Skip to main Content

Their relationship with Trump has ups and downs, but wins stack up for Alaska’s congressional delegation

President Donald Trump stands with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan after Congress passed sweeping tax overhaul legislation on the South Lawn of the White House, Dec. 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON — More than 500 days have passed since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Alaska's Republican senators didn't vote for him and often clash with his brash style of politics, but they are finding ways to get what they want out of the administration.

The wins have begun to stack high for Alaska's congressional delegation: a major federal payout for the state's individual health care market, potential drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an agreement to build a road out of King Cove and backing for an international agreement to sell liquefied natural gas (LNG) to China.

"It's no great secret — I do not like oftentimes the things the president says or the manner in which he says them," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a recent interview. "And I feel like I have an obligation to express that. But I also recognize that when we have common interests, let's work them to the benefit and to the advantage of Alaskans."

Alaska Republicans' own relationship with Trump fluctuated from the start, despite the state's reliably Republican voting base. The majority of Alaska delegates at the Republican National Convention in 2016 did vote for the eventual president to be the party's nominee. Later in the campaign, Murkowski and Alaska's other U.S. senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, both demanded that Trump drop out of the race after the candidate boasted, on tape, about forcing himself on women. On election night, staff and supporters for the state GOP, Murkowski and the Alaska campaign for Trump held three separate parties — reflecting an unusual separation that was present throughout the campaign.

A surprise victory with big opportunities

But the moment television announcers called the race for Trump on Nov. 6, 2016, people at Murkowski's election party at 49th State Brewing Co. in downtown Anchorage started talking about ANWR. Murkowski appeared surprised, but jumped to the point: This could mean big things for Alaska.

Murkowski was never known for being especially right-wing or a tough talker. If anything, she has aimed hard for the middle-right and her statements have sometimes been so equivocal that their meaning wasn't always clear. But in the year since Trump took office, she has found her way as an outspoken moderate, with new chances to articulate an Alaska-style of governing. Since Republicans only hold a slim majority in the Senate, Murkowski has been able to leverage her status in the middle — a vote her party needs but isn't always guaranteed.

Sullivan is more of a party-line Republican, and doesn't hold the seniority of Murkowski, who chairs the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But he too has sought a balance between criticizing his party's leader, the president of the United States, and trying to achieve his Republican objectives.

Where Murkowski can wield her power in energy and appropriations (she also runs the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department), Sullivan's committee assignments don't have the same level of prominence currently: infrastructure, environmental permitting, and the military.

Alaska's idiosyncratic lone congressman, Don Young is, as usual, in his own category.

Unlike his Alaska delegation colleagues, Young never said who he would or did vote for in 2016. He doesn't care much for commenting on the latest White House drama, and he holds a staunchly octogenarian view of Twitter and mobile phones generally — he doesn't care for them. (Young does have social media accounts maintained by staff.)

Young operates on a stay-in-your-lane philosophy: Congress writes the laws and crafts the budget. The president can approve or offer input, but that's not much of his concern. "The Congress is the only one that can act — not the president. I wish people would get that through their heads," Young said in an interview in March. "It's not just guns; it's everything else … The general public doesn't understand he's not the king," Young said, relenting the role of journalism in exalting the president's status.

Young also has an old school way of operating in the House — building relationships and trading on favors — which has remained fruitful for him. Earlier this year Young was named Dean of the House, an honorary that goes to the longest-serving member. With that comes a fair amount of respect within the House.

Once they were back in Washington, D.C., after the election, Murkowski and Sullivan quickly appeared exasperated by the constant questions from reporters about the Trump news of the day: controversial cabinet nominees, Twitter tirades and the daily drama of the West Wing.

Senate hallways became so packed with reporters that the press galleries threatened to crack down on access.

At first, Murkowski hesitated in flexing her position as a moderate in a barely-Republican dominated Senate: She voted against confirming Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but only on the Senate floor, not in committee. She could have stood in the way of a vote, but instead stuck to making a statement.

In June, Murkowski took to Twitter to respond to Trump over some unkind things he said about morning television host Mika Brzezinski. "Stop it! The Presidential platform should be used for more than bringing people down," she wrote. (Murkowski's communications director Karina Petersen often manages the social media accounts, but she said that one was dictated directly by the senator.)

Then came the health care votes.

Murkowski's stand

For weeks, Murkowski was a known "maybe," meaning that at every turn a Washington reporter was camped out, wanting to know how she would vote. At the time, the senator said she wasn't enjoying her newfound celebrity. (The energy reporters who regularly follow her around the Capitol building, peppering her with wonky questions about her committee's plans, said they didn't enjoy the new competition.)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks with reporters ahead of the party luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., Sept 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Report after report said that the likely legislative package was bad news for Alaska, which already suffers some of the nation's most costly health care.

Sullivan and his staff hunkered down, going to meetings and looking for Alaska carve-outs to help the state and keep a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Murkowski, on the other hand, was less interested in a deal. Over the course of July and August, she became increasingly vocal about her concerns with the way her party was going about getting a bill: all negotiations, and no "regular order," ferrying a bill through committee, to the floor. (Those types of concerns would later fall by the wayside when it came to tax reform.) Her central message: Medicaid is too big to change behind the scenes. She wasn't interested.

At the time, Trump was deploying various members of his cabinet to support the health care initiative, preferring to apply pressure rather than bargain on the details. Energy Secretary Rick Perry wrote an op-ed. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was pointed to the Alaska delegation.

Earlier in the year, Murkowski and Sullivan met with Trump in the Oval Office for more than an hour to discuss their priorities for the state. They brought Zinke along with them, making clear that he would be central to what they wanted to get done.

