President Trump is being ill served by a White House political operation that lacks the influence and acumen to effectively guide the West Wing and build a solid foundation for reelection in 2020, Republican insiders say.
More than a half-dozen Republican operatives familiar with the White House political shop that the Washington Examiner interviewed for this story said the problems predate the stunning December loss of a Senate seat in a special election in ruby red, pro-Trump Alabama.
Few were critical of White House political director Bill Stepien, saying he is a hardworking, capable strategist. But they said his operation has not exhibited clout with Trump, nor the ability to help him navigate complex electoral and policy challenges that routinely confront presidents.
“You need a political shop that knows what the political impact of everything is,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who advises a pro-Trump super PAC and was the political director in Ronald Reagan’s White House. “But nobody is giving him valid counsel that I’ve seen. I don’t think there’s anything that’s really functioning well.”
The political department of the modern White House has been a major player in the West Wing, helping to shape and shepherd a president’s political and policy agenda. It was typically overseen by an experienced operative, by the president’s side for an extended period, who functioned as a sort-of guru. George W. Bush had Karl Rove; Barack Obama had David Axelrod.
Under this senior leadership, the White House managed the party’s legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, and, on the electoral battlefield, tightly controlled the national party’s political committees and state affiliates, impacting strategy and decision-making all the way down to local precincts.
Trump, 71, is a different kind of president. The real estate mogul and entertainer, a first-time candidate, entered the White House without a trusted political Svengali, although Steve Bannon, who was his presidential campaign's CEO for the final three months, was tapped to serve as chief strategist (he departed in August).
Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who had run the Republican National Committee for six years, brought political skills to bear during his tenure. But his replacement, White House chief of staff John Kelly, for all of his capabilities, isn’t a political tactician, and Trump tends to keep his own counsel in any event.
The intuitive politician, with an itchy Twitter finger, is often influenced by the cadre of friends and associates from business, media and his presidential campaign that he keeps in contact with — and what he watches on Fox News. This has hindered Trump’s political shop, although some Republican insiders say it is performing well under the circumstances.
Stepien, who over time is earning Kelly’s trust, met with Trump in the Oval Office three times last week to brief him on the 2018 midterms. He is among the few formal advisers left in the White House with traditional political expertise who also worked on the Trump campaign and appreciates the president’s unorthodox methods.
“There is no one who better understands how all elements of the campaign — numbers, field operations, communication, the principal’s time and strategy — need to fit together,” said Mike DuHaime, who worked with Stepien when both advised New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “The president is fortunate to have someone right in the White House who was both a member of his 2016 inner circle and really understands how and why he won.”
The White House acknowledged a request for comment for this story but had not responded prior to it publishing. The Washington Post has reported the White House could upgrade the political operation as part of preparations for next year's elections.
Republican operatives critical of the White House political shop are legion. Many are senior party insiders supportive of the president — in 2016 and since — and want him to succeed. Most, not wanting to appear hostile to Trump, requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
In detailing their view of the department’s shortcomings, they did not particularly blame Stepien, who is viewed as an accomplished campaign operative. They do question whether he has the stature with senior staff, and Trump, to command authority and impact White House strategy and keep in line the competing elements of the Republican Party, in service of the president.
One Republican insider who has met with White House officials about political matters doesn’t recall representatives of the political shop ever joining those conversations. “They’ve told me: ‘I know you’ve given advice, let us know if we can help,’” this insider said.
The Alabama Senate race, to fill the remainder of the term to which Attorney General Jeff Sessions was elected in 2014, is a prime example of the problems that leap out at critics of White House political operation.
Senator-elect Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in the Dec. 12 contest. It was the first victory for a Democrat in a Senate race in Alabama in decades. It cost Trump a crucial vote in a narrowly divided, Republican-controlled Senate.
It didn’t have to happen.
“The political shop is ineffectual at best and harmful at worst. It’s nonexistent,” said a Republican strategist who has dealt with the department. “It’s like there’s a football team with no coaches on the sideline.”
An effective White House political operation would have worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Republican leaders in Alabama, to avoid nominating a flawed candidate like Moore, whose candidacy was problematic even before his campaign was derailed by multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
Or, a well-oiled shop would have better managed Trump’s support for Moore after he defeated appointed Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., in the primary. The president, who had endorsed Strange, withheld his backing for Moore after the sexual allegations surfaced, then went all-in a week before Election Day.
A skilled department with a seat at the decision-making table might have kept Trump out of the race, guarding his political standing, even if it quietly helped Moore behind the scenes in an effort to save an important seat. A competent RNC, viewed as equally weak by critics of the political shop, might also have better advised the president.
“If the president decides not to endorse someone, there are several permutations of how you can help. It doesn’t always include the president,” a Republican consultant said. “He would benefit from a lot more interaction with people who have experience.”
Deficiencies in the operation also threaten Trump’s legislative agenda, imperiling his reelection prospects.
Republicans who have monitored the shop say it does not adequately understand the complicated politics of Capitol Hill, where members from various districts, and various factions, have unique and often competing concerns. They might want to support the president, but are worried about blowback at home.
A proficient political shop works with the White House legislative affairs team to implement a messaging and vote whipping strategy customized to fit the members of Congress the president needs on board with an initiative, and then brings the party along under a unified umbrella.
Its failure to do so was apparent during the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, which was troubled from the start and ended in collapse.
Tax reform, poised to clear Congress, went smoother, but Republican insiders rooting for Trump worry that there is still no plan in place to complete the president's ambitious infrastructure plans and other agenda items. It’s even more necessary, they argue, because the president is chronically undisciplined and inclined to change gears at any moment.
“Tell me anyone inside the White House who has a political plan. No one has a plan,” a Republican adviser said. “Now, Trump doesn’t operate under a plan — he’s reactive — but that’s why you need a plan even more.”