Back on the 2016 campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump called Lou Barletta and Tom Marino “Thunder and Lightning.”
They were early supporters, and the popular Keystone State congressmen certainly brought added electricity to Trump’s appearances in Pennsylvania.
Shortly after the election, President-elect Trump rewarded Thunder and Lightning with positions on his transition team. Many thought cabinet-level positions would follow. Barletta’s name, in particular, started circulating.
There was some disappointment among supporters back home when no cabinet job followed, but Barletta — and his followers — stayed loyal to the president.
Then, on Sept. 1, 2017, Trump nominated Marino to be his Drug Czar, serving as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
But it was not to be.
A joint report by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes found that legislation sponsored by Marino helped make it easier for opioid drugs to circulate, enabling the drug industry to profit while users suffered.
Controversy ensued. Trump said he would “look into” Marino. On Oct. 17, the congressman from Lycoming County withdrew his name.
Marino nevertheless denounced the story as “unfair reporting.”
Barletta had his Congressional colleague’s back.
“Tom would be the last person to make it easier to bring opioids into the country,” Barletta told PennLive’s John Micek, pointing out — as Marino also did — that the bill had passed without a roll call vote and that then-President Barack Obama signed it into law without objection.
“I don’t think anyone can throw stones here,” he said, pointing directly at Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey — who, the Micek story pointed out, accepted nearly $500,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry between 2011 and 2016, according to the campaign finance website OpenSecrets.
The president acknowledged Marino’s withdrawal with words of praise via his favorite medium.
“Tom is a fine man and a great Congressman!” Trump tweeted.
Fast forward two years to the summer of 2018, and the paths of Thunder and Lightning have diverged somewhat.
As I wrote last week, Trump’s performance at the right hand of Vladimir Putin in Helsinki had many within his own party crying foul, or at least calling for explanations.
Without using the president’s name, Marino issued a caution.
“America’s relationship with Russia is not binary and many of the issues discussed need mutual dedication to reach solutions. However, Russia is not our ally and their motivations are not based on the promotion of democracy and human rights like the United States,” Marino tweeted.
Barletta did not join the chorus. He did not criticize the president or Putin.
As the Associated Press reported: “People have lost focus of the good that has come out of that meeting. The question is: ‘Is the world better off that they met or not?’” Barletta told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “The Democrats want to try to find that one drop of blood in the water so that they can focus on Russia, their favorite subject.”
While Barletta’s campaign later acknowledged that “Russia is clearly an adversary of the United States,” they added that the adversarial relationship “should not derail efforts to find common ground through diplomacy on imporant issues,” among them Syria, trade, NATO and denuclearization.
With Barletta headed for a November bid to unseat Casey, some might wonder whether the personable and popular former Hazleton mayor might distance himself from Trump in a bid to win over moderates in parts of the state that were less red than Luzerne County proved to be in 2016.
As of right now? Don’t bet on it, despite some obvious hurdles to overcome.
As my colleague Bill O’Boyle points out, no independent poll puts Barletta within striking distance of Casey.
The Scranton Democrat has the advantages of incumbency, an apparent lead in the polls and at last check, a substantial funding lead — in the neighborhood of nearly $10 million for Casey to under $2 million for Barletta as of mid-July, PennLive also pointed out.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — all this, Barletta is doubling down on his ties with the administration. He has said he expects the president to campaign for him in Pennsylvania.
On Monday, Barletta appeared with Vice President Mike Pence in Philadelphia at a campaign fundraiser and at an event promoting the Trump administration’s tax cuts.
Pence gave Barletta his blessing, and Barletta gave the tax plan his backing — along with a tongue-lashing for special counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia probe.
Will Barletta’s loyalty to Trump pay off?
Those predicting a “Blue Wave” say no. Trump loyalists say yes. And the only poll that counts is the one in November,
Just ask President Donald J. Trump.