On Nov. 21, 2016, Rick Perry met with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower to talk about joining his Cabinet. The next day, Perry appeared on the season finale of “Dancing With the Stars.”
It was a return visit by Perry, who had been voted off the show early in the season after his cha-cha to “God Blessed Texas,” quickstep to the “Green Acres” theme and staccato pasodoble in full matador garb — “Rick Perry playing the part of the fourth Amigo,” New York Magazine reported — failed to impress.
But if the former Aggie yell leader’s moves were more antic than artful, his dancing with the stars proved an effective audition to serve in the administration of America’s first reality star president. It was all so amply there — Perry’s gameness, guile and gusto.
In mid-December 2016, Trump asked Perry to join his Cabinet, albeit in what amounted to both smart politics and an epic troll, as secretary of energy. At a November 2011 Republican presidential debate that sealed his demise as a once commanding candidate, Perry had declared there are “three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education, and the uh … what’s the third one there? Let’s see. The third one. I can’t … oops.” It was energy.
Three years later, his resignation as secretary of energy effective Sunday, Perry is waltzing back into Texas amid an unlikely crescendo of national coverage. At a time when Perry, who will turn 70 in March, might be expected to exit stage right, he finds himself in the thick of the action — one of the “three amigos” of administration officials at the center of what appears likely to be only the third impeachment of a president in American history, a player with a potentially lucrative hand to play at the crossroads of American and international energy, and a born-again believer in Trump ready, willing and able to evangelize for the president in a style and language that no other mainstream Republican politician can rival.
The man who in the throes of his own short-lived second presidential run described Trumpism in July 2015 as “a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition” now counsels Trump that he is indeed “the chosen one.”
“This whole evolution has surprised me,” said University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw, co-director of the Fox News Poll. “It’s a very odd transformation.”
For most of his tenure as energy secretary, Perry got credit for staying out of the headlines.
“There were times I had forgotten he was in the administration, and for a guy who was the longest-serving governor in Texas history and one of the longest-serving governors in American history, I didn’t know what his place in Texas politics and national politics was about a month and a half ago,” Shaw said.
“But now, all of a sudden, I think he’s particularly relevant in Texas because of the sector he’s operating in (energy), and I actually think he’s significant nationally,” Shaw said.
“I don’t know what the Republican field looks like in 2024, but why not someone with that background and set of credentials?” Shaw said. “I thought this in 2012, ‘Man, this guy is well-positioned.’ Here I am again in 2020, ’Man, he’s well-positioned if he wants to be.”
“I grew up in Paint Creek, Texas. If you can’t find it on a map, I won’t be surprised. Just look for Haskell, Texas, population 3,000, and then go a few miles to the south and the east and you might find it,” Perry wrote in the preface to his 2010 book, “Fed Up.”
“We were cotton farmers. We believed in God, we believed in taking care of ourselves and one another, and we believed that America was the greatest nation on Earth. We still do.”
“He embodies the story of Texas,” said U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, the freshman congressman from Hays County who collaborated with Perry on the writing of ‘Fed Up,’ codifying Perry’s politically shrewd early embrace of the tea party movement.
“Air Force veteran, Aggie, rancher family, no indoor plumbing, but anything is possible, an eternal optimism that has always captured my respect and admiration,” Roy said.
With luck and pluck, he made his way, a three-term Democratic state representative from West Texas who switched parties and narrowly upset Jim Hightower, the popular populist Democratic agriculture commissioner, by a point in 1990, the same year Democrat Ann Richards was being elected governor.
“He got elected purely out of the blue, landed on his feet and kept on running to the top,” said Bill Miller, a prominent Austin lobbyist and consultant.
“He was smart about maximizing every opportunity that came his way,” Miller said, and he delighted in every aspect of running and governing. “It was never a chore. It was always fun.”
In 1998, Perry defeated Comptroller John Sharp, a close friend from Texas A&M University, for lieutenant governor by barely 2 percentage points, even as Gov. George W. Bush, preparing for a presidential campaign, won reelection in a landslide. When Bush became president, Perry became governor. Reelected three times, he gained a firmer grip on Texas government than any governor before him.
