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David and Goliath

Second-term congressman James Lankford lacks the so-called credentials to take on Washington establishment, but he will anyway

David and Goliath

Rep. James Lankford (Drew Angerer/The New York Times)

Associated Press/Photo by Cliff Owen

DIRECT STYLE: Lankford during the hearing on Benghazi.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Four chairs and a couch surround a glass-top coffee table in Rep. James Lankford’s Capitol Hill office. On it mementos sit neatly arranged: military coins, tickets to an Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State football game, and pieces from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which took place within his district. There’s also a Bible—Lankford’s mom gave it to him when he professed faith in Christ at age 8, and he was sworn into Congress on the same Bible in 2011—35 years later. 

Some items don’t need explanation, but why the sling and five rocks? “A friend of mine made that sling and put five smooth stones around it, saying, ‘Go to Washington and take down the giants,’” the Republican lawmaker explained.

Lankford, 45, now in his second term, is taking on the biggest giants Washington offers: Attorney General Eric Holder over Justice Department scandals, and now former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi scandal—not to mention federal budget-cutting, human trafficking, and other issues. 

Lankford has made a name for himself as someone who soaks up information, asks hard questions, and is helping to fill a leadership void in Congress—even though he arrived in Washington with no prior political experience. His work as a freshman prompted colleagues to unanimously elect him the Republican Policy Committee chairman—the fifth-highest House leadership position—for the 113th Congress. 

The Policy Committee considers what issues might be on the horizon weeks or months down the road, meaning virtually every issue falls in Lankford’s domain. But colleagues refer to him as a “sponge” for retaining information.

At a May 8 hearing on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, Lankford landed in the spotlight (see sidebar below). Seconds after Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR), called for a 10-minute break during six hours of testimony, four members—including those most active in the investigation—spontaneously gathered at Lankford’s desk for a strategy session.

Issa told me Lankford’s leadership on the Benghazi investigation is “particularly impressive when you consider that James doesn’t come from a State Department or national security background.”

Lankford earned an education degree at the University of Texas and a master’s in divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary, then spent 14 years as the director of Falls Creek Camp in Oklahoma—the largest Christian camp in the nation with more than 50,000 annual visitors. “I assumed I was going to be there forever,” Lankford told me. 

But the camp director grew unsettled in 2008. He felt God was telling him to “get ready,” but he couldn’t figure out why, even after much prayer. 

Just before the 2008 election, Lankford heard that Mary Fallin, then representing Oklahoma’s fifth district in Congress, was considering a run for governor in 2010. “That’s what I want you to do,” Lankford felt God saying to him. “Well, that’s insane,” he thought. “That’s not even rational.” Lankford didn’t tell his wife Cindy because, he said, “normal people” don’t go tell their wives, “Hey, let’s quit our job and run for Congress. That’d be fun.” 

Three days later, while Lankford reviewed congressional district boundaries online, his wife walked up behind him and peered over his shoulder: “What are you looking at?” she said. “County statistics,” he responded. After a pause, she said, “We’re about to run for Congress, aren’t we?”

Lankford resigned in early fall 2009 and spent the next 15 months in his first political campaign, winning a seven-way primary, a runoff, and a general election (with 63 percent of the vote). What Lankford lacked in political connections he made up for with social media prowess, an army of Christian campers and their parents, and pure substance on the issues—which he discussed at length in hundreds of “in-home coffees” with voters. 

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma’s fourth district, said all seven primary candidates came to visit him. “Lankford just had this ability to connect with people—not that the others didn’t, but his was clearly superior,” he said. “He built a great relationship with voters in the district.”

Twenty-two years of youth ministry helped with more than campaigning: OGR chairman Darrell Issa knew it took a lot of organizational skills and a level head to run such a large camp. “He could be the adult at the table,” Issa says he thought, and immediately installed Lankford as a freshman subcommittee chair. 

Lankford’s seminary training also provided a great foundation for lawmaking, especially coming from an institution committed to the inerrancy of the Bible. He said it translated easily into studying the Constitution and understanding the authors’ intent. 

Lankford isn’t afraid to share his biblical approach to lawmaking—even with President Barack Obama. In March, Obama visited the Republican Conference to field questions, and Lankford went first: He told the president the story of Hezekiah, a good king who made some foolish decisions and wasn’t concerned about the consequences, since the prophet Isaiah said judgment would come in future generations. Lankford told Obama that Washington politicians are doing the same thing with their children’s future and asked if they could agree in principle that the budget needs to be balanced. Obama couldn’t agree. 

