None of this feels normal. The congressman greets me inside his Washington office wearing a wrinkly collared shirt with its top two buttons undone, faded denim jeans and grungy, navy blue Crocs that expose his leather-textured feet. Nearing the end of our 30-minute interview, he cancels other appointments and extends our conversation by an hour. He repeatedly brings up his extramarital affair, unsolicited, pointing to the lessons learned and relationships lost. He acknowledges and embraces his own vulnerability—political, emotional and otherwise. He veers on and off the record, asking himself rhetorical questions, occasionally growing teary-eyed, and twice referring to our session as “my Catholic confessional.”
And then he does the strangest thing of all: He lays waste to the president of his own party.
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Most Republicans in Washington are biting their tongues when it comes to Donald Trump, fearful that any candid criticisms of the new president could invite a backlash from their constituents or, potentially worse, provoke retribution from the commander in chief himself.
Mark Sanford is not like most Republicans in Washington.
His policy résumé is beyond reproach to those on the right: He was D.C.’s dashing fiscal hawk during his first stint in the House, and then, after term-limiting himself and returning home to South Carolina, he won the governorship, vetoed hundreds of measures from his Republican-led Legislature and gained fame by refusing to accept President Barack Obama’s stimulus funding in 2009. His political instincts are razor sharp: Sanford has never lost a campaign, which, joined with his ideological mooring, once made him a conservative favorite for the presidency. And his personal failings—namely, the infamous 2009 affair with Argentinian television journalist María Belén Chapur—appear to have been forgiven by the people of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, who sent him back to Congress in a 2013 special election before re-electing him in 2014 and 2016.
All this gives Sanford a unique sense of liberation to speak his mind about a president whose substance and style he considers a danger to democracy. “I’m a dead man walking,” he tells me, smiling. “If you’ve already been dead, you don’t fear it as much. I’ve been dead politically.”
His digs at Trump cover the spectrum. The president, Sanford says, “has fanned the flames of intolerance.” He has repeatedly misled the public, most recently about the national murder rate and the media’s coverage of terrorist attacks. He showed a lack of humility by using the National Prayer Breakfast to ridicule Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Most worrisome, Sanford says, Trump is unprepared for the presidency.
“Is he an honest man?” I ask.
If you’ve already been dead, you don’t fear it as much. I’ve been dead politically.”
For the first time, Sanford begins to measure his words. “I’ve got to be careful,” he says. “Because people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones.”
Sanford has always been different—“odd,” “eccentric,” “a character,” to cite common descriptions by colleagues—and he is simultaneously something of a crusader for his causes of debt, deficits, spending and government transparency. “The thing you have to understand about Mark is that he’s both quirky and professorial about his beliefs—a lot like how Ron Paul was,” says Tom Davis, a state senator who is Sanford’s former chief of staff and among his closest friends.
Sanford’s opposition to Trump, then, was somewhat inevitable. When a chorus of House conservatives took turns fawning over the GOP nominee after a meeting with him last June, Sanford made a point of mocking Trump’s constitutional knowledge. (“Somebody asked about Article I powers and what he would do to protect them,” Sanford told reporters. “I think his response was, ‘I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII,’ going down the list. Of course, there is no Article XII.”) When party officials began marginalizing the issue of tax returns after the convention, Sanford wrote a New York Times op-ed calling Trump’s unprecedented lack of transparency “something our country cannot afford.” And when his colleagues returned to D.C. infused with optimism after the Republican ticket’s November 8 victory, Sanford privately warned them to brace for disappointment.
To understand Sanford’s irreverence toward the 45th president, his friends say, you have to understand two things about him. One is his disdain for expensive clothing. “He didn’t wear a suit to his inauguration as governor,” says Carl Blackstone, who worked for Sanford as both congressman and governor, and today is CEO of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. “He would come into the governor’s office in jeans and a ripped shirt. We would entertain legislators at the governor’s mansion, and he would … show up all sweaty having just finished running.”
