How to Talk So Trump Will Listen: A GOP Guide for Pelosi

A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.

But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.

Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.

Convince Him He’ll Be Loved

Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.

Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.

The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.

“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”

The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the

  • Fraternal Order of Police, the
  • International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
  • National District Attorneys Association—

were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.

It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.

Remind Him of His Campaign Promises

Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.

After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.

I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”

Paul’s strategy was partially to ingratiate himself with the man he once, in the primary season, called an “orange-faced windbag.” Trump and Paul have played golf together, a favorite pastime for the president and a way other former antagonists have overcome bad blood.

.. in recent months, Paul has ramped up his public praise for Trump and joined the chorus of Republican criticism for the president’s treatment in the press. Trump has returned the favor with praiseworthy tweets. Paul had raised concerns about two of Trump’s high profile nominations in 2018, for their defenses of the government’s data surveillance apparatus. But he dropped his public skepticism of Brett Kavanaugh and, earlier in the year, did an about-face on his opposition to Mike Pompeo.

Stafford gives credit for Paul’s success to the senator’s constant prodding of the president to be true to himself and his base. “It’s not just Rand’s voice. People who voted for Donald Trump don’t want to still be there either,” Stafford says. “He ran on it, he was loud and clear on it, and he believes it.”

Like opposition to military interventionism in the Middle East, an increase in infrastructure spending is one of the few major Trump campaign pledges that aligns him more with Democrats than his fellow Republicans. Trump’s failure to embrace a major infrastructure bill in favor of the divisive travel ban at the outset of his presidency may have doomed his ability to work across the aisle on the issue. Yet Pelosi could get more than enough of her caucus to embrace some form of new infrastructure spending by reminding the president of his 2016 promise to invest more federal dollars in roads and bridges. If she persists in nudging Trump to fulfill his pledge, Pelosi could deliver a longtime Democratic wish list item.

Stay Outside the Room Where It Happens

Before he was the White House national security adviser being overruled by the president on Syria, John Bolton was arguably more influential with Trump as a private citizen—albeit one with the right platforms to reach him. A fixture on Fox News for the first year of the Trump presidency, Bolton used his cable perch and the host of outlets that would publish him to make an argument directly to Trump: Get out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump, who had run hard against what was officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had been persuaded to recertify the deal in early 2017 until the new administration could get off the ground. His national security team, particularly Mattis and Rex Tillerson, were insisting Trump recertify at the next deadline, in July. Trump was resistant but acquiesced to the pleas of his team to allow them to finish crafting a new interagency strategy on Iran. On July 13, my colleague Stephen F. Hayes and I reported in The Weekly Standard that Trump would recertify the deal a second time.

But four days later, on the day of the deadline, an article by Bolton in the Hill made its way to Trump via Iran-deal opponent and White House aide Steve Bannon. The headline read: “Trump Must Withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal—Now.” In his op-ed, Bolton argued that Trump “should stop reviewing and start deciding” how to exit the deal. For several hours that day, according to reporting by Hayes and me, Trump reversed his decision to recertify the deal. The White House team scrambled to roll out a brand-new policy. In one meeting that day with his national security team, Trump called up Senator Tom Cotton and placed him on speakerphone as Cotton made the case against recertification.

In a final meeting in the late afternoon, Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster prevailed on Trump to follow through on the plan to recertify, at least once more. Trump eventually assented, but not before vowing it would be the last time he would do so. It was: Trump did not recertify in October 2017 and, in May 2018, pulled the United States out of the agreement. Bolton and Cotton, working from the outside, won.

This may be the most difficult tactic for Pelosi, who so far has been unable to demonstrate she has Trump’s trust or respect—something the outside voices have always been able to draw on. She’s not

  • one of Trump’s old business friends in New York,
  • a consistent defender in the conservative media,
  • or a former campaign or White House aide.

The best way for Pelosi to persuade Trump from the outside is to do perhaps the unthinkable for a liberal Democrat from San Francisco: Go on Fox News. A lot. Pelosi or her deputies won’t be the obvious choices for the booking producers at Fox & Friends and Hannity, but House Democrats would be wise to take every opportunity to speak directly to Trump on his favorite cable network. A few solid appearances on Fox News Sunday, for instance, would help Pelosi immensely.

Pelosi herself already seems to recognize the necessity of making a public case, most obviously on television, for compromise with Trump. “You know how I talk to him?” she told Draper. “I just say it in public. That’s what he hears: what people say in public.” A Democrat in Trump’s Washington could do worse.

Trump Fired His Most Effective Lieutenant

The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.

The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.

Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
  • When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
  • tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
  • went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through.

.. But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller.
But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”

.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone.
.. Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it.
.. Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign.
.. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.

Trump Is Mulling Candidates Who Could Succeed Jeff Sessions

Potential candidates for attorney general include Alex Azar, Steven Bradbury and Bill Barr

Mr. Sessions isn’t currently planning to leave, but privately has said that he anticipates he may be asked to resign, according to people familiar with the matter. The attorney general, who was the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, has told people the request may come on the president’s Twitter feed.

