Inside Trump’s White House, New York moderates spark infighting and suspicion
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.
On 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 wonder if they might eventually gain influence over Trump’s message and moderate it from Bannon-style 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-to-day 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 near-daily 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-year-old 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 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 in 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.”