Trent Sutton, 45, a Marine veteran of more than 20 years’ service living in College Station, seeks to be the Republican nominee in the general election to succeed Bill Flores in representing Congressional District 17. The retired master sergeant recently graduated with a master’s degree in international affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Sutton supports the building of President Trump’s border wall; supports repealing Obamacare; supports subsidies for crop insurance; and supports expanded forms of energy production such as nuclear energy. Besides his commendable military service, Sutton represents an engaging, knowledgeable example of how the Republican Party of Texas has dramatically changed from the GOP of President George H.W. Bush, whose statesmanship and public service inspired Sutton to enroll at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, to the party of President Trump, whom Sutton strongly supports and defends. Ironically, the elder Bush regarded Trump so antithetical to Republican principles that the former president in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton, wife of the man who kept Bush 41 from a second term as president.
Q How crazy is it with a filing period ending in December and early voting beginning in mid-February? Do you enjoy this hectic time period? With 12 Republican candidates, they have barely enough time for people to even know them except for former Congressman Pete Sessions.
A I do kind of enjoy the fast pace of it, but when you look at it from a practical standpoint, it’s not enough time, especially with the size of this district. Getting everywhere that you want to go to, you just don’t have an opportunity to adequately parse yourself out to every county and every town and meet every individual that you want to.
Q Do you have a favorite American hero?
A Oh, I have several. I’m not even sure which one I want to go with at first. I’m going to go with Ted Williams as a Marine. [A Boston Red Sox standout ballplayer, Williams served two stints as a Marine Corps pilot, including a combat assignment during the Korean War.] I’m very drawn to individuals like that, for his service both in World War II and Korea. Of course, he had a somewhat adversarial relationship with the media, but all the while he was constantly working behind the scenes with the Jimmy Fund [for cancer research and care] in taking care of kids with cancer. I like him both because of his patriotism and his service. Normally I’d give the answer of President [George] H.W. Bush, who I’ve long been an admirer of. That was very much the reason I chose to go to the Bush School of Government and Public Service. I didn’t go to the Bush School and then become an admirer of President Bush. I was an admirer of him long before I attended the Bush School.
Q Why President George H.W. Bush?
A I was in high school during the first Gulf War and of course the fall of the Berlin Wall. So I was kind of coming of age and was really in tune with all the activities that were going on. I saw his leadership. He was probably one of the first ones where I saw his leadership firsthand. And then, of course, as I grew older and started studying more and learning more about him, and his service with the CIA and the Navy, I saw that he truly embodied servant leadership. I really appreciate his diplomacy and the way that he approached very complex issues, leaving multiple solutions on the table and ultimately giving all of them time to play out, especially going into the Gulf War.
Q That was a long period of preparation for war, a very short duration of actual war, probably because of that preparation.
A Right. But he gave the economic and the political realm time to work well before we went to war.
Q You’ve spoken to me about the need for more conservative veterans in the political realm and how the Marines serving under you represented a certain constituency. Was there a defining moment that prompted your decision to run?
A Honestly, public service is something that I’d always had an interest in. Obviously, my service in the Marine Corps I view very much as a big public service, even though I was working in a very different capacity than what I would be now. But it was when Congressman Flores announced that he wasn’t going to be seeking reelection, and some of the things that he had said, I realized how aligned I was in my thinking with him and the folks here in the district. I believe in what he talks about all the time, being a citizen legislator, and I feel very much I am one of those citizens and could well represent us as a group.
Q Congressman Flores told me he’s tapped several people to encourage them with the idea of running. Are you one of those?
A Yes, not initially. Initially when I first met with him, it was at his workshops [on congressional service] that he had done. But since then, he has openly supported the campaign.
Q What is the best takeaway you had from his workshop?
A I think a lot of it I was already prepared for. A lot of the things that he talked to us about in that workshop involved the time requirements and what the job really means — the long hours, the time away from home and how the pay and the benefits aren’t what a lot of folks think they are. I think those were things that I was already kind of geared towards. You know, you mentioned that there’s a lot of freshman congressmen who sleep in their offices and work long hours. And in my mind I was like, “Well, there’s nothing about that scenario that’s going to be worse than living in a can in the 130-degree desert in Iraq.”
Q Research indicates that lawmakers who have served on a city council, a school board, a planning and zoning commission or a philanthropic board demonstrate superior results in terms of passing bipartisan legislation. Do you have any experience like that?
A Not directly as an elected official, but one thing about being in the military is you have to work with folks from diverse backgrounds who don’t necessarily agree with you to get a mission accomplished. So the dynamic in the military is really no different than in any of those elected positions. I may be new to politics, but I’m not new to politicking.
Q Tell us about where you were born and raised, your upbringing.
A I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and that’s where I lived until I joined the Marine Corps. Of course, all of my family is still there, so that’s where, ideally, you would think that I would’ve gone back to, but it wasn’t what I identified as home anymore. But I was raised in a working-class family. I spent several years living with my grandparents. My grandfather was a surveyor for [Schlumberger], worked in the oil fields in Kansas and Oklahoma, and my grandma taught Sunday school. So that was kind of the environment I was largely brought up in.
Q Tell us about your 20 years in the Marines. First of all, why did you get in the Marines?