“This is actually the dumbest thing I’ve been asked to comment on in a while,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores.

..Replacing Mr. Sessions would present legal and political quandaries for the president.

.. Mr. Trump must find a successor who could win Senate confirmation, a job that senators say is harder given the president’s public suggestions that he wants a political ally as attorney general.

.. Many GOP senators are advocating for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) to succeed Mr. Sessions, especially after Mr. Graham’s vocal defense last week of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

.. “As I think about people who could be confirmed to that position in the Senate, Lindsey Graham is at the top of my list,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican. “In fact, I can’t think of anybody else right now who could get confirmed.”

.. Mr. Trump has spoken about the possibility of Mr. Graham as attorney general, but has told his team that he is not inclined to choose him, given their turbulent history, according to people familiar with the discussions.
.. Mr. Graham called Mr. Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” Mr. Trump said Mr. Graham was a “lightweight” and an “idiot,” and gave out Mr. Graham’s mobile number during a campaign rally.
.. Another purported candidate, Sessions chief of staff Matthew Whitaker, has allies in the White House but also detractors, according to people familiar with the matter. As a commentator on CNN, Mr. Whitaker expressed skepticism about the special counsel probe and urged limits on its scope, a position likely to raise objections from Democrats and some Republicans... That leaves, for now at least, the five individuals currently under discussion at the White House. Three of them—Messrs. Azar, Bradbury and Sullivan—are serving in Senate-confirmed positions. They would have to be reconfirmed to serve as attorney general, but may have an advantage from having already won Senate approval.

.. Mr. Azar took office in January as Mr. Trump’s second health and human services secretary. He served as general counsel in former President George W. Bush’s administration, then headed an affiliate of pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly & Co. before returning to Washington.Mr. Azar isn’t interested in the top job at the Justice Department, said a person familiar with his thinking.

.. Mr. Bradbury was sworn in last November as the Transportation Department’s chief legal officer after a narrow confirmation vote. Two Republicans joined Democrats in opposing Mr. Bradbury’s nomination, citing his role in helping author memos in the Bush administration that provided legal grounds for harsh interrogation techniques that some consider torture.

Mr. Bradbury defended his role, saying it was a difficult issue that drew strong opinions from both sides.

Mr. Sullivan, who was confirmed in May 2017, has served previously in senior positions in the Justice, Defense and Commerce departments. Before assuming office, Mr. Sullivan was a partner at Mayer Brown LLP.

.. Ms. Brown, appointed to the bench in 2005 by President George W. Bush, stepped down last year. She was among the most conservative voices on the D.C. Circuit, which hears numerous cases related to the federal government.

Why the Anonymous Trump Official’s Op-Ed in the New York Times Matters

In 1947, “Mr. X” wrote an extremely influential article, for Foreign Affairs, advocating a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies. Its author turned out to be the diplomat George Kennan, who was then the second-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And, in 1996, Random House published “Primary Colors,” a thinly disguised roman à clef about Bill Clinton, by “Anonymous.” Less consequential than Kennan’s contribution, the novel nonetheless created a great deal of speculation about who its author was; it turned out to be the political journalist Joe Klein.

.. By nightfall on Wednesday, there were reports that White House officials were engaged in a frantic search for the culprit.

..  “scrutiny focused on a half-dozen names.”

.. the piece merely adds to what we already know about Trump’s character and the struggle of people around him to control his destructive tendencies.

.. it was reported that the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the national-security adviser at the time—James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster—had privately agreed to avoid being out of Washington at the same time.

.. There have been numerous reports about how Don McGahn, the outgoing White House counsel, tried to talk Trump out of firing James Comey and Jeff Sessions.

.. The real importance of the Op-Ed is that it corroborates these reports, provides a window into the mind-set of people who continue to work for Trump, and also reveals some intriguing details. “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,”

.. Really? “Early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the Constitution to oust the President? If this is true, it is information of enormous consequence, and leads to a series of further questions. Who was involved in these discussions, and how far did the whispers go?

.. The suggestion that at least some members of the Cabinet have talked about invoking these powers is new and shocking. But what does it mean to say that the whisperers didn’t want to precipitate a crisis? After all, the rest of the article makes clear that the crisis already exists and is deadly serious.

.. The head of state of the most powerful country in the world is someone whose own subordinates and appointees regard as unmoored, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

.. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the Op-Ed says. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. . . . Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

.. “I have no respect for someone who would say these things—of whose truth I have no doubt—in an anonymous oped, rather than in a public resignation letter copied to the House Judiciary Committee.”

.. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”

.. These are legitimate concerns, but the larger one is that we have a menacing dingbat in the White House, and nobody with the requisite authority seems willing to do anything about it, other than to try to manage the situation on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. Perhaps this could be seen as a “Trump containment” strategy, but it falls well short of the systematic containment strategy that Kennan advocated, and, in any case, the Trumpkins, unlike the early Cold War strategists, are not necessarily dealing with a rational actor. Something more is surely needed.