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Rubio's Changing Feelings Toward Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a big question for Republicans in Congress, a question by which history may judge them. How do they work with a Republican president while also serving as an independent check on the executive? Practical politics may call for the first, while the Constitution demands the second. Those facing the challenge include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was a critic of Donald Trump when running against him for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: This is an important thing. What is your plan? I understand the lines around the state - whatever that means. This is not a game where you draw maps around...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And you don't know what it means.

RUBIO: What is your plan?

TRUMP: That's the problem. You don't know.

RUBIO: What is your plan on health care?

TRUMP: Your biggest problem...

RUBIO: You don't have a plan.

INSKEEP: That was Rubio in debate. And here he was in a speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RUBIO: We are going to send the message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan and the presidency of the United States will never be held by a con artist.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Trump went to the White House while Rubio remained in the Senate. He's now on the intelligence committee, so he is part of the investigation of Russian meddling. In hearings, he's sometimes seemed critical of the president and other times seemed supportive. Alex Conant is a former Rubio aide and still an informal adviser.

So how would you describe Senator Rubio's approach to the president?

ALEX CONANT: So he spent the first six years in the Senate with a president who was going to veto any bill that Marco Rubio sent to him. And now he finds himself in a position where we're in the majority, and there's a president willing to sign his legislation into law. And so he's trying to take advantage of that opportunity while it's there.

INSKEEP: What's he want out of the president? What's something he wants the president to sign?

CONANT: So for the last three years, Marco's been trying to reform the VA. And now, in the last couple of weeks, the Senate and the House have passed his VA reform bill, and President Trump's going to sign it into law. He wanted to reverse President Obama's Cuba policies. He worked very closely with President Trump and senior White House staff to get that done last week.

He wanted increased sanctions on human rights abusers in Venezuela, worked very closely with the Trump administration to get that done. So those are examples of areas where there - he has agreement with Trump and is able to get things done.

INSKEEP: Realistically speaking, does the senator's desire to get the president's signature on his legislation mean that he needs to sometimes temper his criticism of the president?

CONANT: Absolutely not. You know, Marco has said that the president is wrong on issues like human rights in Egypt and has pushed them to take a stronger stand in supporting human rights around the world. On the Russia hearing, Marco has defended the integrity of Bob Mueller despite attacks from Trump and his allies.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the Russia hearings because Senator Rubio has had some questions and statements that would appear to be critical or disagreeing with the president. But he also has raised questions about himself by the way he appeared to defend the president with some of his lines of questioning about leaks, about exactly what was said between James Comey and the president of the United States, and exactly what it means.

CONANT: Well, he's approaching these hearings with a very open mind. And Marco takes this investigation very seriously. He doesn't want to prejudge the results. He's going to ask tough questions of all sides in the hearings and keep an open mind until the investigation concludes.

INSKEEP: If you're a United States senator - let's be real here - you have to balance various interests and needs. You have your loyalty to your party. You have your duty to be a check and balance on the president of the United States from time to time. And you also have your ambition. You're thinking about your future. How does Senator Rubio...

CONANT: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Balance those different things?

CONANT: Well, I can tell you, his primary goal right now is to be the best senator that Florida has ever had. And that means when you're able to work with the White House to get something done for your constituents, he's doing it. But on the other hand, he has said when he was running for Senate that he would stand up to the president, regardless of party, when he thought the president was wrong.

And so I don't think it's a balancing act so much as - as long as you're guided by one clear goal, it's pretty clear which way you're going to fall on most issues.

INSKEEP: To your best understanding, how does the senator think about his own future and the possibility, say, of running for president again?

CONANT: You know, I've worked for Marco for over five years, and he always took the position that he needs to focus on the job he has at the moment. He's obviously a young man and ran for president before. I would love to see him run for president again. I have no idea if he plans to do that or not. Frankly, I don't think he spends a lot of time thinking about it because the future is so uncertain, especially in the Trump era.

INSKEEP: Alex Conant, thanks very much.

CONANT: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's a former aide to Senator Marco Rubio and now a partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.