The other is Sanford’s upbringing. His father, a prominent heart surgeon, “taught his kids that everyone is the same no matter where they’re from or what they wear, and Mark took it to heart,” Blackstone says. “So he’s not impressed by Trump—or by anyone else. And that gives him the freedom to say what he wants.”
I ask Sanford, in our early February interview, whether it’s fair to say Trump doesn’t impress him. “Yeah, that’s accurate,” he tells me. “Because at some level he represents the antithesis, or the undoing, of everything I thought I knew about politics, preparation and life.”
Sanford, an Eagle Scout, has long been renowned for a work ethic that straddles the line between tireless and maniacal. Famously brutal on staff members—his former speechwriter wrote a book documenting his workplace misery—Sanford recalls holding marathon meetings as a congressman and as governor to review every intricate detail of budgets, bills and other proposals that came across his desk.
“And all of a sudden a guy comes along where facts don’t matter?” Sanford asks aloud. “It’s somewhat befuddling. It’s the undoing of that which you base a large part of your life on.”
Sanford says he’s spoken with Trump only once, and the interaction was brief, backstage at a primary debate in South Carolina. “I’ve watched you. You’re a winner,” Trump told him, as Sanford recalls. He rolls his eyes. “It’s like, OK.” Sanford swears he has nothing personal against the new president; in fact, he’s heard good things about him personally from several mutual acquaintances. But, he says, he can’t “look the other way” as Trump peddles false information to suit his political aims.
“I believe in a war of ideas … and I tell the staff all the time: Look, we’re in the business of crafting and refining our arguments that are hopefully based on the truth,” he adds. “Truth matters. Not hyperbole, not wild suggestion, but actual truth.”
There’s no shortage of irony in Sanford—who claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail while he was actually cavorting intercontinentally with someone not named Jenny Sanford—lecturing on “actual truth.” And yet his willingness to do so, undergirded by a history of hard-core fiscal conservatism and internecine conflict, has elevated the South Carolina congressman’s influence behind the scenes in Washington. He worked for weeks alongside Sen. Rand Paul to prepare a House companion bill to replace Obamacare, and introduced it this month as the conservatives’ legislative vehicle of choice. And from a tactical and ideological standpoint, he is already viewed as a leader of the GOP resistance: In conversations since Election Day with leaders of the congressional right, Sanford is universally mentioned as one of the few House Republicans who looks forward to future confrontations with Trump. “Sanford will never back down,” Justin Amash, his colleague and fellow Tea Party troublemaker, tells me.
What concerns Sanford on a fundamental level—“the danger” of Trump’s presidency, he says— is that “historically there’s incredible deference to the presidency from the party in power.” He understands the reluctance of rank-and-file Republicans to criticize a president who “has a proven record of taking people down.” But, he says, there must be a muscular check on Trump from somewhere inside the GOP. He was encouraged to see Speaker Paul Ryan push back on him throughout 2016, but equally disheartened to see him willingly subjugated after the election results came in. “I admired his conviction in the campaign,” Sanford says of Ryan. However, he adds, “at the end of the day, radio silence is not sustainable in being true to yourself.”
At the end of the day, radio silence is not sustainable in being true to yourself,” Sanford says of Speaker Paul Ryan.
And so Sanford finds himself, against the longest of odds, not just back in Congress but back in the spotlight—not as a rising star or future presidential contender, but as a lonely, lucky-just-to-be-here voice of dissent in a party hijacked by Donald Trump.
“You want to give anybody the benefit of the doubt. I mean, I’ve learned that through my own trials and tribulations,” Sanford says, one of numerous nods to the Appalachian Trail episode. “But if you see a pattern of over and over and over again, wherein facts don’t matter and you can just make up anything … ” He stops himself. “Our republic was based on reason. The Founding Fathers were wed to this notion of reason. It was a reason-based system. And if you go to a point wherein it doesn’t matter, I mean, that has huge implications in terms of where we go next as a society.”
