‘My neighbors probably think I’m nuts,” says Cory Gardner. The fresh-faced senator is from tiny Yuma in northeastern Colorado, a 3,500-person town with “horrible cell service” to the point where he doesn’t get reception inside his house. So when the secretary of state calls, Gardner does what the rest of us would: He goes outside into the cold.
“I was on the phone for half an hour with Secretary Tillerson, wandering around my backyard talking about North Korea,” he says with his habitual smile, “and the neighbors probably thought I was crazy.” He pauses a second before adding, “But I didn’t get tackled,” and bursts into laughter.
Gardner is unshakably upbeat for someone focused on one of the most stressful subjects imaginable: North Korea. He is the point man for Asia policy in the Senate as the chairman of the East Asia and Pacific subcommittee, and he is leading a revival of Republican leadership on the region. That this is occurring as Kim Jong-un rushes to expand his nuclear capabilities is no coincidence. The Man from Yuma believes in tackling tough problems head-on.
For Gardner, the key to stability on the Korean peninsula lies in isolating and economically crippling Pyongyang until Kim is forced to change his behavior. The North Korean regime, in turn, describes the Colorado senator as a “man mixed in with human dirt” who has “lost basic judgment and body hair.”
“When I first started holding hearings on North Korea, Ben Cardin and I were the only people who would show up,” says Gardner of the Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Now I have so many people showing up that I don’t get to ask all the questions I want to.”
Successive administrations have tried all sorts of negotiation and agreement with Pyongyang, only to fail to deter its nuclear program. The Obama administration was slow to implement sanctions and hesitated to crack down on Chinese companies that helped Pyongyang evade sanctions. Gardner’s North Korea playbook begins by rejecting such timid efforts.
He applauds the Trump administration for ramping up pressure on both the North and its main trading partner, China, and for pushing for new sanctions at the U.N. “Trump has done more than President Obama ever did,” he says. But Gardner wants the president’s “maximum pressure” strategy to include even more high-level sanctions on Pyongyang’s enablers.
“The administration can do more. I’m not satisfied with where they’re at right now,” he says. “We could be carrying out tougher sanctions. We could be carrying out tougher enforcement. We could be forcing China, with every tool and power that we have, to toe the line when it comes to global sanctions.”
Diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea, he says, has to match the pace of the country’s nuclear progress. Pyongyang has accelerated its weapons testing in the last year, inching closer to developing a nuclear-equipped missile that can reach the U.S. mainland with every launch. Of the potential for war with the Hermit Kingdom, national security adviser H.R. McMaster noted in December, “it’s increasing every day.” “We’re in a race,” he said, “to be able to solve this problem.”
Gardner has domestic responsibilities, too: serving on the committees on commerce, energy, and small business and entrepreneurship. It’s a full slate for the 43-year-old lawmaker. His record is 37 meetings in a single day. “You just move from North Korea to corn to transportation to space shuttles to what’s happening to the water in the Colorado River in the span of an hour,” he says. “You don’t just need to know the width of it, you need to know the depth of it.”
He’s also chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which oversees election strategy. It’s been a particularly eventful year with Roy Moore gaining the nomination in Alabama and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon promising primary challenges to nearly every establishment GOP candidate in 2018. Gardner is wary of talking about Bannon.
“Dean Heller is a great representative of Nevada, and he wins,” he says when I ask him about Danny Tarkanian, the Bannon-backed candidate mounting a challenge to Nevada’s senior senator.
Is too much attention being paid to this wave of alt-right candidates? “It’s newsy, it’s attention-drawing, but is it reality? No,” Gardner says.
“Where we’ve seen defeats in the past, it has come at the expense of candidates who didn’t run a good campaign, who didn’t do their job getting back home, maybe not even lived back home,” he says with a chuckle. “But if you do what you need to do, the right candidate is going to win.”
Gardner practices what he preaches. His run for the Senate in 2014 was widely seen as the sharpest campaign of that season. It had to be, as he was facing a well-funded sitting senator. Mark Udall’s campaign focused on abortion politics and how the conservative Gardner would be an unwavering vote in the Republican “war on women.” Gardner countered by tying Udall to Obama’s health-care policies and showing how the senator had voted in lockstep with the unpopular president. He was relentless in promising Colorado voters that he would be an independent and conservative voice for the state. Gardner won by fewer than 40,000 votes.
All roads lead back to tiny Yuma for Gardner—though it’s a hike from the nation’s capital. There’s the four-hour flight to Denver and then a 150-mile drive. That drive, which features just two stoplights, is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask the senator how he unwinds. “It’s a great opportunity to decompress,” he says, “to think, to get back to Colorado.”
He describes himself as a fifth-generation Coloradan. His family runs a farm-tools business in Yuma. “They never doubted me,” he says of the people of his hometown, who supported him through all his campaigns. “No one ever said, ‘Well, you’re from Yuma, what are you doing?’ ”
Gardner attended Colorado State and interned at the statehouse in the summers. After getting a law degree, he went to work as legislative director for Senator Wayne Allard in 2002. Gardner won a seat in the Colorado house of representatives in 2005, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, and then the Senate in 2014.
He joined the Foreign Relations Committee and trained his eye on North Korea, “knowing that it would be a flashpoint,” as Kim worked to develop weapons that could grant him legitimacy and his regime longevity. “This is an area of the world that has got 50 percent of global GDP, 50 percent of the global population; two-thirds of our trade is going to travel through there,” Gardner notes of the Asia-Pacific region.
