George Conway, the wealthy conservative lawyer and husband of Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s counsellor, prefers to stay in the background. In the nineteen-nineties, he was the hidden author of a successful Supreme Court brief that argued that Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton should be allowed to proceed while Clinton was in office. Last year, while I wandered around a debate spin room, interviewing Kellyanne, George followed a few paces behind, holding her purse but refusing to talk. When CNN’s Dana Bash recently went to the Conways’ New Jersey home to profile Kellyanne, Bash joked that George “hid upstairs.”
So it was rather shocking yesterday when Conway, whose Twitter feed had been dormant since December, 2015, retweeted the President with a sarcastic comment about how Trump was ruining the legal case for his travel ban, which is likely to be taken up by the Supreme Court.
Trump had tweeted, “The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.” It was an absurd and reckless statement for several reasons, and made it sound as if Trump wasn’t actually the President. Trump himself signed the travel ban about which he was complaining. He runs the Justice Department. And his aides have repeatedly argued that it isn’t a ban. One of the central legal arguments from the ban’s critics is that its intent is crucial to understanding whether it is actually meant to discriminate against Muslims. In their rulings, judges in two appellate courts considered Trump’s various statements from the campaign, when he called for “a Muslim ban,” and as President. In a recent interview with me, Sally Yates, the former acting Attorney General whom Trump fired because she refused to uphold the original travel ban in court, said that Trump’s intent was important to her decision. “I thought, based on all the evidence I had, that it was based on religion,” she told me. “And then I thought back to Jim Crow laws, or literacy tests. Those didn’t say that the purpose was to prevent African-Americans from voting. But that’s what the purpose was.”
Conway, who had been a candidate to run the Office of the Solicitor General, whose job it is to defend the government before the Supreme Court, had clearly had enough. “These tweets may make some ppl feel better, but they certainly won’t help OSG get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters,” he tweeted. “Sad.”
Inside and outside the White House, Trump advisers were shocked. “I can imagine that’s going to be an uncomfortable family dinner tonight,” a White House aide told me, referring to George and Kellyanne. A White House adviser who has known Kellyanne for decades joked, “I think he’s sleeping on the couch.” The adviser added, “What happened here is really out of character for him. He’s always taken great pride in Kellyanne’s success. He would not spend any time trying to overshadow her or speak over her, and that’s exactly what he did today.”
A few hours after George’s initial tweet, after Washington went into a tizzy over his loud new voice on social media, he followed up with a burst of tweets, explaining that he still supports Trump—and Kellyanne—but that “every sensible lawyer in” the White House counsel’s office and “every political appointee at” the Department of Justice would “agree with me (as some have already told me).” He added that the point “cannot be stressed enough that tweets on legal matters seriously undermine Admin agenda and POTUS,” and that “those who support him, as I do, need to reinforce that pt and not be shy about it.”
George did remain somewhat shy, and did not reply to an e-mail from me. Kellyanne told me last night that she had not discussed her husband’s tweets with the President yet. But the mild-mannered Conway losing patience and resorting to a tweetstorm to get the President of the United States to take some standard legal advice raises an interesting question: What, exactly, works for people inside and outside the White House who are trying to influence this President, a stubborn seventy-year-old who is regularly described to me by the people who know him best as “crazy”?
President Obama would spend hours at night reading detailed decision memos from his senior aides. He hated cable TV. Trump, by all accounts, doesn’t read policy memos much at all. “He has no attention span,” Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of “The Art of the Deal,” told my colleague Jane Mayer, last year. Trump is famously obsessed with cable news, which often sets the agenda at the White House. During the transition, Kellyanne got through to Trump by going on cable TV to announce her opposition to nominating Mitt Romney as Trump’s Secretary of State.
A former campaign official told me that during the Republican Convention in Cleveland last year, rather than developing a message of the day, as a traditional campaign would, Trump’s communications team would simply spend the morning consuming the same media as Trump.
“We knew he would watch ‘Morning Joe,’ we knew he would switch his channel over to the morning show on CNN, we knew he would go to ‘Fox and Friends,’ so all of us watched all those things, read all five papers, and then we tried to decide what the message of the day was,” he said. “We were placing bets, because the message of the day would appear in his tweet at some point. We were just trying to guess.” He added, “A lot of it was trying to divine what was going to get in the President’s craw by reading exactly what he’s reading and trying to think like he thinks.”
Sam Nunberg, who has worked for Trump and advises the White House, regularly goes to the major newspapers when he needs to get Trump’s attention. “If I want to communicate to the President and I don’t want to bother him directly, then I speak to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times,” he told me. Others noted the importance of the two major New York tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, which Trump reads religiously. The opinion page of the Daily News, which was not previously considered to have large influence in Washington, is considered a highly coveted outlet for Republican P.R. professionals trying to get Trump’s attention. “The line is around the block—you can’t get in,” a G.O.P. consultant said. Slipping Trump a news story, whether real or fake, has, according to Politico, influenced his opinion on climate change, sunk nominees for prominent positions, and helped get a top staffer fired.
Some Republican advertising firms have developed a slightly more high-tech way of getting to the President and the people around him. The Republican consultant explained that clients can pay to have I.P. addresses for the White House and Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida retreat, bombarded with ads.
“The reporters that are around Trump and around the White House and everyone around the President is being targeted through geotargeting and I.P.-address targeting,” the Republican consultant told me, “by people who couldn’t get onto the big TV shows and into the big papers.”
Asked to describe the best ways to get a message to the President, a White House aide dismissed the idea that Trump’s mind is easily influenced by the media he consumes. “I just don’t buy it,” she said. “He is an incredibly smart person, and he can’t be manipulated by anyone or anything.”
Perhaps the White House aide is correct. Last night, hours after George Conway’s barb at Trump, the President seemed to offer a response to the lawyers who are trying to save him from himself: “That’s right, we need a TRAVEL BAN for certain DANGEROUS countries, not some politically correct term that won’t help us protect our people!”