Haunted by his vote to authorize the Iraq War, the Republican congressman is standing up against US military actions.
Originally published in The Nation.
ON THE DAY IN LATE JANUARY that I interviewed Walter Jones Jr. in his office in Greenville, North Carolina, the Republican congressman was feeling particularly apocalyptic. He had just read a Fox Business story detailing how three Wall Street private-equity firms, whose members had ponied up $1.3 million for GOP lawmakers in 2017, persuaded Congress to preserve a tax loophole for high-end money managers. On Jones’s desk, awaiting his signature, was a condolence letter to the family of US Army Spc. Javion Shavonte Sullivan, who had died two weeks earlier in Iraq. And on the muted TV, a chyron stated that President Donald Trump had ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, only to be foiled by the White House counsel.
Jones, 75, is a religious man. Brought up Southern Baptist, he converted to Catholicism as an adult, breaking from a denomination that still questions whether Catholics’ devotion to the Virgin Mary disqualifies them from entering Heaven. Jones prays for the country regularly, but his deep faith and his “child’s view of Heaven” don’t protect him from despair.
“I am at a point where I just wonder: Are we in the final days of a great nation?” he told me. “I’m thinking that, going back to the Bible, we’re on the verge of Revelations.” He was referring to the New Testament Book of Revelation, which—in the language of beasts, horsemen, and fire—foretells the destruction of a wicked world before the Second Coming of Christ. “The nation that has been blessed in so many ways has forgotten the blessings,” Jones said.
He paused for a few seconds. “That’s, I guess in a way, why I’m kind of an independent.”
In 2005, Jones renounced his vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, and ever since he’s been a dissenting voice within the Republican Party. He has challenged three presidents on their use of force, calling on his congressional colleagues to increase their military oversight. And he has long decried the corrupting effect of big-dollar campaign contributions. “Whatever happened to honesty and integrity?” he asked me, almost as soon as I stepped into his office. “It’s gone, and it’s all because of the influence of money.”
The nonprofit newsroom ProPublica ranks Jones first among House members in voting against their own party—he’s done so almost 40 percent of the time since January 2017. That independent streak has been all the more conspicuous during the Trump administration, as his fellow Republican lawmakers scramble to make a show of party unity.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Jones has joined with Democrats in advocating for an independent commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. He was the first Republican to demand that House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, a Trump surrogate, recuse himself from his panel’s Russia probe. He voted against both the tax overhaul and the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. He was the lone House Republican to oppose the Financial Choice Act, which, if enacted (the measure passed in the lower chamber and awaits a vote in the Senate), would strike down key provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation. He has protested Trump’s military escalations in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. And he has called on Congress to demand disclosure of the president’s tax returns.
None of this makes Jones a liberal, as some of his adversaries have claimed. A religious traditionalist, he opposes abortion and has crusaded to get pornography off federal-government computers. He also opposes same-sex marriage, saying, “There’s some documents that you can’t rewrite, and truthfully one of them is the Bible.”
But Jones is disgusted with DC politics and willing to join forces with any reform-minded official. That includes liberal Democrats like Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who introduced the bill calling for an independent panel to investigate foreign interference in US elections.
“There’s a courage shortage right now among Republicans. There’s not many who are willing to stand up to the president,” Swalwell told me. Jones, he said, is an outlier—“a model as to how you conduct yourself when you don’t worry about scoring political points. I put him on one hand of the truly decent people who walk the halls of the Capitol.”
JONES WAS ONCE A DEMOCRATIC STATE legislator, self-effacing and determined to reform North Carolina’s campaign-finance and lobbying laws. Then, rebuffed by his own party when he ran for the US House seat that his father had held—a district redrawn to favor an African American candidate—he switched sides, ran in a different district, and was elected to Congress as part of the 1994 Republican surge. He stayed out of national headlines until 2003, when he persuaded the House cafeterias to rebrand french fries as “freedom fries.” It was his way of protesting France’s opposition to US policy during the buildup to the Iraq War.
For all the patriotic bunting of the “freedom fries” stunt, Jones said that he had long harbored doubts about President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq. “After the towers were destroyed,” he told me, “there seemed to be this effort to justify a war against Saddam Hussein, because the neocons wanted to have an American military presence somewhere in the Middle East.” At hearings, Jones listened to officials like Vice President Dick Cheney defend the call to arms, feeling unconvinced but afraid to say so. “Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator, but I never could believe he was funding the hijackers,” he recalled.
Jones now describes his vote to authorize the war as an act of “weakness in not voting my conscience.” His district includes two major Marine Corps facilities, Camp Lejeune and Air Station Cherry Point, and is home to numerous military retirees. “The people who wore the uniform, they were buying into the Bush-Cheney sell of the war,” he said. “I told my chief of staff that I don’t believe the war is justified, but I’m going to vote for it with the hope that Mr. Bush will not use the authority. I was very naive, obviously.”
