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GOP Sen. Martha McSally’s attack on a CNN reporter was an embrace of Trumpism

It seemed like an outburst. It was actually an elaborate fundraising ploy.

Martha McSally shaking hands with Trump at one of his rallies.
McSally at a Trump rally in October 2018, weeks before she lost a US Senate contest to Kyrsten Sinema.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Martha McSally’s (R-AZ) remarkable attack on a CNN reporter in the halls of Congress on Thursday seemed to be an unusual outburst, but it now appears to be part of a calculated strategy to hang onto her Senate seat by hitching her wagon to the president.

On Thursday, the former member of Congress unloaded on CNN’s Manu Raju when he asked her an innocuous question about the Senate impeachment trial.

“Senator McSally, should the Senate consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial?” Raju asked.

The question is an important one. McSally has sent somewhat mixed messages about how seriously she’s taking the inquiry and was identified by my colleague Li Zhou as one of eight Republican senators to watch on impeachment. But instead of answering, McSally made things personal.

“Manu, you’re a liberal hack. I’m not talking to you. You’re a liberal hack,” McSally replied, blowing past Raju and walking into a Capitol Hill meeting room.

Watch:

Raju is widely respected by members of Congress and their staffs on both sides of the aisle, and some Republicans questioned the wisdom of going after him. What’s more, McSally was once upon a time regarded as a relatively moderate Republican and has at least tacitly pushed back on Trump, so her decision to lambaste a reporter in a quintessentially Trumpian manner caught some off-guard.

But there was an upside. McSally’s stunt received praise from the MAGA media, including Fox News staple Mark Levin (“Kudos to Martha McSally! Love this!”) and Breitbart, who wrote that McSally “slammed a CNN reporter to his face — and it was glorious.”

McSally, for her part, leaned into the incident by posting video of it on her Twitter page. Within a couple hours of when it happened, the Trump campaign Twitter account rewarded her with a laudatory tweet (“THIS is how you handle FAKE NEWS @CNN”) that also included a link to her fundraising page.

That tweet seemed to give the game away. But if any doubt remained, it was resolved on Friday when Kyle Cheney of Politico reported that McSally registered the domain name “LiberalHack.com” shortly after the incident with Raju.

And the website was used to sell (ugly) t-shirts.

The irony of McSally going full MAGA is Trump may have contributed to her loss to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in a race for a US Senate seat in Arizona in 2018. Strategists working on her behalf put together an exit memo that blamed her loss in part on Trump’s unpopularity in the state, and in particular on his lack of appeal to women — even though Trump won the state by more than three points over Hillary Clinton.

“A significant segment of the AZ GOP was hostile to the President,” it says. “In internal polling during the primary, President Trump never broke 80% favorability among Republican voters. A certain segment of AZ Republicans was outright hostile to President Trump and was against the Kavanaugh appointment. This segment of moderate Republicans, especially woman [sic], proved very difficult to bring home to a Republican candidate that supported President Trump and the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh.”

In December 2018, Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appointed McSally to the Senate seat vacated by the late Sen. John McCain. And despite what her strategists may have concluded, she’s apparently come around to the idea that her best chance at holding on to the seat is to embrace Trump, whose approval rating is slightly underwater in the state but holds his own in hypothetical matchups against the Democratic frontrunners.

McSally can use whatever help Trump can give her. Though she isn’t facing a serious primary challenge, she’ll have her hands full in the general contest with Democratic candidate Mark Kelly, an astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. Polls conducted over the last few months have consistently shown Kelly holding a slight lead, and he has bested her so far in fundraising as well.

In a Republican party that has been purged of just about everyone who isn’t a Trump loyalist, McSally likely sees the writing on the wall: She can either embrace the president and maintain hope of winning in November, or keep her distance and have no shot at all. Her antics on Thursday indicate she’s chosen the former.

McSally still isn’t answering the question

Somewhat lost in the kerfuffle over McSally’s attack on Raju was the fact that she never answered his question about the impeachment trial for which she’ll be part of the jury: Does she think it should feature witness testimony or not?

You’d think she’d have a position. But during an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show hours after the Raju incident, McSally still couldn’t provide a straight answer.

“What about Manu Raju’s question — do you want witnesses?” Ingraham asked her.

“I want a fair trial,” McSally replied, dodging.

“You’re not going to play the game with me. You can call me a conservative hack, but do you want witnesses, yes or not?” Ingraham pressed. “Why aren’t you telling us?”

“I’m not going to tell everybody what all my votes are going to be,” McSally replied.

“It’s kind of an easy question, don’t you think, senator?” Ingraham replied. But McSally never answered.

Then again, for all intents and purposes, McSally answered the question in the hours leading up to that interview. For better or worse, she’s once again rolling with Trump, and she’s hoping that the result this time will be different from 2018’s.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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