Republican megadonor Foster Friess was busy writing checks to GOP candidates, contemplating the future of health care, and getting coffee with liberals for his campaign to “restore civility” in politics last month, when he got an unexpected call from President Trump adviser and provocateur Steve Bannon.
“I get this call, 'Foster would you consider running against [Wyoming Sen. John] Barrasso?' And I said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Steve Bannon?’ Because we’re pretty much strangers, it kind of struck me as how did he even get my name or my number?”
Friess, a multimillionaire investor, is now launching a "listening tour" to help him decide whether he should challenge Barrasso — his "personal friend" and "hero" — in a GOP primary, he told BuzzFeed News in a 90-minute, wide-ranging interview this week.
Insisting his decision won’t have much to do with Bannon or Barrasso, the 77-year-old who has financed and advised GOP presidential candidates and groups for years is becoming more overtly involved in politics, following a wave of wealthy businessmen, including Trump, taking an interest in elected office.
Friess, who has given at least $3.4 million in disclosed federal contributions since the 2012 election cycle, referred repeatedly to Washington as the “kingdom” and the rest of the US as “colonies.” He was careful not to criticize Trump and the Republican Party too much, but said Congress should be doing more on health care reform; foreign policy in the Middle East; investigating the “Uranium One” deal, which gave Russia a financial stake in US uranium production; and, more broadly, improving the political divisions within the country. He also wants to get to the bottom of the funding for the loosely organized anti-fascist group known as “antifa”— which he believes led to this summer’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The question is, can I be more effective if I’m the US senator to promote health care reform, or if I’m just a guy out on top of a fence post yelling at myself?” said Friess, dressed in a suit and tie, but still easily distinguishable in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan with his signature cowboy boots and mink cowboy hat.
“So that’s one of the evaluations,” he said. “But there’s also a number of instances that have occurred in the last three to four weeks which have also me nudged me toward the decision to run.”
Friess was referring specifically to Iraqi government forces seizing part of Kurdish-controlled territory, following the Kurds’ vote for independence in September. “We have betrayed the Kurds like you can’t believe,” he said, explaining the considerations for his Senate bid. Friess has paid close attention to the Kurds’ struggle in the last several years, traveling to the region and pushing the US to support their forces. “How is it possible that these people stuck by us, they help us fight ISIS, they lost thousands and many more wounded, and then we say we’re not going to chose sides?”
A Bannon ally confirmed that Bannon encouraged Friess to run in a phone call and brought up the Kurds as an issue Friess could create more awareness about as a senator.
Friess, a born-again Christian and major philanthropist, could serve as a threat to Barrasso if he self-funds a bid. He’s already shown his willingness to spend for candidates he believes in — he was the primary backer for Rick Santorum’s 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. Friess and his wife, Lynn, who are well-known in Wyoming, famously gave away $70,000 to the nonprofit of choice for every attendee at their joint 70th birthday party for a total price tag of $7.7 million.
Friess is also known, however, for a joke he made about contraception on MSNBC in 2012. “This contraception thing, my gosh, it's so inexpensive,” Friess told host Andrea Mitchell. “You know, back in my days, they'd use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly.” He apologized for the comment soon after, but it had already quickly spread as a Democratic talking point.
Barrasso, on the other hand, fits more of the typical mould of a Republican senator. He was first appointed to his seat in 2007, and has easily won reelection twice. He is now a member of GOP leadership, and has $5 million in his campaign coffers, a decent starting point with Friess — as well as Blackwater founder Erik Prince — debating a primary challenge against him. A source familiar with Prince’s plans said Prince would likely defer to Friess if he decides to run.
“I want to make it perfectly clear that I’m a huge fan of John Barrasso. The Christian community feels that under his leadership of the platform committee, that it was the most God-fearing platform that the Republican Party had ever put out,” Friess said, stressing that “it’s not so much that I’m running against him; I’m just saying, look, here are some things that I think need to have happened.”
Friess says he has aired his policy frustrations with elected officials, including Barrasso, with no tangible outcomes. He now plans to decide in the next three to four months if he should mount a Senate bid himself.
When asked about Prince, Friess again said his bid wouldn’t be about his opponents but what he has to offer. “My whole thing is I’m not running against anybody. I just want to take the gifts that God has given me — the platform, the wealth, the knowledge, the contacts — to be put to use if people want it.”
