Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen said Tuesday that Republican nominee Donald Trump is fit to be president and Frelinghuysen plans to vote for him because he promised this summer to support the party’s nominee.
“While I’m offended by a lot of things he said and continues to say, I think he would be a strong leader, especially in the areas that I work in, in national defense,” Frelinghuysen told the editorial board of The Record.
The endorsement of one Republican by another would normally not raise eyebrows, but Frelinghuysen’s expression of support comes as others in his party, including Rep. Frank LoBiondo in Atlantic County, broke with the presidential nominee after the disclosure of a recording in which Trump boasted about inappropriately touching and kissing women.
Frelinghuysen, 70, is an 11-term Republican from Harding and chairman of the House subcommittee that writes the Pentagon’s budget. He told the editorial board that the nation’s standing around the world slipped during President Obama’s term because allies came to doubt whether the United States would do what it said it would.
Like Trump, he criticized Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq, saying it created the opening that allowed the Islamic State to gain power. He agreed with Trump that the U.S. military “is in a horrible condition” because of Obama’s “ambivalent” attitude over the past eight years.
“I’ve traveled the Middle East, and the people that I talk with, in Egypt, in Jordan, they see the United States leaning back and creating a vacuum not unlike the vacuum we saw in Iraq that allowed people to lean in there, and now we have to go back and spend American lives, which we’re doing each and every day, trying to take back areas that were captured,” Frelinghuysen said.
A leading candidate to chair the full House Appropriations Committee next year, he said if he gets that post, he will both support and keep in check the next president, whether it’s Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“This is nothing to do with party. This is about our nation and this is why, this damn election, we’ve got two of the most unbelievable people running here. But I want you to know I’m going to have -- whoever wins -- their back, and we’re going to make sure we have checks and balances,” he said.
Joseph Wenzel, a Democratic attorney from Clifton who opposes Frelinghuysen this year, said in a phone interview that the incumbent can’t have it both ways.
“Either he supports the nominee wholeheartedly, which means he buys into Trump’s racism and misogyny and sexism, or he doesn’t,” Wenzel said. He said it was “laughable” to say Trump should be president because of his position on military issues.
“This is the guy who would love to use nuclear weapons, and has zero experience on the international stage,” Wenzel said. “That disturbs me and should disturb the people of the district.”
Frelinghuysen said that talking to voters this fall, he found many were stressed about the direction of the country and a presidential campaign that focused less on national security than a “battle of personalities that really has gotten into gutter in way never seen before.”
Frelinghuysen said he disagreed with Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the country, and noted he has met with Muslim communities in North Jersey and sees the importance of having people feel they can come forward if they see someone becoming radicalized. At the same time, he said he does support stronger vetting of people entering the country, and tougher border security overall.
He also broke with many on his party’s right wing, saying Congress should be allowed to “earmark” funds for important projects in their districts. Eliminating earmarks, he said, took away an important management tool for House leaders such as Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul Ryan, and may have led to the ongoing threat of shutdowns because members did not have their own projects in spending bills.
Quoting anonymous sources, Politico reported this week that a potential rival to Frelinghuysen for the appropriations chairmanship, Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, had decided not to mount a challenge next year. But Politico noted that could change if the election leads to more power being flexed by the conservative wing of the Republican caucus, because Frelinghuysen might be considered suspect as a more moderate Northeasterner.
Before the editorial board, he said that being chairman could help New Jersey get back more of the money it sends to Washington. He said, for example, he was a strong supporter of building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which Amtrak has been planning through its Gateway project.
He also said the region will see long-term benefits from federal funding he helped secure nearly two decades ago to deepen channels leading to ports in Newak and Elizabeth. And he touted a $10 million fund he helped create to buy property from willing sellers to protect parts of northwestern New Jersey and adjoining New York that, if developed, could threaten the source of drinking water in more crowded parts of Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties.
In discussing the crisis over contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich., Frelinghuysen said Congress needed to be careful it did not make the federal government responsible for things, such as public school drinking fountains, that traditionally have been local government responsibilities.
About his chances of becoming the first New Jersey chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which writes the 12 annual spending bills that keep most of the government operating, Frelinghuysen would only say he would be honored to serve and would try to be bipartisan.
“I’ve been talking with members of Congress in our caucus, I certainly would like to have that opportunity,” he said. “I think we need to get the job done, we need to keep government open for business, and certainly I want to help Paul Ryan make sure we have appropriations bills that are delivered on time.”
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