WASHINGTON — Josh Hawley was a precocious 15-year-old in 1995, writing a regular column for his hometown paper, The Lexington News, when he was still in high school.
He used the early platform to opine on politics, culture and those he believed had been unfairly maligned by the media — among them anti-government militias and Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman.
Hawley warned against depicting all militia members as domestic terrorists after the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who carried out the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, had ties to the Michigan Militia.
“Many of the people populating these movements are not radical, right-wing, pro-assault weapons freaks as they were originally stereotyped,” Hawley wrote two months after the bombing.
He argued that middle-class Americans had gravitated to anti-government organizations out of genuine concerns about federal overreach and a disillusionment with mainstream politics.
“Dismissed by the media and treated with disdain by their elected leaders, these citizens come together and form groups that often draw more media fire as anti-government hate gatherings,” Hawley said.
“Feeling alienated from their government and the rest of society, they often become disenchanted and slip into talks of ‘conspiracy theories’ about how the federal government is out to get them.”
Fuhrman, whose use of racial slurs came to light during the O.J. Simpson trial, was the victim of a new censoriousness that plagued the culture, in Hawley’s estimation.
“In this politically correct society, derogatory labels such as ‘racist’ are widely misused, and our ability to have open debate is eroding,” he wrote.
TRANSFER OF POWER
Twenty-six years later, the junior senator from Missouri is the face of the failed effort to overturn the 2020 election, captured in a photograph that shows him raising a fist in solidarity with a crowd of former President Donald Trump’s supporters shortly before they laid siege to the U.S. Capitol.
The insurrection left five people dead, including a police officer, after a mob made up of militia members and racists with Confederate flags and neo-Nazi paraphernalia stormed the Capitol. Their deadly rage was fueled by the election of President Joe Biden, whose victory was due in large part to Black voters.
Prior to Jan. 6, Hawley had enjoyed an uninterrupted trajectory from Rockhurst High School valedictorian to the U.S. Senate — by way of Stanford University, Yale Law School, a clerkship for Chief Justice John Roberts and a brief tenure as Missouri attorney general.
It placed Hawley, at 41, the youngest Republican in the Senate, as a likely contender for the presidency in 2024. His decision to become the first senator to announce that he would contest Biden’s Electoral College totals was widely viewed as part of his bid to capture Trump’s base within the party.
Since the Capitol rampage, Hawley’s mentors have disavowed him. Donors have demanded refunds. Colleagues have called for his resignation or expulsion. And those who helped guide his career are asking themselves if they missed something essential about their former mentee.
“I am more than a little bamboozled by it, certainly distressed by it,” said David Kennedy, the Stanford professor emeritus of history who served as Hawley’s academic adviser and wrote the foreword to his 2008 book on Teddy Roosevelt.
But the Lexington columns suggest that Hawley’s ideology took root long before he entered public life, and that his passage from Roosevelt scholar to Trump’s ideological heir was not entirely unforeseen.
His early writing touches on themes that have defined his Senate tenure: a rejection of political correctness and a belief that mainstream politics has failed to deal with a growing disillusionment in American society.
That same year he wrote about Fuhrman, Hawley said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “must be rolling over in his grave” at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s defense of affirmative action. He described a “perverted racial spoils system” and said affirmative action has “stirred up resentment amongst the races.”
Hawley’s animosity toward programs aimed at boosting racial equality continued during his college years as a contributor to The Stanford Review, a conservative student paper founded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and, later, a major political donor.
“In this season of cultural concern, when Americans worry more about values than anything else … self-righteous pronouncements on racial oppression and gay rights activism seem oddly out of place, like disco music at a swing dance,” Hawley wrote in a 1999 piece criticizing Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign.
Hawley did not consent to an interview for this story. His office pointed to an earlier statement in which he said he wouldn’t apologize for voicing concerns about election integrity.
Hawley has condemned the violence in general terms. But in language that echoes his high school columns, he’s lashed out at the press and Democratic colleagues for suggesting that he and other GOP leaders helped incite the attack by indulging Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen.
“Joe Biden and the Democrats talk about unity but are brazenly trying to silence dissent,” Hawley fumed after seven Democratic senators requested an ethics investigation of him and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, another leader of the effort to contest the election. “Missourians will not be canceled by these partisan attacks.”
Andrea Randle grew up in Lexington with Hawley and often carpooled with him for student council and clubs at Lexington Middle School. She recalled that he signed her eighth grade yearbook “Josh Hawley, president 2024.”
It’s the same yearbook where she and Hawley were among four eighth graders given the title “Future President.”
