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Montana U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy was in Gallatin Gateway Thursday for a town hall moderated by the America First Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank founded by former advisers to former President Donald Trump.
And while his team ushered Sheehy away after the event and declined to field questions from Montana Free Press — questions that would have addressed, for example, how he plans to ethically run for Senate while continuing to serve as CEO of an aerial firefighting company with substantial federal government contracts — the candidate’s comments nonetheless illuminated his views on a number of current issues, from the recent criminal charges filed against Trump to foreign policy and culture wars.
As another panelist, former Trump-era U.S. Secretary of the Interior and current Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke put it to the crowd, Sheehy was officially there in his capacity as “Tim Sheehy, a local businessman.” The America First Policy Institute, which counts Sheehy’s fellow panelists and former Trump officials Matthew Whitaker and Chad Wolf as members, cannot directly engage in political campaigning as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
But Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL, is not just the founder of Bridger Aerospace. He’s the pick of the national Republican establishment to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat and a sizable impediment to GOP ambitions of controlling the Senate. Sheehy wasn’t the first Republican to enter the race — that honor goes to Jeremy Mygland, of Clancy — but he’s ascended from relative obscurity to a statewide platform thanks to the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as Montana electeds like Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who also chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The news of Trump’s third indictment generated responses from Montana’s federal delegation ranging from strident defense of Trump to cautious acknowledgment of the former president’s legal situation.
Sheehy, even if officially off the campaign trail, used his answer to a question about the “weaponization of government” to hash out some details of his leadership experience.
“Accountability is the most important single factor of being a leader,” he said. “And since I was 18 years old, I’ve been leading people. Whether that was on the battlefield — I had five combat deployments — if that young man came home with no legs, I was accountable. I was his commander. I was accountable to him and most importantly, to his family … I’m accountable to those families because they did not come home and I was their leader. And that’s my responsibility. And I have to be accountable to my God, to the family and to our nation. As a leader, as a businessman — I started multiple businesses — I’m accountable to my employees, to my investors, to my customers.”
Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale is also reportedly planning a run against Tester, although he hasn’t publicly announced plans to do so. A Republican hardliner active in the House Freedom Caucus, Rosendale has criticized Sheehy as beholden to McConnell and the “party bosses” and cast him in the same “D.C. cartel” as Tester. He’s thought of as a Trump loyalist and a contrast to the kind of chamber-of-commerce conservatism that the millionaire Sheehy represents. But Trump’s position in the race isn’t clear. Per CNN, the former president told Rosendale — who notably declined Trump’s phone call during a contentious leadership vote on the House floor — that he wouldn’t endorse him if he entered the Senate primary. Rosendale’s office denied to CNN that Trump “explicitly informed him that he won’t win his endorsement in a Senate bid.”
Sheehy, meanwhile, didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 primary, according to the Daily Beast, and didn’t donate to the former president until April of 2023, by which time Axios had reported that he was being groomed for a Senate bid. In 2021, he gave a maximum $5,000 donation to the political action committee of Trump challenger Nikki Haley.
But this year he told Montana Talks’ Aaron Flint that he supports Trump in his legal issues and his candidacy for president in 2024. Daines has also endorsed Trump for president.
On Thursday, Sheehy shared the stage with three former Trump cabinet officials at an event hosted by AFPI, an organization Politico and others have dubbed a “White House in waiting.”
The crowd at the Gallatin Gateway community center Thursday included a few prominent conservative figures in the state, including anti-marijuana activist Steve Zabawa and State Auditor Troy Downing. Montana State Library Commissioner Tammy Hall, a Gianforte appointee, kicked off the town hall with a prayer. In her introduction, she laid out what she sees as the stakes of the current political moment:
“We are in a war, do you agree?”
“Yes,” came the overwhelming crowd response.
“We are, on several fronts,” Hall continued. “These gentlemen … will be telling you about the wars that are coming at us from the outside, along with other things. I’m telling you about the war inside by the people who want to destroy America. And they’re out there, do you agree?”
“The only thing we can do with them, we have to fight a war of prayer. We need God.”
