Donald Trump was still weeks away from being sworn in as president when, according to one Democratic senator, he was already trying to get her to defect to the Republicans.
“When I visited with him in Trump Tower before he was sworn in, he asked me to switch parties,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said Tuesday, responding to questions in an interview with The Washington Post.
It was December of 2016. At the time, Heitkamp was seen as a potential Cabinet pick. She said Trump wanted to talk about his administration. The two were engaged in a discussion about deregulation and other areas where they have common interests, the senator recalled. It was then that Trump made the ask.
“He says, ‘You should switch parties,’ ” Heitkamp said, when questioned by The Post about whether Trump courted her to switch parties. She responded with an ask of her own.
“I said, ‘You should give me an Ex-Im bank,’ ” the senator said, with a chuckle. It was a reference to the Export-Import Bank, an agency she was pushing to make fully operational.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Heitkamp’s account of the conversation.
These days, Heitkamp is running for reelection in a contest seen as a key battleground in the fight for control of the Senate. Her likely Republican challenger is Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a close Trump ally. Trump urged Cramer to enter the race. After first saying he would not do it, Cramer changed his mind earlier this year, setting up a marquee showdown.
Trump won North Dakota by about 36 points in 2016. To secure a second term this year, Heitkamp will likely have to win over many conservative voters who cast ballots for Trump. She said she has agreements — deregulation and caring about “working people,” for example — and disagreements — tariffs, for example — with the president.
Last September, Trump flew Heitkamp and the rest of the North Dakota congressional delegation home from Washington on Air Force One for an event where he pitched his tax plan. On that day, Trump might have made another try to get Heitkamp to become a Republican, she said.
“Not on that trip,” said Heitkamp in the interview, before quickly correcting herself. “He might have asked me on that trip.”
At the time, Republicans were hoping to win over some crossover Democratic support for their tax plan. Trump invited Heitkamp onstage at an oil refinery that day and called her a “good woman.”
Heitkamp said Trump gives her a hard time for being a Democrat. In the interview, she repeatedly distanced herself from the national Democratic Party.
“He’s always ribbing me a little bit about being too conservative to be a Democrat,” she said of Trump, a former Democrat who switched parties.
Asked why it was important to remain a Democrat, given her posture, Heitkamp replied, “I do feel allegiance and ties to the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party.” She was using a acronym for the name of the state party, the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party.
When Trump first asked her to become a Republican, “I just laughed,” Heitkamp said. As for the prospect of defecting, she said, “I think he knows it’s not going to happen.”