Randle, one of only three Black students in her grade, remembered Hawley as inclusive and sociable. So much so that following the death of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, she emailed Hawley’s campaign, urging her childhood friend to speak out.
“I know the young man who looked into the future. … America needs him desperately right now,” Randle, now 41 and a St. Louis resident, said in a May 31 email she shared with The Kansas City Star.
She never received a reply.
Hawley condemned Floyd’s murder, but explicitly rejected the notion that his death — after a white officer knelt on his neck — was evidence of systemic racism. He railed against the broader racial justice movement Floyd’s death spurred as a veiled attack against Trump’s supporters.
“They’re telling us that it wasn’t a homicidal cop who killed George Floyd. No, his death now is the product of systemic racism, we’re told. And anyone who doesn’t acknowledge their role in his death, anyone who doesn’t bend their knee to this extreme ideology is complicit in violence,” Hawley said in a Senate floor speech less than two weeks after Randle sent her email.
“He’s not who he was,” Randle said.
Hawley’s middle school principal, Barbara Weibling, said she thought Hawley’s parents, banking executive Ronald Hawley and Virginia Hawley, were grooming their son for a future in politics.
“I just remember some of the teachers sitting around and saying, you know, that he was probably going to be president one day,” she said.
But her admiration of the young Hawley has soured into bafflement, anger and even disgust for the leading role he played in sowing doubt about the election’s integrity.
“That’s what ticks me off about Josh so bad. Going along with the ‘Big Lie’ and everything,” said Weibling, now retired and living in Oklahoma.
“I just think with his moral upbringing, why would he propagate that lie is beyond me,” she said. “It’s just his ambition, I think. You know, it’s just simply the ambition. He saw that as a way to get attention.”
Shirley Guevel attended church with Hawley’s family in Lexington and surmised that his political views were influenced by his mother, whom she remembers as a firm opponent of abortion.
“A lot of people think it was his mom who actually groomed him to go into politics,” she said, explaining that it didn’t surprise her when Hawley espoused intractable conservative views. “People would say, ‘That’s his mother coming out.'”
Guevel, 87, who said her daughter baby-sat Hawley a few times as a child, said she viewed him as a person who had never been told “no” as a child and that she was not shy about sharing her opposition when he appeared on the Missouri political scene.
“I told people when he was running for attorney general, I wouldn’t vote for him for dog catcher. I wouldn’t inflict that on the dog,” said Guevel, who said she votes for both Republicans and Democrats.
Hawley attended high school about an hour away from Lexington at Rockhurst, a prestigious all-boys Jesuit prep school where students are implored to be “Men for Others.”
Former classmates remember him as highly ambitious even among a peer group full of young men with lofty aspirations, an observation shared by others who encountered Hawley as he leapfrogged one elite institution to the next during the following decade.
At Stanford, his intellect was quickly recognized by Kennedy, the historian who advised Hawley on his thesis on President Teddy Roosevelt. He said the young Missourian stood out at an institution “which is overstuffed with overachieving and very talented young people.”
Kennedy, who said he re-read the book after the Capitol insurrection, speculated that Hawley was drawn to Roosevelt after one or two days of lectures the professor gave on the 1912 presidential election. Kennedy said he presented the contest as one of just a couple elections in American history where deep philosophical principles were debated.
The election pitted Roosevelt, a Progressive, against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Socialist Eugene Debs. Wilson won with Roosevelt coming in second.
The title of Hawley’s book, “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness,” comes from a Bible verse about God’s wrath that Hawley used as an epigraph, from the Second Epistle of Peter.
“God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them reserved for pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness,” the verse says.
Hawley, an evangelical Christian, has long championed the view that political leaders should be guided by their religious faith and that secularism runs counter to the country’s founding principles.
Kennedy said he doesn’t believe Hawley incited the mob at the Capitol, but his “actions did give credence to the patent falsehood that the election was ‘rigged’ and its results illegitimate.”
He also said that Roosevelt, Hawley’s hero, would have been appalled by the chaos at the Capitol.
“I think Roosevelt had a deep reverence for the sacred quality of our constitutionally prescribed institutions and that mob of louts and clowns that stormed the Capitol building don’t seem to have any regard for that at all,” he said.
Hawley’s classmates at Yale Law School remember him as politically ambitious and a deeply religious conservative. But they say they witnessed a startling transformation when he railed against elites as a Senate candidate.
“Josh came across as decent and kind and thoughtful at Yale. Today he seems like a steaming mass of grievance,” said Ian Bassin, who attended Yale with Hawley before going on to work in the Obama White House and found the group Protect Democracy.
