WASHINGTON — It was a conversation about trade that brought Michael S. Steele around to an argument he's been sounding a lot lately. But it just as easily could have been the budget, or Russia, or what he once described as President Donald Trump's addiction to "Twitter crack."
Trump's decision to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum represented a break with the free-trade orthodoxy espoused by party leaders for decades, the former Republican National Committee chairman-turned-pundit noted during a television appearance.
"And what is frustrating for a lot of us is they're seemingly just going along with it," Steele said. "They're speaking out a little bit. But if this is a foundational principle … I think you would stand up a little stronger than we've seen."
Still one of Maryland's best-known Republicans, the former lieutenant governor has been increasingly unwilling to "go along" with a party he led just seven years ago. From his perch on MSNBC and in interviews on other media, he has emerged as one of the most visible Republican critics of Trump and what he views as an abandonment of traditional GOP positions.
The 59-year-old Prince George's County man called Trump's push to arm school teachers "delusional." He said evangelical Trump supporters have "no voice of authority here anymore." After the president reportedly used a slur to describe Haiti, El Salvador and Africa, Steele called him a racist.
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Responding to a tweet one morning last fall in which Trump criticized "Fake News practitioners at NBC," Steele implored "someone [to] PLEASE help this man off his twitter crack." After Republicans approved a sweeping tax bill in December, Steele reminded viewers of its cost, and noted deficits had once been a central concern for the GOP.
"I think I've earned the right to be critical of a party that lost its way," Steele told The Baltimore Sun. "It's become a dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.
"I wish more people would stand up and say, 'This is not who we are.' "
Steele's turbulent relationship with his party's right wing was laid bare again last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, held at National Harbor in Prince George's County. A spokesman for the American Conservative Union said the party chose Steele as chairman in 2009 because he is black.
"We had just elected the first African-American president, and that was a big deal," spokesman Ian B. Walters said. "And that was a hill that we got over and it was something that we were all proud of.
"In a little bit of cynicism what did we do? This is a terrible thing: We elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he's a black guy."
Walters later apologized, and Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, appeared as a guest on Steele's daily radio program on SiriusXM in an effort to patch things up. But Schlapp seemed to dig in further by saying Steele had "not been very graceful" to conservatives.
Steele shot back: "What the hell does my race have to do with any of that?"
It wasn't the first time Steele heard the argument. He has often pointed to an editorial published by The Baltimore Sun during the 2002 gubernatorial race, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose him to be his running mate.
The Sun wrote that Steele, then chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, "brings little to the team but the color of his skin."
A Johns Hopkins University graduate who went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University, Steele said he believes the recent exchange speaks to something deeper and more ominous within the Republican Party. He said it represents a departure from the kind of outreach to minority voters that he often touted — and attempted — as a candidate in Maryland and as the Republican leader.
"It's a reflection of where the party has taken itself," he said. "I think it's also a push back on me and maybe even others who have been critical of the policies of the president."
Born on Andrews Air Force Base, adopted as an infant and raised by a laundress and a truck driver in Washington, Steele served as Maryland's first African-American lieutenant governor. He ran for Senate in 2006, losing to Democrat Ben Cardin by 10 points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two-to-one.
He went on to lead the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011, the first years of Barack Obama's presidency.
Comfortable on a stage from an early age, Steele sang in the glee club at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington and won the title role in a student production of "The Music Man" at Hopkins. He briefly took up fencing at Hopkins, and was active in student politics throughout his schooling.
I think I’ve earned the right to be critical of a party that lost its way. It’s become a dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.
Michael Steele, former RNC chairman
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In addition to multiple daily appearances on MSNBC and his radio show, Steele works as a communications consultant and paid speaker.
Steele's skirmishes with the party he has embraced since he was 17 echo the challenge now faced by many mainstream Republicans who for decades have supported free trade and reduced government spending.
"The Republican Party is still searching for what its identity is and that is manifesting itself through very public fights at every level," said Doug Heye, a Republican and CNN analyst who worked with Steele during his Senate race and at the Republican National Committee.
Steele, he said, is "trying to maintain a true and honest voice at a time when there's just so much cacophony around things — which also includes accusations of disloyalty — and trying to be a calm voice at a time when there's been so many loud voices."
Few Trump supporters were willing to discuss the substance of Steele's criticism on the record, saying they didn't want to fuel the CPAC controversy. Some speculated Steele is playing to MSNBC's liberal viewership. Others said his centrist views were rejected by the election.
Neither the White House nor Trump's presidential campaign responded to requests for comment.
"It's Trump's party now," said one prominent conservative who declined to speak on the record. "Michael is entitled to his opinions, but good Republicans have always gotten behind if not the nominee then certainly the president."
Jeffrey Lord, a Reagan administration aide who served as a Trump surrogate on CNN, said he supported Steele when he was party chairman, but said he's "flat out wrong" about Trump and where the party is headed.
"I had the same kind of people who swore to me up and down about how Ronald Reagan would be a disaster for the Republican Party if he were ever elected," said Lord, a columnist for The American Spectator. "Country club Republicanism was never a winner."
But it's not clear that Trump's brand of brash populism is winning outside of his core supporters. A series of special elections in Republican strongholds since Trump's inauguration have turned into unusually close races.
Outside groups spent more than $10 million to support the Republican in the special election last month for a House district in Western Pennsylvania that Trump won by nearly 20 points. Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly defeated Republican Rick Saccone.
More than three dozen House Republicans have given up seats since Trump's inauguration.
"I don't think [Trump] represents the majority of the GOP," Steele said.
But while Trump's job approval ratings have been far below the average for presidents at this point in their term, he continues to enjoy support from a majority of Republicans. Most polls this year have found that more than 80 percent of GOP voters back Trump.
The Republican National Committee declined to answer questions about the role of centrists in the party or Steele's perspective.
In response to questions about race raised by the CPAC imbroglio, a spokeswoman sent an excerpt of a speech last month in which chairwoman Ronna McDaniel praised Steele and pointed to efforts to reach out to black voters.
"While Michael and I may not always agree on policy these days, I'm proud that our party elected a black chairman," McDaniel said at an awards ceremony for black Republicans late last month.
Steele's stewardship of the party drew significant criticism at the time. He was at the helm for the 2010 election, when Republicans captured 63 seats and control of the House majority. But he also oversaw lackluster fundraising, was dinged for gaffes about the war in Afghanistan and Rush Limbaugh and was engulfed in scandal after the party spent nearly $2,000 at a California strip club.
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He ran for a second term in 2011, but lost to Reince Priebus. Priebus served for several months as Trump's first chief of staff.
Steele rejects any notion that his disagreements with Trump represent a "break" with the GOP. He said he hasn't considered leaving the party — he plans to stay and fight for what he views as its core principles.
"It's still worth it to fight for that 17-year-old kid who joined the party 41 years ago, making a choice about where they want to be politically," he said. "Right now, I think we've made that hard for them and I want to set that right.
"Donald Trump has four years or eight years at the most," he said. "And we're still going to be left to clean up whatever is behind."