t’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.
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.