Trump hands Cory Gardner election year wins
The meeting occurred 11 weeks ago, in a bygone time before coronavirus killed 90,000 Americans, before the stock market plummeted, before the layoffs and the isolation and the closures.
Before all of that, President Donald Trump sat in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 3 with Sen. Cory Gardner as the two Republicans, surrounded by Cabinet officials, other senators and staff, discussed whether to fully finance the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a priority of conservationists for decades.
In Gardner’s recounting, he showed Trump an iPhone photo of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — “that’s gorgeous,” the president responded — and statistics about the economic benefits of outdoor recreation. At one point, Trump, who routinely and favorably compares himself to other presidents, stared up at a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt and said, “This would be the biggest (conservation) victory since Teddy Roosevelt and beyond,” according to Gardner.
It was then that Trump flip-flopped on LWCF. The president who had tried to drastically cut the program now wanted it fully funded. As Trump wrote on Twitter that day, it was “ALL thanks” to Gardner and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
“Somebody somehow worked a miracle because now all of a sudden a White House that hasn’t been for the Land and Water Conservation Fund — I think zeroed it out, actually — is now seeing the light,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and longtime LWCF advocate, said snidely the next day.
To his supporters, Gardner is a miracle worker in a deeply divided Washington, achieving wins for the people of Colorado by working with unlikely allies. But others see a senator who has been handed policy victories by a mercurial president using the weight of the federal government to improve Gardner’s re-election chances. They bristle each time Trump gives the credit to Gardner.
“Cory’s gotten more than advanced notice,” said a Democratic staffer within the Colorado congressional delegation, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The (Trump) administration has shut off interaction with most members of the delegation regarding these projects and efforts that we’ve been working on for years and years and years.”
“I think it’s a little desperate, but it’s understandable because they’re in a tough spot in the state — both Trump and Gardner,” the staffer added. “We’ve never seen anything remotely close to this in terms of political expediency.”
Both sides are correct. Gardner has convinced Trump to approve policies that Democrats have failed to achieve for years, even decades. And Trump has done so, at least in part, because he wants the Republican from Yuma to be re-elected.
“Senator Gardner’s ability to deliver for Colorado this week, this month, or this year is nothing new, he’s been getting things done for this state his entire career,” said Jerrod Dobkin, a spokesman for Gardner’s campaign.
Last year, Gardner was given advance notice that Bureau of Land Management headquarters would move to Grand Junction, allowing him to announce it before the agency did. In February, it was Gardner who announced funding for a Pueblo-area water pipeline had been approved. Last week, it was announced that Colorado Springs would be the temporary home of U.S. Space Command, an announcement Trump teased at a campaign rally with Gardner.
Prominent Colorado Democrats had also worked on all of those issues but it was often Gardner who was allowed to first announce the Trump administration’s decision and claim the first news headlines. Democrats publicly issued statements of support and kept their criticisms of Gardner private — with one exception.
On April 8, Trump announced, via Twitter, that the federal government would send 100 ventilators to Colorado “at the request of Senator Gardner.” Gov. Jared Polis had requested far more than 100 ventilators and claimed days before Trump’s announcement that the federal government blocked Colorado’s attempt to buy 500 ventilators. Some Democrats could not bite their tongues on that day.
State Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat who does not have a reputation for bombast, called Trump’s move a form of racketeering. “The White House is keeping 80% of the ventilators they stole from Colorado — and bestowing 20% of what they stole as a political favor,” she said then.
“I think this thing that happened with Senator Gardner and President Trump is very disturbing,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat and the dean of Colorado’s congressional delegation, in remarks to CNN. DeGette said the announcement appeared to be a political favor to Gardner, and 10 senators have since requested an investigation into Trump’s alleged ventilator favoritism.
Gardner and his allies say such Democratic opposition is election year politicking. When asked March 5 about accusations Trump was supporting LWCF funding as a political favor, Gardner said his critics will reflexively oppose anything he supports.
“My political opponents, if I declared the entire state of Colorado a wilderness area, they’d still oppose it. Ask John Hickenlooper or Andrew Romanoff if they’d vote yes on my bill,” Gardner said of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which would fully fund LWCF and end a national park maintenance backlog.
“Of course John Hickenlooper supports funding LWCF,” said Alyssa Roberts, a Hickenlooper spokesperson, when asked Monday, “and he’d go further by passing the CORE Act and acting on climate change, two Colorado priorities that Senator Gardner refuses to address as he rubber-stamps the Trump administration’s largest rollback of protected public lands in U.S. history.”
Romanoff said he would vote for Gardner’s bill as well. “But I believe the best way to make America’s outdoors great again is to stand up to the Trump administration, stop taking money from the fossil fuel industry, and enact a Green New Deal.”
Whether by pragmatism or favoritism, some conservationists acknowledge that only a Republican like Gardner could win over Trump on LWCF funding. Jessica Goad, deputy director of Conservation Colorado, which often criticizes Gardner, agrees with that. So, too, does Tom Cors, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy who has worked on LWCF funding efforts for many years.
“We couldn’t have done it and he made that case,” Cors said of Gardner.
It’s unclear what the future holds for Gardner’s Great American Outdoors Act, which was destined for passage in those halcyon days before the coronavirus pandemic upended congressional schedules. It has ample support but is no longer a high priority in a part-time Congress. Last month, Gardner and several Colorado Democrats suggested it be attached to coronavirus relief legislation, but it wasn’t.
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