When former Congressman Tom Rooney addressed Palm Beach Atlantic University students, it was the first time he freely shared the details of an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.
That’s because the details of the House Intelligence Committee’s work were classified until special counsel Robert S. Mueller III closed his investigation last week and delivered a report to Attorney General William Barr, who outlined the contents Sunday.
As a well-respected, senior member of Congress, Rooney was a member of the committee that interviewed all of Mueller's witnesses – a “Who’s Who?” of American politics – before Mueller did. Rooney said he reached the same conclusion as Mueller long ago: that although the Trump campaign made missteps, the bad choices did not rise to the level of criminal activity.
Reflecting on the 2016 election, Rooney said he does believe Russia was trying to help President Donald Trump’s campaign and that the Russians did not want Hillary Clinton to become president because of her poor relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin when she was secretary of state.
Rooney, a senior fellow for the University’s LeMieux Center for Public Policy, spoke to 30 high-achieving students Monday during the President’s Lyceum, a speaker series in which distinguished visitors present their insights and experiences. Plans are under way for Rooney to teach a politics class in the fall, President William M. B. Fleming, Jr. said.
Fleming moderated the forum in the style of a fireside chat, at the end of which Rooney took questions from students. One student asked how the government can balance First Amendment rights with regulating social media to dispel misinformation. Rooney said he looks for the solution that’s “most commonsense” and “least offensive to the Constitution.” The United States doesn’t allow foreign money in campaigns, so it’s reasonable to require a disclaimer on online posts that originate abroad, he said.
“Free speech isn’t absolute. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,” Rooney said. “We almost got shot at a baseball practice because some guy was a kook.”
Rooney was referring to a 2017 shooting during practice for a Congressional baseball game for charity. The shooter wounded several people, including then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The shooter was reportedly critical of Trump and other Republican leaders in social media posts.
Rooney was overcome with emotion when he described how leaving practice a few minutes early may have spared him a different fate. He left around 7 a.m. to take his children to school – he still has a screenshot of a text he sent to his wife at 7:04 saying “I’m on my way.” By 7:09, the shooter was firing dozens of rounds at the congressional team.
“I have no doubt that I would have been an easy target. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about why I left early,” Rooney said. “If you don’t believe in a guardian angel, I can tell you I definitely had one that day.”
The five-term representative decided not to seek re-election in 2018. He was elected to a Palm Beach-Treasure Coast congressional district in 2008 and moved to a Central Florida seat after 2012 redistricting.
Rooney cited a few reasons for his retirement: honoring a pledge he made 10 years before, avoiding the frustration of being in the minority party and not missing his children’s high school years and athletic events.
The former congressman was raised in Palm Beach Gardens and lives in Palm Beach County with his wife, Tara, and their three sons, Tommy Jr., Sean and Seamus. The Rooney name is synonymous with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL franchise founded by his grandfather, Art Rooney Sr.
The “Rooney Rule,” an NFL policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and general manager positions, is named after former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who led the effort to put the policy in place. Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Sr.’s son, owned the team until he died in 2017.
The rule, “speaks to the integrity of the Rooney family, that they were able to build cooperation and consensus” among the other owners, Fleming said. Tom Rooney said his father has always tried to conduct himself with the same integrity, and as a politician, he always tried not to bring embarrassment to the family name.
It started early in his political career, when he ran for office against incumbent Rep. Tim Mahoney. Mahoney ran as the moral, family-values candidate in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal. Foley resigned after he acknowledged sending sexual messages to teen pages. Mahoney’s campaign began to tank after it was reported he had multiple affairs and paid off a mistress who worked on his staff.
Soon after the reports emerged, Mahoney and Rooney were scheduled to debate at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches. Republican bosses wanted Rooney to go on the attack. His dad pulled him aside and said “You’re not saying any of that.”
Mahoney was a no-show, and the Palm Beach Post ran a photo of Rooney standing next to an empty podium, where his opponent should have been.
“It’s the money shot. It’s literally the picture you want everybody to see because it’s going to get you elected,” Rooney said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to do the right thing.”
Top Photo: Former Rep. Tom Rooney speaks with a student after the President's Lyceum.
Middle Photo: Dr. Craig Hanson, Former Rep. Tom Rooney, PBA President William M. B. Fleming, Jr. and Dr. Tom St. Antoine pose for a photo at the President's Lyceum.
Bottom Photo: Former Rep. Tom Rooney speaks as PBA President William M. B. Fleming, Jr. listens.