In­side White House, a class war brews

Trump’s pop­ulist aides tan­gle with N.Y. ex­ec­u­tives

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND ROBERT COSTA

In­side the White House, they are dis­missed by their ri­vals as “the Democrats.”

Out­spo­ken, worldly and pol­ished, this co­terie of as­cen­dant Man­hat­tan busi­ness fig­ures-turned-pres­i­den­tial ad­vis­ers is scram­bling the still-evolv­ing power cen­ters swirling around Pres­i­dent Trump.

Led by Gary Cohn and Dina Pow­ell — two former Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­u­tives often aligned with Trump’s el­dest daugh­ter and his son-in-law — the group and its broad net­work of al­lies are the tar­gets of sus­pi­cion, loathing and jeal­ousy from their more ide­o­log­i­cal West Wing col­leagues.

the other side are the Repub­li­can pop­ulists driv­ing much of Trump’s na­tion­al­ist agenda and con­fronta­tions, led by chief strate­gist Stephen K. Bannon, who has grown closer to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in part to counter the New York­ers.

As Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion en­ters its third month, the con­stant jock­ey­ing and back­bit­ing among se­nior staff is fur­ther in­flam­ing ten­sions at a time when the White House is strug­gling on nu­mer­ous fronts — from the en­dan­gered health-care bill to the con­tro­ver­sial bud­get to the hun­dreds of top jobs still va­cant through­out the gov­ern­ment.

The emerg­ing turf war has led to fights over White House pro­to­col and ac­cess to the pres­i­dent, back­stab­bing and leaks to re­porters, and a heated Oval Of­fice show­down over trade ref­er­eed by the pres­i­dent him­self.

This ac­count of the in­ter­nal work­ings of Trump’s team is based on in­ter­views with 18 top White House of­fi­cials, con­fi­dants of the pres­i­dent and other se­nior Repub­li­cans with knowledge of the re­la­tion­ships, many of whom re­quested anonymity to speak can­didly.

For the most part so far, the ide­o­logues are win­ning. One re­veal­ing episode came as Trump weighed where he would travel this past Wed­nes­day fol­low­ing an auto in­dus­try event in Michi­gan.

Would he jet to New York at the in­vi­ta­tion of Canada’s pro­gres­sive hero, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, to at­tend a Broad­way per­for­mance of “Come From Away,” a mu­si­cal that show­cases the gen­eros­ity of for­eign­ers?

Or would he fly to Nashville to dip his head in rev­er­ence at the gravesite of An­drew Jack­son and yoke him­self to the na­tion­al­ist legacy of Amer­ica’s sev­enth pres­i­dent?

Some of his New York-linked aides urged him to go to the play with Trudeau and Ivanka Trump, ac­cord­ing to four se­nior Trump ad­vis­ers. But Trump opted in­stead to fol­low his gut and heed Bannon’s coun­sel.

“Ab­so­lutely not,” the pres­i­dent said later of go­ing to the play, ac­cord­ing to one of the ad­vis­ers.

In­stead, Trump jour­neyed to Ten­nessee, where he laid a wreath at Jack­son’s tomb to cel­e­brate what would have been the former pres­i­dent’s 250th birth­day and de­liv­ered a fiery speech.

Trump aides pointed to his de­lib­er­a­tion over what was a ba­nal sched­ul­ing mat­ter as an ex­am­ple of the Bannon-Priebus axis pre­vail­ing, as it has on many pol­icy fronts — from na­tional se­cu­rity to the bud­get to cli­mate.

“Trump’s in­ten­tion is to be Trump,” said former House speaker Newt Gin­grich, an in­for­mal ad­viser to the pres­i­dent. “Be­ing tough on trade. Re­cen­ter­ing the coun­try on Amer­i­can na­tion­al­ism. Tak­ing on il­le­gal immigration. Strength­en­ing our mil­i­tary. De­cen­tral­iz­ing the sys­tem. Rad­i­cal reduction in reg­u­la­tions.”

He added, “It would be in­ter­est­ing to see to what de­gree the New York lib­er­als change Trump and to what de­gree Trump changes the New York lib­er­als.”

An un­ex­pected po­lit­i­cal mar­riage has formed be­tween Bannon, with his net­work of anti-es­tab­lish­ment con­ser­va­tive pop­ulists, and Priebus, who rep­re­sents a wing of more tra­di­tional Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives.

They are often at odds with the New York­ers, led by Cohn and Pow­ell, who are close to Ivanka Trump and her hus­band, Jared Kush­ner, ar­guably the most pow­er­ful White House aide.

The lines can be blurred. Kush­ner and Cohn are par­tic­u­larly close with the Cab­i­net’s in­dus­try barons — Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross, Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son — as well as Chris Lid­dell and Reed Cordish, two busi­ness­men re­cruited by Kush­ner to work on long-term projects. Bannon and Priebus have their own re­la­tion­ships with those fig­ures.

