Missouri GOP Senate frontrunner has Trump-like relationship with truth

Josh Hawley blamed sex trafficking on the sexual revolution, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Attorney General Josh Hawley (R-MO)
Attorney General Josh Hawley (R-MO) CREDIT: Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

A few weeks back, the Kansas City Star published excerpts from a December speech, made by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), in which he blamed human trafficking on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. His dubious take on history, made at a Missouri Renewal Project event featuring a who’s who of theocrats, Islamophobes, and anti-LGBTQ extremists, became national news because Hawley is currently the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill this November.

Many of Hawley’s conservative views — opposing abortion access, marriage equality, “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, the right of consumers to sue, defending the “right” of government officials like Kim Davis to discriminate, and the “climate change crusade” — are in line his party’s platform. But a ThinkProgress review of Hawley’s other writings, interviews, and speeches reveals that these comments are part of a long pattern of out-of-the-mainstream positions, false and misleading statements, hypocrisy, and lack of competence throughout his career as a legal activist and politician.

Hawley has a Trump-like relationship with the truth

In 2014, Hawley created a tax-exempt political organization called the Missouri Liberty Project aimed at “fighting government overreach.” In an obvious attempt to build up their email list, they then launched an online petition asking people to “stop Obama’s Common Core mandates.”

"Stop Obama's Common Core"
CREDIT: Missouri Liberty Project image

The problem, of course, is that is was a lie. Common Core was not a federal mandate — nor even a federal program — and wasn’t Obama’s. Rather, it was a series of standards devised by the bipartisan National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers and agreed to by nearly every state’s governor. While Obama’s Department of Education did offer some carrots to encourage states to adopt of high education standards, using Common Core was never a requirement for these programs. When other politicians made similar claims, PolitiFact debunked them as false.

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Hawley also signed onto a 2014 letter in which National Organization for Marriage founder Robert George and other anti-LGBTQ advocates urged Mississippi’s legislature to enact a “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The bill gave businesses the right to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. But their letter falsely claimed that the “standard it creates now applies to the federal government and more than 30 of the states, and was the standard for the entire country from 1963 to 1990.”

In Hawley’s 2016 campaign for attorney general, he promised to use the office to fight against government regulations. “We’re 47th out of 50th in Missouri in job growth, economic growth, and that’s because we are incredibly overregulated,” he asserted in a campaign video — an odd claim to make given that the state legislature was run by veto-proof majorities from his own party. While Missouri’s job growth between 2014 and 2015 did rank 47th, it was hardly due to regulation. According to a 2016 report by the anti-government Cato Institute, Missouri ranked 18th in “overall freedom” nationally and was praised for doing “well in most regulatory categories and even improved on some policies, such as direct auto sales and repealing mover licensing.” And the Koch-backed Mercatus Center at George Mason University found that year Missouri ranked just 28th in the nation for the impact of federal regulations on the state’s economy.

Hawley has also frequently slandered Planned Parenthood. In one 2016 interview, he mischaracterized selectively-edited videos recorded illegally by anti-choice activists, claiming “what we’ve seen in these videos and the evidence calls into question the entire mission of Planned Parenthood. It makes it clear, I think, that Planned Parenthood has been pursuing actions that are illegal, that are potentially fraudulent. So I’m very concerned… that they attempt to get women in the door by advertising other services, but ultimately they point them towards their abortion services and their illegal activities.” Despite having no evidence for these claims other than the discredited videos, he said that he would not wait for the results of an investigation and would call for Planned Parenthood to lose all Medicaid funds immediately. On his campaign website during his attorney general campaign, he called the government’s funding of services at Planned Parenthood a “devil’s bargain.”

And just a few weeks ago, as Congress debated whether to pass a GOP-backed continuing resolution, Hawley’s campaign posted another “petition” on Facebook and Twitter blaming a potential government shutdown on the woman he seeks to unseat in November. “Shame on you for shutting down the government, Sen. McCaskill,” his message read. “Claire McCaskill is playing politics with people’s lives. She is blinded by partisanship, choosing Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi – not the people of Missouri.”

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There was only one problem with Hawley’s attack: McCaskill had not shut down the government. Indeed, she was one of just five Senate Democrats to vote with the Republicans in support of the continuing resolution. The false claim remains online as of mid-February.

Hawley is consistently inconsistent

Running as a political outsider usually only works once. In his 2016 campaign for attorney general, Hawley made his lack of government experience into an asset. “Jefferson City is full of career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another,” he said in one ad.

