When Mark Meadows didn’t get President Donald Trump’s chief of staff gig, he wasn’t losing much.
Just 10 days later, the powerful conservative lawmaker managed to engineer what has since become the longest-running government shutdown — convincing Trump to pull the trigger right as the partial closure was on the brink of being avoided.
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Meadows picked up the phone to make his move just after Vice President Mike Pence had told lawmakers over lunch on Dec. 19 — two days before government funding would expire — that Trump was prepared to sign a clean spending bill to keep the government open through early February. The North Carolina Republican, who helped shutter the government in 2013 during a revolt against Obamacare, wasn’t prepared to back away from demanding funds for a border wall. And despite Pence’s clear-as-day comments, he assumed the president wasn’t either.
Meadows was right.
The following day, at Meadows’ urging, Trump said he would veto any short-term funding bill that didn’t include $5.7 billion to build a wall along the southern border, a campaign chant-turned top policy priority. Republican leaders quickly scuttled a press conference planned to announce their agreement to keep the government open. A day later, a quarter of the federal government shutdown. Nearly a month later, little has changed.
Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, was among several prominent conservatives — including Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, and radio personality Rush Limbaugh — who pressured Trump to stick to his border wall promise as congressional negotiations unfolded in December. But while right-wing pundits often make their cases through the airwaves, Meadows’ methods of persuasion are far more direct.
Four sources with knowledge of their relationship said Trump talks to Meadows more than he does with many of his senior aides. They sometimes spend an hour-plus on the phone together or speak more than once per day.
The result is that a three-term congressman little known outside the Beltway has earned an outsized influence on shaping the direction of the Trump administration — and the country. Meadows has the president’s ear on any number of topics, from immigration and border security to criminal justice and international affairs. And he’s used that access to push Trump toward stances aligned with the rapidly ascendant House Freedom Caucus, the hard-line conservative and libertarian caucus founded in 2015 that Meadows chairs.
In other words, Meadows — who many people, even those in D.C., probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup — might be one of the country’s most powerful lawmakers.
“He had as much exposure to Trump as [recently departed House Speaker] Paul Ryan did, maybe more,” said a former White House official, who described Meadows as the president’s “go-to guy.” A current administration official said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has found himself in a similar situation.
The shifting power dynamics on Capitol Hill is yet another way that Trump has upended Washington’s political class.
A former aide to President Barack Obama told POLITICO that Trump’s predecessor had “plenty of relationships with individual members of Congress, but what we always did was keep leadership in the loop and respect the chain of command.” The White House declined to participate for this story.
If Trump is unavailable or preoccupied, Meadows can turn to the president’s senior staff.
During Trump’s recent trip to McAllen, Texas, Meadows was summoned to the White House to huddle with aides on their latest shutdown strategy, according to a person familiar with the meeting. And when Trump was weighing whether to declare a national emergency at the border — an extraordinary move he at least temporarily backed away from — Meadows was privately urging the White House to consider other options. One idea he floated was increasing the $160 fee Mexican citizens currently pay for valid Border Crossing Cards and reappropriating the funds for Trump’s border wall.
Publicly, Meadows has also proposed reallocating “improper payments,” a large annual sum of federal dollars erroneously given out, toward a wall project.
“He always provides Trump with a range of alternative solutions,” said the former Trump White House official.
Inside the West Wing, Meadows omnipresence — one person close to Trump estimated that the president met with Meadows “every [three] days” during his first few months in office — is welcomed by some but grates on others.
“He’s a torchbearer for conservative policies and holds the administration’s feet to the fire,” said one former Trump aide, describing his input as a net-positive.
But Meadows has also irritated White House aides hoping to avoid political battles or let certain issues simply fade away.
Perhaps most notably, he and fellow Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) urged Trump to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last fall for slow-walking congressional requests for documents related to the ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. When Trump polled his inner circle on getting rid of Rosenstein, most advisers argued doing so would be politically catastrophic, according to two sources familiar with those discussions.
“There’s definitely a group in [the White House] that thinks he’s a fucking pain in the ass,” said one of the former White House officials, who claimed that several staffers in the legislative affairs office find Meadows “more disruptive than helpful.”
Still, Meadows is unlikely to fall out of favor with Trump.
The North Carolina lawmaker first ingratiated himself with the president’s family during the 2016 election, becoming the de facto chairman of Trump’s operation in North Carolina, a bellwether state that worried senior campaign officials even late into the evening on election night. Two of those officials, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said they were even more grateful for the role Meadows’ wife Debbie played following the release of the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. On the tape, Trump brags to TV host Billy Bush about sexually accosting women.
“Debbie was on a bus with Christian women on Billy Bush Saturday, which was basically the acid test for hardcore Trump supporters. She and Mark were at the barricades with us,” one ex-campaign official said, recalling that Meadows’ wife became a top surrogate for Trump when he needed female defenders the most.
After Trump won, Meadows became an early congressional defender, positioning himself as a loyal supporter amid a GOP caucus queasy over the president’s Twitter habits and interference in congressional matters. He also tepidly embraced Trump family pet projects — such as paid family leave — that fell outside conservative orthodoxy.
“In the past, I wouldn’t have given it a chance, but Ivanka’s advocacy for that particular issue at least makes it a question that has to be answered,” Meadows said days after Trump stumped for the policy in his first State of the Union address. He later worked to help Jared Kushner pass the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill — another measure that angered hawkish Republicans — and the two of them now talk often, according to a Kushner aide.
“We went to North Carolina to an event that Mark threw a year ago for his reelect. Jared spoke very positively of him there,” the aide said.
Now, it could fall on Meadows to help the president navigate the seemingly intractable government shutdown. As the shutdown enters its fifth week, the Democrats and Republicans remain at an impasse. Negotiations between party leaders have dried up and the prevailing sense is that no one sees a way out. Trump’s latest attempt to offer a deal on Saturday — an exchange of wall funding for extending legal status protections for some undocumented immigrants — was rejected by Democrats before the president even officially made the overture.
“There’s only way out: open up the government, Mr. President, and then Democrats and Republicans can have a civil discussion and come up with bipartisan solutions,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Saturday.
But while other Republicans have started grumbling about Trump’s intransigence and the theatrics that have taken the place of face-to-face meetings, Meadows has resolutely stood by his side. He even cheered on the president when he canceled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s overseas visit to troops in Afghanistan, a move that prompted eye-rolling from other GOP members.
“Bravo to POTUS,” he wrote.
MAGA Twitter quickly glommed on.