During the week that the Senate was voting on several last-minute health care bills, Zinke called Sullivan and Murkowski to register his displeasure with Murkowski's wavering stance on the president's priority — to get a bill passed.

Sullivan, who had been lobbying Murkowski to vote for the bill, opted to share Zinke's threat with the press. He said the Interior secretary made clear that Murkowski's vote could bring negative consequences for the state in other areas.

The flap that ensued only seemed to steel Murkowski's resolve. She voted no. The bill went down. Trump dragged her on Twitter.

But those serious Alaska consequences never quite came. Quite the opposite.

A week later, Zinke posted a picture on Twitter of him grabbing Alaskan beers with Murkowski. (She said later that he invited her to dinner, but she suggested drinks instead.)

After that, the Alaska delegation spent the months racking up victories that they had sought, in some cases, for decades: permission to build that road out of King Cove; a congressional line item allowing drilling in the 10-02 area of ANWR.

One victory after another

In a year, "we have achieved … success on two issues that many thought were perhaps not things that they were going to see in their lifetime," Murkowski said.

"I have recognized that many of the priorities that I have had in terms of Alaskan opportunities were in line with what the administration was saying. And that's a good thing. … We have opportunities to be working together to make some things happen because our priorities are in alignment," Murkowski said.

The three now seem to have made their peace with the situation: Ignore or quickly dismiss that which they find problematic, and mine the administration for the fruits of a shared vision of Alaska "energy dominance" and home rule.

To help with that, they've stocked the administration with allies where possible, particularly in the Interior Department. The ability to do that is due mainly to Murkowski's energy committee chairmanship.

These days, Sullivan's message is one of measured tolerance. In nearly every speech, he makes a comment about Twitter and how he wishes the president would stay off it. And then he touts what he thinks the administration can do for Alaska: oil, gas, roads, economic growth.

"Now, I disagree with a number of the statements and tweets made by President Trump, but in terms of a federal government that is finally working to help grow Alaska's economy, we are making significant progress," Sullivan told Alaska's state legislators at his annual address in February.

Though it confused some on the left after her vote against the health care bills, there was never any chance that Murkowski was going to vote against the tax bill. Her support was ensured by the provision to open part of ANWR to drilling, something she attributed to a deal made with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

On the House side (where drilling in ANWR has always had an easier time passing), Young did his part by securing a promise from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that allowed him to serve on the conference committee. That allowed him a close hold to make sure the ANWR provision didn't get knocked out of the bill at the last minute.

Trump tells it his own way, taking credit where he can.

In recent months, the president has taken to dedicating a section of his stump speeches to the ANWR provision. He takes some liberties with the story-telling, sometimes saying that he never heard of ANWR until an oil tycoon friend told him about it recently. (Sullivan has told press that, for the record, that is not true. He and other Alaskans had raised the issue with Trump. At the very least, Sullivan, Murkowski and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sat down with Trump in the Oval Office early last year, and the issue was raised there. Murkowski brought maps.)

"A friend of mine called up, who's in that world and in that business, and said, 'Is it true that you're thinking about ANWR?' " the president told the audience at a recent Republican retreat in West Virginia. "I said, 'Yeah, I think we're going to get it, but you know.' He said, 'Are you kidding? That's the biggest thing, by itself.' He said, 'Ronald Reagan and every president has wanted to get ANWR approved.' And after that, I said, 'Oh, make sure that's in the bill.' "

The point of that story? Trump likes to accomplish what others have not be able to accomplish. Tell him what a victory it will be for him, and you have an ally for the cause.

"I really didn't care about it, and then when I heard that everybody wanted it — for 40 years, they've been trying to get it approved, and I said, 'Make sure you don't lose ANWR,' " Trump said, to laughter from the crowd.

Sullivan and Murkowski, as a result, "are very happy campers," Trump said.

"And Don Young," Ryan interjected.

"Where's Don Young? He's such a quiet guy," Trump said, to more laughter from the crowd. "Don Young, also. Don, thank you."

Soon after the tax bill, the Interior Department publicly agreed to settle one of Murkowski's years-long goals — to get an emergency road approved through a wildlife refuge that would link King Cove and the airport in Cold Bay.

Action on that appeared rooted in Murkowski and Sullivan's meeting at the White House, when, as Sullivan tells it, Trump ordered a road to be approved "in two weeks."

Murkowski took a different approach on Twitter after the King Cove approval, sharing a personal note from the president and a message of thanks.

The senators nabbed the Oval Office meeting when someone who worked for both of their campaigns — Mike Dubke — was doing his three-month tour as White House communications director.

Since then, the delegation has helped install a slate of Alaskans in administration positions: former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner and Sullivan chief of staff Joe Balash as assistant secretary of Interior, in charge of all oil, gas and mining on federal lands; Chris Oliver, heading fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Drue Pearce at the Department of Transportation; and Chris Hladick, Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 administrator. Tara Sweeney, former co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, is to be nominated assistant secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs.

Sullivan largely prefers to tie himself to the Trump administration's goals of bolstering infrastructure spending and speeding permitting.

Last week, the White House cited statements from Sullivan to support the president's plans to increase building in the U.S.

And Sullivan sent out a press statement saying, "I applaud President Trump and his administration's continued focus and commitment on infrastructure — which I believe presents our nation with significant bipartisan opportunities — especially as it relates to permitting reform and growing our economy."

Correction: This story previously misidentified Mike Dubke's position at the White House. He was communications director, not press secretary. Also, Karina Petersen is Sen. Lisa Murkowski's communications director, not her press secretary.