In a 2016 primary debate, he lamented that Missouri attorneys general had “used the office for their own political advancement,” charged that the incumbent had “used that office as a cash machine,” and urged that the position “not just be used as a stepping stone for a higher office.”

Hawley was sworn in as Missouri Attorney General on January 9, 2017. Less than seven months later, he registered as a 2018 senate candidate with the Federal Election Commission (using the misleading name “Josh Hawley Senate Exploratory Committee” but actually operating as a full-fledged campaign committee). Between his August registration and the end of 2017, he continued to serve as attorney general and simultaneously raised almost $1.8 million — a cash machine of his own.

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Now he’s playing his party’s establishment leaders and right-wing ideologues against each other. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claims he recruited Hawley to run against McCaskill and is actively backing his campaign. Hawley has also made multiple trips to out-of-state political events organized by the Koch Brothers’ political network. But he also actively attempted to secure the backing of their nemesis, former Donald Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon — an effort that was largely successful. Days after his call with Bannon, Team Hawley refused to even commit to voting for McConnell as GOP leader, if elected (Bannon has denounced McConnell as “corrupt and incompetent.”) Even after Bannon’s explosive break with the Trump administration, Hawley did not disavow his support, saying through a spokesperson that he “welcomes the support of anyone who wants to see a conservative Republican Senator elected from Missouri.”

In September 2016, Hawley officially endorsed Donald Trump for president. Days later, when Trump’s Access Hollywood tape emerged, Hawley called it ““shocking, repulsive, and utterly indefensible” and “an affront to every American” that required “an unconditional apology to those involved, and to the American people.” But despite his promise to take on “public corruption” and his penning a lengthy section in his 2008 biography of Theodore Roosevelt taking the 26th president to task for a “tendency to praise power” that was “only exacerbated by the racial doctrine,” and for his “hostility toward private religion,” he has since been a strong defender of a president whose own corruption, racism, and religious intolerance have been hallmarks of his administration. In an August 2017 Fox News opinion piece, Hawley urged his fellow Missourians to “welcome [Trump] with enthusiasm to our state,” and in a November 2017 radio interview he asserted that “the president’s agenda is the right agenda for Missouri.”

Though Hawley accepted $5,000 in campaign donations from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which endorsed him as someone who would “fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are bankrupting our country,” he backed Trump’s tax cut for the rich — even knowing it would increase the national debt. “We do have a significant debt problem,” he acknowledged, but said that “at this point our focus right now needs to be on providing tax relief and we can worry about … what needs to be done [to reduce spending later.]” The legislation is predicted to increase deficits by about $1.5 trillion and to actually raise taxes for many Americans.

Hawley’s main argument for his candidacy as attorney general was that he was an experienced constitutional lawyer who would use the office to sue the federal government to stop its “overreach.” But while he has filed or joined lawsuits against federal protections for workers who work overtime, consumers, and endangered species, he has not shown other states similar deference.

Last December, he urged Congress to enact a federal law that would take away states’ ability to impose concealed carry rules on out-of-state visitors. This, from the man who charged in 2016 that “the federal government’s doing much more and it’s doing way too much.”

Hawley is Missouri’s chief legal officer, but he might not always follow the law

Although he decided early into the first year of his four-year term as attorney general to run for federal office, he spent more than $167,000 in state campaign funds in the first half of 2017. Missouri Democrats said the spending may run afoul of campaign finance laws which do not allow state funds to be used for federal races. The American Democracy Legal Fund alleged in a Federal Election Commission complaint that Hawley used that money to illegally pay U.S. Senate campaign consultants out of his state campaign account. A Hawley campaign spokesman at the time denied the allegations as “baseless partisan attacks.”

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All these legal questions have forced Hawley to spend a staggering amount on legal defense — roughly 20 percent of his campaign spending to date. Hawley’s camp has bizarrely blamed the incumbent Senator for the independent actions of unaffiliated outside ethics groups.

“Claire McCaskill and her allies have a deliberate strategy to smear Josh and his wife, Erin,” his campaign spokesperson charged, with “multiple frivolous” campaign finance complaints.

But perhaps the biggest legal challenge that has hounded him from the beginning of his tenure is his apparent failure to comply with a longstanding state law that requires all Missouri Attorneys General to “reside at the seat of government,” which is Jefferson City. Hawley, who resides about 24 miles north in Boone County, initially decided he would not make the move.

