Mark Sanford has nothing left to lose. And he’s here to haunt Donald Trump.
None of this feels normal. The congressman greets me inside his Washington office wearing a wrinkly collared shirt with its top two buttons undone, faded denim jeans and grungy, navy blue Crocs that expose his leather-textured feet. Nearing the end of our 30-minute interview, he cancels other appointments and extends our conversation by an hour. He repeatedly brings up his extramarital affair, unsolicited, pointing to the lessons learned and relationships lost. He acknowledges and embraces his own vulnerability—political, emotional and otherwise. He veers on and off the record, asking himself rhetorical questions, occasionally growing teary-eyed, and twice referring to our session as “my Catholic confessional.”
And then he does the strangest thing of all: He lays waste to the president of his own party.
Most Republicans in Washington are biting their tongues when it comes to Donald Trump, fearful that any candid criticisms of the new president could invite a backlash from their constituents or, potentially worse, provoke retribution from the commander in chief himself.
Mark Sanford is not like most Republicans in Washington.
His policy résumé is beyond reproach to those on the right: He was D.C.’s dashing fiscal hawk during his first stint in the House, and then, after term-limiting himself and returning home to South Carolina, he won the governorship, vetoed hundreds of measures from his Republican-led Legislature and gained fame by refusing to accept President Barack Obama’s stimulus funding in 2009. His political instincts are razor sharp: Sanford has never lost a campaign, which, joined with his ideological mooring, once made him a conservative favorite for the presidency. And his personal failings—namely, the infamous 2009 affair with Argentinian television journalist María Belén Chapur—appear to have been forgiven by the people of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, who sent him back to Congress in a 2013 special election before re-electing him in 2014 and 2016.