LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Embroiled in a tough re-election fight against a retired Marine, Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr showed no hesitation in welcoming a campaign visit from President Donald Trump, brushing off the latest headlines showing legal turmoil for two of the president's former confidants.
The White House announced recently that Trump plans to visit Kentucky ahead of the November midterm election. The state is home to a closely watched congressional race in the 6th District between Barr and Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired fighter pilot. In 2016, Trump easily carried the 6th District, which stretches from the Appalachian foothills to bluegrass country in and around Lexington and has leaned Republican in recent years.
Talking to reporters Thursday at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's country ham breakfast, Barr linked himself to Trump on the tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks that the congressman credited for the nation's economic growth. But he was circumspect when asked about the guilty plea of Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, and conviction of Paul Manafort, the political operative who for months led Trump's presidential campaign.
Asked if those developments gave him any pause in welcoming Trump to campaign for him, Barr replied: "I don't think the American public or the Congress fully knows all of the facts related to that. What we do know .... is that none of it has anything to do with the Russia investigation."
McGrath chided Barr for his response, saying he "seems to have a crystal ball that it has nothing to do with the Russian investigation."
"Congressman Barr continues to reveal the desperation of an incumbent whose re-election hopes are slipping away and reminds us how impotent he is in fulfilling his constitutional role of checking the executive branch," McGrath said in a statement. "Barr is literally scared of President Trump and lacks the courage to stand up to him on anything."
Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for his role in buying the silence of a porn actress and a Playboy model who alleged affairs with Trump. Manafort was convicted of eight financial crimes in the first trial to come out of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
In a recent speech at a Democratic dinner, McGrath said integrity and character matter and characterized the upcoming election as a fight for "the soul and the fabric of our country." She didn't mention Trump but it appeared to be a jibe at the embattled president by McGrath, who flew 89 combat missions, including bombings targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban, during her career as a Marine.
Barr said he saw Trump's upcoming Kentucky visit as a chance to discuss the state's opioid-abuse epidemic and to promote his efforts to have the Camp Nelson Civil War site designated as a national monument.
But when asked if he was concerned Trump-related scandals could hurt his re-election effort, he replied that his constituents "are fully in favor of a fully functional government over the next two years and that we continue the progress growing the economy."
In an election that could be decided by which party's base has the best turnout, a Trump visit would boost Barr's prospects by helping energize GOP voters, said Republican political strategist Scott Jennings.
"The most committed anti-Trump Democrats are already going to vote, so I don't think there's any risk in bringing him in," Jennings said.
Barr was elected to Congress six years ago by capitalizing on the unpopularity of Democratic President Barack Obama. Jennings said Trump's approval in the 6th District still appears to be "right-side up," and that his visit would remind voters of the tax and regulatory cuts achieved under consolidated Republican control in Washington.
Asked if a Trump visit to Kentucky carries risk for Barr if Mueller's probe produces more bad news for Trump, Jennings said: "For Andy Barr, there are things you can't control. You can't control the news of the day in Washington that has nothing to do with you."
Barr, meanwhile, sounded less patient with another Trump policy — the use of tariffs to win better trade deals.
Those tariffs have resulted in retaliatory duties from some of the U.S.'s top trading partners, targeting such Kentucky staples as bourbon and agricultural products. Barr said he's been told by some whiskey distillers in his district that retaliatory tariffs will impact them in coming months, once their overseas stockpiles are depleted.
"We need to make sure that we wrap up these negotiations and get better deals before the end of the year, because then the tariffs would bite," Barr said. "So that's been my message to the administration. We're supportive of the objective of reciprocal trade, but let's wrap it up. Let's make sure that we don't have any protracted uncertainty."