Saturday 23 June 2018

Conway claims the kudos in latest fly-on-wall White House account

Kellyanne Conway has stood up to President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Kellyanne Conway has stood up to President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Rob Crilly

The hero - or in fact heroine - of the latest behind-the-scenes take on Donald Trump's inner circle might not be quite who you expected.

While reviews have focused on the public media war at the heart of Howard Kurtz's 'Media Madness', his book offers the second analysis of White House dynamics published in recent weeks - following Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury'.

Plenty of figures emerge with little credit, not least the  president himself.

But Kellyanne Conway, the pollster who was parachuted into the final phase of the campaign alongside Steve Bannon, comes across as a voice of reason, a savvy operator with the nerve to stand up to the candidate himself. At one stage, with Hillary Clinton way ahead in the polls and Mr Trump intent on giving headline writers exactly what they wanted, Ms Conway is forced to remind her candidate that running for president is not like opening a golf course. Not all publicity is good publicity.

"You'll destroy my strategy," she reportedly told him as he chafed at being managed.

"My strategy is this has to be a  referendum on her, not a  referendum on you."  It is a reminder of the zip she brought to the campaign at a time when most commentary focused on Mr Bannon's  populist dark arts.

The rest of the book also gives readers a chance to chart the influence of key figures and the various centres of power in Mr Trump's administration. Last year, I sketched out the five competing factions - the anti-establishment radicals, the family members, the generals, the Republican establishment, and the Wall Street bankers.

The recent books offer data with which to measure their relative importance. Philip Bump in the 'Washington Post' teased out the conflict at the heart of the White House in the form of Mr Bannon versus Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner - populist versus the privileged New York family - by counting up entries in the index.

It is a crude and simplistic methodology. But, heck, that works for me. For the same pattern is evident in 'Media Madness'. Mr Bannon accounts for 248 mentions in the text, the third most, while Javanka (Jared and Ivanka's names combined) clocks in at a combined 265, at positions five and six.

(I am adopting a slightly different method, using a keyword search.) That tension dominated the early months of this White House, as each side leaked against the other right up until Mr Bannon was out. Kellyanne Conway, however, merits the most mentions after Mr Trump himself.

Her 250 is a reminder of her important role even as other sources briefed against her, suggesting she was an outsider who was not always in the loop. Hope Hicks, who worked for the Trump Organisation before taking on more and more senior roles in the administration, gets 25 mentions.

That means the family - including loyal workers who arrived from Mr Trump's business - are in the ascendant, no surprise to Trump watchers who know how he values the sort of loyalty generated by blood or career dependence. The establishment fared surprisingly well. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus appear at fourth and seventh in the rankings even if they no longer work at the White House.

They burned brightly, if briefly. The generals are boosted by John Kelly's elevation to chief of staff, but there are few mentions of the Wall Streeters. Of course, none of this is particularly scientific. And the book is after all about the White House's relationship with the media, helping in part explain why Ms Conway, who appears frequently on TV, ranks second only to the president himself in mentions.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect is the prominence of Mr Bannon, whose supposed political brilliance did not  extend to career management.

He lasted only seven months in the administration before taking his populist revolution to the country, where his first high-profile candidate managed to hand an Alabama senate seat to the Democrats. His legend has faded. Pundits are questioning whether he was ever the real deal.

Yet he is strikingly prominent in both recent accounts of Mr Trump's White House, dispensing - we are to believe - sage advice and wise counsel.

It suggests Mr Bannon, a history junkie, knows the most important part of political legacy: It doesn't matter if you were sidelined and dumped out of a job.

Just make sure your voice is prominent in the narratives.

© Daily Telegraph London

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