ANALYSIS — If you’re a Republican lawmaker or congressional aide who struggles to understand what Donald Trump wants in legislation, take a long look in the mirror.
Because it’s you. Not him.
At least that’s what one senior White House aide — echoed by others who also have had one of the toughest jobs in Washington — has concluded two and a half years into Trump’s kaleidoscope of a presidency.
Eric Ueland, Trump’s chief Capitol Hill envoy, just doesn’t get what all the fuss — and confusion — is about. He contends he always has a clear understanding of his mercurial boss’s legislative goals. From his perch on the West Wing’s second floor, the Washington veteran sees a town that simply won’t allow itself to understand the 45th commander in chief.
“The president is always clear, always direct, always lays it right out there. I find that refreshing because he’s very accessible for members when it comes to key questions they may have about where the president stands on any variety of matters,” Ueland told CQ Roll Call in a recent telephone interview.
To the former Senate Budget Committee Republican staff director, Capitol Hill’s collective struggle to understand Trump’s whims are the fault of his Democratic predecessor, former President Barack Obama. Blaming the 44th chief executive for its struggles has been a constant part of team Trump’s playbook since before he took office in January 2017.
“Maybe it’s more just the fact that individuals have been accustomed to a previous style under a previous president who was incredibly opaque, very reluctant to engage with Congress and the public,” Ueland said. “And as a result, left the Hill pretty high and dry in terms of clarity and clear communication from some of my predecessors under the previous administration.
“It’s just been hard for people to adjust to it,” he added.
Bipartisanship in Washington is increasingly rare. But not in Ueland’s D.C. diagnosis.
“To still be confused or not understand this president and presidency after two-and-a-half years is either just being in denial or just being dumb,” said Patrick Griffin, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief congressional envoy from 1994-1996. “That blocks your ability to see this for what it is. I tell my [American University] students that they have to … look at everything objectively. That goes for the president, too.”
Another former senior White House Office of Legislative Affairs official chuckled when told of Ueland’s remark, saying, “I think Eric’s singing the company line there.”
“But I do think the intent of what they want to accomplish with legislation and their work with the Hill is clear,” the former OLA official said. “I think the daily process by which they want to accomplish it is confusing to a lot of people. There’s no question it changes by the day. And then there are a lot of distractions thrown in.”
‘Don’t really know’
Those “distractions” typically come from the top, like when Trump on Tuesday fired his third national security adviser, John Bolton, without giving even his closest congressional allies a heads-up.
Griffin said he has “enormous sympathy and empathy” for Ueland because of Trump’s heavy involvement in White House outreach to members, and because technology (read: smartphones) makes it almost impossible for the Legislative Affairs staff to know which members a president is talking to directly.
“You have a president who is seemingly involved in just about every interaction the White House has with the Hill. So when Eric says they know who the president is talking to — they don’t really know,” Griffin said.
Ueland said he does not feel hamstrung by Trump’s one-on-one conversations, often on his personal mobile phone.
Griffin mused that he and Clinton White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos set up a “process by which the White House operator would notify us if a call came in from the Hill for the president.”
“There are some parallels. You would walk into the Oval, and President Clinton would be talking to Newt Gingrich,” he said with a laugh. “We had to have schemes so he didn’t have too much contact with the Hill without us so that we could be effective.”
Nick Calio, who was legislative affairs chief for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said: “With the Bushes, we had processes built to try and maintain discipline. But with technology today, there is no way for the staff to manage every direct communication. That has to come from the very top.”
Nor does the office’s incumbent director feel hindered by his boss’s penchant to opine on or announce a change of mind about legislation via Twitter, Ueland added.
(Trump sometimes expresses outright opposition to major legislation like he did on March 23, 2018, by threatening to veto an omnibus spending package that would have triggered a government shutdown after first saying he would sign it. He signed it later that day.)
“I don’t find it problematic … that a president is very clear, very direct, and very swift in communicating his thoughts through his staff, through television, through print media, through Twitter right out for the Hill to see and for the public to know,” Ueland said. “This is perhaps the most accessible president to the press in the modern era, and arguably since Teddy Roosevelt.”
Access is everything
Still, the House and Senate returned from August recess with GOP members making clear they have yet to gain clarity on just what the president would sign to prevent future mass shootings or to avert a government shutdown with another fight over his proposed border wall looming.
Other Republicans wondered aloud about whether they might challenge Trump by sending him legislation that would limit his office’s power to shift around monies Congress already allocated — but they stopped short of endorsing such ideas.
That’s why Griffin suggested that what members express as confusion might be something very different.
“You know, members — and especially Republican members — don’t want to take [Trump] on,” he said “So they’ll wait for the president to be definitive or show a little more leg on what he wants before they say they support him.”
What would be more problematic for an Office of Legislative Affairs director, former officials said, is for senior lawmakers to have doubts about an incumbent.
Earlier this year, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby suggested that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s successful talks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi that led to a budget and debt bill Trump signed into law could make him the administration’s best negotiator on year-end spending bills. A White House official at the time said all members of the Cabinet and senior staff “work as a team with the Hill.”
“Having access to the president himself is hugely important. Bush 43 made sure to let people know I spoke for him,” Calio said. “And I made sure my deputies had good access. When folks really know you represent the president, they are more inclined to listen.”