HILLSBORO, Ohio — I worked on Sen. Rob Portman’s staff in 2011 during his first nine months in the Senate and came to respect the Ohio Republican as a devoted family man who is serious about policies, reserved and careful in his choice of words, and courteous in his personal interactions. In other words, the antithesis to President Trump.
I wasn’t surprised when, after the “Access Hollywood” tape broke during the 2016 campaign, Portman joined numerous other Republicans in announcing he could no longer support Trump. But last month, when Trump held a rally in Cincinnati, there was Portman descending Air Force One close behind the president.
When Trump won Ohio and the presidency, Portman was faced with adjusting to a new political reality. It was a world far removed from the safe and familiar territory of presidents named Bush, for both of whom he had worked in various roles, with a stint in the House sandwiched in between.
“We work with him. That’s my job,” Portman said of Trump when I caught up with him last week in Columbus. Portman was reluctant to contrast his own demeanor with Trump’s. But recounting a conversation from the previous day provided him an avenue to make his point.
“I was with a business owner yesterday,” Portman said. “He said basically, ‘I’m from the Midwest. I don’t agree with Donald Trump’s style. You don’t either, Rob, I know. I’ve watched you. But I totally agree with where he’s going in terms of taxes and regulations and even on China.’ ”
Still, does he dread each morning, worrying whether he will spend his day answering for Trump’s latest errant tweet?
“In Washington, reporters are consumed by Donald Trump’s tweets and comments,” Portman said, “and I could spend my whole day talking about that, but I try not to.’’
Traveling the state, Portman encounters fervent Trump supporters who back the president “because he’s willing to take on all comers, the Chinese, big companies, Big Pharma. When people think of Donald Trump, they may think his style isn’t our Midwest, modest, humility style. It’s bravado. But he is telling them he’s going to look out for them, and they believe it. They’ve seen it in action in many cases.”
Making it easier to adjust Portman’s own style to that of Trump’s New York bravado is the president’s embrace of issues important to Portman, such as the opioid fight, human trafficking, tax reform and jobs initiatives. So far, according to Portman’s staff, Trump has signed 41 bills and 12 amendments written by the senator.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Portman has voted with Trump more than 92 percent of the time. But he has opposed the president on some key votes, including Trump’s declaration of an emergency to fund the border wall. Portman said at the time that while he supported wall funding, he disagreed with an emergency declaration. Nevertheless, occasional differences have been offset by common ground, Portman said.
“His first year, he called me down to the White House one day to talk,” Portman recalled. “I had never had a one-on-one meeting with him at the Oval Office.” On the president’s mind was the opioid crisis, and “we spent over an hour just talking about the issue. I explained to him what was happening in Ohio and what the federal role was. It was a very honest and open dialogue.”
Portman found Trump to be “engaged” and “interested,” with a more serious demeanor than the one displayed at rallies. Portman is gratified that a bipartisan jobs act he introduced in 2017 with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), extending Pell education grants to vocational training like welding, has been included in the president’s budget. “I’ve spent three Congresses trying to get this passed,” said Portman. “We’ll see whether it can pass in the next couple of months, but if it does, it will be in part because the president worked with me to include it in the president’s budget.”
On this morning, Portman’s presence in Columbus was for a conference on security for community centers, schools and houses of worship, prompted by the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year. Portman said the event, featuring participation by the FBI and Homeland Security, wouldn’t have happened “if I didn’t have a relationship with the White House that was constructive.”
As Portman prepared to begin the conference, he admitted that despite a mostly positive relationship with Trump, he tracks the president’s tweets, just in case. He related a consistent criticism he hears even from Trump supporters.
“They’d like to take his Twitter account away from him,” said Portman with a smile, adding, “I’ve said that.”
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Post, is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor based in Hillsboro, Ohio.