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Trent Lott: ‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Purity’ in Leadership

Lott, center, talks with Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., left, and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., after the Senate policy luncheons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Lott, center, talks with Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., left, and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., after the Senate policy luncheons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., stood in a hallway just off the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by a throng of reporters. He was holding his left hand, pointing to one of his fingernails.  

“I always thought I was having fun,” Lott said of his time in Congress. “But finally I noticed I kept getting these ridges on my fingernails. So I went downstairs to the doctor — in fact I got one right there — and I said what is this? He said that’s stress.” Lott was explaining to the Fourth Estate the tolls of being in congressional leadership as the reporters peppered him about the current Republican leadership scramble consuming the House.  

Lott, who is currently a senior counselor at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, served 35 years in Congress, including as a whip in the House and majority leader in the Senate before stepping down as leader after a controversial statement at the birthday party of South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond. He later returned to leadership as a whip. And, despite retiring in 2007, he is occasionally spotted walking the Senate hallways.  

“I still think the best job in Congress is whip,” Lott said. “You have more fun, you have interaction with members, and yet you don’t have the ultimate responsibility of the majority leader, the speaker, or the leader.”  

Reporters were eager to hear Lott’s take on the leadership elections, and he gladly gave his opinion, noting he spoke with both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is jockeying to be the next speaker, and GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who hopes to be elected majority leader, when both men were running for whip.  

Lott said with a smile that “a couple” of the current whip candidates have reached out to him for advice, but he declined to name names.  

As for McCarthy’s possible ascension to speaker, Lott said “he’ll be fine,” noting McCarthy’s “demeanor is good.”  

“Kevin, he worked in the House,” Lott said. “He worked with [former Rep.] Bill Thomas, which was the most difficult person to work with you ever met,” he added, causing one reporter to let out a laugh.  

“Well, Bill knows that,” Lott responded.  

As for who would succeed McCarthy, Lott said he is partial to Scalise, though House Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia would also do well, and he said he didn’t think Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., would run for leader, something Gowdy confirmed later Tuesday . Either Scalise or Price would need to be able to unite the divided GOP conference, Lott said.  

“I think either one of the two guys running for majority leader would be a pretty good go-between,” Lott said. “Both of those guys will be able to work with the speaker, work with the bulk — the majority of the conference, but also have ties to the more conservative elements. But the problem is, and I experienced it, and I’m experiencing it now, once you get in the leadership, there ain’t no such thing as purity.”  

And it’s not just the House that has dealt with intraparty divisions. Lott did not mince words when asked about Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has harshly criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  

“I think it’s totally inappropriate, out of order, and I resent the hell out of it,” Lott said of Cruz’s attacks on Senate leadership. “It’s not good for society, it’s not good for the institution, it’s not good for the party, it’s not good for America.”  

Despite the divisions, Lott was confident the GOP conference will eventually be able to come together.  

“It won’t happen immediately,” Lott said. “I’m hoping that they’re beginning to see this circle shooting squad’s not a good idea.”  

Along with navigating a divided caucus, he said, whichever House Republicans end up steering the ship better also watch out for barnacles.  

“When you’re in the leadership, you take on barnacles like a ship at sea,” Lott said, “and they begin to weight you down after battle, after battle, after battle.”

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