Tennessee Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Bill Hagerty on Monday stressed his close ties to President Donald Trump during a speech to a Hamilton County GOP group.
He also bashed Democrats' presidential field, and for good measure charged U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has seemingly "become indistinguishable from Barack Obama."
That and more came in a nine-minute span during a sometimes-red-meat performance by Hagerty, Trump's former U.S. ambassador to Japan, as he addressed members of the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club.
"We've some very interesting dynamics going on in the Democrat race for president," said Hagerty, who began chuckling. "Did any of you see Bernie [Sanders] on TV last night talking about Cuba? It was amazing. Asked about Castro, and he said he's not such a bad guy. The Cuban-American friends that I have who lived through it have a very different view."
Hagerty also took aim at former New York mayor and billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg, a former Republican also seeking Democrats' nomination who is spending heavily in 14 states, including Tennessee, in the March 3 Super Tuesday primary.
Echoing Trump's nickname for Bloomberg — "Mini Mike" — Hagerty criticized the presidential hopeful's debate comments, saying "you got a guy who wants to diminish the value of American farmers, wants to take our guns, wants to spend millions of dollars, and it's not working out so well for Mike either."
He called it "very interesting to watch what the Democrat Party has to contend with, and I don't know where they're going to wind up. But it certainly looks they're going to put a socialist [Sanders] on the ballot."
Sanders, a Vermont senator, self-identifies as a democratic socialist, and has won or emerged with a plurality of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada caucuses and primaries.
In contrast, Hagerty said, "you got President Trump and he is honorable. The weekend before last he gave me a call. I told him you did a terrific job during the State of the Union address. And think about it, you all saw it, right? Laying out accomplishment after accomplishment.
"I told him what an honor it was to be endorsed by him here," added Hagerty of Trump, who announced and endorsed his then-ambassador's candidacy before Hagerty officially declared. "But also what an honor it was, how pleased I was to have had a chance to work alongside him and help achieve some of those accomplishments."
He said he also spoke to Trump about his impeachment.
"I told him how sorry I am for what he and his family had to go through. But I also told him the people here in Tennessee support him even more for having come through all this."
Hagerty, who made his mark in venture capital, then criticized Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whom he'd served as national finance chairman during Romney's failed 2008 presidential campaign.
Romney has been critical of Trump, and after his election to the Senate from Utah in 2018, Romney this month voted yes on one of the two articles of impeachment approved by the Democratic-controlled House against the president. The Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump on both articles.
"I told him another thing, too," Hagerty said of his conversation with the president. "The two most despised names in Tennessee right now are Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney," as a number of conservative Pachyderm members applauded. "The president and I both talked how about — how we both supported Mitt Romney back in 2012 to defeat Barack Obama. And now it seems he's become indistinguishable from Barack Obama. It's like it's one."
Trump, meanwhile, has recently come under criticism for moving to replace acting Director of Intelligence Joseph Maguire with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist who has no intelligence background. According to news accounts that the administration has denied, the president was reportedly angry that a top Maguire deputy said that Russia would prefer to see Trump reelected.
Asked by a Times Free Press reporter later whether he has differences with the president on that or other issues, Hagerty said, "I think it's very clear that the president of the United States is the commander in chief, and it's up to him to appoint people he needs in his cabinet and around him to achieve the most effective results possible. Any appointment he makes is fraught with criticsm from the other side."
Hagerty added that "the way to address any sort of difference with this president is to talk to him directly. Just like when he called me two weeks ago. If I need to talk to the president, I will talk with him. I'm not going to do a press release, I'm not going to go on CNN or Fox News to talk about it that way. I'll have a direct conversation with the president and with his advisers. That's the way I've done it.
"That's the way I've been effective working with him and that's the way I will be in the United States Senate if Tennessee chooses to send me there," Hagerty said.
Hagerty's rivals in the GOP primary include Nashville trauma physician Manny Sethi and Memphis physician and businessman George Flinn, who has self-funded multimillion-dollar bids for public office several times.
Earlier, Hagerty was introduced by Tom Decosimo, a conservative financial broker and political fundraiser.
"Just like I was with Bill Lee, I'm with Bill Hagerty early and often," Decosimo told the Times Free Press after Hagerty's address. "I think he's simply got the business resume and the political resume of having been our ambassador to Japan. I don't think there's another ambassadorship in Tennessee that can be more important."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.