White House

S.C. Gov. McMaster boasts ties to Trump, but can he deliver for the state?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster after arriving on Air Force One at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster after arriving on Air Force One at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C. AP

Henry McMaster boasts often of his close ties to President Donald Trump, but South Carolinians are still waiting to see what that friendship can deliver.

Nearly a year after being sworn into office, the state’s Republican governor has only been able to secure two tangible wins for South Carolina using his White House connections.

Winning federal dollars to advance the Charleston Harbor deepening project and helping get an extension for South Carolina to become compliant with the national “REAL ID” mandate were significant achievements.

But McMaster wasn’t able to secure a reauthorization of a nuclear production tax credit that might have helped the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant avoid total financial collapse. Nor has he seen a commitment to preserve the mixed oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX, program, a plutonium reprocessing initiative that’s behind schedule, over budget and at risk of being shut down.

What the Republican incumbent can extract from the Trump administration, and through his frequent visits to Washington, D.C., between now and the June 12 gubernatorial primary, will be critical to proving he has clout.

The biggest test of McMaster’s influence to date will be whether he can convince Trump in the days ahead to spare two South Carolina business interests from financial penalties.

In a recent interview with McClatchy, McMaster said it was “obvious” that his line to Trump — who is still immensely popular in the state — gives him an edge over the three other Republicans currently in the race.

“It’s a good situation to be in,” he said. “It’s good for South Carolina, good for the governor of South Carolina, and anyone else in business and in any field or endeavor, to be able to contact somebody more quickly and more easily.”

Yet in boasting about his access to Washington powerhouses, McMaster is inevitably upping the political pressure to actually come through, said Raymond Scheppach, the former executive director of the National Governors Association.

“A lot of times, governors will go to Washington and not talk about it, and see whether they can get it done and brag about it after the fact,” Scheppach explained. “It’s a better approach than announcing you’re going to go, and then not being able to deliver.”

Mollie Young, spokeswoman for one of McMaster’s primary challengers, Catherine Templeton, was quick to downplay the governor’s sway within the Trump universe.

“McMaster is a typical career politician who will try to grab credit and avoid blame no matter what happens, how, or why,” said Young. “Like Trump, (Templeton) is an outsider willing to shake up the do-nothing establishment career politicians.”

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, noted that going to Washington to advocate on behalf of the state was not remarkable for someone in that role. Republican George W. Bush was president during the first six years.

But McMaster’s access to private audiences with some of the administration’s highest-ranking officials and senior staffers is unusual.

“I never had that experience being governor during an ally’s time in the presidency,” said Sanford. “Political leverage is for using, and as much as (McMaster) has it, he should use it.”

McMaster’s alliance with the president goes back to the governor’s endorsement of then-candidate Trump in the pivotal days before the state’s 2016 Republican primary. In October, Trump returned the favor and endorsed McMaster, who is running for his first full term as governor. He ascended from the lieutenant governor’s post in January 2017, following Nikki Haley’s confirmation as U.N. ambassador.

McMaster also said he enjoys access to Attorney General Jeff Sessions — the two men served as U.S. attorneys at the same time in the 1980s. The governor is also friendly with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who made trips through South Carolina campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and 2016.

The governor’s connections brought him to Washington in early May. He met one-on-one with Trump, as well as Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director and a former South Carolina congressman, and Rick Dearborn, who at that time was a White House deputy chief of staff. In late September, McMaster went to Energy Department headquarters to speak with Perry and his deputy, Dan Brouillette.

On both trips, the governor discussed how the administration could help ease the fallout at the V.C. Summer plant, either through extending expiring tax credits or taking decisive action in support of the state’s nuclear energy initiatives. Administration officials have so far not made any public promises.

In the final months of 2017, McMaster made several more visits to Washington in pursuit of his latest challenge: Deterring Trump from imposing tariffs on two industries with major stakes in South Carolina.

Trump has to decide in a matter of weeks whether to implement International Trade Commission recommendations to sanction importers of solar panels, which could adversely affect installation businesses in the state, and the South Korean-based manufacturing giant Samsung, which is opening a plant in Newberry, S.C.

The stakes are especially high with the Samsung case. Many fear that harsh financial penalties for charges of squashing domestic competition on washing machines could force the company to pull out of plans to create hundreds of jobs at the new home appliance outfit.

McMaster has gone to Washington to testify multiple times before the ITC. He has met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and senior aides, sat down with high-level staffers for the president and vice president and appealed to the under secretary for international affairs at the Department of Treasury.

“Newberry is not on everybody’s world map, but it’s on the world map in Washington, D.C.,” said McMaster.

If Trump makes a decision in the state’s favor, McMaster could take plenty of credit, particularly among Trump’s base.

“If you’re a Trump supporter like I am, and the like governor is, then yes, this helps,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who represents Newberry.

If not, McMaster will have to explain why none of his lobbying was fruitful. He will also have to find another way of spinning the outcome —and he will have to do so delicately if he wants to continue on good terms with the president. On a few other issues he has already had to carefully navigate his differences from the president without being seen as antagonistic.

McMaster has said he supports the Export-Import Bank, a major jobs creator in South Carolina. He will not, however, question the logic behind nominating Scott Garrett, Trump’s controversial contender to run the agency who spent years prior trying to dismantle it. He has continued to support the president’s choice even after South Carolina’s junior senator, Republican Tim Scott, helped scuttle the nomination on Capitol Hill.

And while McMaster does not support offshore drilling, he is one of the only state chief executives opposing the practice to not have sent a letter to the administration officially registering disapproval. Sanford actually suggested McMaster should be using his clout with the Trump administration on this issue alone.

“I believe he could stop it for the sake of South Carolina if he dug in and decided this is definitively something he wanted to burn a canoe on,” Sanford said.

Ultimately, McMaster said his access to the Trump administration would withstand questions about outcomes.

“What I have is an opportunity to make the case,” he said. “It may make a difference, it may not, but at least we know the facts about the situations — the issues — will be told, received and understood.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain