Why Was David Perdue at Trump’s Table?

First-term GOP senator shares president’s business background

Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:06am

BY NIELS LESNIEWSKI AND JOHN T. BENNETT, CQ ROLL CALL

Looking around the lunch table with President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders Wednesday, there was one face you might not have expected to see at the table.

But it underscores the relationship between Trump and first-term Sen. David Perdue, a fellow successful businessman who is holding his first elected office.

“I was honored to be a part of it. This is a president that after that first speech that was at a high level, wants to get down to business,” the Georgia Republican said after walking back into the Capitol. “I’m very encouraged by what I heard.”

Outside of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Perdue was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for Trump, and people familiar with the relationship said Perdue has been close with both sides of Trump’s inner circle. Perdue’s team has worked with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus since the 2014 Georgia Senate campaign, and the senator was one of the earliest to reach out to senior Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon when he joined the campaign.

A White House official said Perdue was invited to Wednesday’s session because, “he has a strong business background much like the president’s and brings a unique perspective to the table.”

“He is a strong supporter of the president’s agenda,” the official said, “and will be a great advocate to help implement the bold reforms the president laid out last night.”

Perdue hasn’t been a constant fixture at the White House, but he has regularly offered feedback to administration officials behind the scenes.

He met with Trump for around two hours on Dec. 2, while the real estate mogul was in transition from campaign mode to becoming the 45th president. Trump was said to be eyeing the former Fortune 500 executive to be his Commerce secretary nominee, but he ultimately went with Wilbur Ross.

“I committed my position in the Senate to full support about getting this 100-day plan executed,” Perdue told reporters gathered at Trump Tower following that post-election meeting. He added that he was “excited” and “energized” to help push Trump’s plans on issues like tax reform and creating jobs through the Senate.

Last June, Perdue delivered an impassioned plea at the Georgia Republican State Convention for members of his party to get behind Trump. He served as chairman of Trump’s Georgia campaign and worked to get the entire delegation to back the man who is now president.

Four months before Election Day, donning a red “Make America Great Again” cap, Perdue called the election of Trump “the opportunity of a generation” describing him as the rare kind of true outsider who “understands how we feel.”

As for the Wednesday meeting, Perdue signaled he saw a president with a CEO mentality similar to his own.

“He’s looking around the room and he saying ‘OK, we need you to do this, you do this, you do this.’ It’s what you would expect of somebody who’s been successful in business,” Perdue said. “He knows what he wants. He’s got a mission, he’s got an objective, and we we’ve got a plan to get there.”

“I was there to add value on — from a business perspective — on some of the aspects of Obamacare that we want to see going forward,” Perdue said.

Perdue, a former Dollar General and Reebok CEO, has been outspoken publicly and privately about expressing his concerns about the so-called border adjustment tax that would change the tax treatment of imported and exported goods, imposing a levy on goods entering the country while easing the burden on exports.

“I think this is a situation where we need to trust the free enterprise system, do these other changes, do the trade as well and watch the free enterprise system just grow this economy,” Perdue told CNBC on Wednesday before the White House lunch. “We’ve got early signs of increasing or improving consumer confidence. We also see CEO confidence improving right now. They’re even talking about investing for the first time in a decade. We see a little optimism that government right now is going to pull back on some of these regulations.”

Perdue expressed the same sentiment to reporters at the Capitol after the White House meeting, stressing that an economic boom could generate some of the revenue needed for Trump’s expansive policy agenda.

Among the topics discussed other than the tax code re-write effort were the effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law and the process of confirming Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.

The Texan return from the meeting encouraged about the way forward for working with Trump and his administration, both on messaging and policy.

“I think he understands, as we do, the importance of getting things done to set the tone of his first term,” Cornyn said. “So we’re getting organized and getting prepared.”

“I think you’re going to see a lot greater coordination, much better communication, and — because I think that’s the key to our success,” Cornyn said.

— Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.