very simple principles," Hurd said. "I agree when I agree and I disagree when I disagree. You know, I did that in the last administration and I am going to continue to do that here. Be honest, tell people what you're doing, and why you're doing it and people appreciate that."
Hurd is not your stereotypical congressman. He is not a lawyer, a former state senator or a business tycoon. The Texas Republican cut his teeth on the streets of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan as a CIA operative. Hurd was a "spy master": Essentially he "ran spies" in each of these countries, but is careful not to discuss too much about his previous employment.
"I was the guy that was collecting intelligence from individuals that were helping the United States with our threats overseas," he said.
Engaging in legislative battles on Capitol Hill or fighting for his political life every two years seems trite given what Hurd saw during his time in the CIA and growing up in South Texas, the son of a black father and white mother in the late s/s.
The latter, Hurd said, helped him develop an understanding, a compassion for other people that has proven valuable in his professional life.
"For me growing up I was the only person that looked like me," Hurd said. "And it made us a very close-knit family. It also taught me empathy. Also I had a big head as a kid. I had a speech impediment. I had messed up teeth. My last name rhymes with funny things, and it was something that I got picked on a lot and it made me realize 'Hey, the only thing that matters is what the people that you love think about you.' "
Hurd, many Republicans say, is positioned to be an influential voice in the Republican Party, as he checks several key boxes: He is one of only three black Republicans serving in Congress; he's a national security expert; he won twice in a congressional district that arguably should be a Democratic seat given its largely Hispanic demographic; and he possess a political touch that is welcoming, not off-putting.
Politico wrote a story earlier this year titled "Will Hurd Is the Future of the GOP. *If he can hold onto the toughest seat in Texas." Last year, The Daily Dot described Hurd as "the most interesting man in Congress."
Heading into , Hurd, again, is being targeted by Democrats who see his seat as a very viable pickup opportunity. Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections newsletter, rates the Hurd race as a tossup.
If Hurd is to be the "Future of the GOP" he will need to win a third time in a congressional district and a state that is trending Democratic.
Below are some of the highlights of my interview with Rep. Hurd. (This Q&A has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow).
Mark Preston: Let's talk about how you got into the CIA.
Rep. Will Hurd: When I graduated [Texas A&M University] at 22, I went into the National Clandestine Service of the CIA and I did two years here in Washington, D.C. And then my first overseas assignment was India. My job for my 9½ years in the agency was to collect intelligence on threats to the homeland. I did a lot of counterterrorism stuff when I was still in Washington when 9/11 happened and I was one of the first employees in the counterterrorism center of special operations division, which is the unit that prosecuted the war in Afghanistan.
Preston: Tell us a little about what it was like for you over in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hurd: Well, it was great work. It was the most important national security issues of the day and you're dealing with men and women real patriots that you're standing shoulder-to-shoulder with that are high speed, low drag. The answer is yes to whatever the question is. If you know there's going to be an attack being planned, you don't have the luxury of saying 'oh we don't have money' or 'we don't have enough people' or 'we don't have enough time.' So the answer is, 'sort it out' and that's an ethos that you don't see in many places.
Preston: You decided to run for Congress, and someone told me it was because you were frustrated that members of Congress didn't quite understand what was going on globally [regarding] the threats to America.
Hurd: True story. For me, in addition to collecting intelligence, I had to brief members of Congress. One time in Kabul, Afghanistan a bomb goes off in front of the embassy, kills some local guards, takes out a section of the wall and my unit was responsible to figure out what happened. We had to brief some of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence [members] and one of the members had been on the committee for five years, and the question was, 'Why was Iran not supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan the way Iran was supporting other groups in Iraq?' And I started explaining the Sunni, Shia divide and this member of Congress says, 'Hurd, what's the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?' And I'm thinking, he's getting ready to make a really inappropriate joke and who am I to deny him this opportunity. My response was 'I don't know congressman, what's the difference?' His face goes bright red and he didn't know that difference. For an individual who's making decisions about sending our boys and girls to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, that's unacceptable. For someone making decisions on how billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars is being spent, completely unacceptable.
Preston: You are on the other side of the issue when it comes to the wall. President Trump has made a big deal about it. He says that Mexico is going to pay for it. You represent the border, [and] you say that it's not feasible.
Hurd: So, border security is important, but building a concrete structure from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security. It is , we have sensor technology that can determine the difference between a bunny rabbit and a person. We can deploy a drone to determine what the threat is and confirm there's a threat. Then track the threat until you can deploy your most important resource: your human capital, the men and women in Border Patrol, to deal with that threat. And all of that can be done, 75% of that process I just described can be done with computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence and for a fraction of the cost of building a foot high wall.
Greatest threats facing US
Preston: I think you have a unique perspective when it comes to the biggest threats right now that you think are facing the nation.
Hurd: You have to start with North Korea, because North Korea has the ability to inflict the most damage in the quickest way possible. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, is going to stop at nothing to have the capability to launch a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile into the continental United States. He believes that when he has that power and it is well known, he is going to be able to have a stronger negotiating position.
Hurd: Then you go back to Islamic extremism. One of the questions that I always ask folks that are involved in fighting terrorism "What day are we going to celebrate when it comes to the global war on terrorism?" And one of my former colleagues in the CIA and the private sector, Ambassador Hank Crumpton, said "We're not going to celebrate a day because terrorism is like influenza. It is something that you can deal with in communities, you can inoculate communities from it, but it's always going to be around."
Hurd: And then the other entity I would say is Russia. Russia is our adversary. They are not our ally. The Russians, Vladimir Putin is very clear, he has one goal and that's to re-establish the territorial integrity of the USSR. And he can't do it militarily, he can't do it economically, he has to use asymmetrical warfare and that means eroding the trust in democratic institutions. That's the US That's the EU. That's NATO. And one of the issues, one of the ways that they do this is with disinformation or covert influence operations. Which means we, the United States, have to have a counter-covert influence strategy, which we don't have.
Preston: So you brought up Russia I trust, as you have said, in these folks in the intelligence community [who say Russia tried to interfere in the US elections]. Is it frustrating when you don't hear the White House really give a full-throated response behind that?
Hurd: I stand behind the intelligence community assessment of this as well. The Russians were trying to manipulate our elections. Now, did they impact the vote tallying machines? No. So, President Trump won the election fair and square, but that doesn't change the fact that there was attempts of manipulation. The Russians have been doing this for decades in Europe, they're doing it now and they are going to continue to do that. I think it is frustrating when we allow the Russians to continue to win, and what do I mean by that? The Russians' goal in their activity was to sow, was to drive a wedge, whether real or perceived, between the President, the intelligence community, and the American people. And by the discord that continues, that allows those goals to continue to be achieved.
Preston: I do agree with you entirely on that, the lack of ability for everyone to get on the same page here in the US government is only helping Russia
Hurd: And look, I sit on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and we are doing our review. We are going to be methodical, we are going to be bipartisan, and we're going to be thorough, because that's what the American people deserve. I think folks want to see something sooner rather than later, but to do this right we have to pursue any lead that is out there to ensure we get to the truth and that is what we are going to do.