It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation while waiting on the president to make an appearance. Instead, everyone steals glances at the closed door, waiting for it to open, and converses in short, substance-free sentences that are all but forgotten as soon as they are uttered. Such was the case in February 2017 as I stood in the Roosevelt Room making small talk with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who, along with other Republican leaders, had arrived for their first legislative strategy session with the new president. Now a few weeks into my time in the West Wing as special assistant to the president and director of White House message strategy, I was growing more accustomed to this awkward dynamic, but this was the first time I had experienced it alongside the most powerful members of Congress.
Compliments about neckties were exchanged, which led to a discussion about socks. Before long we were talking about the weather, always a sure sign that a conversation is going nowhere. We were all looking toward the door.
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A nervous energy seemed to envelop the Roosevelt Room, where Republican leaders from both chambers of Congress were encircling the conference table. In addition to Ryan and Cornyn, Senate and House Majority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy were present, along with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. After eight years of President Obama occupying the White House, the entire group was still growing accustomed to regular visits to the West Wing as the people fully in charge of the governance of the nation. After 2016, Republicans were in their best position in about a century, with control of a majority of state governorships, the United States Congress, the United States Senate, and now the White House. This was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the GOP, and you could tell the members in the room sensed it. But they’d also have to work with a most unlikely president who had spent almost his entire campaign railing against them and seemed to them to have, at best, a glancing understanding of federal policy.
There were deep fissures between Republican leaders and the president on certain issues. Perhaps most notably, Trump had won the presidency by bucking decades of Republican orthodoxy on free trade. He’d also shunned the business wing of the GOP—of which Ryan and McConnell were both card-carrying members—because he believed they preferred lax immigration laws that undercut the wages of American workers. Trump was malleable in many policy areas, but not on immigration and trade. On those two issues, he had been remarkably consistent for decades. He believed deep in his bones that he was right and viewed his election—with those two issues front and center—as his vindication.
There was also a personal concern, shared by many of the men in the room: They had all but left Trump for dead a few months earlier. And Trump didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d forget something like that. How was this going to work?
The president marched into the room like a man on a mission “My team,” he said warmly, holding out his hand to begin greeting the lawmakers. “Hello, Paul … Mitch. Great to see everyone.” They responded in kind, but their body language was stiff, uncomfortable, especially Ryan’s.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus entered just behind the president. A much smaller figure than Trump—in both physical stature and personality—Priebus had billed himself as Trump’s bridge to the GOP establishment in Congress. And he was clearly a bridge to at least one of them. Upon seeing his fellow Wisconsinite, Ryan’s entire body seemed to loosen up. His shoulders relaxed, his face softened, and he greeted Priebus with a friendly handshake and a slap on his left shoulder.
“Take a seat, everyone,” Trump said. “Let’s talk.”
The president, whose chair was a few inches taller than everyone else’s, as is tradition, sat at the middle of the table. Following his lead, Ryan sat to his left and McConnell pulled up directly to his right. Priebus sat at the end of the table, and the rest of the lawmakers, along with a handful of additional White House aides, found their way into the remaining vacant chairs.
The purpose of the meeting was for all parties to agree on a timeline for delivering on one of the president’s biggest campaign promises: to repeal President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, commonly known as Obamacare, and to replace it with a Republican health-care plan to drive down costs and increase competition. Priebus opened the meeting, speaking confidently but glancing periodically at his notebook sitting on the table in front of him. Before long, the president cut him off with a look of impatience. This was a small but telling sign of how the Trump-Priebus relationship would work.
“We want to do Obamacare first, then tax cuts second, is that right?” he asked the room.
There was a moment of silence. The lawmakers exchanged glances, unsure about who should answer for them.
“Yes sir, Mr. President,” Speaker Ryan finally said. “There are policy reasons for that, which we are happy to get into.”
“But we can get it done, right?” the president asked. “We need to get this done. You guys have been promising for a long time—longer than I’ve been in politics, really. But I promised it, too, so we need no mistakes.”
