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Why There’s No Room for China Hawk and Russia Skeptic Mike Gallagher in the House

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., is seen near a picture of former President Donald Trump and Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, at the RNC on February 28, 2023. Credit - Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

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On the same day Donald Trump boasted of encouraging Russia to attack perceived freeloading U.S. allies, Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, announced he would not run for re-election. One event did not precipitate the other, but the throughline is impossible to ignore.

Gallagher was long seen as a fast-rising star in his party, for both his political acumen and his foreign policy chops: he’s a former Marine intelligence officer with a Ph.D. in international relations, and, at 39, the youngest member of the House running his own committee. This part is key: He is perhaps his party’s most effective critic of China’s rise and its growing alliance with Russia to counter American clout.

Yet it is widely understood on Capitol Hill that Gallagher was hardly a fan of the Trumpist swing inside the party. He bucked Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, and declined to join efforts to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. (Gallagher, however, twice voted against impeaching Trump and did not vote for the creation of the Jan. 6 special committee.)

Given his skepticism of Moscow’s intentions and its alliance with Beijing, Gallagher is an unabashed NATO supporter, co-writing “The Conservative Case for NATO” for The National Review in 2019. “The U.S. alliance system in Europe is a bit like oxygen,” it read. “You may take it for granted, but you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

So rich was Gallagher’s stock, senior Republicans at home in Wisconsin and here in Washington tried to convince him that he stood a chance at booting Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who won the seat in 2012 and is running strong for a third term.

In the eyes of Republican leaders, Gallagher’s two tours in Iraq, his fact-grounded assessment of politics, and his strong fundraising put him in a good position to defeat Baldwin and tip control of the upper chamber back to Republican hands. His criticism of Trump could be overcome, they assured him. His faith in NATO wasn’t a disqualifier.

Gallagher not only passed on that move across Capitol Hill last year but now said he is leaving elected office altogether when this term is over. There comes a point when the fight carries diminished results, and other options start to look better and better. There is only so much pleasure being named the fastest finisher in Congress in a charity three-miler for six years and counting.

“This was our best chance,” a veteran Republican hand said. “And rather than seek a promotion, he found the escape pod.”

While close advisers say Gallagher’s announcement was a year in the making, it’s hard not to view the decision in the context of last week, when House Republicans failed on a first vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s border policies. Gallagher was one of only a handful of Republicans to join Democrats in voting against it, and said later that the effort would “open the Pandora’s box of perpetual impeachment."

Although the vote made him new enemies within his own party, Gallagher insisted the impeachment vote was not the deciding factor in his decision to leave Congress. He told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he still looked to work in the national-security space, but out of elected office. “My mission is to prevent World War III. I’ve dedicated myself to restoring conventional deterrence in order to prevent a war with China, and so whatever I do next will be an extension of that mission,” he said.

Such a goal makes one wonder how Gallagher considers where his mission fits into the verbal airstrike launched this weekend by the current head of his party. In a stunner even by Trumpian standards, the former President said Russia should “do whatever the hell they want'' against European nations deemed to be skimping on NATO dues. The remark drew zero real protest from Trump’s fellow Republicans, who still seem on a course to nominate him for a third time in eight years.

In a way, Gallagher represents the true silent majority of the Republican Party forged by the likes of patricians like the Tafts, the Bushes, the Romneys, those who believe an engaged United States builds a stable world that is safe for Americans and the businesses they run. NATO, in that thinking, is a lynchpin asset to maintaining that stability.

Yet, among the public-facing GOP, there is little more than a feigned blindness to the ways in which Trump is gleefully undermining all they hold dear. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley seems to be the lone bold Republican willing to say the quiet part aloud: Trump’s return could spell disaster for the party brand not to mention the post-World War II hierarchy that gave Washington a seemingly endless reserve of power. If Haley were to prevail, Gallagher would be high in her list of must-hire technocrats.

There is also this crass reality: Republicans are in no real risk of losing Gallagher’s seat. In that corner of Wisconsin, Republicans have a roughly 16-point advantage; Gallagher’s closest win was posted with 63 points. Democrats didn’t even put up a challenger in 2022. But Republicans do risk making the Wisconsin 8th District yet another proof point in Trump’s takeover of the GOP, often at the expense of figures capable of expertise that sometimes does not meld with the MAGAverse.

In fact, a Florida-based MAGA Twitter warrior with ties to Wisconsin had threatened to move home to run a race against Gallagher and says he is now strongly mulling it. Alex Bruesewitz is close to the Trump orbit and is something of a celebrity on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, for sharing questionable memes. He was an outspoken supporter of the "Stop the Steal" movement and was later called before the Jan. 6 committee to answer questions about his role that day. During his 40-minute deposition with the panel, he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate.

Put simply, Republicans may be trading a Princeton- and Georgetown-educated expert in national-security policy and history for a glorified meme-maker. For some in the party, that is precisely the point.

So Gallagher is going to trade his member pin for a job where he is no longer subject to obvious bullying on the House floor by members of his own party. He is likely to still have a voice and future in Washington. But his exit represents the loss of one more potential Republican safeguard in Congress against some of the diciest moves the White House might try to execute during a potential second Trump administration.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.