WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump has tangled with several of his Cabinet secretaries, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former health chief Tom Price. But one high-ranking official who has yet to draw the public ire of the commander-in-chief is Sonny Perdue.
The agriculture secretary and former Georgia governor at least appears to enjoy a chummy relationship with the notoriously mercurial Trump. And he won a notable policy victory early in his tenure when he convinced his boss to pump the breaks on a decision to immediately pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Offering some of his most candid comments yet on his relationship with Trump, Perdue said on Tuesday that he felt "challenged" by his job and that the president has set high expectations for him in the role.
"I don’t think he wants a sycophant as a secretary," Perdue said during a speech at the National Press Club. "He wants me to give him my best counsel, my best advice, and he wants me to be right about that. He has high expectations, and frankly I’m challenged by those high expectations.”
Perdue said Trump has the "essence of a great leader" because he is willing to take different opinions into account and change his mind on policy and political matters, citing Trump's thought process on NAFTA.
"As directed and as forward and as forceful as he is on many things, he has what I think defined as the essence of a great leader," Perdue said. "He always leaves a little back door open for comments and he takes into consideration and is willing to change his mind on that.”
Unlike the portfolios held by Sessions and Tillerson, agriculture hasn't been as sexy of an issue for the Trump administration, which has allowed Perdue to frequently fly under the radar. And since the Agriculture Department focuses on a lot of rural issues, Perdue's constituency overlaps with much of Trump's base, earning him some political capital.
It also helps that he hasn't been ensnared in any high-profile scandal such as Price's private jet saga to capture the president's attention.
Perdue has also assembled a cadre of well-placed political allies within the Trump orbit to help insulate him any storms. His first cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, has positioned himself as one of the administration’s top allies on Capitol Hill. A smattering of Perdue’s early aides from his past campaigns now have White House posts, including most prominently Nick Ayers.
That goodwill so far has helped insulate Perdue from any negative spotlights, even when he's disagreed with Trump on issues such as NAFTA, Cuba or the budget.
“He loves me," Perdue quipped.
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