Senate candidate Hagerty heaps praise on Trump at conference

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty on Tuesday touted his staunch support of President Donald Trump, defending him from Democrats' impeachment efforts while heaping praise on the president for his handling of the economy and the killing of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Hagerty spoke at a regional meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. The former U.S. ambassador to Japan is seeking the GOP nomination in the race to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is not seeking another term.

Trump has endorsed Hagerty, a businessman and former Tennessee economic development chief who has never been elected to public office. Hagerty, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and other conservative leaders spoke at the conference.

Hagerty told attendees that he supports Trump's approach toward gun rights, building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, doing away with sanctuary cities, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, deregulation and tax reform. He said maintaining a strong economy means continuing to support the president amid talk in the media about a looming recession.

"We've got to make certain we elect president Trump so we can maintain the winning streak that we're on right now," he said during a question-and-answer period with Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Later, in an interview with The Associated Press, Hagerty said the economy would be in greater jeopardy if Democrats win the White House, take control of the Senate and maintain their grip on the House.

"Democrats have made their plan clear. They'd like to undo the economic success of this president," Hagerty told the AP. "They've tried to talk the economy down in hopes of generating a recession. That hasn't worked."

Hagerty also told the crowd that the impeachment push is Democrats' efforts to "repeal the results" of the 2016 election. The proceedings in the House of Representatives were sparked by allegations that the president asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch an investigation into the 2016 election and into former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival seeking the Democratic nomination.

During his AP interview, Hagerty said he has not seen any information that shows Trump did anything inappropriate in his dealings with Ukraine's president. He complimented Trump on his dealings with North Korea and the trade battle with China.

"He's always had America at the forefront. Our interests first and foremost," Hagerty said. "I've never seen him do anything that I think jeopardizes America's position in the world."

Hagerty also addressed comments by Trump that al-Baghdadi's killing was a bigger capture than that of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden under former President Barack Obama in 2011. Trump announced Sunday that the extremist IS leader blew himself up during a mission by U.S. special forces in Syria.

Hagerty, who was on Trump's transition team, told conference attendees that he agreed with the president's assertion. Hagerty noted bin Laden killed about 3,000 people in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and was an "enemy of the world." But he also said bin Laden had been in isolation in Pakistan and had been "de-fanged" as a terrorist leader when he was killed.

"You look at al-Baghdadi, he was their spiritual leader," Hagerty said. "He was the No. 1 recruiter for ISIS. He called himself an immortal. The president proved that that's not true."

Among prominent Republicans, trauma surgeon Manny Sethi has also filed to run for Alexander's seat. Seeking the Democratic nomination are attorney and former Army helicopter pilot James Mackler, environmentalist and activist Marquita Bradshaw, and consultant and professor Diana Onyejiaka.