The role was initially slated to go to Derek Lyons, the White House staff secretary and another ally of Kushner. Yet some Trump allies, who want a leader in the slot with strong conservative credentials, objected to the decision after POLITICO reported it earlier this month. Some conservatives believe Lyons helped to water down a key immigration executive order that came out in April by reminding the president in a large White House meeting of its opposition from top tech executives including Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Senior White House officials maintain Lyons has been key to enacting stricter border security and other immigration restrictions, and he remains a close ally of Stephen Miller, the White House’s resident immigration hawk. Lyons‘ own standing is getting upgraded instead.
“Derek does extraordinary work in his role as staff secretary. Given his large portfolio, elevating him to counselor to the president made the most sense,” Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said in a statement to POLITICO. “This is an expansive role that will put him in an additional advisory role to President Trump on a wide range of legal, policy and strategic matters.”
Top officials including Meadows are now searching for a new director of legislative affairs since the current one, Eric Ueland, is in discussions with the State Department about a top political position.
Meadows is eyeing for that legislative affairs role Ben Howard, a vice president at the Duberstein Group who previously worked for Trump White House twice — first as a special assistant to the president and later as the deputy director for legislative affairs. Howard’s specialty on the Hill is knowing the House and working with Republicans to pass major legislation like the 2017 tax bill and the USMCA, and the president has always appreciated Howard, who he jokingly has called in front of congressional lawmakers “that young, brilliant guy who everyone likes.” Both Howard and the White House press office declined to comment.
One White House official said the recent turnover had not affected the coronavirus response. “The chief of staff intentionally left virtually no gaps in time in place between transitions out and transitions in so that balls weren’t dropped and things were smooth,” the official said, adding that even when officials left the West Wing, successors were named within days of the departure.
It may not matter much who ends up with the legislative affairs job — even if conservatives seem poised to fight over it — because Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is negotiating the major stimulus bills on Capitol Hill. Meadows also has told lawmakers to feel free to call him directly, and when he entered the White House, he told allies he wanted to take a large role in the White House’s relationships with the Hill.
The head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Tomas J. Philipson, has also receded from a high-profile role in the White House, according to senior administration officials — even though he specializes in health economics. Philipson never forged a strong relationship with Trump or other top players in the White House complex, and has been largely overshadowed by the return of senior adviser Kevin Hassett — a longtime D.C. economist and former CEA chair, who has a good working relationship with Trump. The White House declined to comment on the state of personnel at the CEA.
A huge part of the recent turnover has come from staffers loyal to former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney exiting the West Wing, and Meadows bringing in his own aides, a privilege typically afforded to any chief of staff.
But critics of the Trump administration, like Lu, say this is not the time to install loyalists. “I get Meadows wants his own people, but now is the wrong time to be switching people around,” Lu said. “It would not have been as much of a problem if they had not cycled through so many chiefs of staff already.”
Personnel decisions and daily meetings have long been fraught in the back-biting Trump White House. Even the coronavirus task force meetings took on a certain “Game of Thrones” vibe and triggered angst among participants and staffers, said one Republican close to the White House, who said officials never knew where they stood in Trump’s eyes and would obsess over details like the task force meeting seating charts for clues.
Now the task force is undergoing its own transition — with a focus on rebuilding the economy and finding a coronavirus vaccine — as Trump tries his best to nudge states to reopen the country.
The White House staff will likely shift again this fall if Trump wins reelection, and a new crop of aides replace the ones who have grown exhausted by the pace of working in the White House.
“In the administration in the next term, it will all change all over again,” said a second former senior administration official, with a sigh. “Why would anybody at this stage in the first term put themselves out there?”