The panelists spent much of their time discussing what some Republicans have come to deride as a “weaponized” government with a “two-tiered justice system” intent on putting the former president in jail while obscuring the personal and business dealings of Hunter Biden and his father. Earlier this week, a grand jury convened by the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Trump on four felony charges related to his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Trump pled not guilty in an arraignment this week. It’s the third — and likely not the last — criminal case filed against Trump.
“Joe Biden knows he can’t beat Trump at the ballot box, so he’s trying to throw him in prison,” Sheehy said on Twitter this week.
The alleged weaponization of government is something the other panelists attest to know about. Zinke left Trump’s interior department following a raft of ethics probes that began shortly after he took office. In 2020, a succession of judges ruled that Wolf was improperly appointed acting U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and invalidated several of his orders. Whitaker’s appointment as acting U.S. attorney general was also subject to legal challenges.
On Thursday, Sheehy criticized a wide swath of government agencies and directives.
Continuing his remarks about leadership, he said: “If I have firefighting planes that can’t take off and go fight fire because it’s not ready to fly, because I didn’t properly maintain that aircraft, I am held accountable for that by the United States government. They take money away from me for failing to do my job. What accountability exists for our bureaucrats in this nation? You can’t fire them, you can’t sue them, you can’t dock their pay. Nothing happens. And then when there’s no accountability in that leadership structure, then you have the ability to weaponize that structure, to do whatever it wants, because there’s no consequences.”
That, Sheehy said, explains stay-at-home orders and vaccine mandates during the pandemic. As a federal contractor, Sheehy’s Bridger Aerospace was required to vaccinate its employees against COVID-19 until the Biden administration ended that mandate in May.
“If that’s not an over-extension of what the writ of our government should be allowed to do, then I’m not sure how much further we could go,” he said.
When the conversation shifted to the FBI, Sheehy was careful to say that most FBI officers in the field are “American warriors,” but that the rest of the agency is made up of bureaucrats loyal to the federal bureaucracy.
“We need a massive restructuring of our entire federal government,” Sheehy said, echoing Zinke’s call for decentralizing federal agencies away from Washington, D.C.
The remainder of the town hall focused primarily on foreign policy, particularly as it relates to immigration and fentanyl. Sheehy joined the other panelists in rattling sabers at China — a “near adversarial” nation, as Zinke put it — and Mexico, a “failed narco state,” per Whitaker.
China, Sheehy claimed, is intentionally facilitating the flow of fentanyl into the United States to destabilize the American public, much in the same way that the West brought opium to China in the 19th century.
“We’ve gone to war — Pearl Harbor killed 2,970 Americans, 9/11 killed just about 3,000 … We went to war, the longest war and the most expensive war in history. Three thousand Americans killed. We’re losing 70,000 a year [to fentanyl], hollowing out of rural communities and hollowing out our cities. And we refuse to do anything about it,” he said, calling for a wall at the southern border and other more stringent immigration policies.
The proper posture for the country to take toward China is one of the areas Sheehy and Tester have in common. Tester has introduced bills to prevent businesses from China and other “U.S. adversaries” from buying agricultural land in America and has called China the “most significant threat in the world.”
“Montanans value our privacy and freedom, and these are values that the Chinese Communist Party wants to destroy on their way to replacing us as the world’s leading superpower,” Tester said in a February news conference.
Sheehy went on to allege that the Chinese Communist Party is intentionally manipulating and indoctrinating young Americans.
“The cultural revolution — they did it once already,” Sheehy said. “They saw how to brainwash an entire generation of people, to decentralize the family unit, and say the family unit is no longer the core of our society, turning kids against families, families against each other, turning people against God.”
Sheehy also addressed the war in Ukraine. He said the United States should be cautious about sending further funding to the nation.
“Putin is a bad guy. He’s our enemy. And I support him getting his ass kicked in Ukraine all day long,” he said. “But we need to make sure that the type of support we’re providing is not going to boomerang back on us like it has in Afghanistan, like it has in Vietnam, like it has in Iraq, and almost every other conflict we’ve been involved in, when American troops are dodging bullets made in America because we gave them to an adversarial nation.”
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