Kellyanne Conway’s Sunday broadsides against Mitt Romney have exacerbated an increasingly strained relationship with Donald Trump and his senior advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to more than a half-dozen sources involved in the transition efforts.
Conway, who served as Trump’s campaign manager, has slowly receded from the president-elect’s innermost circle — she is not included either in interviews with potential cabinet nominees or in the deliberations over those candidates, said two people briefed on the matter.
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Conway, 49, has rejected an offer to be Trump’s White House communications director, and is now seen as increasingly unlikely to take on a formal role inside the administration, according to a source familiar with the transition process — which helps to explain why she has displayed little compunction about bucking her boss in public.
“Kellyanne is more likely to be working on the outside and she knows that,” said a top Trump transition aide, “so I think she feels a little more liberated about opining.”
After Conway’s comments about Romney aroused speculation about whether she was speaking for Trump or trying to send him a message, the president-elect issued a statement Monday saying he had encouraged her to speak her mind.
“Kellyanne came to me and asked whether or not she could go public with her thoughts on the matter. I encouraged her to do so. Most importantly she fully acknowledged there is only one person that makes the decision. She has always been a tremendous asset and that will continue.”
Conway tweeted out a photo Monday evening of her looking over Trump’s shoulder as he typed on a laptop — another signal that, despite the furor, she maintains a cordial relationship with the president-elect. “@realDonaldTrump & I working hard tonight. Thank you for the privilege of a lifetime, #PEOTUS,” she wrote.
Still, the efforts to project harmony belied the fierce behind-the-scenes infighting, the hallmark of a new-to-power operation marked by conflicting directives, warring camps and seemingly limitless palace intrigue.
Never was it clearer than during Conway’s tour of the Sunday morning shows, when she issued a scathing critique of Romney, saying not only that many Trump supporters feel “betrayed” that he is being considered for secretary of state but also that the 2012 GOP nominee isn’t qualified for the job.
“In the last four years, I mean has he been around the globe doing something on behalf of the United States of which we’re unaware?” she asked CNN’s Dana Bash. “Did he go and intervene in Syria, where they’re having a massive humanitarian crisis, meaning, when I say intervene, like offer to help?”
Her distaste for Romney, who is being strongly considered for the post despite having been one of Trump’s most vocal critics, reflects the prevailing sentiment among Trump’s most loyal foot soldiers.
As an internal battle rages between aides lobbying for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as secretary of state and those pushing for Romney, multiple sources confirmed that Trump continues to favor Romney. According to another source close to the transition, Trump has taken to referencing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling book Team of Rivals, which chronicles how Abraham Lincoln selected a number of cabinet nominees who had at one time or another bitterly opposed his election.
Sources who spoke with Trump over the weekend and on Monday described him as “irritated” and “annoyed” at Conway’s public remarks.
“Trump was very angry yesterday, today he’s irritated…but that’s Donald,” says a source close to the president-elect. “He actually has wanted Romney.”
The internal discord between the Romney and Giuliani factions has led Trump to consider other alternatives: He met on Monday with retired General David Petraeus and is slated to meet Tuesday with Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman whom he is also considering for the job.
One source said the interviews to date, which usually include Vice President-elect Mike Pence and one of his aides, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Trump’s incoming chief strategist, and one or more of Trump’s adult children — Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric, as well as Kushner — can take on a circus-like atmosphere, with several people streaming in and out of the room.
Most believe Conway’s views reflect the general sentiment among Trump aides — if not those of Trump himself, who nevertheless is said to be Romney’s biggest champion inside Trump Tower. A source familiar with the transition said most Trump aides are “glad” Conway gave voice to the anti-Romney views prevalent amongst transition aides “because they feel like Romney’s attacks on Trump were also an attack on them.”
Trump and his team held a number of meetings in New York last week during which several aides told him that appointing Romney would be a grave mistake. Bannon, in particular, has argued forcefully against the choice. Some have even told Trump that selecting Romney would make him appear weak.
For his part, Giuliani has grown impatient and anxious as media reports about the financial conflicts that would plague his tenure have percolated through Trump Tower and threatened to scuttle his bid. In recent days, some of the former mayor’s associates have begun to lobby the transition team on his behalf.
Conway, who initially joined the Trump campaign as a pollster in July, was named campaign manager in August during a campaign shakeup when Trump dismissed campaign chairman Paul Manafort. From that point until Election Day, she was a ubiquitous presence on cable news, serving more as the face of the Trump campaign than as a traditional campaign manager.
Her future plans remain unclear, though most expect her to continue working on Trump’s behalf in some way, and her role leading the charge against Romney’s nomination may offer a preview. The president-elect himself remains appreciative of her loyalty and communications skills, leading several sources close to the transition to conclude that she may take the helm of a big-money independent vehicle Trump allies are working to form. That perch would enable her to act as a sort of outside enforcer who can aggressively take on politically tricky causes for Trump without muddying the president’s official operation.
Such a role would allow her to remain in the New York City area, where she and her husband, the attorney George Conway, are raising young children, and could allow her to retain other clients through her polling firm.
The firm, The Polling Company, cashed in on its affiliation with Trump, and the Trump-backing Mercer family. Its patriarch, the hedge fund tycoon Robert Mercer, donated $15.5 million to a super PAC that backed Ted Cruz and then later switched its allegiance to Trump. The PAC paid $952,000 to The Polling Company, which also was paid $673,000 by Trump’s presidential campaign.
And Mercer’s daughter Rebekah Mercer – who controls the family’s political portfolio, sits on the Trump transition team executive committee and is expected to have a hand in Trump’s political operation — counts Conway as among her closest advisers, according to two Mercer family associates. That counts for a lot with Trump, said the associates.
Trump and Romney, meanwhile, are set to dine together Tuesday evening — a meeting that, one Trump aide said, would help the president-elect reach a conclusion about whether to offer him the job. Pence has told associates that a decision is expected soon — perhaps as early as this week.