He is the unlikeliest enforcer of honesty in politics. He knows it. And so do those in South Carolina and Washington who dream of finishing off Sanford once and for all. A crippling sex scandal ought to ruin any politician’s career. Crossing Trump can be treacherous. But as he braces for a blockbuster primary challenge in 2018—while quietly eyeing other potential electoral conquests—it’s his self-awareness that makes Mark Sanford the most elusive target in the Republican Party.
“Mark is like Houdini,” says Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina GOP and a former Sanford staffer. “He just keeps finding ways to escape.”
He refers to it, simply, as “2009.”
This is Sanford’s way of acknowledging everything that transpired—the sudden six-day disappearance from South Carolina in late June; the global convergence of curiosity as to his whereabouts; the rapidly disseminated lie that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail; the cringe-worthy 20-minute news conference in which he admitted to the affair; and the ensuing divorce from his wife—in a relatively painless and pedestrian manner. When he deploys the phrase “2009” more than a dozen times in our interview, he does so casually and without any apparent emotional correlation to having been the butt of endless late-night TV jokes and the subject of international satire. It’s merely a mechanism for summarizing the dissolution of his marriage and what appeared to be the demolition of his political career.
Befitting a man who discusses his downfall in the terms of a Greek tragedy, 2009 was also when Sanford’s star shone brightest. After six years in the governor’s office, most of which were spent battling GOP legislators over allegedly profligate spending, Sanford had begun to forge a national profile and attract the interest of prominent conservatives looking ahead to the next presidential race. He had already been named chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a highly coveted post for would-be presidents from which he could cultivate a national financial network. When he refused to accept Obama’s stimulus money in March—a position he was eventually forced to abandon—Sanford became a household name on the right.
He quickly became the most sought-after Republican in the country. Everyone—donors, strategists, activists, party officials, religious leaders—wanted a piece of the handsome, 49-year-old family man. “Mark Sanford was in a good place. I always contend that it was that very place that got him so wound up,” says Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I think it was on his mind on a consistent basis and it wore him down, thinking about running for president. I saw the donors coming and going through the mansion.”
When I ask Sanford this—whether the pressure of an imminent presidential campaign led to his moral lapse—a pained expression spreads across his face. The incident is less than eight years old, but Sanford looks to have aged significantly more since his news conference in June 2009. His visage, still tanned and relatively lean, is weathered by deep wrinkles along his brow and generous amounts of gray at his temples. The fresh-faced governor is gone; in his place, a congressman with permanent bags beneath his eyes and a perpetual wariness within them. He emphasizes that there is no excuse and says he takes full responsibility for his actions. But that doesn’t stop him from revisiting the period and pondering what went wrong.
“I look back,” he begins quietly. “So, you’re a governor, which is a busy enough job. You’re the father of four boys, which is a busy enough job. You’re a husband. But you are also, you know, you’re the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. You’re increasingly being asked to move around the country, raising money at different, you know, GOP kinds of things. You had a contract to write a book. I was still in the Air Force Reserves, so one weekend a month you’re pulling drill. And then you develop a relationship with somebody on a different continent. I mean, I could go down just a laundry list of different things …” He thinks for a moment. “I was stupidly busy.”
There’s a theory among some of Sanford’s friends and associates. It goes like this: He never really wanted to run for president. He didn’t enjoy the coast-to-coast fundraising, or the Beltway glad-handing, or the legions of consultants and pollsters and opinion makers descending on his family property in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But the expectations had already grown beyond his control. There was one way, the theory goes, for him to escape: continue with the extramarital affair and get caught. It’s not exactly far-fetched; disappearing for six days, without any rehearsed alibi or advance warning, was hardly the work of someone desperate to avoid detection.
