WASHINGTON — A pilot in the Air National Guard, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., will soon be deployed to fly missions over the southern border around Tucson, with his latest assignment coming at a time when President Donald Trump has been quietly consulting with him on national security issues.
“We talk a lot about Syria and Afghanistan,” Kinzinger told me about his two White House meetings, the last one about two weeks ago with about three or four other congressmen.
Why did Trump invite Kinzinger, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Energy and Commerce Committees?
“Because I’m kind of a national security guy. You know, the president and I get along. I think he respects that I am not a yes man, that I think these things through logically, and believe it or not, I think he respects that.”
Did Trump seem to be aware that you were military?
“Yeah. He knows a lot about me.”
Kinzinger and I are in his congressional office, discussing his latest border duty, the debate over Trump’s wall, the just-completed partial government shutdown and the looming threat of another — plus his White House visits.
Nine dramatic photos or pictures of the nation’s military in conflicts since the Revolutionary War dominate one office wall, on loan from the Library of Congress.
Kinzinger, who turns 41 this month, was first elected to Congress in 2010. He represents the sprawling 16th Congressional District, turf sweeping in 14 counties west, north and south of Chicago, with borders touching Indiana and Wisconsin.
His national profile is growing as a result of frequent bookings on cable news shows, where Kinzinger is willing to call balls and strikes and depart from the party line.
Since it’s been widely reported that Trump is glued to television news — and gets much of his information from TV — I surmise it’s likely that Kinzinger’s criticism of Trump’s plan to pull troops from Syria caught Trump’s attention and generated the White House invites.
There have been many reports about how Trump also “casts” his advisers and cabinet members according to their looks, and that may be a factor for Trump engaging with the telegenic Kinzinger, what with his military bearing and dash of swagger.
Kinzinger joined the Air Force after stints on the McLean County Board, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now juggles congressional and National Guard duties. His deployment to Tucson will be for about two weeks.
A lieutenant colonel, Kinzinger pilots the RC-26, aircraft used for reconnaissance flights, loaded with cameras and other electronic surveillance equipment.
Trump just announced that he is ordering the Pentagon to send 3,750 troops to the border; those are active duty military, not National Guard units.
Kinzinger has flown border duty before, three times under former President Barack Obama, doing immigration and drug-smuggling aerial surveillance.
His view from up to 12,000 feet in the air has informed Kinzinger as to what should happen on the ground when it comes to border security.
Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion for his border wall — the one he said Mexico would pay for — led to the record 35-day shutdown. House and Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators face a Feb. 15 deadline for a deal in order to avert another shutdown. Lawmakers were stalemated as of Sunday.
“I think we need a wall or barriers. I don’t care what it’s called. I don’t care really what it looks like as long as it’s the purpose of it,” Kinzinger said.
Once, while flying over a part of Texas, Kinzinger watched two groups attempting illegal entries.
“One group would cross — the Border Patrol would react. They would go back into the water and the other group would cross and they’d sit here and do this until one can make it in without the Border Patrol reacting.”
He added, “A border wall or barrier shrinks that area of the border you have to monitor because if it’s walled, yeah, people can get over a wall, they can get under a wall. I get that. But they can’t do it at the rate of if there was no wall.”