Bassin was one of 12 Yale Law alumni to sign a letter in 2018 warning that the Hawley they saw campaigning in Missouri was unrecognizable compared to the person they knew in school.
Hawley cultivated key allies in politics and the conservative legal movement during his time at Yale and his early legal career in Washington. It helped propel him from a teaching post at the University Missouri School of Law to the attorney general’s office despite entering his 2016 race as a relative unknown.
In a memorable television ad from his 2016 run, Hawley promised that he wasn’t a “ladder-climbing” politician, as illustrated by the men in suits ascending ladders behind him.
His Senate campaign followed less than a year into his tenure as attorney general.
“I don’t think Josh ever thought he was going to stop at the attorney general’s office,” said a source involved in Missouri Republican politics. “It was a very good political ad and presented a very nice contrast with the opponent immediately before him. It is about winning the day, winning the challenge in front of you.”
Hawley adopted the persona of a reluctant politician who was uninterested in higher office and who required encouragement from Vice President Mike Pence and former Sen. John Danforth among others to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018.
But internal emails obtained by The Star show Hawley’s team was in close contact with Danforth and others during the prolonged public recruitment campaign that began just months into his tenure as attorney general.
Patrick Keller, a Lexington native who knew Hawley during his youth, said the image Hawley projected on the campaign trail did not match reality.
“You ran on, you know, being this farm kid,” Keller said. “I remember he was this little preppy kid. He grew up in a subdivision.”
Hawley’s embrace of Trump was also tactical. The first time Trump came to Missouri as president in 2017, Hawley, the attorney general who was already exploring a Senate run, left the state for a family vacation.
But after that spurred backlash from Trump’s devotees, Hawley took steps to win his favor and repeatedly appeared on stage with him in the lead-up to the 2018 election.
A former Hawley staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity said political consultants figured prominently in his transformation from a favorite of establishment Republicans to a Trump loyalist.
“They saw where the base was going if he wanted to run in ’24,'” the staffer said.
Hawley’s consulting team, OnMessage Inc., began to rack up thousands in monthly payments shortly after he took office as attorney general. The campaign-paid consultants had direct access to his official staff.
A conspicuous example of the consultant-driven agenda was a 2017 raid on a Springfield massage parlor. According to the former staffer, Hawley donned a badge and windbreaker for television cameras on the advice of his consultants and appeared on CNN to promote it as a major blow to international sex traffickers.
The raid resulted in misdemeanor charges against seven women, but no felony charges were brought against the alleged traffickers.
Hawley faced investigations from both Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway after The Star revealed the consulting arrangement. Ashcroft found no wrongdoing, but Galloway concluded it was a potential misuse of taxpayer resources.
The source involved in Missouri GOP politics said Hawley’s consultants continue to have strong influence over his Senate office, and his advisers share some of the blame for the violence at the Capitol.
“Even if he did not intend that, he certainly bears responsibility. But the people around him are just as responsible,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Brad Todd, the owner of OnMessage Inc., which advises Hawley and Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, another potential 2024 contender, did not respond to an email inquiry about whether he advised his clients to vote to block Biden’s electors.
‘NOT GOING ANYWHERE’
Hawley has repeatedly rejected the notion that his objection to Biden’s electors helped spur the violence at the Capitol. He has brushed off calls for his ouster.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told the Senate press pool hours after Biden was officially sworn in as president on Jan. 20.
Hawley downplayed the significance of his raised fist when asked if he regretted making the gesture to the pro-Trump crowd.
“I wave at people all the time,” he said.
Hawley’s decision to block the quick consideration of Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to run the Department of Homeland Security, shows that he will continue to position himself as a barrier to Biden’s agenda during the next four years.
“His whole act is all about inheriting the Trump base and winning Iowa in 2024,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents Pennsylvania, the state whose 20 electoral votes Hawley sought to block.
“That’s what this whole thing was about. He was willing to throw out 7 million legally cast votes in my state just to modestly further his ambition,” Boyle said. “Hawley will always have a black mark against his name recorded in the history books. It is well deserved.”
Hawley’s allies in Missouri believe that he will not only weather the backlash, but that he’ll emerge stronger from it ahead of 2024 when his Senate seat and the presidency will be on the ballot.
“There are (a lot) of Trump flags still flying in this state,” said James Harris, a Jefferson City-based GOP consultant who was involved in Hawley’s 2018 campaign.
Early polling shows that while his approval rating in Missouri has dropped, his national name recognition and favorability have increased since the riot, according to The Morning Consult.
“I firmly believe he is someone our party will look to,” Harris said. “I think there are more conservatives today who know who Josh Hawley is than knew a month ago or two months ago.”