Before I can raise this question, Sanford offers an extraordinary thought. “I’ve oftentimes wondered, was there some weird subconscious element that just wanted to derail the train and get off the train?” he asks aloud. “Because your life is just getting sucked up in a certain direction? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Whether he intended it or not, Sanford was indeed caught—and the train was most definitely derailed. The political obituaries didn’t take long to write. “He was banished to the hinterlands forever—by his party and by the media,” says Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina strategist and veteran of campaigns around the state. Suddenly, none of Sanford’s enviable attributes—his ability to connect one-on-one in retail settings; his total mastery of policy details; his open-book approach to fielding questions from voters and reporters alike; his fierce independent streak—seemed to matter anymore. He was finished. And everyone knew it.
Sanford hadn’t just destroyed his marriage; he had split the nucleus of his political operation. Jenny Sanford, a millionaire heiress to the Skil Corp. power-tool dynasty, had served as her husband’s campaign manager since 1994, when the little-known real estate developer worked his way into a runoff against a former state party chairman for the 1st Congressional District’s GOP nomination. The husband-wife team executed an upset that sent Sanford to Congress—and put the Palmetto State on notice about the emergence of a formidable power couple.
“I will never underestimate Mark’s ability to get elected. We used to call him the Tiger Woods of South Carolina politics,” Dawson tells me. “But you know, he had a gal named Jenny Sanford working for him, and she’s as good at winning elections as Mark is. He would have been nothing without her in that first congressional race—her and her family’s money and connections.”
With no supportive wife, no campaign manager and no political capital, Sanford finished his second term quietly in January 2011 and, in his words, went into “a hermitage phase.” The former governor had become toxic, and he was stung by how quickly his supposed allies had abandoned him. “At the beginning of the crash and burn,” Sanford recalls of 2009, “one buddy turned to me and said, ‘Well, the good news here is that you won’t have to wait until your funeral to find out who your friends are.’” He adds, moments later, “Now I consider myself blessed to have a number of good friends that, frankly, I can count on one hand.”
Sanford took to solitary retreats at Coosaw Plantation, his family’s 1,400-acre private farm southwest of Charleston, where he worked on construction projects and conducted virtual Bible studies with his four sons. Sanford swears that politics, at that point, was a distant memory; he got engaged to Chapur, his “soul mate,” in August 2012 and prepared to build a new life with her.
Everything changed in December of that year when Jim DeMint, South Carolina’s junior senator, resigned to become president of The Heritage Foundation. Sanford’s successor, then-Governor Nikki Haley, appointed Rep. Tim Scott to fill DeMint’s Senate seat. That left an all-too-inviting vacancy in the 1st District. “I thought politics was absolutely forever over for me,” Sanford says. When friends approached him to run, he recalls, his response was, “No way. I’ve been through the fire. I don’t want to reopen the wounds. Not a chance.” But nobody bought it: Sanford was itching to redeem his legacy, and a special election in his old district offered the friendliest possible opportunity to mount the unlikeliest of comebacks.
Riding sky-high name identification among his former constituents—and benefiting from a fractured, 16-way Republican primary field—Sanford sailed into the runoff election, won the GOP nomination and in May toppled the Democratic nominee to reclaim his seat in Congress. It required a bottomless supply of soul-bearing mea culpas, and at times the restoration project appeared futile: National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden, who had approved funds to help Sanford as the party’s nominee, cut off assistance when news broke that Sanford had trespassed on Jenny’s property to watch the Super Bowl with their 14-year-old son. “You’re feeling pretty lonely at that point,” Sanford says of the NRCC’s decision to drop him.
Sanford has not forgotten the slight. “You know, Greg Walden is telling the conference—because I’ve heard several people validate this—‘there is no possible route to victory for this guy. We’re pulling out of this race, and, you know, we’ll go back two years from now to try to win it,’” he tells me. After Sanford won, he says, he approached Walden and asked him for a temporary reprieve from paying his NRCC dues because the special election had drained his coffers. Walden shut him down.