It wasn’t the first time Lankford tangled with the president. Last year, Lankford spearheaded a bipartisan, bicameral effort to crack down on human trafficking by government contractors. Legislation passed the House and was awaiting action in the Senate when Obama—five weeks before the 2012 election—used large portions of Lankford’s bill to issue an executive order, then called a press conference to tout his administration’s effort to combat human trafficking. White House staff later acknowledged to Lankford that it was his initiative they borrowed. 

Back in Lankford’s office, his glass-top coffee table holds a reminder of what he says is the most important problem facing the country: the federal debt. In the display sits an authentic $100 trillion bill (that’s $100,000,000,000,000) from Zimbabwe, where corruption, prolific spending, and the government’s printing of massive amounts of money led to hyperinflation. “That would not even buy a loaf of bread” when the African country’s economy collapsed, Lankford said. “If you continue to print money and think that’s going to fix the debt problem, it doesn’t. It just accelerates the demise of your economy.”

When Lankford speaks to Oklahoma business leaders he stays on the national debt: “If we do not resolve our debt issue, and we don’t get in balance, what we have known as a structured economy will begin to fall apart,” he told me. “And a lot of other things won’t matter at that point.” 

Many in Lankford’s congressional class share his view, and they have more numbers to do something about it: The 2010 Republican class comprises more than one-third of the GOP majority, making it the largest class of the Republican conference that Lankford chairs. “This is a pretty extraordinary rise, to move this far this fast, and without alienating your peers,” Cole said.

Cole and other lawmakers believe Lankford could eye other offices—Oklahoma governor, Speaker of the House, or U.S. Senator. But Lankford said running for Congress wasn’t on his radar, so he won’t guess what God has in store for him next. “My calling is to the person of Christ and when He said, ‘Follow me,’ I follow Him,” he said. “[When] He assigns me His tasks, that’s what I do.”

Questions and answers

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., almost didn’t get named to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) until fellow Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole went to bat for him shortly after he arrived in Washington in 2011. Committee chairman Darrell Issa consented to the late addition and told Cole a few weeks later, “I thought I was doing you a favor, but it turns out you were doing me a favor.” 

Lankford’s non-combative but direct style has earned respect from leadership and troves of information from witnesses. He became a point person in the investigation into the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious campaign, voting with the majority to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Holder withheld information relating the sale of guns in Mexico that later ended up in the hands of drug cartels. 

In May he played a key role in drawing out State Department whistleblowers over the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Democrats said requests for additional security facilities in Libya never reached former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s desk (echoing Clinton’s sworn testimony in February). Lankford cast doubts on that claim in a brief exchange with witnesses Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Libya, and Eric Nordstrom, a regional security officer (RSO) in Libya:

Lankford: “Mr. Hicks, when you arrived in July, did the facilities in Benghazi meet the minimum OSPB [Overseas Security Policy Board] security standards set by the State Department?”

Hicks: “According to the regional security office—at the time in Tripoli, John Martinec—they did not.”

Lankford: “What about the facilities in Tripoli?”

Hicks: “Again, according to the regional office, John Martinec, they were very weak.”

Lankford: “Were they close to meeting the standards?”

Hicks: “No, sir.”

Lankford: “Mr. Nordstrom, before you left as RSO, did the facilities have the number of security personnel that you had requested?”

Nordstrom: “No, they did not.”

Lankford: “There are a very, very small number of facilities worldwide that are considered by GAO [Government Accountability Office] critical or high threat level for personnel in our different embassies and consulates. Tripoli and Benghazi—were they listed as high threat level?”

Nordstrom: “They were.”

Lankford: “By statute, who has the authority to place personnel in facilities that do not meet minimum OSPB standards?”

Nordstrom: “… Since we were the sole occupants of both of those facilities, Benghazi and Tripoli, the only person who could grant waivers or exceptions to those is the secretary of state [Hillary Clinton].”

Nordstrom had drafted some of the requests for additional security and expected them to reach Clinton, who visited Libya in 2011 and had made normalizing relations a top priority. Lankford told me only two options exist: “Either she should have known, or she did know.” 

Lankford was pleased with the information revealed at the May 8 hearing, but he said much remains to be solved, including why security was so porous that diplomats requested gun training, and who gave special operations forces orders to stand down while the attack continued. —J.C.D.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD Radio’s managing editor. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012 and eventually becoming WORLD’s Washington Bureau chief. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.