For Marc Short, the work began in earnest the moment President Donald Trump wrapped up his first official State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
Short, the White House legislative affairs director, played a role in crafting the president’s speech. But he told Roll Call in an interview on Monday that the work of crafting, editing and re-crafting the address fell to a team led by Stephen Miller, Trump’s top domestic policy adviser.
Sure, Short offered suggestions. But he wasn’t holed up in his second-floor West Wing office with a scratched-up legal pad and a half-consumed pot of coffee late on weekend nights fretting over this section or that one. His day job — or jobs, since he doubles as Trump’s reasoned, average-guy alter ego — have kept him plenty busy.
“To be honest, there’s still so much happening on Capitol Hill between where we were in a shutdown last weekend versus DACA and budget cap deals, my focus has remained probably more myopic on the legislation,” Short said. “So there’s sections on the legislative front that we review. The credit for this speech really belongs to Stephen and his team.”
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Short said he and Miller spoke often about Trump’s first State of the Union, “but it’s not like we’re really trading texts — that’s not our role.”
The topics Trump discussed and pressed Congress to take up this year — from immigration to infrastructure to the military — serve as something of a starting point for lawmakers as they craft their 2018 agenda. But for Short, the address is a to-do list presented on national television that colleagues say he will find invaluable throughout the year.
“What I appreciate about Marc, and where I think he shines, is his candor,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said during a Tuesday interview. “It has been Marc and me … telling the president that something is going to be difficult to pass … because everything is difficult.”
“There aren’t a lot of folks in the West Wing with Hill experience,” the former South Carolina Republican congressman said, adding that Short’s relationship with GOP leadership aides has been invaluable. “I didn’t know those people — I knew the members.”
Short was chief of staff of the House Republican Conference when it was chaired by an ambitious congressman from Indiana named Mike Pence. So the House chamber, the site of the State of the Union, is a familiar one for the 47-year-old.
As Trump wrapped his remarks, Short’s work selling the legislative wish list on the Hill — and beyond — was just beginning. After all, conversations about him turn quickly to his second gig as a television pitchman deployed to soften the president’s sharp comments or hard-line policy prescriptions.
Last Sunday, for example, found Short on “Fox News Sunday” and ABC’s “This Week.” He chalks up all his television hits and briefing room appearances to the “very busy legislative year.”
One White House official described him as “an effective messenger.” But that doesn’t mean it comes naturally.
“It’s not a role I’ve been comfortable with,” he said. “When I worked for Sen. [Kay Bailey] Hutchison, I helped out with more of the political and the communications side.” Later, as chief of staff of the House GOP conference, Short used those communications chops again, both internally with members and externally as he prepared them for media hits about the party’s message and agenda.
Perhaps reflecting that experience, the legislative affairs director position — he’s also an assistant to the president — has evolved under Short, say former officials and veteran Washington hands.
‘An unusual approach’
“The public-facing status that Marc has is certainly different than anybody who preceded him,” said one former White House legislative affairs chief who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It just shows the value in this White House that is placed on being good on TV.”
That was a reference to the president himself, who keeps close tabs on how he and his presidency are portrayed by the media, especially the television networks.
“Most White Houses have kept the messaging and legislating separate,” the former legislative affairs director said. “This is an unusual approach. But, look, Marc is very good on television. Still, it seems like that would make it tough to go on cable news then go negotiate with the opposition party leadership.”
Negotiating is the hard part, the former director said. “Marc hasn’t had to do that with Republicans in charge. But it’ll be a different story on immigration and infrastructure.” (Passing those bills requires support from Senate Democrats.)
Short and other White House officials are both eager to tackle the administration’s 2018 agenda and still basking in how 2017 ended, with passage of a tax overhaul that also terminated the 2010 health care law’s individual insurance mandate and authorized drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Short mentioned what he called the administration’s 2017 “successes” — from the tax law to rolling back Obama-era regulations to seating a U.S. Supreme Court justice and other conservative judges — several times during his interview with Roll Call.
Multiple conversations showed how members and Washington veterans grade Short’s performance on a curve because of his boss, who has changed his position on legislation multiple times in a single day.
“I’d hate to be representing a president whose policy positions shift endlessly until someone finally pins them down,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House official now at the Brookings Institution. “A perfect example is DACA, where the president was all over the map for weeks. … Short strikes me as an intelligent and honest man trying to do his best in near-impossible circumstances.”
Sen. Jeff Flake has at times clashed with Trump and his aides. But he said on Tuesday that Short and the legislative liaison team had a solid 2017.
“Leg affairs just has to implement whatever the president says,” the Arizona Republican said. “It’s been difficult on immigration because of conflicting signals from the top. I don’t envy legislative affairs’ job sometimes.”
A criticism of the Obama White House from members of both parties was that the president and his staff became disconnected from Congress. Even Barack Obama’s allies groused late in his tenure that they rarely heard from his legislative shop.
Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden of Oregon has found Team Trump’s outreach uneven. Some Cabinet secretaries and aides are more helpful than others, he said, adding, “I would … like to hear from officials who — quaint idea — when they say something would actually do it.”
Not surprisingly, since the White House has needed every GOP vote it could get, Flake has no gripes about how often he hears from Short.
“He’s in contact with our office quite a bit,” he said. “I’m not complaining about that.”
Watch — Members of Congress Arrive With Guests: State of the Union 2018