WASHINGTON – When it came time to heave the largest aid package in U.S. history over the finish line, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows was the closer, working with Democrats to get it done.
He wasn't just any member of Congress. In a highly unusual arrangement, Meadows has been pulling off a balancing act, simultaneously maintaining his seat representing North Carolina in the House while also acting as the de facto White House chief of staff during one of the biggest crises faced by any president in modern history.
Meadows is expected to resign from Congress as early as Friday, after which he will formally take over the chief of staff role still technically held by Mick Mulvaney, who never shook his “acting” title. In truth, it was nearly two weeks ago that aides to Mulvaney helped pack up his office and move out of the West Wing, raising questions about who, exactly, has been in charge.
“I'm still a member of Congress; Mick Mulvaney's still the acting chief, officially,” Meadows told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. He said he would "end up resigning as a member of Congress” toward the end of the month.
But Meadows' efforts over the last week shine a light on his likely role going forward. While Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland did much of the heavy lifting for the White House in talks about the aid package, Democrats and Republicans said Meadows played a key role in the late stages. The co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus shuttled between Capitol Hill leadership offices and meetings with top Democratic negotiator Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Meadows' role as a compromise-seeker on a bipartisan package marked an unlikely change of roles for a lawmaker who made his name in Congress as the man who toppled Republican former House Speaker John Boehner in 2015. The Freedom Caucus declined to back the $2 trillion stimulus bill, but it didn't oppose it either, a testament to Meadows' ability to soothe GOP objections to the big-spending bill.
In the view of one top Democrat, he was “the closer" who knew what was needed to get the bill past the finish line and deliver on the most important variable: ensuring the deal was something Trump would agree to sign into law.
Schumer gave a shout-out to Meadows by name on the Senate floor along with Mnuchin and Ueland ahead of Wednesday's late-night vote on the $2.2 trillion bill.
Reviled by Democrats and a thorn to Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, the Freedom Caucus has a reputation for attention-grabbing moves that often backfire spectacularly for the party. The GOP's 2017 Obamacare repeal effort was bedeviled in the House by the caucus' stubborn demands. But lawmakers recognize that Meadows has Trump’s ear, and have grown to respect his feel for the House GOP conference. He and GOP leader Kevin McCarthy have also worked to move beyond past differences, although a distrust of Meadows lingers among many Republicans who’ve clashed with him over the years.
One Republican close to the talks said that during the negotiations, Meadows worked to push the president's priorities as the package moved through Congress. His involvement also helped temper concerns from some conservatives who remain wary of Mnuchin — a former Democrat and Goldman Sachs banker — and see him as too eager to sign onto Democratic proposals.
“Mark is respected by everyone in the House and certainly respected by conservatives in the House. I think he's respected by everyone in the Senate, by conservatives in the Senate as well," said Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of Meadows' best friends in Congress.
Trump announced on Mar. 6 — just as the country was beginning to recognize the dire threat posed by the coronavirus — that he had decided to shake up his senior staff and would be replacing Mulvaney as chief of staff. He had been hankering to make the move for months as part of a larger effort to surround himself with loyalists, but waited until the impeachment saga ended to act.
Mulvaney and Meadows, longtime friends, had intended to spend the interim period together at the White House to ensure a smooth transition, but those plans were partially scuttled when both men were forced into self-isolation after potential exposure to the virus. Both tested negative.
Some White House staffers have described confusion over who was supposed to be running the West Wing over the past several weeks.
Some of the murkiness of Meadows' status is deliberate, as his dual status tests the Constitution's prohibition on a sitting member of Congress holding an “office under the United States.” White House aides have pointed out that Meadows is not drawing a salary. But in practice, they have acknowledged that his “in-waiting” status is a technicality until he formally resigns his seat.
Meadows' spokesman Ben Williamson said that during the transition, Meadows wasn't doing his job as a lawmaker "full-time," but that he remained in Congress because it helped his office function more effectively. When a lawmaker leaves office, the House clerk's office formally manages affairs until a successor is elected.
Jordan said he saw nothing wrong with Meadows making the transition to the White House while still in Congress.
“He was many times working for his constituents, but he was also looking at the interests of the president, particularly on policy areas and investigation areas, where he thought the president was getting a bad deal from Democrats," Jordan said, referring both to impeachment and the Russia investigation.
Regardless of when the official hand-off happens, Meadows inherits a job that has been dramatically reduced in influence. Trump spurned efforts by his previous chiefs of staff — Meadows will be his fourth — to create clear chains of command and streamline the flow of information and access to the president.
For months now, Mulvaney has been largely cut out of the administration's biggest decisions, from coordinating his defense against impeachment to the fight against the coronavirus.
“In effect, what's happened is Trump, with Mulvaney's help, redefined the job out of existence," said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency." He called the current arrangement both “bizarre” and “unprecedented."
“It's clear, three years in, that Trump has no interest in empowering a chief of staff to do the job,” he added.
Meadows' allies say he enters the White House with realistic expectations about his role. Rather than attempting to centralize the flow of information through his office — which predecessors have tried to do in an effort to control the impulsive president — they said he intends to focus heavily on the administration's communications strategy and organizing the White House for the coming reelection fight.
Meadows, a longtime Trump confidant and sounding board, is known as a policy wonk with smart political instincts. But the former restaurant owner and real estate developer has little experience in crisis management.
What Trump needs now more than ever, critics say, is a chief of staff who can tell him things he doesn't want to hear.
“In a crisis, like this, that is exponentially more important,” said Whipple.
House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Thursday that Meadows would make a “great” chief of staff and strengthen the White House's relationship with Capitol Hill.
“He's had great relationships on both sides of the aisle, too, so it's a benefit to all," McCarthy said.
___ Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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