The first-term senator was quick to use his legislative power to pressure the executive branch. Gardner’s 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act didn’t merely recommend that the Obama administration sanction those found to have contributed to North Korea’s weapon programs, human-rights abuses, and cyberattacks. It required it.
Victor Cha, a professor of government at Georgetown University who served on George W. Bush’s national security council, says the legislation gave the administration tools for isolating North Korea, while directing the executive branch to squeeze Pyongyang harder. “It basically empowered and facilitated the executive to really go full bore on sanctions,” says Cha, who was recently nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador to South Korea. “For the longest period of time, everybody thought North Korea was sanctioned heavily, but it wasn’t sanctioned nearly as heavily as Iran.”
The legislation paved the way for North Korea to become the fourth-most-sanctioned nation on earth (after Russia, Syria, and Iran). It also led to the sanctioning of Kim as a human-rights violator and the designation of North Korea as a jurisdiction of primary money-laundering concern.
But Gardner isn’t satisfied. He wants the Trump administration to push harder against countries that trade with the North. In July, he introduced the North Korean Enablers Accountability Act, which would require the president to block any entity or financial institution that engages in significant trade with North Korea from the U.S. financial system.
“The doctrine is maximum pressure, not maximum cajoling,” he says. “If there are 5,000 businesses in China doing business with North Korea, we need to block them. We don’t have time to say, ‘Hey, let’s pick one or two today, and maybe next month one or two, and next month one or two.’ We need to do this now.”
In September, Trump signed an executive order expanding the Treasury Department’s authority to go after companies, banks, and individuals who conduct, finance, or facilitate trade with Kim’s regime—including Chinese banks engaged in transactions benefitting North Korea. Treasury officials say the ability to impose new sanctions will force those entities to choose between Pyongyang and using the U.S. financial system.
But the administration remains hesitant to act against Chinese businesses violating U.S. laws, says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA deputy division chief for Korea. “So far, there have been no entities sanctioned under that new executive order, and we still haven’t seen Chinese banks added to the list beyond the one,” he says, referring to the Bank of Dandong. The Treasury Department unilaterally blocked the small Chinese institution from the U.S. financial system in November—the first such action by a U.S. administration in years.
Sanctions against North Korea should be constantly “rolling in” to make the Kim regime choose among its military, its elites, and its weapons program, says former State and Treasury Department official Anthony Ruggiero. “There’s a feeling inside the administration that there might be a line that if the United States crosses, that China will not be as cooperative on North Korea sanctions anymore,” says Ruggiero, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “We’re nowhere near that line. We’re talking about Chinese companies and individuals and banks that are violating U.S. law.”
In a New Year’s Day speech, Kim signaled his openness to talks with the South about sending North Korean athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month. Seoul followed up on that suggestion, and the countries sat down for their first formal meeting in two years on January 9—where it was agreed the North would send representatives to the games and that the two countries would also hold further talks. North Korean negotiators rejected any possibility of talks on de-nuclearizing the peninsula, saying, “All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren.” Gardner believes meetings between North and South could help eventually eliminate the nuclear threat.
“At some point, somebody has to move to break this stalemate, and I hope that it’s because we’ve seen effect in our sanctions starting to take hold,” he says. But he knows that the North has on many occasions engaged in talks and made promises, only to go back on its word as soon as the pressure relented. And, Gardner reiterates, he supports the Trump administration’s insistence that high-level negotiations about North Korea’s future cannot occur without a denuclearization commitment from Pyongyang.
The Colorado senator is less happy with the president’s bombastic taunting of Kim Jong-un. In September, Trump called the North Korean dictator “Rocket Man” in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, and he took to Twitter on January 2 after Kim warned that he had a nuclear button on his desk and the entire United States in range of his nuclear weapons. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him,” the president wrote, “that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
“I wouldn’t have said it that way,” Gardner admits when I ask him about the tweet. But, he goes on, “I’m not worried about trying to figure out the relationship between the president and Twitter, I am worried about what Kim Jong-un is trying to do to the world.”
Gardner has the administration’s ear on Korea policy and criticizing the president isn’t the best way to keep it. But he has been willing to stand up to Trump if important issues are at stake. When Trump did not denounce the far-right groups behind a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August, Gardner called him out. “Mr. President—we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” he wrote in a tweet. And Gardner firmly rejected Roy Moore, the Trump-backed candidate for Alabama’s open Senate seat who was credibly accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. “Roy Moore will never have the support of the senatorial committee,” he told me on December 7.
Character matters to Gardner.
On a snowy Thursday in January, he asked me back to his office. He wanted to tell me about Ralph Carr, the governor of Colorado whose opposition to the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor cost him his political career. “He stood up because he believed what was happening was unconstitutional. He believed that if we’re not standing up for their rights, who will?” Gardner says. “People thought he’d go on to become president. He ended up losing his next election and died about ten years after that.”
Gardner keeps a picture of Carr on his office wall. “It’s to remind me of the job that we have in this country—to stand up for everyone, regardless of how popular it is,” he says, looking up at the framed photograph. “Our liberty isn’t based on a popularity poll. It’s based on the Constitution. Our rights given from God. And we can never let that change.”
Jenna Lifhits is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard