Dispute Over Midterm Game Plan Erupts Inside the White House
Posted December 22, 2017 1:39 a.m. EST
An Oval Office meeting involving President Donald Trump and his top advisers on Wednesday devolved into a heated exchange between his former campaign manager and the White House political director, people briefed on the discussion said.
The meeting centered on the midterm elections and came as Republicans face a daunting landscape next year, particularly after a bruising loss in the Alabama special election this month for a U.S. Senate seat. It also came as the White House faces an expected string of departures from the West Wing, including that of a deputy chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, on Thursday. Dearborn, who was close to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump during the transition, had been overseeing a broad cross section of departments, including the political department, which was a source of contention during the meeting.
The meeting prompted the political director, Bill Stepien, to call an official at the main political group supporting Trump, America First Policies, to say its counsel should be involved at future gatherings.
It also underlined the turf battles and strategic disagreements that have long been characteristic of Trump’s circle, dating to his presidential campaign.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment.
The initial meeting included Trump; Stepien; John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff; Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor; and Hope Hicks, the communications director. Also in attendance were Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Brad Parscale, both of whom are advisers to America First Policies.
Lewandowski aggressively criticized the Republican National Committee, as well as several White House departments, five people briefed on the discussion said. He told the president that his government staff and political advisers at the party committee were doing little to help him, three of the people briefed on the meeting said. He pointed to, among other thinned-out departments, the Office of Public Liaison.
One attendee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the discussion was intended to be private, said Lewandowski took pointed aim at the political operation led by Stepien. Another attendee insisted that Lewandowski lashed out at nearly every department but the political shop.
Lewandowski called the White House team too insular, and he said it had done little to tend to fellow Republicans or to conduct outreach with outside groups and supporters. Asked for an example, Lewandowski said he knew of a senator who had not been invited to the White House Hanukkah party, one attendee said.
Trump, who often pits advisers against one another, appeared to be receptive to the argument. “A lot of people” have been telling the president that his White House team needs improvement, a person briefed on the meeting said.
After the meeting, Lewandowski and Stepien got into an argument outside the Oval Office, continuing the exchange elsewhere on the White House grounds. They eventually reached a cordial place, three people briefed on the exchange said.
But on Thursday morning, Stepien called a leading official at America First Policies, Bryan O. Walsh, and said its counsel needed to be present for future meetings, according to a person briefed on the events.
“America First Policies exists for one reason: to support the president of the United States and his agenda,” Walsh said. “Everything else is just noise. We commend the president for getting tax reform passed and making America great again.”
Stepien appears to be the latest front in a rotating cast of advisers surrounding Trump over the past three years. A series of election defeats, coupled with legislative inertia through much of the year, has made him the target of criticism, primarily from outside the White House.
But Stepien has his defenders, among them Kelly, who two attendees at the Oval Office meeting said was put off by Lewandowski’s criticism. So were other attendees of the meeting, according to two people present, although Trump did not appear to be one of them.
Lewandowski declined to comment.