“I was always in awe of the way that Rick Perry could wield power effectively to achieve what he wanted to do and not just for wielding power’s sake,” said Jason Stanford, who managed Democrat Chris Bell’s 2006 campaign against Perry. Five years later, Stanford co-wrote with James Moore the book “Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush.”
“Rick Perry used to have the best political instincts,” Stanford said. “He was the first politician to get in front of the parade of the tea party, when other big Republican politicians were scared of it. None of us got it at the time, and it was genius.”
“Joining the Trump administration was as dumb as that was smart,” Stanford said.
But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus, who is working on a book about Perry, said that Perry “believes Trump to be the future of the party” and that his decision to join the Cabinet “means he’s thinking about something bigger down the road, because he’s always done that.”
Perry for president in 2024?
“Things change quickly, and he’s young enough that it’s feasible, given that the party’s going to have to find a footing after Trump but cannot fully abandon Trump, so somebody who’s got a footing in both camps probably is going to look pretty good,” Rottinghaus said.
And yet, he said, “of all the Trump scandals, the fact that Perry was involved in the one that might be the impeachable offense is clearly a bad outcome for Perry. Obviously, it’s a less than stellar way to end a term in office and potentially a career.”
“None of us got here by accident,” Perry said in an interview with Ed Henry on Fox News that aired last weekend. “I’m a big believer that the God of our universe is still very active in the details of the day-to-day lives of government. You know, Barack Obama didn’t get to be the president of the United States without being ordained by God. Neither did Donald Trump.”
“God’s used imperfect people all through history. King David wasn’t perfect, Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect,” Perry said. “And I actually gave the president a little one pager on those Old Testament kings about a month ago, and I shared it with him. I said, `Mr President, I know … you said you were the chosen one. You were.”
Perry’s comments came even as he has been circumstantially implicated in Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to publicly initiate an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who was on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, in exchange for an Oval Office visit and delivery of American weaponry to defend against the Russians.
In testimony at a Nov. 21 House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearing, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, described himself, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Perry as the president’s “three amigos” of Ukraine policy under the ostensible direction of Rudy Giuiliani.
“These guys weren’t really carrying out diplomatic work,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, a member of the committee. “They were carrying out the president’s dirty work, and it looks like they were trying to enrich either themselves or their friends.”
In interviews, Perry has said that is entirely wrong. On the contrary, he said, his win-win diplomacy was intended to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia by reducing its dependence on Russian energy and replacing it with American liquefied natural gas.
“You have to have the rule of law; you must make sure that there’s no corruption going on in your government if you expect Americans to come in to invest here and help your country get away from that Russian influence of their gas,” Perry, in the Fox interview, said he told the Ukrainians. “That’s been the story, day after day. Not once, not once was the name Burisma or the Bidens mentioned to me, not by the president, not by Rudy Giuliani and not by Gordon Sondland.”
Perry told Fox that when he met with Trump about becoming energy secretary in December 2016, “he said, ‘Perry, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to do for American energy what you did for Texas.’ I says, ‘I got it, Mr. President.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”
Perry led the American delegation to Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May. The Associated Press reported in November that in a meeting on that trip, Perry provided the new president with a list of four people who could advise him on energy.
One of the four was Michael Bleyzer, a Ukrainian-born longtime Perry political ally from Houston. In short order, the AP reported, Bleyzer and his partner Alex Cranberg, a Republican megadonor whom Perry in 2011 appointed to a six-year term on the University of Texas System Board of Regents, bid on and won a 50-year contract to drill for oil and gas at a government-owned site.
Castro called for an investigation into Perry’s dealings in Ukraine.
“The appearance is a pay-to-play scheme,” Castro said. “And it also mirrors closely what we saw in Texas — the awarding of no-bid contracts for donors, big political checks given to the former governor a day or two after he awards huge contracts.”
But Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at UT, said, “Rick Perry seemed to be doing the kinds of things that Secretary Rick Perry would be expected to do.
“As all this political skulduggery was going on, he seems to have been working on promoting American business interests, including interests that were close to the Republican Party,” Henson said.