Still, many peo­ple in­side and out­side the White House fre­quently note the grow­ing vis­i­bil­ity of Cohn and Pow­ell and wonOn der if they might even­tu­ally gain in­flu­ence over Trump’s mes­sage and mod­er­ate it from Ban­non­style pop­ulism, es­pe­cially if the pres­i­dent’s pop­u­lar­ity wanes fur­ther.

“They’re more in­volved than ever,” Larry Kud­low, a Trump ally and long­time CNBC eco­nomic an­a­lyst, said of the group. “Trump is in­stinc­tively drawn to them, but that doesn’t mean he’s los­ing his pop­ulist mes­sage. It means that in terms of day-to­day busi­ness and grind­ing out pol­icy changes, he’s drawn to the busi­ness peo­ple that are around him.”

Ten­sions be­tween Bannon and Priebus ran hot in the early days of the pres­i­dency, sug­gest­ing that their out­sider-vs.-es­tab­lish­ment feud would be the cen­tral di­vi­sion. But Priebus forged an al­liance with Bannon, which they see as mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial be­cause ei­ther or both could be side­lined if oth­ers, such as Cohn or Pow­ell, as­cend fur­ther, ac­cord­ing to three White House of­fi­cials.

The tug at Trump forces near­daily de­ci­sions be­tween fol­low­ing his ten­dency to grav­i­tate to­ward those he con­sid­ers highly suc­cess­ful in busi­ness and main­tain­ing the com­bat­ive po­lit­i­cal per­sona cheered by many con­ser­va­tives.

In­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion has been a main­stay of ev­ery Trump en­ter­prise. One top Trump ad­viser posited that, on a scale of one to 10, fight­ing be­tween former aides Corey Le­wandowski and Paul Manafort dur­ing the cam­paign would score an eight, while that be­tween the Cohn and Bannon blocs at the White House would be a two.

The on­go­ing ten­sion is real, this ad­viser said, but so far not de­bil­i­tat­ing: “We chose to hire a lot of al­phas. Peo­ple in pol­i­tics are in­se­cure and will ei­ther adapt to the fact that this is an en­tre­pre­neur­ial White House and sur­vive, or they won’t. The cream will rise and the [ex­ple­tive] will sink.”

Some­times when staffers feud, Kush­ner sum­mons them to his of­fice, a few doors down from the pres­i­dent’s, where the 36-yearold ad­viser sits them on the couch and me­di­ates as though he were a cou­ple’s ther­a­pist, of­fi­cials said.

Priebus said there were ben­e­fits to a staff with di­verse view­points and back­grounds.

“We have an in­cred­i­ble team that is tal­ented, uni­fied and fo­cused on ad­vanc­ing the pres­i­dent’s bold agenda,” Priebus said in a state­ment. “The great­ness of this team comes from the unique strengths each mem­ber brings to this ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

By most ap­pear­ances, the New York­ers are ac­cu­mu­lat­ing more power. Trump ex­panded Pow­ell’s port­fo­lio this past week, nam­ing her deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser for strat­egy in ad­di­tion to her post as se­nior coun­selor for eco­nomic initiatives.

Born in Egypt and flu­ent in Ara­bic, Pow­ell is tak­ing on a more vis­i­ble role in for­eign af­fairs. At Fri­day’s bi­lat­eral meet­ing with Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, Pow­ell sat two seats from Trump, with only Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence be­tween them.

Pow­ell has tapped the net­work she cul­ti­vated as a Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial and as pres­i­dent of Gold­man’s phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion to in­vite guests for meet­ings with Trump. She dom­i­nated one such gath­er­ing on hu­man traf­fick­ing, con­vers­ing with the au­thor­ity of an ex­pert, which im­pressed the pres­i­dent, aides said.

Cohn, mean­while, in­flu­ences a wide range of poli­cies do­mes­tic and for­eign as direc­tor of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil. Col­leagues say he is opin­ion­ated and sharp-el­bowed, walk­ing be­tween of­fices with the swag­ger be­fit­ting a bank­ing ti­tan. He is seen in­ter­nally as a con­tender for chief of staff should Priebus exit, though one se­nior of­fi­cial noted, “No­body wants Reince’s job here. I can tell you that with cer­tainty.”

Cohn and Pow­ell hud­dle reg­u­larly with busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, both on the White House cam­pus and at glitzy off-site events. Sev­eral other se­nior staffers have groused that they are rarely in­vited to at­tend — and often don’t know about the meet­ings. Their net­work­ing cre­ates what one as­so­ciate called “a pos­i­tive feed­back loop”: The ex­ec­u­tives often sing Cohn and Pow­ell’s praises in their meet­ings with Trump.