Hawley, who claims to be a strict constructionist, has been a staunch critic of those who reinterpret the rules. In a 2015 interview, he explained that the U.S constitution has “stood the test of time because it doesn’t change with every passing whim. We’ve had judges and an administrations who think constitution means whatever they want it to mean. The constitution means what it says.”

Yet in January 2017, his office put out a legal analysis arguing that because Hawley’s home is “within ordinary commuting distance from the capitol complex,” it therefore qualifies as being “at the seat of government.” Hawley’s deputy AG wrote the memo, which argued that the real purpose of the 1835 statute was to make sure the Attorney General “was present to conduct business at the capitol.” It even suggests that the term “reside” did not mean his personal residence but “the location from which the Attorney General conducts his official business.”  Another Post-Dispatch editorial denounced these “logical acrobatics” as an “obviously selective legal interpretation, solicited from someone who has every reason to produce a result pleasing to the boss.”

The following month, Hawley announced that he had rented an apartment in Jefferson City to “call the Democrats’ bluff” and that he would “ stay there as needed to make it a true personal residence (for legal purposes),” while keeping his primary home in Boone County.

But in August, Hawley voted in a special election in Boone County raising new questions about where he was really living. An investigation by the county’s clerk found that his vote was legally cast, as he remained a resident — while casting further doubt on whether he could also simultaneously “reside at the seat of government.” In November, a Jefferson City resident filed a lawsuit against Hawley, claiming he was in violation of the law; a judge dismissed it in January finding that she lacked standing to sue.

Hawley’s fringe views have long been on display

From 2011 until he became a candidate for attorney general, Hawley was a senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative tax-exempt legal organization that says its mission is “to protect the free expression of all faiths” by working “at the crossroads of church and state.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the group is a key player in the “anti-LGBT right,” aiming to “to create a separate space for religious people removed from public scrutiny and laws (though while still receiving public funds and subsidies).” The Fund ran a full page New York Times ad in 2008 suggesting that opponents of the unconstitutional California Proposition 8 were “thugs” seeking a “mob veto” via a an anti-Mormon “religious war” has worked to erode the separation of church and state through pushing to allow prayer at government functions, religious symbols in public spaces, public funding for religious schools, and discrimination against same-sex couples by those with faith-based anti-LGBTQ views.

With these extreme anti-LGBTQ views, Halwey received an endorsement for attorney general from the FRC Action PAC, the political arm of the Family Research Council. The SPLC has designated the organization hate group that pushes discredited theories that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large,” and that gay men are a bunch of pedophiles. He proudly announced the endorsement on his campaign website.

He also reported on his personal financial disclosure form that he and his wife each received $2,100 payments from another SPLC-designated hate group, the Alliance Defending Freedom. The money was honoraria for speeches given by the two in June of 2017, while Hawley was already serving as Missouri’s attorney general.

Though Missouri’s state constitution expressly protects the right of institutions that receive public funding to do embryonic stem cell research, the constitutional lawyer Hawley also proposed in 2015 that such research should be banned in Missouri’s facilities. “I do not think that state institutions that receive taxpayer funds should be involved in embryonic stem-cell research,’’ he told St. Louis Public Radio.

Hawley also wrote multiple friend of the court briefs supporting the King v. Burwell challenge to payments made under the Affordable Care Act to states that opted not to setup state exchanges. The suit argued that one sentence of the bill, read out of context, seemed to suggest federal exchanges could not provide tax credits — a theory that was forcefully rejected by a six-to-three majority on the Supreme Court. Indeed Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee for whom Hawley once served as a clerk, scolded the conservative activists who brought the case in his majority opinion, noting that “such a reading turns out to be ‘untenable in light of [the statute] as a whole.’”

Still, despite these extreme views, contradictory positions, and errors on Hawley’s part, Republicans seem eager to see him move up the ladder he once denounced. Former Senator John Danforth (R-MO) talks him up as “a once in a generation political talent.” Later this month, Donald Trump will headline a fundraiser for Hawley, where tickets will exceed $5,000 per person. And a former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell told Politico in October that Hawley was “our No. 1 recruit of the cycle… We worked our tail off to recruit Josh Hawley.”

Meanwhile, Hawley continues to try to list-build off of extremism. While the nation tires to reckon with gun violence, climate change, economic stratification, opioid addiction, and aging infrastructure, as of early March, his campaign website contains no substantive information about issues. It does, however, prominently feature an a pseudo-petition to support President Trump’s expensive and unwanted plan for a massive France-style military parade and to host it in Missouri. “Tell Washington liberals to honor the military with a parade!”