- Alex Wong/Getty Images
- David Perdue never held political office prior to becoming a senator from Georgia, serving as a CEO of major companies like Reebok.
- Perdue maintains a strong and candid relationship with President Donald Trump.
- Perdue serves as a bridge between Senate leaders and the president, who have strikingly different approaches to policy.
Before Donald Trump, there was David Perdue.
Perdue, a Georgia Republican, became the first Fortune 500 CEO elected to the Senate. While making a name for himself helming companies like Reebok and the discount-store chain Dollar General, he worked on every continent except Antarctica.
Like the president, Perdue had no experience in public office before his 2014 election to the Senate. But, similarly to Trump, he is no stranger to the political scene. And, much like Trump, Perdue believes the Washington, DC, system is broken.
The similarities don’t end there. Perhaps what the two men bond over most is golf – Perdue and Trump happen to be two of the best players on the Washington, DC, circuit.
Those characteristics have endeared the first-term senator to the president, who has helped elevate him into a much more important position in the Republican Party. Perdue, once the consummate Washington outsider, now serves as a crucial bridge between Trump’s White House and the Senate’s Republican leadership.
“As a business guy, we have a point in commonality,” Perdue said in a recent interview with Business Insider. “Number one, all we want is results. He’s not an ideologue. He has not been up here in the Washington bubble for all these years, fighting these partisan wars. He just wants to get results. I just want to get results.”
Their relationship has catapulted Perdue to the front lines of one of Congress’ biggest battles of 2018: immigration.
While Perdue finds himself now occupying important territory in the Senate, running for office wasn’t much of a consideration for him before his 2014 bid. When the Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced he would retire, Perdue turned to his cousin Sonny Perdue to suggest that the former Georgia governor make a run at Chambliss’ seat.
But Sonny Perdue, who now serves as Trump’s agriculture secretary, turned the tables on his cousin.
“When Saxby Chambliss said he wasn’t gonna run again, I went to my cousin Sonny … and I said, ‘You need to run for the Senate.’ And he said no,” Perdue said. “His skills were more focused on the state. But with my background in this kind of global perspective that I’ve been blessed with actually, or cursed with, that I ought to think about it.”
“Our whole campaign theme was Washington is broken,” he added. “If you want different results, you have to send a different kind of person.”
‘This is a man who doesn’t sleep much’
Perdue was one of the earliest senators to give Trump his support. And when Trump faced a mass exodus of endorsers following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape weeks before the November 2016 election, Perdue did not waver in his support.
Trump hasn’t forgotten that.
“He was one of the guys out there in 2016 who never threw him under the bus and was never ashamed when a lot of politicians were calculating about how they would handle the Trump problem,” a person close to the White House told Business Insider. “When you combine a similar interest in golf with the similar background, with the disdain of Washington, and then the loyalty,” the person continued, the relationship “pretty much explains itself.”
Perdue maintains that his relationship with Trump is less personal and more professional, though golf does come into play.
“I’ve been invited to do some things with him personally a couple times,” he said, noting a handful of golf games in which he said the two “worked the whole time.”
Trump, in turn, has boasted of Perdue’s abilities on the green.
“The president told me that he thought Senator Perdue was ‘a great golfer,'” Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told Business Insider. “In Trump-speak that is one of the highest accolades you can get!”
Trump’s desire to work with Perdue extends to all hours of the day. The president often calls the Georgia senator to strategize or spitball ideas about policy at strange times such as 5:30 in the morning, 12:30 at night, or even in the middle of the day if the president spots him on television.
“This is a man who doesn’t sleep much,” Perdue said.
But the oddball hours are not outside the norm in other industries Perdue is familiar with.
“This is what people don’t understand: When you come from the business world you do whatever it takes to get results,” Perdue said. “Because there’s this pyramid of performance and I’ve seen it in sports, I’ve seen it in business, I see it in medicine, certainly you see it in the military. And he and I came through that pyramid of performance in the business world. And so here we are enthralled in another world – the political world – that is not like that. In the Senate, if you’re here long enough, just seniority is gonna get you to be a chairman of a committee whether you got any acumen or not.”
The loyalty Perdue offered Trump during the presidential campaign has extended into Trump’s Oval Office tenure. When Trump was said to have referred to African nations as “shithole” countries in a private meeting with senators, comments that attendees confirmed, Perdue said he had not heard the remark, echoing Sen. Tom Cotton and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Neilsen.
One of their “tough moments together” was when Perdue compared Trump to Winston Churchill, to which the president apparently took offense.
The New York Times quoted Perdue in a November article as saying that Trump was “nobody’s choir boy, but neither were people like Winston Churchill, for example,” and that Trump was “a historic person of destiny at a time and place in America when we’ve got to make a right-hand turn here.”
“And so he saw that New York Times article – he called me up and said, ‘So you think I’m like Churchill?'” Perdue said. “He didn’t think that was a compliment.”
Bridging the White House and Senate
- Alex Wong/Getty Images
Perdue was among a group of Republican lawmakers invited to the White House shortly after Trump’s inauguration, though he was the odd man out.
The March 1 meeting included six of the highest-ranking Republican members of the House and the Senate. And then there was Perdue, a first-term senator with no rank or authority in the GOP.
“The purpose of that, I think, was to emphasize that I was another business guy that understood that his first priority was getting the economy going again – I had thoughts about that,” Perdue recalled of the meeting. “He and I disagreed on some things. He came in and wanted to do a lot of tariffs. We kind of put the other point on that. I argued against the border adjustment tax and was successful keeping it from becoming law. So the president and I have a very good relationship, but it’s one that we have directed toward an end result.”
“I feel like I’m brokering the president’s agenda in the Senate, and I hope I’m developing confidence within the Senate that I don’t really speak unless I have something to say, and that’s worked for me,” he said.
Ernst & Young CEO Mark Weinberger told Business Insider in an interview that his experience with Perdue had been unique compared to other members of Congress he had interacted with, both as a former congressional staffer and through his work at the Business Roundtable. Because Perdue is a political novice, he could engage and corral the various industry representatives with ease while discussing the Republican tax bill.
“I think sometimes if you’ve been around a long time and you know how hard it is, it’s harder to get something done,” Weinberger said. “If you don’t know how hard it is, it’s easier to make progress.”
Perdue is active in engaging with the class of new Republicans who came into the Senate in 2014. The group of lawmakers meets once every two weeks early in the morning over coffee to talk shop. They call their club the “Bear Den.”
Perdue also said many topics, particularly the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, become more complex because certain members like to galvanize them into politically advantageous wedge issues.
“It’s an easy topic to pander to the base on the left and the right,” Perdue said. “And I think we have members in both parties who do that. That’s tragic.”
In terms of any future plans, such as seeking a different office, Perdue said he was approached to run for governor of Georgia in 2018 but opted out because “right now I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
On whether he may run for president or any other office, Perdue quoted his father, who early on told him, “People look ahead sometimes too often and too far … my advice to you is take care of the job you got and everything else will take care of itself.”