The vote still haunts him. “In my heart, I believe that I let God down,” Jones said. Those feelings intensified on a warm spring day in 2003, when he attended a memorial service at Camp Lejeune for Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, who was killed in an ambush in Iraq.
At the outdoor ceremony, one of Bitz’s sons dropped a toy—Jones remembers it as a rubber ducky—and a Marine captain walked over to retrieve it. “It was like he was walking on clouds, it was so gentle,” Jones said. He watched Bitz’s son look up at the captain and thought about how the boy would grow up without knowing his father.
Seeing the war’s effect on families like Bitz’s tortured Jones. “It was tearing him apart,” said Father Justin Kerber, a former pastor of Jones’s. “He said their lives are being wasted. He said, ‘This is crazy—we’re never going to get out of this, and I can’t keep OK’ing this and acting like I’m going along with it.’”
So Jones changed course. “Catholics have this sense that, if you do something wrong, you have to do penance to make up for it,” said Carmine Scavo, an East Carolina University political scientist who has followed Jones’s career. What followed was a penance that has lasted for 15 years. Jones listened to an audio version of James Bamford’s The Pretext for War, which chronicles how the Bush administration used faulty intelligence to sell the invasion. He invited the author to meet with his colleagues at the Capitol. He met with others too, including peace activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, died in Iraq. “He was very welcoming, and he gave me a big hug,” Sheehan said. “I felt that he was struggling…. I’ll never forget him and his kindness.”
Over time, Jones amped up his criticism of US military aggression. In 2013, he told a libertarian group in Raleigh, “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War. He probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.” Jones also took on President Barack Obama—teaming up, for example, with then-Representative Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, to sue the administration for invading Libya in 2011 without congressional approval. (A federal judge dismissed the case.)
At the core of Jones’s dissent is his support for the War Powers Act, a post-Vietnam reform that requires the president to consult with Congress before sending US troops into actual or imminent hostilities. Jones feels so strongly about the proper role of lawmakers that he recently sponsored a theater performance about the founding fathers’ intention to place war decisions in congressional hands.
When the Trump administration deployed US Marines to Syria last March as part of a campaign against ISIS, Jones signed on to a bill introduced by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would bar the expansion of combat troops there. He was the only Republican to do so. “Regardless of the circumstances, no American president has the constitutional right to commit acts of war against a sovereign nation without approval from Congress,” he said in an April statement after the United States began air strikes in Syria.
In September, Jones co-sponsored a bill to pull US troops out of Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is waging a brutal war against Houthi rebels who toppled the government of Yemen’s Saudi-supported president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Jones then co-authored a New York Times op-ed, with Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, decrying the coalition’s “grotesque” tactic of starving civilians. “There’s a good reason that the Constitution reserves for Congress the right to declare war,” they wrote. “Clearly, the founders’ intent was to prevent precisely the kind of dangerous course we’re charting.”
Khanna, the Yemen bill’s principal sponsor, said Jones didn’t lend his support immediately. “He asked for a lot of facts. He wanted to know the details of the conflict. He wanted to study the issue. And it took a month or so to convince him. When you think of Walter Jones, you think of what our framers intended Congress to be: people who are well-read—he’s got a great knowledge of history; people who are deliberative and thoughtful, who aren’t just given talking points from their staff or the leadership but make an independent judgment.”
Jones has rebuked congressional leaders, particularly House Speaker Paul Ryan, for refusing to use their authority. More often, though, his criticism has turned inward; he never stopped chastising himself for the Iraq vote. To this day, he sends letters to the relatives of troops who die in Iraq or Afghanistan—almost 12,000 messages so far, by his count. “That’s my apology every time I sign one,” he said. “But that’s also my apology to God.”
JONES’ RECKONING EXTENDED WELL BEYOND beyond war-and-peace issues, and it has fostered in the congressman a distrust of other politicians and a distaste for DC political culture. Partisan loyalty lost its importance for him, even though he knew the risks of not playing along.
“It was like a puppy being weaned from his mother,” said his friend Thad Woodard, the retired president of the North Carolina Bankers Association. “He knew that the mother’s milk of politics comes from fund-raising and from working with the party leadership. So he took a big chance. And once he crossed that line and made that decision, I don’t believe he ever looked back.”
Jones’s disdain for party discipline has never been as salient as it has been during the current presidency. The congressman doesn’t issue blanket condemnations of Trump; he has praised the administration for specific stands, like its support for businesses that don’t want to serve same-sex weddings. He also concedes that “the economy seems to be doing reasonably well.” But Jones has been quick to denounce Trump, and to vote against his party, on other issues.