Last month when two dozen man­u­fac­tur­ing chief ex­ec­u­tives vis­ited the White House, Trump sin­gled out Cohn by not­ing his vast wealth.

“You all know Gary from Gold­man,” Trump said. “Gary Cohn — and we’re re­ally happy — just paid $200 mil­lion in tax in or­der to take this job, by the way.”

The ex­ec­u­tives from such be­he­moths as Gen­eral Elec­tric and Johnson & Johnson laughed.

Cohn is a reg­is­tered Demo­crat, though he is known by many Repub­li­cans through his work at Gold­man or sum­mer par­ties at the Hamp­tons.

Trump en­joys hav­ing the rich and pow­er­ful re­port­ing to him, ir­re­spec­tive of their po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions, his as­so­ciates said. This may be one of the rea­sons he reached out to Jonathan D. Gray, who man­ages a $100 bil­lion-plus port­fo­lio as global head of real es­tate at Black­stone Group, to dis­cuss the job of trea­sury sec­re­tary, even though Gray was a ma­jor fundraiser for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign.

John Cat­si­ma­tidis, a bil­lion­aire New York gro­cery mag­nate who has known Trump for decades, explained his friend’s think­ing by quot­ing a Frank Si­na­tra song.

“I don’t want to blow my own horn, but remember the song, ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it any­where … New York, New York!’ ” Cat­si­ma­tidis asked. “It takes a lit­tle bit ex­tra to make it in New York than any­place else. Trump gets that.”

Im­press­ing the pres­i­dent, how­ever, has not nec­es­sar­ily trans­lated into pol­icy gains. The con­ser­va­tive wing — Bannon, Priebus, se­nior pol­icy ad­viser Stephen Miller and oth­ers — have notched vic­to­ries in al­most ev­ery sec­tor, de­spite meet­ings Cohn and Pow­ell have con­vened to pro­mote a more cen­trist, busi­ness-friendly ap­proach.

“The pres­i­dent re­ceives many dif­fer­ent in­puts, in­sights and ideas from a very di­verse team of ad­vis­ers, but it is clear to all that he is the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion-maker,” said Kellyanne Conway, White House coun­selor. “He’s the pres­i­dent.”

Rather than em­brac­ing the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, Trump has sig­naled his in­tent to roll back fuel econ­omy stan­dards and pro­posed a bud­get last week that would ef­fec­tively gut the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. The health-care bill he backs strips fed­eral fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood, while the pro­posed bud­get curbs fund­ing for the arts and sciences. And he is pur­su­ing ag­gres­sive poli­cies on immigration.

“Show me one New York win,” a se­nior White House of­fi­cial said taunt­ingly.

Said an­other of­fi­cial: “Don­ald Trump is not the mayor of New York. Some of their ideas just don’t have a na­tional con­stituency.”

A com­pe­ti­tion over Trump’s trade and eco­nomic agenda is brew­ing be­tween Cohn and Peter Navarro, an ec­cen­tric aca­demic and former cam­paign ad­viser close to Bannon who di­rects the Na­tional Trade Coun­cil. It came to a head two weeks ago in the Oval Of­fice, where Cohn shrugged off Navarro’s ideas as al­most ir­rel­e­vant, ac­cord­ing to two of­fi­cials. Trump stepped into the con­ver­sa­tion and de­fended Navarro and his point of view.

Priebus has been frus­trated with Cohn and Pow­ell for what he sees as short-cir­cuit­ing his process by com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with the pres­i­dent on a range of matters, of­fi­cials said.

Mean­while, Cohn, Pow­ell and other aides have chafed at Priebus’s pro­to­cols be­cause he and Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh tried to ex­ert com­plete con­trol over the pres­i­dent’s daily sched­ule. “A bot­tle­neck” is how one White House ad­viser de­scribed it.

Af­ter be­ing pres­sured to let up, this ad­viser said, Priebus re­cently started giv­ing other se­nior staffers and Cab­i­net mem­bers more in­flu­ence over which in­di­vid­u­als and groups get face time with Trump.

“The pres­i­dent wants W’s — he wants wins,” Kud­low said. “That’s key to un­der­stand­ing this bit of change in the whole out­look. He’s try­ing to get W’s and have Congress work with him, and he’s look­ing to lots of peo­ple to get them.”

“Don­ald Trump is not the mayor of New York. Some of their ideas just don’t have a na­tional con­stituency.” Anony­mous White House of­fi­cial

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, cen­ter, meets March 7 with the House deputy whip team in the White House. Priebus’s pro­to­cols have caused fric­tion with other aides, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross, left, Ivanka Trump and se­nior ad­viser Jared Kush­ner lis­ten dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Satur­day.

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