Since the election of President Trump, Oklahoma’s senior Senator Jim Inhofe (R) has found himself on the phone a lot.
“I have a number where I call, and he actually answers the phone,” Inhofe said.
Inhofe considers the President a friend and given how often the pair talk, just about every other day according to the Senator, the feeling is mutual. It's a serious shift in presidential attention for the Senator and that attention has paved the way for Oklahomans on the national stage.
The Inhofe-Trump friendship began during an unusual meeting in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. According to Inhofe the meeting itself wasn’t unusual as a whole, but was out of the norm because of its normalcy, particularly for a candidate who had prided himself on running an unconventional campaign.
“It was one where he was totally out of character because [Trump] was actually listening and taking notes,” Inhofe said. He had been referred to then candidate Trump to advise on a national security strategy.
Inhofe and Trump talk more than just politics too. The President will call to talk about the latest gossip on Capitol Hill or for a self-esteem boost as Inhofe described in a piece by the Washington Post.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, if there are days when you’re depressed because you think everybody hates you, I had this experience today,’ Not one person was out there who didn’t say, ‘I love you.’” Inhofe recounted for the Post.
Inhofe likes to tell a story about Trump calling while the Senator was chopping wood with his grandsons, who “spell him” in half hour shifts at their Delaware County home. The President halting their conversation about choices for the new Secretary of Defense to instead talk to the grandson.
“He said ' oh really? Well let me talk to him,’” Inhofe said paraphrasing Trump, his face abruptly changing from seasoned politician to mushy grandfather as he tells the story. “So he talked to him and he said he started well, ‘your grandfather he's the biggest help in all this but there's one better one, that's your grandmother Kay.’”
The Senator, ever the politician, pauses when telling the story to explain he chops wood each weekend because he likes doing something “[Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer (D-NY) isn’t doing,” even if some “people will be offended” by the comment. He laughs after the explanation.
Inhofe's relationship with the President is a major departure from the one he had with the Obama administration. While Inhofe says he had an "honest relationship" with President Barack Obama he was often seen as a cantankerous adversary instead of an ally.
But in the last two years, Inhofe has gone from crank to confidant and no matter how voters feel about Inhofe's politics there's no denying his closeness with the president has opened doors for Oklahomans. At least 6 Oklahomans have been nominated or confirmed to federal posts and 17 former Inhofe staffers now occupy positions in the EPA.
The most noted is disgraced former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Inhofe championed Pruitt, whose rejection of mainstream climate science mirrored his own. Inhofe famously decried the science of climate change on the senate floor by throwing a snowball during a speech. Pruitt had once been thought to be in line for Inhofe’s seat when he leaves office. The 85-year-old Senator is now in his fourth term.
Inhofe also backed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former Congressman from Oklahoma’s first district and pilot. Inhofe began his foray into national politics in Oklahoma-1 and continues to be an aviation enthusiast, frequently touting he still flies his own planes. His friend in the Oval Office, however has declined invitations to be a passenger, Inhofe confided.
The closeness between Inhofe and Mr. Trump is also born out when they’re at odds. During the President’s recent diatribes against the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Inhofe has stayed out of the fray, remaining silent instead of defended McCain whom he called “an American hero.”
While it’s infrequent Inhofe and the President have openly butted heads, particularly over defense spending. When the President began talking about cutting tens of billions from the defense budget, Inhofe indicated he would vote against the budget. Trump reversed course.
Inhofe has also expressed displeasure with Trump’s decision to use $3.6 billion in military construction projects to help fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. Inhofe is one of the most ardent and outspoken supporters of the President’s wall. He has twice introduced legislation to fully fund the estimated $25 billion cost of a wall along the southern border. The bill is a companion bill to one, also introduced by Inhofe, creating stricter rules for granting asylum at the border.
However, at the mention of taking money from defense projects to fund what remains the signature promise of the Trump campaign and presidency, Inhofe began working to keep military contracts safe. The Senator and his staff saying last week he had received “private assurances” from the White House those contracts “will not be touched.”
Whether that will be true remains to be seen, but one thing is sure. If the President needs advice on the issue it will be Jim Inhofe he’ll turn to. He’ll call.