“I think if you don’t follow politics a lot that can sound pretty untoward and can often look pretty untoward, but it’s not too far outside of the normal parameters of the job, and his ability to do that and his comfort and his background connections were probably among the reasons he was good for the job,” Henson said. “Rick Perry comes back from Washington, D.C., with some pretty interesting war stories for his friends and maybe some for the semi-public but not with a lot of people saying, ‘Well I can’t believe he was involved in that.’ ”
In the estimation of Ray Sullivan, a former top Perry aide on both the campaign and governing side, “He’s coming home stronger and in higher regard than when he left. He has a lot more expertise and connections in a part of the world economy that’s important to Texas and I think will still be a highly in-demand Republican voice if he chooses to exercise it.”
Stanford said that Perry’s involvement with Ukraine, even amid an impeachment scandal, might benefit his short-term bottom line but not his place in history.
“Clearly this opened up international energy contacts for him. He’s going to make a ton of money,” Stanford said. “But his broader image is always going to be stained by this, and this will be the first line of his obituary.”
On Aug. 19, 2014, Perry, nearing the end of his reign as governor and contemplating a second run for president, was booked on two felony counts of abuse of office.
Perry’s alleged crime was vetoing funds for the state public corruption unit in the office of then-Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to try to force her to quit in the aftermath of her embarrassing drunken driving arrest.
The charges were ultimately dismissed, but his second presidential campaign never took off, and on Sept. 11, 2015, he became the first of a crowded field of GOP candidates to quit the race.
“I’m wishing he had the opportunity to have the stronger second shot at it, because he had a lot to show to Americans about what kind of chief executive of this country he could have been,” said Deirdre Delisi, an Austin political consultant who has served as a campaign manager and chief of staff for Perry as governor, and as policy director for his 2012 presidential run. “But he didn’t have that opportunity because of those bogus charges.”
“I think he would have been a great president,” Delisi said.
Sullivan said he doesn’t think it was the indictment that did Perry in.
As a candidate, Sullivan said, “he performed very well in 2016. It was just that he was largely discounted by voters because of the 2012 experience and, of course, by the Trump effect, which impacted everybody.”
“I doubt but never rule out another elective run,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think that will happen. But then with him, he’s always underestimated.”
In the Fox interview, Ed Henry asked Perry, “Are you at peace with the fact you’re never going to be president?”
“Absolutely at peace,” Perry replied. “Matter of fact, I’m kind of like, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ Knowing what I know today and having watched what I’ve seen this man put up with every day, it’s kind of, ‘Boy, thank you, Lord; it all worked out really well.’ And actually it did from the standpoint of what I’ve been able to do.”
“It’s worked out, in my opinion, better than my plan ever was,” Perry said.
His mistake in his oops moment, he said, was not in forgetting that the Energy Department was the third department he wanted to get rid of, but in ever wanting to eliminate what he now considers “the most fascinating, most capable and I think most important agency of government.”
Perry told Henry about a Christian prophet who told him in 2011 when he was running for president that she had a vision of him in the Oval Office with his grandson.
“I processed that as I was going to be the president,” said Perry, even though at the time he didn’t have a grandson.
But, Perry said, on July Fourth his first grandson was born. He brought baby Griffin James Perry him with him to the Oval Office on the visit in October at which he presented Trump with the list of the flawed Old Testament kings.
The 2011 prophecy was fulfilled, if not exactly as Perry had first envisioned it.
“God’s plan sometimes is not your plan,” he said.
Perry’s approach, saying that Obama was also God’s chosen, is disarming, said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
But Fea noted that Perry’s comments followed by a few days evangelist Franklin Graham saying, “It’s almost a demonic power that is trying” to undermine the president.
Even in Perry’s kinder, gentler framing, Fea said, “It’s the arrogance of claiming that you know what God is doing. So to me the phrase ‘Trump is the chosen one’ has been placed there because he wants to restore America to its Christian roots, he wants to propagate godly values, he wants to turn America back to a Christian country, restore, renew, reclaim.”
“So then I would ask, ‘What was the purpose of Obama?’ ” Fea said.
“I went back and I Googled all the things that Rick Perry said about Obama over the years. He refused to shake his hands on the tarmac (in Austin). He blamed gays in the military on Obama’s war on religion. He chose to run for the Republican nomination against Obama,” Fea said.
“If you’re going to play into this kind of providential language, what’s to say that Trump is not in the White House to punish America for its sins?” Fea said. “You can go anywhere with this.”