Trump allies fear lack of political strategy
Posted November 30, 2017 8:57 a.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Donald Trump's allies are increasingly concerned by what they see as a deficit of strategic political advice driving the White House as the party creeps ever-closer to a crucial political year.
Both White House officials and outside allies have expressed misgivings about the administration's political operation and called attention to the lack of a chief political strategist who is laser-focused on the upcoming elections and the President's political interests.
"One thing that is missing from this White House that previous White Houses had is a Karl Rove or a sort of (David) Axelrod -- a senior political adviser," said Scott Jennings, the deputy political director in the Bush White House who is a Trump supporter.
The concerns have been magnified in recent months by what seven administration officials and outside advisers -- all of whom back the President -- characterized as a series of flat-footed political moves and missed opportunities that are hampering progress on the President's legislative agenda.
The President often views himself as his best political adviser, bolstered by winning a campaign that few found credible at the outset. But his decision to delve into the Alabama Senate Republican primary and offer a half-hearted endorsement of the perceived establishment candidate confounded some. His subsequent decision greenlighting the Republican National Committee's decision to cut ties with the eventual nominee Roy Moore, while all-but endorsing the candidate himself baffled others.
He has even begun to question whether it was politically wise for him to finally acknowledge last year that then-President Barack Obama was born in the US.
Overshadowing tax reform
Wednesday offered the latest example, as the President fired off a series of anti-Muslim videos, effectively overshadowing the tax reform pitch he delivered in Missouri later that day. He later tweeted that UK Prime Minister Theresa May, a key US ally, needed to focus on "radical Islamic terror" in her country. Trump's failure to marshal the bully pulpit of his presidency to push his legislative priorities has left nearly every Trump ally clamoring for a change.
Several Trump allies said the President would be well served by bringing on someone who can take a 10,000-foot view of the political landscape as other top aides deal with the day-in, day-out of running the White House and advancing policy.
"It is the single biggest deficit (in the White House)," one person close to the President said of his lack of a political svengali. "That has been felt from the bottom to the top of the building."
Jennings, the former Bush administration official who worked under Rove, noted that the notorious political strategist oversaw the White House's offices of political affairs, public liaison and legislative affairs, giving Rove a uniquely wide lens on the state of politics that allowed him to bring a fully baked political analysis to the President.
"His entire focus was on harnessing the offices that he managed to advance the President's agenda," Jennings said.
Messy system for delivering political advice
Instead, Trump administration officials and Republicans close to the White House described a messy system for delivering political advice to the President, one in which the advice flows from several internal and external advisers at different points in time, and from an office of political affairs whose head, Bill Stepien, a former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is not close to Trump
Several Trump allies panned Stepien's office as incompetent and ineffective. One Republican close to the White House called the office "a Mickey Mouse operation" and "the single biggest failure of the entire White House." Another Republican strategist whose firm is involved in a dozen Republican Senate campaigns said they were stunned to have never heard from Stepien or his team.
Others insisted that Stepien and his deputies are effective "workers" who carry out the tasks they are given. They are not crafting the White House's strategic political vision, nor are they expected to, several sources said.
Stepien did not respond to a request for comment, but several top officials at the RNC and inside the White House offered a hearty defense of the political director and his office.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel touted a "great working relationship with Bill" and the vice president's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said Stepien "doesn't get enough credit for the very good work he did on the campaign."
"Bill has a very sharp eye for data and the overall political landscape," said counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. "In addition to special and other off-year elections, he keeps us attuned to state party races, down-ballot initiatives and other individuals and issues of interest."
But other White House officials and sources close to the President said the departure over the summer of the White House's chief strategist Steve Bannon and then-chief of staff Reince Priebus left the President with a deficit of top officials crafting that strategy from inside the White House.
Bannon's exit left a particularly gaping hole in the White House's long-term political strategizing, several sources said. As chief strategist, Bannon -- whose office was adorned with a list of Trump campaign promises -- had already begun to turn his attention to the 2018 midterms, including plotting out state ballot initiatives to boost Trump base turnout, and Trump relied on him as a tether to his base.
"Now, we don't have anyone who's really big picture, who can look 3, 4, 5 steps down the road," one White House official said.
Instead, that task has largely been left to Trump himself and an array of administration officials and outside advisers who chime in at various points and on different issues.
He still speaks regularly with Bannon and turns to several of his current staffers for political advice, Conway to Ayers and legislative affairs director Marc Short.
"It's an unorthodox White House," one source noted.
Several sources said Conway, whose numbers-focused political analysis has long appealed to Trump, has seen her role in advising the President on politics grow. But like the President's other erstwhile political advisers, Conway's portfolio is filled with policy issues and there is no single adviser tasked with giving Trump the final product of political analysis from the White House's dozens of staffers whose work touches political issues.
Some questioned how Trump, who views himself as his own best strategist, would be better served by a Karl Rove-like figure at his side.
"I don't know what we would do differently if we had that person here today," one senior White House official said, noting that Trump's best strategist is "himself" and "his gut."
And Trump's assessment of his own political skills makes the prospect of bringing on another senior official all the more complicated. Even if the White House does choose to bring someone on to fill that role, it's unclear if the President will heed their advice.
Trump's decision to endorse Alabama's Luther Strange was hastily made by the President after a personal appeal from the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, two sources with knowledge of the matter said. It was the half-hearted delivery of that endorsement that came after several advisers warned Trump the endorsement might disappoint his base.
And Trump has already ignored words of caution from the political advisers he does count, whether he is firing off rash tweets that antagonize key Republican votes or muddying a neatly crafted selling point on a policy item.
"If he wants to tweet nutty stuff to inflame his base or to assuage his own impulses, no political strategist is going to stop him from doing that. That's the fundamental issue," said David Axelrod, one of President Barack Obama's top political strategists. "Strategists are important, but only if their principals are interested in strategy."