Mark Meadows walks to the White House after visiting Walter Reed Military Medical Center with President Donald Trump. | Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
The same night President Donald Trump announced Mark Meadows would serve as his fourth chief of staff, he told donors at a fundraiser that the North Carolina congressman could be “my James Baker” — the legendary aide and Cabinet member to three Republican presidents.
Baker, whose wife cried when he took the job, once likened it to a dartboard: “You have a bull’s-eye on your back and on your front.”
Meadows might find much to sympathize with in Baker’s assessment. Three and a half months in, he has told people he is struggling with the chief’s job and that if Trump wins reelection, he’ll stay in the role only for an additional year, if that long.
While he has brought in a handful of staffers loyal to him in the legislative affairs, communications and press offices, Meadows has yet to establish a strong power base in a White House known for backbiting — and he has not been able to execute on many conservative priorities, according to interviews with a dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. And while Baker has boasted of masterminding the 1984 drubbing of Walter Mondale “right out of the chief of staff’s office,” Meadows’ boss is down nearly 10 percentage points in national polls and looking increasingly doomed in November.
In the White House, Meadows quickly learned to yield to the existing power structure rather than trying to commandeer it. That means essentially recognizing the West Wing is Jared Kushner’s domain, a third senior administration official joked.
Early on in his tenure, Meadows clashed with the president’s son-in-law by trying to prevent him from bringing to the president not-yet-fully-formed plans related to Covid-19, such as the idea that Google was developing a screening website that would tell Americans whether they should be tested for the virus.
Meadows also sought to exert his control early on by overseeing and approving all staff promotions, raises, presidential commissions and detailees to the White House to make sure the chief’s office had a handle on personnel. That worked fine until Kushner complained and told Meadows his staff was off-limits. Meadows eventually acquiesced to Kushner’s demands, according to four people familiar with the matter.
Kushner’s right-hand aide and Middle East envoy, Avi Berkowitz, saw his salary jump from $158,000 in 2019 to $183,000 in 2020, according to White House data, making him one of the highest-paid staffers and on par with Meadows, adviser Hope Hicks and Pat Cipollone, the White House’s top attorney.
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Now, Meadows and Kushner huddle each morning along with a few other top senior staff. Worried about leaks, Meadows has reduced the number of large senior staff meetings to just once a week.
Clamping down on leaks was part of Meadows’ sales pitch to the president when he talked to him about the job. Recently, the chief of staff has been trying to investigate how key details from small Oval Office meetings have ended up in headlines so quickly. He’s also been alarmed by the intelligence leaks that Russians tried to pay Taliban fighters bounty money to kill Americans, along with the story that the president went down to the White House bunker on a night of particularly volatile protests in Washington.
While senior White House officials praise Meadows’ work ethic and point to his role in negotiating the CARES package or keeping immigration front and center as examples of success, morale inside the White House remains remarkably low. With ongoing leak investigations, Trump slumping in the polls and the terrible headlines about the center for disease control,Coronavirus, quarantine, symptoms, social distancing, virus protection, outbreak, coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, pandemic, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus prevention, coronavirus explained, covid-19 news, covid-19 updates, covid-19 outbreak, corona, Peter Hotez, COVID-19 Vaccine, Center for Vaccine Development, West Wing staffers feel demoralized.
Streams of staffers, from top aides to low-level ones, have departed the White House in the past few months. This has left Trump with an unusually young and inexperienced staff at a time when he is facing a pandemic and recession, both of which have upended his presidency and threaten his reelection.
Officials and allies say Meadows does not regret taking the job because he enjoys the perks of working in the White House — be it flying on Air Force One or appearing at events alongside his wife. A copy of a menu from Air Force One hangs in his West Wing office, along with other memorabilia signed by the president, said two officials. Still, the job is far more complex than Meadows realized.
At the same time, conservatives are starting to grumble — anonymously, for now — that Meadows has not lived up to his reputation as the former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus or pressured the administration to follow those values.
“Conservatives want the action,” said one Republican close to the White House. “They want Attorney General Barr’s program to reflect what Trump’s tweets say: Why is the Justice Department not arresting thousands of people who are burning cities down?”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.
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