A The short story is, I had a couple of friends who wanted to join and I told them I thought it was a horrible idea — and a week later I was sitting in the recruiter’s office. Again, growing up as a kid, especially having been in the military now, I know how horrible of an idea it might have seemed. But I also was a product of the ’80s, so “Top Gun” [a film about naval aviators] was one of those movies that really resonated with me. So I envisioned myself, when I was younger, standing on a flight deck, waving at airplanes. I’m glad I didn’t do that. But because of my friends, I took that first enlistment. One of them ended up finally coming to boot camp about two months after I did. The third one, whose idea it was in the first place, never went. I thought that after that first four years, I might get out and go back home. But for job opportunities, I decided to stay in and I reenlisted, made a late move into aviation. And, of course, during that enlistment, 9/11 happened. As you know, 9/11 changed the world for a lot of us, whether those who were in the military or those who weren’t. So I made my first deployment. We were in Pakistan, flying operations in Afghanistan. I got there at the end of February of 2002, then turned right back around and went to Iraq in 2004.
Q How did your service shape your outlook in foreign affairs? What do guys and gals in harm’s way, or near it, think when they hear the latest decision by the president or what somebody in Congress has said?
A It influences everyone differently. I talked about working with individuals inside the military from varying backgrounds. The same holds true for individuals from other countries. During my time, both in the Marine Corps and doing some private travel, I’ve been to 45-plus countries. I don’t know the actual count anymore. But along the way, I met a lot of individuals from, again, varying backgrounds and ideologies who don’t necessarily agree with me.
Fundamentally, you learn in meeting all those individuals that everybody at the end of the day has the same hopes and dreams for their families, to make their lives better. And again, I think I view things in foreign policy a little different. I’m a very large proponent of engagement and maintaining our alliances. But I also believe that we need to be very cautious as far as getting militarily engaged with opponents around the world.
Q Kimberley Field, a retired Army brigadier general and executive director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, wrote a piece for the New York Times saying the aftermath of the president’s killing of this Iranian general proves we have a very fractured, inconsistent foreign policy. Is she right?
A One of the challenges we face is that — and this is just because of the way that the American presidency and the legislative system is set up — we have a shifting of parties [in power]. It’s more difficult for us just as a nation to have a real coherent long-term strategy, and I think that’s something that we desperately need. I think that’s one of the problems that we have as a society right now. Of course, after 9/11, we got to rally around the flag. Now we’ve kind of separated and become more tribal, and we’re losing a lot of our national identity. And because of that, it influences our foreign policy.
Q I don’t want to get into the impeachment here, but President Trump was impeached over matters relating to the delay of military assistance to Ukraine, an ally under erratic attack by Russia. Do you support the freezing of congressionally approved funding by this president, and all future presidents, Republican or Democrat, going forward?
A I think the reason that he froze them involved wanting to make sure that, especially with [newly elected Ukrainian President] Zelensky, corruption had been truly rooted out. There has been a lot of foreign aid that has gone to Ukraine that has gotten “misplaced.” So I think wanting to ensure that, with this new presidency, under this new administration, they legitimately were on the up and up and that those funds would go to the correct place, because we’re absolutely—
Q Emails and reporting indicate Republicans in Congress were shocked to find out that the funding they had approved did not in fact go to Ukraine [for 55 days]. Is that appropriate?
A Again, it’s difficult to say that without getting into the impeachment. But I don’t want my money, as a taxpayer, going someplace where it could be mishandled. So I’m looking at it from the very lowest level of that being our money. There was $1.8 billion, I believe, that disappeared into Burisma and I can draw the whole map, but that would take far more time than we’re going to spend here.
Q So in other words, you think the president should second-guess Congress?
A Again, I think the job of Congress is to second-guess the president sometimes and to support the president sometimes. And again, at the executive level, I think he’s looking at things differently sometimes than all of the individuals in Congress are.
Q So you would have supported the freezing of military aid to Ukraine.
A To find out what the actual situation was, yes. It’s not something that should be a routine process. But I think there were very real concerns that he raised about Ukraine, and once those were addressed, then sending the aid on as it is. And I very much do approve of sending military aid to Ukraine because, although Russia is not, in my opinion, the No. 1 adversary, they are very much a problem.
Q The 2015 agreement with Iran took it off the table as far as progressing with its nuclear ambitions. Even the Trump administration acknowledges that the Iranians had lived up to the agreement, leaving us with North Korea to contend with. We abandoned the 2015 agreement. Now we’ve had this recent dustup with Iran. And now we have two renegade powers with nuclear ambitions, both a threat to the United States. Was it a smart move to abandon the 2015 agreement, one we negotiated with our allies?
A North Korea could have been potentially stopped as a nuclear power going as far back as the Clinton administration. And Clinton himself had kind of contemplated taking military action against North Korea. So there’ve been several failures along the way that have allowed it to become a nuclear power. I would argue that regardless of what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [with Iran] was, Iran still had the ambitions to become a nuclear power.
Q But we had them off the table [as a nuclear threat] for a pretty good period of time.
A I don’t think we did. Going all the way back to Ruhollah Khomeini, he said, “The only reason we will ever negotiate with America is if it is in our best interest.” So they saw it in their best interest and I believe that was very much so they could continue to pursue their ambitions.
Q Well, they’re going ahead with their nuclear ambitions now.
A They were going ahead with their ambitions before.
Q Not according to the Trump administration’s own assessments. The last assessments were the Iranians were living up to the agreement.
A For the time, but it was a very temporary agreement. [Note: Iran on Jan. 5 announced it would no longer adhere to the 2015 nuclear deal, shortly after President Trump ordered a strike that killed its top general.]