Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday that he voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016, which would have come just days before Pawlenty called his fellow Republican “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” and said he was withdrawing support for Trump
“I voted for President Donald Trump,” Pawlenty said in an appearance at an Eagan diner, his first public event since launching a comeback bid for governor a day earlier. “I support most of what he’s doing, nearly all of what he’s doing on a policy level. I just didn’t approve of some of his comments and language and behavior.”
In trying to mount a campaign with an emphasis on Minnesota’s future and the concerns of middle-class voters, Pawlenty must also grapple with likely resistance from some grass-roots Republicans who consider him too moderate — and are already being reminded by Pawlenty’s GOP foes of his past criticism of Trump.
Pawlenty’s critical comments came in a statement to the press soon after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016, in which Trump was captured making crude comments about women.
“Although I’d hoped he could have risen to the occasion, it’s clear Trump is unwilling or unable to demonstrate even the most basic level of discipline, character and judgment necessary to lead our great nation,” Pawlenty said at the time. “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be president of the United States, and I am withdrawing my support of him.”
Pawlenty clarified later Friday, in an interview on the public television news show “Almanac,” that he voted absentee prior to the tape’s release. The Star Tribune confirmed that Pawlenty voted absentee at the end of September 2016.
Some of Pawlenty’s Republican rivals have been recirculating those comments for weeks, most notably Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who has been courting Trump supporters.
“He publicly trashed Donald Trump a month before Election Day. He’s the last person Republicans should want at the top of the ticket in 2018,” Johnson posted Thursday on his campaign’s Facebook page.
Pawlenty said Friday that Trump’s vulgar words compelled to him to temporarily dump Trump: “After the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape came out, that kinda set me off, and that’s why I made those comments,” he said.
Pawlenty continued: “But since then he’s made a lot of great progress as leader of our country and president of the United States in terms of policy priorities and the outcomes.”
He cited Trump’s tax cuts, immigration restrictions and military spending as achievements: “If you go down the list of everything the president has done or has tried to do, I agree with nearly all of them on a policy level,” he said. “I just didn’t like some of his comments about his behavior, and I think we all know what I’m talking about.”
After launching his long-anticipated campaign on Thursday with a video, Pawlenty on Friday visited Hovies, a tiny diner in Eagan with walls bedecked with old ads for L&M cigarettes and other objects of nostalgia. He emphasized Minnesota’s future and the stresses facing the middle class.
“I’m very worried about the change that is coming to our country and our state, in the form of a rapidly changing global economy, the impact that technology is going to have on the economy of the future, and frankly I don’t think our businesses, our government or our people are as well prepared for that future as they should be,” said Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide race in Minnesota.
The two-term governor, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012 before taking a job as CEO of a Wall Street trade association in Washington, said he would focus on issues that are often the terrain of the DFL, including the rising cost of health care premiums, the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis, and education. His one traditional Republican proposal, a tax cut, was narrowly focused on Social Security recipients.
As he fleshes out his policy proposals, Pawlenty will also have to decide whether to dive into the ongoing scramble for GOP state convention delegates — the party’s most committed activists, who will decide which candidate to endorse at their convention in early June. He was noncommittal: “I’m not sure if the cake is already baked,” he said about a convention endorsement.
Pawlenty suggested that he’d be ready to run in a Republican primary in August if he can’t secure the GOP endorsement. Johnson had been seen as front-runner for the endorsement, at least before Pawlenty’s entry into the race.
Pawlenty offered an olive branch to his DFL opponents, saying the biggest regret of his two terms that ended in 2010 is that he wasn’t enough of a uniter. “I would have been more constructive in terms of trying to find common ground,” he said.
The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a DFL-aligned group, took a pass on Pawlenty’s overture: “He cares more about the wealthy and well-connected than the rest of us, and the last time he was governor, made bad decisions that hurt our families and our state,” said Joe Davis, executive director of the group, which already has a website and is advertising heavily on social media against Pawlenty.
Pawlenty acknowledged the challenge of running this year, with signs that resistance to Trump could drive stronger Democratic turnout in November: “I think it’s fair to say it’s not going to be the easiest year for Republicans.”
[Editor's note: The Star Tribune updated this story after its publication because Pawlenty later clarified that he voted by absentee ballot in 2016.]