Fresh off a stinging health-care defeat and with internal chaos embroiling the Trump administration, White House aides are signaling newfound openness to working with congressional Democrats—or, at least, to alleviating some of the toxic partisan differences that have marked their tenure.
Sources in the administration say an outreach campaign by newly minted Chief of Staff John Kelly is in the works to rebuild some bridges and, potentially, chip away at the unified Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump’s agenda. Even before he formally started the job, Kelly was reaching out to top Capitol Hill Democrats in hopes of regaining political capital ahead of what is expected to be a bruising fight over tax reform and other administration priorities.
“Tax reform is gonna be a heavy lift,” a senior White House official told The Daily Beast. “No reason to write off/alienate [Democrats] any more than we already have.”
A spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told The Daily Beast that Kelly reached out her over the weekend with the two holding a phone conversation Sunday. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) confirmed that Kelly reached out to him as well.
Though calls to opposition leaders are the sort of traditional niceties any incoming chief of staff would perform, in Kelly’s case they underscore a larger effort to put the White House on firmer political footing.
Trump’s sharp elbows, confrontational handling of a health-care overhaul, adamance in questioning Russian involvement in his campaign, and insistence that he won the popular vote have all alienated and alarmed Democrats—and a fair number of Republicans, too. And inside the White House, there is growing concern that little, if anything, will be accomplished without a structural and temporal change.
Senior White House aides view Kelly as instrumental in making those reforms. The former Marine Corps general has the backing of top Trump advisers, including Steven Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka. And he is seen within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as having perhaps the only type of temperament able to rein in the president’s worst impulses.
Capitol Hill Democrats aren’t as optimistic. Kelly does come to the job with more good will than his predecessor, Reince Priebus, who was never implicitly trusted by Democrats because of his strictly partisan roots. Whereas Priebus came into the job having just run the Republican National Committee, Kelly once served as the Marine Corps’ chief liaison to Capitol Hill.
“Kelly understands that rather than addressing symptoms of problems, maybe we ought to try a shot at addressing root causes,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), who traveled with Kelly overseas and introduced Kelly at his confirmation hearing to become Department of Homeland Security secretary, told The Daily Beast. “I’m encouraged that he’s been named as chief of staff. Encouraged.”
But there is also widespread concern over how Kelly conducted himself at DHS. Having been confirmed to the post with the hope that he’d be a moderating influence on the president, he became, for many Democrats, the gentle face behind a draconian set of policies, the travel ban and deportation ramp-up chief among them.
“We now see that there has been no progress around giving a commitment to the DREAMers that we’re going to keep our promises as it relates to DACA. We have seen no obvious progress around training the hundreds of thousands of people who work at DHS,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Judiciary Committee who voted against confirming Kelly to be homeland security secretary, told reporters he has “deep respect” for Kelly but “a number of my colleagues said to me they regretted their vote for him” based on his record at DHS. In particular, Blumenthal said, Democrats were concerned about “some of the draconian, sweeping roundups” of undocumented immigrants.
There is also a profound—almost unshakeable—belief among Hill Democrats that it simply won’t matter who occupies the chief of staff role, so long as the president is the president. Trump is too irascible and unpredictable for their trust. And though he may attempt to engage in a bit of political triangulation, the thinking goes, few Democratic lawmakers will be willing to participate and even fewer have the type of constituency that would allow them to do so.
One of those who wouldn’t take on water from working with the White House, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), was hoping to talk to Kelly soon, an aide said. What they would discuss wasn’t clear. But there are some Democratic aides who speculate that the party could use the Kelly era as a pivot point toward pursuing strategic legislative victories—such as a small-bore deal on health care that firmly ended any talk of larger-scale repeal and replace.
There is hope, at minimum, that Kelly’s hiring will bring down the temperature level in the capital. Trump wouldn’t have turned to his new chief of staff, the thinking (perhaps wishful) goes, if not for his own explicit desire to change course.
“He seems like an odd person to bring in if you think he’s your lap dog,” said one Democratic Senate aide. “[Kelly] strikes me as the type of person who just doesn’t give a fuck. I don’t think he cares. He’ll say: ‘This is what you should do. You hired me to tell you what to do… If you want to get this done, here is a PowerPoint on how to get it done and I will go execute.’”