The president thought like a normal Washington outsider might think. House Republicans had made a great show out of voting more than 60 times to repeal Obamacare, a statistic they cited on the campaign trail all the time. How hard could repeal possibly be now that the GOP was in charge of everything?
I also saw his comment as a subtle indication that Trump was personally much more excited about cutting taxes. The prospect of eroding Obama’s signature legacy was appealing, of course. But health-care policy was foreign to him. Taxes—now, that’s a topic a billionaire businessman knows a thing or two about.
“We’re going to get it done, Mr. President,” Ryan said confidently. The rest of the men around the table seemed to be in agreement, so the conversation moved quickly into laying out a timeline.
In rapid succession, Priebus, Ryan and McConnell threw out timetables for introducing bills and committee votes, and target dates for final passage. The conversation seemed choreographed. I was confident, based on the lack of pauses to consider what the others were saying, that they had orchestrated it all before this meeting. If they had, that was probably a smart approach. That all sounded fine to Trump. The president wasn’t interested in getting down into the weeds. He just wanted Obamacare repealed. The commander’s intent was clear. The details were left to the lieutenants. And they seemed to like that approach anyway. They were the professionals. They could take it from here. This was, in its way, astounding, since these same people, their consultants, their pollsters and their aides had guided Congress to historic levels of unpopularity.
As the meeting was coming to an end, an offhand comment piqued the president’s interest.
“We’re going to have to keep everyone together, because we’re going to be doing this without any Democratic votes,” McConnell said.
“Really?” Trump replied, suddenly intrigued. “You don’t think we’ll get any?”
The owlish, placid Senate majority leader spoke quietly but firmly. “No, Mr. President,” McConnell said. “Not one.” Democrats had passed Obamacare without any Republican votes. If Republicans were going to repeal it, McConnell believed they’d have to do it in the same way.
“What about Joe Manchin?” Trump asked, as if McConnell must have forgotten him. Manchin, a 69-year-old West Virginia Democrat who liked to position himself as above partisan politics and willing to work with the GOP, was coming up for reelection in 2018 in a state that Trump had won by 42 points. On top of that, Trump viewed him as a personal friend. Surely his buddy Joe would play ball.
“Absolutely not, Mr. President,” McConnell said in a tone that seemed designed to end the debate.
“Really?” the president asked. Often the contrarian, he seemed to view this as a personal challenge as well as a test of his persuasiveness. “I have a wonderful relationship with him; I think he might come around.”
McConnell didn’t flinch. He stayed sitting upright in his brown leather chair, elbows on the armrests and hands clasped underneath his chin.
“Mr. President,” he began, “he’ll never be with us when it counts. I’ve seen this time and time again. We’re going to do everything in our power to beat him when he comes up for reelection in 2018.”
Trump seemed taken aback. He cut his eyes at Priebus, as if to say, Why did no one tell me this was an issue? He didn’t seem angry, just befuddled.
“Well, Joe’s been a friend of mine, so we’ll have to see,” Trump said, turning his attention back to McConnell. “Do we have to go after him like that?” “Absolutely, Mr. President,” McConnell shot back without a moment’s hesitation. “We’re going to crush him like a grape.” Outside the walls of the Roosevelt Room, the conventional wisdom was that men like McConnell would temper Trump’s aggressive impulses. Just the opposite was happening right now. There was a brief silence—maybe a half second—when the atmosphere in the room felt like the scene in Goodfellas when no one can tell how Joe Pesci is going to react to Ray Liotta calling him “funny.” Would he freak out? Would he laugh it off? Finally Trump broke the tension.
“This guy’s mean as a snake!” he said, pointing at McConnell and looking around the room. The entire group burst out laughing.
“I like it, though, Mitch,” he continued, giving McConnell two quick pats on the back. “If that’s what you think we need to do.”
“I do,” McConnell said, never breaking his steely-eyed character.
I saw a side of Mitch McConnell that day that I’d never appreciated as an outside observer. His coldblooded response to the president’s Manchin questions revealed an underlying toughness that earned him a new respect and appreciation in the president’s eyes, particularly compared to many of the more weak-willed, equivocating members of Congress he’d encounter.