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‘I haven’t abandoned my principles’: Hogan, pondering challenge to Trump, casts himself as a traditional Republican

During an interview in his office in Annapolis on March 14, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says he is happy and busy as governor. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan acknowledges that many Republicans nationwide who have heard about his potential presidential ambitions probably view him as a centrist with little hope of finding support in President Trump’s GOP.

But amid growing tensions between Trump and Republican lawmakers over foreign policy and the president’s treatment of global alliances, Hogan is signaling that if he decides to wage an insurgent campaign for the GOP nomination, he would pitch himself as far more in tune with the party’s long-held values and worldview than Trump.

“I come from the Ronald Reagan school of politics,” Hogan said last week in a wide-ranging interview at the state capitol, shaking his head in disapproval when asked whether he shares Trump’s nationalism.

He said groups such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a frequent target of Trump’s ire, are “critically important.” He expressed alarm about the way the president is “not standing by or standing up for some of our allies,” and he poked fun at Trump’s competence.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) spoke to The Post Dec. 20 about Maryland’s minimum wage, legalizing sports betting and his future in politics. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

“For a guy who wrote a book ‘The Art of the Deal,’ he’s just not making good deals,” Hogan said with a laugh. “Sometimes, he’s his own worst enemy, and there is a better way to accomplish things.”

Hogan, 62, who in November became the second GOP governor in history to win reelection in liberal Maryland, is one of several Republicans considering a challenge to Trump, although the president remains overwhelmingly popular among Republican voters. That list also includes former Massachusetts governor William Weld and former Ohio governor John Kasich, who conceded recently that, at least in today’s party, he could not beat Trump in a primary.

Hogan, sitting in his gubernatorial office and insisting that he is happy and busy as governor, presented himself as a lifelong conservative who has adapted to the left-leaning politics of his state without embracing them.

He said he remains undecided about a White House run and may hold off on deciding until the fall, waiting to see how investigations of Trump unfold and whether Republican voters eventually clamor for an alternative.

“The whole country is waiting for this to come out,” Hogan said, referring to the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and possible obstruction of justice, and is expected to finish his inquiry soon. But, the governor added, “don’t get the impression that I’m sitting here like this vulture waiting for some bad news.”

In the meantime, Hogan, a cancer survivor and gregarious pol, is chiseling his political persona into 2020 shape — and is taking steps to introduce himself to Republican voters nationally. He has accepted an invitation to speak next month in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary, and spent two days in early March in Iowa, the first caucus state.

Hogan’s comments and confidence on foreign policy — he mentioned his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about high-speed train technology, and talks with other leaders about regional issues — are the latest examples of the governor inching closer to a campaign that could serve as a rallying point for traditional Republicans who are weary of Trump and seeking a standard-bearer who could be more appealing to swing voters in key states.

“I’m for a bigger tent, for coming up with ideas and solutions that can reach a wider audience,” Hogan said. “I appeal to Republicans because my message is: I haven’t abandoned my principles. I’ve just said let’s deal in the art of the possible.”

Hogan’s efforts to be an ideological counterweight to Trump within the GOP come as some Republican senators have demonstrated an unusual willingness to buck the president on his core policies — not only in opposing his declared national emergency at the border, but on foreign policy.

Seven Senate Republicans broke ranks with Trump last Wednesday to call for an end to U.S. military assistance with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

Other flash points that have revealed GOP cracks include former vice president Richard B. Cheney’s stinging remarks about Trump’s instincts and leadership in a closed-door discussion with Vice President Pence, and the push among some top Republicans to reassure U.S. allies by inviting NATO’s secretary general to address Congress in April.

Still, there are plenty of indications that Trump retains a firm grip on the Republican Party. Although 12 Senate Republicans voted to block his declaration of an emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border, several of his occasional critics — such as Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), who is up for reelection next year and could face a primary rival — stuck with the president.

Hogan’s appeal to conservatives who have rallied behind Trump would certainly be tested if he joined the race.

As a Roman Catholic, he said he is “personally opposed to abortion.” But as governor, he has not tried to restrict access to the procedure, and he said he has “never taken any actions that would take away somebody else’s ability to make that decision for themselves.”

“When you try to pigeonhole, yes or no, pro-life or pro-choice, it’s not a black or white issue,” Hogan said. “It’s a little more nuanced than that, and I’d be happy explain that to whoever wants to hear about.”

On guns, Hogan said that he is a “strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” but that he has “always supported the universal background check.” As governor, he has favored allowing the seizure of guns from people deemed dangerous or mentally unstable, and said during his gubernatorial campaign last year that he would not seek an endorsement from the National Rifle Association or accept campaign contributions from the organization.

Trump’s signature issue of immigration is another possible battleground. Although Hogan asked the federal government in 2015 to stop sending Syrian refugees to Maryland unless they were more thoroughly vetted, he pressed the Trump administration this year to grant more work visas to immigrant laborers, and has protested family separations by recalling a small Maryland National Guard contingent from the southern border.

Some GOP voices have shrugged at Hogan’s appeal — and balked at the suggestion that he could win over Republican voters who roared at Trump’s hard-line message in 2016 and have stood by him.

“Stay home, Larry Hogan,” the conservative website Power Line blared in a January headline.

Hogan said he often thinks of his father, the late Maryland congressman Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., as he contemplates his political future. Hogan Sr. was famously the first GOP member of the House Judiciary Committee to call for President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment in 1974.

During the interview, Hogan pointed to a picture on his office wall of himself, as a 12-year-old boy, helping his father’s congressional campaign.

“I just want to get to the truth,” Hogan said. “If wrongdoing took place, we need to know about it. As my dad said, very eloquently in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, ‘No man is above the law, not even the president of the United States.’ ”

Hogan was careful to align himself more with Reagan — who retains widespread popularity in the GOP — than with Cheney or President George W. Bush, whose decision to send U.S. troops to Iraq continues to stoke debate in the party. When asked whether he was a “hawk” or “interventionist,” as advocates for Bush-style policies refer to themselves, Hogan said, “I’m not.”

Longtime conservative hawks such as William Kristol, who opposes Trump, have nonetheless encouraged Hogan to run.

Hogan noted last week that he is not entirely opposed to Trump’s approach to global challenges. He said he understands the president’s interest in making sure U.S. allies contribute their “fair share,” but disagrees with the abrasive way Trump goes about pursuing that goal.

On trade, Hogan said he has a “free trade” philosophy, but supports the ratification of Trump’s revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement as a way to reverse “damaging” tariffs sparked by Trump’s trade wars.

Trump’s attempts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — an effort that fell apart late last month — did not bother Hogan, who said he gives Trump “credit” because he “did at least start a dialogue.”

But Hogan — whose wife, Yumi, grew up on a farm in South Korea — stopped his praise there. He said he does not believe in engaging with autocrats unless there are specific strategic and policy gains to be had, and he rapped Trump for his expressions of admiration for the murderous dictator.

“I don’t like the fact that he was letting them off the hook,” Hogan said. “The good part of it was what he didn’t do. He didn’t make a bad deal while he was there just because he was getting some bad publicity in a tough spot. We were concerned he was going to go do something really dumb. And he at least walked away from doing that.”

Whether Hogan will walk away from the 2020 race will depend on his own read of the party later this year.

“Of course you couldn’t win a Republican primary challenge today,” Hogan said. “But I also have been around long enough to know that things can change very rapidly. . . . A lot can happen all spring and summer and into the fall.”