At that point, Sanford made a decision: He would hoard as much campaign cash as possible and spend none unless absolutely necessary. The strategy has been successful—and is fueling rampant speculation in South Carolina about what he’ll do next.
Despite burning through money and being at his most vulnerable in 2014, Sanford won reelection entirely unopposed. Jenny Horne, a Republican state lawmaker, was dumbfounded and decided to run against him in 2016. She had little money—raising less than $150,000 total—and low name recognition, yet somehow internal polls showed her within striking distance weeks before the June 14 primary. The reason: Sanford spent barely a dime on the race. “He didn’t think I could beat him,” Horne tells me. “He didn’t think I could come close.” She actually did, taking 44 percent and losing to the incumbent by roughly 4,300 votes. The unnecessarily tight margin irked state party elders, who warned Sanford he was inviting a bigger challenger in 2018.
Why did he refuse to take this one seriously? “That might be a better question for a health care professional,” Horne says. “He brought two pigs to the statehouse and one of them crapped on the floor of the General Assembly. Who brings pigs into the state Capitol of South Carolina? It’s a complete disregard for the institution—and it’s also just bizarre. There’s a long list of bizarre things he’s done, and I can’t explain them.”
Swine aside—the governor brought them to the statehouse in an unconventional show of opposition to pork-barrel spending—the explanation for Sanford not spending money to defeat Horne is due equally to two defining traits: cheapness and confidence. Sanford, whose colleagues rib him for wearing ratty shoes, and who eschews D.C. steakhouses for “cheap Mexican food,” wasn’t going to waste campaign resources against someone he was certain couldn’t beat him. The same guy who’s betting he can censure Trump without suffering electoral consequences also gambled that he could defeat Horne without spending money he’d need later on.
“I thought it was more prudent, in terms of being prepared for down the line, just to build cash,” Sanford tells me. “If you look at my cash on hand number, I’m ahead by multiples—I mean, like double—what anybody in the entire South Carolina delegation has.”
That’s the good news for Sanford: He ended 2016 with north of $1 million in his federal campaign account.
The bad news: He’s going to have to start spending it.
“Anyone who rules anything out does so at their own peril,” says Davis, a close friend. “There are chapters left in Mark Sanford’s political story.”
South Carolina’s political class is salivating over rumors that Ted Fienning, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur—who, in addition to being young, wealthy and telegenic, flew fighter jets in the Marine Corps—will give Sanford the toughest test of his career in 2018. When I reach Fienning by phone, he confirms his intention to run against Sanford in the primary, and says he recently met with the congressman in Charleston to tell him so. “What was his reaction?” I ask him. “Shock,” Fienning replies. (“[I] learned long ago not to try and discourage someone from something they think they might want to do,” Sanford tells me via email, “so [I] simply wished him well.”)
Fienning tells me his campaign won’t focus on Sanford’s affair, but in the course of two phone conversations he makes repeated references to “integrity” and “honor” while taking several direct shots at the incumbent’s personal struggles. “This guy has made international news for terrible reasons,” Fienning says. “I’ve had international news follow me around when I was a United States Marine—in Bangladesh, Japan and all kinds of other crazy places—but that’s the kind of news you want.”
Fienning, a co-founder of a popular children’s eyewear company, says he’ll self-fund up to $250,000 in the primary. The question won’t be whether he’ll have the resources, but rather where he’ll find the ideological space to attack his opponent. “He’s a solid fiscal conservative, but you just never know,” Fienning says of Sanford. “People watch NASCAR for the crashes sometimes. You never know what’s going to come next with him.” Sanford’s broadsides against Trump could provide an opening for his primary opponent, but then again, the president is hardly an imposing force in the district: He won fewer votes there in November than Mitt Romney in 2012, according to data provided by the state party.
