Jon Kyl, once the No. 2 Senate Republican leader, has returned to a deeply divided chamber during a tumultuous period in American politics.
Kyl, 76, initially retired from the U.S. Senate in 2013 after three terms, at the start of President Barack Obama’s second term. At the time, Democrats controlled the Senate.
He returned to Capitol Hill this week to a narrow GOP Senate majority and a Republican in the Oval Office: Donald Trump.
Kyl, who was appointed to fill the vacancy caused by the Aug. 25 death of his longtime colleague Sen. John McCain, has at times disagreed with Trump. He has called Trump’s political style “boorish.” He has said Trump could be more effective if he were more diplomatic.
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But Kyl has not displayed the aggressive stance that McCain often took against Trump, who disparaged McCain’s service during the Vietnam War and often derided McCain’s July 2017 “no” vote on a Senate GOP attempt to roll back the Affordable Care Act.
How Kyl will get along with Trump remains to be seen.
Kyl said he has met Trump just once and has no relationship with him.
“Of course, I know Vice President (Mike) Pence, but I have not had any particular relationship with anybody in the White House,” Kyl said during a phone interview with The Arizona Republic on Wednesday, his first day back on the job in the Senate.
Kyl later told reporters the president can, at times, be his “own worst enemy” and said he should not “pick unnecessary fights.” Instead, the senator said, Trump should draw attention to successes, like the strong economy.
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Asked Wednesday by The Republic how he would approach disagreements with the president, Kyl said, “My general approach is there’s no point in going out and picking a fight if it’s not necessary. But at the same time, if you think something is wrong, you need to call it out.
“We’ll just have to wait and see how things play out.”
Previously, Kyl was his party’s whip, the No. 2 GOP Senate leader. He was known as a cerebral conservative and partisan warrior whose gift of persuasion was more recently used by the White House to help shepherd Trump nominees through the nomination process.
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During the 2016 presidential race, Kyl endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., his former colleague, in the GOP primaries. Kyl said then he was impressed with Rubio’s foreign-policy acumen.
Kyl said he voted for Trump in the general election.
In early 2017, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. senator from Alabama and onetime Kyl colleague, asked Kyl to help him navigate the confirmation process, he said.
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White House counsel Don McGahn, whom Kyl “knew slightly,” recently asked if he similarly would shepherd Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh through the Senate confirmation process.
“It was important to vote for President Trump,” Kyl said. “And having worked on Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation, I can just tell you how very important I think it has been to have a president who will appoint or nominate to the Supreme Court people of the quality of Justice (Neil) Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.”
Kyl said the hearings are a good illustration of the partisan problems plaguing Capitol Hill.
“The … decorum that used to characterize Senate proceedings has been lost, and it seems like with every issue, it’s a contest between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “It didn’t used to be that way.”
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Kyl represented Arizona for three terms in the Senate from 1995 to 2013.
After leaving the Senate, Kyl joined the high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling, where he lobbied for clients on issues including taxes, health care, defense, national security and intellectual property.
Marc Short, the former White House director of legislative affairs, said the White House leaned on Kyl a couple of times to help prepare people for confirmations. He said Kyl and Trump didn’t have much of a relationship.
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Kyl’s return to the Senate provides stability for Trump and Republicans at an unpredictable time, Short said.