Part of Jones’s antipathy is stylistic: He bristles at Trump’s vulgarity, including his mockery of disabled journalist Serge Kovaleski and his reported reference to “shithole” countries. Jones doesn’t understand Trump’s inability to apologize. And he worries about how Trump’s language is received abroad. Jones told me about a recent meeting he had with a South Korean politician, during which the two men discussed economic and military issues. Jones asked his counterpart what he thought of Trump’s nicknaming North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man.”
“You know what he said to me? ‘Not helpful. Not helpful.’ That’s all he had to say.”
But it’s not just style. Jones’s penchant for good government dates back to his days in the North Carolina Legislature, when he advocated for campaign-finance and lobbying reform. He’s offended by the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 election, by Trump’s apparent efforts to muzzle special counsel Mueller, and by Nunes’s secret trips to the White House while he was overseeing the Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation. To Jones, Swalwell’s call for an independent panel seemed like a step toward restoring electoral integrity.
Likewise, even though he wants to see “significant changes” to the Affordable Care Act—mostly to lower premiums—Jones was troubled by the speed with which his colleagues tried to pass repeal-and-replace legislation. (He was one of 20 House Republicans to vote no; the bill failed to pass the Senate.) Instead of a rushed and partisan process, Jones envisioned a half-year’s worth of public hearings around the country to get feedback from consumers and the industry before any legislation was introduced.
“We could have been the biggest heroes if, after six months, the House would announce, ‘We have a fix to the problems of the Affordable Care Act; these are the bills we are putting in,’” Jones said. “I think you would have had Democrats’ support. More important, you would have the American people’s support.”
The vote that garnered Jones the most recent attention was his rejection of Trump’s single congressional victory, the December tax overhaul. As The Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” pointed out, Jones was the only Republican “nay”-voter who didn’t come from a high-tax state. The other 11 GOP opponents, all in the House, came from New York, New Jersey, and California, where taxpayers are more likely to be hurt by deduction limits on state and local taxes. Jones, by contrast, opposed the bill because he’s a small-government guy, and the new law is expected to swell the national debt.
“If this was a Democratic bill, the same language, do you think any Republicans would have voted for it?” he asked. “I doubt it. That’s what is missing: doing what is in the best interest of the people, not the parties.”
DURING OUR INTERVIEW, JONES PULLED out a letter he sent Trump last July, in which he tried (unsuccessfully) to head off a troop increase in Afghanistan. In the years leading up to the election, Trump had often called for the troops to come home, describing the war effort as “a complete waste.” But Trump changed his mind after reaching the Oval Office. “You could say that I am disappointed,” Jones wrote. “Disappointed because almost $1 trillion of taxpayers’ money has been spent with no direct goal or strategy. And most importantly, I am disappointed because we continue to lose American lives.”
A few months earlier, Jones had introduced a bill cutting off all funding for US activities in Afghanistan (except for embassy operations and intelligence gathering) unless Congress expressly approved the money. The bill has 14 co-sponsors—nine Democrats and five Republicans—but hasn’t moved out of committee. “We’ve written probably 12, 13 letters to Paul Ryan asking him to authorize the debate,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s a more sacred responsibility for a member of Congress than to vote to send a young American to die for this country. And yet we can’t even get a debate.” (Ryan’s staff did not respond to requests for comment.)
This criticism of fellow Republicans does not endear Jones to them. In 2012, he was booted off the House Financial Services Committee, and he’s been routinely passed over for a subcommittee chair within the Armed Services Committee. Closer to home, he endures criticism from local conservatives. The day of my visit, Greenville’s Daily Reflector published a letter from a Republican voter saying that the congressman’s opposition to Trump made him “sick.” “If you want to know what’s wrong with Washington,” he wrote, “it’s people like Walter Jones, who put the knife in the backs of the leaders that are trying to make things better.”
Jones has faced election challenges from the right, and will again this year. In the 2014 primary, he finished just six points ahead of his main Republican challenger. (Jones’s margin was much wider in 2016.) The threat of a primary knockout doesn’t seem to faze him. “There’s no belief that he’s going to run for Senate or governor,” said Scavo, the political scientist. “To be defeated in running for reelection to the House would certainly be a blow to him. But it’s not like, ‘Well, I’ve got to run up these big votes to show that I’m attractive for the next highest office.’ So he’s really got some freedom in the positions that he takes.”
Jones told me the 2018 election will probably be his last and that even if he wins, he’s thinking about retiring after the next term. “If I win or lose, it’s God’s will,” he said. “I am at the age of life that, if the voters want a representative that cares more about the people than he does himself, then we’ll be OK. If not, I’m willing to come home and rake the yard.”