If there’s a potential weakness on his right flank, conservatives say, it’s that Sanford—a longtime enemy of government incentives for big retailers such as Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops—has taken a softer stance on subsidizing other entities. He is known to be cozy with Boeing, a government-bankrolled behemoth that employs nearly 10,000 people in his district, and is currently pushing Congress to appropriate $180 million for the South Carolina Ports Authority harbor deepening project in Charleston. Here again, though, it’s hard to envision how this hurts Sanford at home. “Mark at his core is a libertarian,” Felkel says, but “South Carolina is a state that can’t afford to be libertarian. … His district benefits greatly from the federal government.”
Considering Sanford’s unbeaten streak, and his deep ties to the 1st Congressional District, many friends and foes alike in South Carolina believe he’ll hold that seat as long as he wants to. But Sanford could have other ideas. In addition to more than $1 million in federal campaign funds, he’s sitting on another $1 million in a state-level account. This has fueled speculation that Sanford might run for governor in 2018 against Henry McMaster, a Trump loyalist who was promoted from lieutenant governor when Haley was nominated as the new U.N. ambassador. It’s an intriguing story line—Sanford coming full circle and winning redemption from voters statewide, the same way he did in his district—but he swears he’s not interested.
“The fact that I’m sitting here talking to you represents a redemption story. I mean, I’ve lived redemption. I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it, and I’m grateful for it,” he tells me. As for running for governor, he says, “I don’t have the itch. What I have the itch on is trying to carve out a niche on impacting the government spending.”
Of course, there’s another place he could carve out that niche: the U.S. Senate. The scenario of Sanford challenging Lindsey Graham in a 2020 Republican primary has been the subject of excited whispers in Columbia and Washington since Trump’s inauguration. Blackstone, Sanford’s longtime friend, former staffer and the current Chamber of Commerce chief, brings it up unsolicited when I ask about the possibility of Sanford running for governor. “Deep down he’s an adventurer, he likes to try different things. So quite frankly you’ve got to look at other races,” Blakstone tells me. “Lindsey is always going to be vulnerable to his right. And Sanford’s got the conservative credentials. He’s got baggage as well.”
“A Lindsey-Mark race would be a race,” Dawson, the former state party chairman, tells me.
There would be no shortage of drama: The two Republicans arrived in Congress together in 1994 and forged a close friendship. Graham went on Meet the Press four days after Sanford’s confessional news conference and supported him staying on as governor; four years later, when the national party abandoned Sanford during the special election, the senator came out forcefully behind him. Graham also happens to be the godfather of Mark and Jenny Sanford’s youngest son.
When I ask whether he’ll rule out running against Graham, Sanford is less than equivocal. “I don’t know where life goes,” he says. “All I know is that I believe I’m supposed to try and be the greatest House member that I can be for the 1st Congressional District, and that’s where I’m focused.”
Sanford’s marriage collapsed in front of a global audience. The relationship with his ex-wife is beyond repair. And he broke off the engagement to Chapur, prioritizing the relationship with his youngest son, who this spring will graduate high school. Despite all of this, those who know Sanford best say he’s at peace; that he’s enjoying his time in the House and discovering a role for himself there. But they also observe a restless ambition still dwelling within the man who in their minds should have been president.
“He’s only 56 years old. He’s got a wealth of experience, he’s got a keen and inquisitive mind, and he wants to be part of the public policy debate. When you combine those things in one individual, and couple it with the innate drive that he has, you’re going to see new chapters ahead,” Davis, his close friend, says. “I wouldn’t rule anything out. And anyone who rules anything out does so at their own peril. There are chapters left in Mark Sanford’s political story.”
Will they be written in the context of his opposition to Trump? There’s a potentially significant future electoral upside for those Republicans who prove willing to hold the president accountable when it isn’t easy. Sanford swears he’s not thinking about that. He doesn’t mind being a “pariah” in the party anymore, because he’s already been one. But he’s not trying to gain anything from it.
“Everybody wants to have a reasonably good day in politics, talk about some ideas they believe in, and leave it at that,” Sanford says.