Mark Meadows spent his entire congressional career trying to divorce the Republican Party from its moderate wing. Now he’s trying to make it work with centrist Republicans and even Democrats on Capitol Hill.
So far, as President Donald Trump’s new chief of staff, Meadows is receiving bipartisan praise as accessible, personable and good-natured. It’s a surprise for the man who previously chaired the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and once helped take down a speaker from his own party.
It’s unclear how long the political honeymoon will last, and Meadows hasn’t completely shed his old Freedom Caucus ways. Not only did Meadows bring some of his trusted allies to the White House, but he also recently rejected Democrats’ push to have a top health official testify on Capitol Hill — a reminder that Meadows is still a fierce partisan warrior for Trump.
“The jury’s still out,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who served with Meadows in the House. “He’s been accessible and willing to listen. As to whether or not we see different results coming out of the White House, I have to withhold judgment.”
The stakes in the near term are huge for Meadows, who declined comment for this story. He’s assumed one of the top jobs in government as the coronavirus kills thousands of Americans each week and threatens an economic depression in the run-up to the 2020 election. Plus, he’s got his own future to think of as one of the best-known conservatives in Washington.
But Meadows may not be able to do anything to change the fundamentally chaotic nature of Trump’s White House, which proved insurmountable to the three men who held the position before him. That means he could easily fall flat even with support from Congress.
Since stepping into the role in late March, Meadows has leaned on his Capitol Hill connections and communicates constantly with his former colleagues, according to interviews with a dozen House members and senators. If Trump is already the most accessible president to lawmakers in a generation, Meadows’ manic texting habits and syrupy telephone drawl make the White House an open book to Capitol Hill’s Republicans and, occasionally, some Democrats.
"He’s a 3,000-dimensional leader,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), an ally.
Early on, Meadows set up a special hotline for members to expedite action on emergency coronavirus issues. He also has orchestrated frequent calls between the administration and Capitol Hill, regularly texts with members at all hours of the day and has personally fought for pet issues on behalf of lawmakers whom he wasn’t even particularly close with.
Being a former House member “gives him a good solid perspective on how Congress can be an asset instead of an adversary,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.).
When Meadows helped Amodei secure a fix for a small-business loans program in the last relief bill, the Nevadan jokingly offered to mow his lawn as a way to repay him. Meadows replied: “That’s what friends are for.”
That transactional nature is nothing new for Meadows, a political operator who is fond of saying he’s playing “10-dimensional chess.” And keeping Capitol Hill denizens close could come in handy when the White House needs something from them down the line.
It also could also give him a boost in a cutthroat town. Former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney wasn't exactly a favorite among congressional Republicans, but he lost support from them after he stumbled in the impeachment saga and confirmed aid was frozen to Ukraine while Trump sought a politically charged investigation. The loss of GOP confidence signaled his eventual ouster.
Other chiefs like Reince Priebus and John Kelly also eventually fell out of favor with the president, so it’s an open question just how long the good times will last for Meadows.
“Does anyone know where Mulvaney is? Is he still alive?” asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Like Meadows, Mulvaney was a member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus. But many in the GOP felt as though Mulvaney turned his back on them when he left for the White House. Meadows, who could run for an open North Carolina Senate seat in 2022, is trying to avoid a similar fate by reaching out to all corners of the party.
Meadows has even developed a rapport with moderate Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who said she never once spoke to Mulvaney during his time as Trump’s top aide. Protecting the Senate Republican majority is another new responsibility for Meadows, and Collins is up for reelection.
“When I learned of his very deep friendship with Elijah Cummings, that told me a lot about him,” said Collins, referring to the late Democrat from Maryland. “There’s a real human connection that he has with people even if philosophically they disagree.”
Meadows is also getting plaudits from some Democrats who say he listens to them, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree to their requests. When Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin received a phone call telling him he was selected to serve on a White House coronavirus economic task force, he said he didn’t understand and asked to speak to Meadows.
“He was very candid,” Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “It’s such a contrast. When I read the clippings or watch the news, I see a different Mark Meadows than the person I met.”
In the past, Democrats and even some Republicans believed that Trump’s top advisers, including Mulvaney, didn’t have the authority to negotiate on behalf of Trump. During the longest-ever government shutdown that started at the end of 2018, Mulvaney was involved in the early failed negotiations.
Meadows’ influence during negotiations of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March was a sharp contrast. Though still technically a House member at the time, Meadows helped Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House legislative director Eric Ueland guide the legislation to a place where conservatives and the president could support it along with Democrats.
It was the sort of bill that Meadows might have been tempted to vote against while in Congress. But now he has the kind of responsibilities that come with governing.
“He’s certainly conservative, but also pragmatic,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).
Whether Meadows can succeed again in the coming weeks as talks heat up on the next bill is uncertain. And despite his work with Democrats of late, there have been flashes of the old Meadows.
Meadows was involved in the decision to block Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, from testifying before a House panel last week. Meadows pressed Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) for more details about the hearing but was unsatisfied with the response, and the White House deemed the hearing “counterproductive.” Meadows then orchestrated a hearing with Fauci to take place Tuesday in the more friendly Republican-led Senate.
"You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to understand why the House committee that funds health programs wanted Dr. Fauci to appear at a hearing entitled 'Covid-19 response,'" said a spokesman for Lowey.
As a member of Congress, Meadows — one of Trump’s fiercest defenders and earliest Hill backers — used the Freedom Caucus to pull his party to the right, often torpedoing GOP leaders’ plans on spending bills and other measures. He orchestrated the push that led to Speaker John Boehner’s abrupt resignation in 2015.
And Meadows has brought some of the Freedom Caucus with him to the White House. He hired former Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a co-founder of the group, as a senior White House adviser. And Meadows tapped three former Freedom Caucus aides to work in the West Wing.
But Meadows and his fellow rabble-rousers in the Freedom Caucus have also shown they can unite with GOP leadership — working closely to defend Trump last year after Republicans lost the House and Democrats’ impeachment drive ramped up. GOP lawmakers believe Meadows’ new team-player attitude will carry over to his White House gig.
“He and [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy have come a long way,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). “They’re building a bridge, working together. And that’s productive for the entire conference.”
But House Republicans are in the minority now and have limited influence. Ultimately, Meadows will be judged on if he can help Trump weather the coronavirus crisis — and get him reelected this fall.