Friess also said his decision wouldn’t have anything to do with Bannon’s proclaimed war on the Republican establishment. Friess remains a top donor to the very establishment National Republican Senatorial Committee, which will be backing Barrasso, complicating the fault lines in the potential matchup. He attended the committee’s annual fall retreat in Sea Island, Georgia, recently, and unlike Bannon doesn’t believe nearly every Senate incumbent deserves a challenger. Neither the NRSC nor a spokesperson for Barrasso responded for comment for this story.
Friess also says he doesn’t know much about Bannon, whom he first met this year at the White House while he was there on Vice President Mike Pence’s invitation to discuss a variety of issues, including messaging. (Friess believes elected officials need to speak in plain terms, or “use words his mother would understand.”)
“I’m told he’s a very, very nice guy, but frankly, I’m not aware of a lot of his writings, a lot of his thoughts,” Friess said of the current chairman of Breitbart. “So it’s hard for me to make a judgment until I get to know somebody. I haven’t made a judgment as to who he is and what his stances are except when I ask people who are close to him, they say he’s a very nice guy — he believes in America, he loves America.”
Before Bannon called him, Friess jokes that “the only guys had asked me to run for office were people who wanted to get invited to my 80th birthday party, and I never took them quite seriously.” Now he’s hearing from friends — including former senators — who tell him, “You’re crazy Foster for wanting to do this,” he said. “You could golf and fish and take long, hot showers the rest of your life.”
As he mulls his Senate bid, Friess has two projects in the works that he says will help him make his decision. The first is an effort called Patients U.S.A., which he’s funding to push Congress to pass legislation that requires “all providers of health care products and services to publish prices.” Friess has been working with Republican lawmakers including Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Mike Gallagher and Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter to get the policy through Congress and is also preparing to host town halls and run ads on the issue in districts where lawmakers oppose the provision.
The other project, his “Return to Civility” campaign,” promotes bipartisanship and civility by encouraging going out for coffee with someone with opposing views. In late August, Friess attended church in Ferguson, Missouri, and had coffee with state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nada, who attracted national attention when she wrote on Facebook that she hoped for Trump’s assassination. Friess now calls her a “dear friend.” He’s also had coffee with former President Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod, whom he says he’s now “enamored with.”
But despite his focus on “civility,” Friess doesn’t blame the president for the growing divisions in the country. Friess took particular issue with critics’ claim that Trump is a racist. “Mar-a-Lago when he opened it, for the first time [for a Palm Beach society club], blacks and Jews were included. Sound like a racist to you? Now how often have you seen that in the media, right?”
Friess went on to bring up Charlottesville and defended Trump’s response when he said “both sides” — white supremacists and those protesting them — were responsible for the violence at an August rally organized to oppose the city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“I’ll go a step further,” he said. “The violence that was caused in Charlottesville — and you can quote me on this — was caused by antifa, by one side. And make sure you include this: If Muhammad Ali is standing in the ring, there is no violence until Joe Frazier steps in the ring. If the white supremacists were marching with torches and making obnoxious statements and nasty things and they had just done that and gone home, how much violence would there have been? No, tell me, how much violence?”
“Antifa is paid,” Friess said, a claim that has not been proven but many on the right believe. “Get $3,000 to get arrested, get $4,000 to get a week in jail, and so if I was a senator today, I would say I want an investigation. Where is the money coming to support these guys to fly in from all over the country for these antifa demonstrations? Who’s paying them and what is their motivation? Are these former marines who love America so much that they want to get rid of the white supremacists? Are they patriots?”
Friess, who is well aware that Trump has vowed to support Barrasso in case of primary challenges, has borrowed the president’s “I don’t need to do this. But I feel a love for this country” attitude, while giving Trump high marks for his first year in office. Friess is “stunned” by the rollback of regulations, “thrilled” with Gorsuch and “excited to see” Trump steal “the Democratic constituency of the little guy.” But “one of the greatest things” so far, he said, has been being able to say “Merry Christmas” again next month.
“What he’s restoring are the American values that made this country great,” he said. “The war on Christianity is finally ending.”
Tarini Parti is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.