Counselor to the President
Kellyanne Conway is a longtime GOP pollster who now serves as a White House counselor to President Donald Trump.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 25, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with President Trump [coming] to town, inaugurated. Speaker of the House [Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) and [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.) are wondering what do we have here? We have a unified government, but do we have a pen, or do we have somebody who has his own agenda [coming] to town? At the very, very beginning, what did he come to town with? Was he coming just to be the pen? Was there more to it than that? Help us understand the way he viewed his relationship with Congress at the beginning.
Literally from the moment that Donald Trump was inaugurated 45th president of the United States, he started to work very closely with Congress, with Speaker Ryan, with Leader McConnell, with the chairmen of the relevant committees on repealing and replacing Obamacare, on what is now a historic and truly consequential transformative middle-class tax cut, the regulatory relief. They started that even during transition, after the president was first elected and before he was inaugurated. That work continued after he occupied the Oval Office for the first time.
At the same time, this president set out to work very quickly with his pen to issue a number of executive orders in his first couple days, if not first couple weeks. In short order, he reinstated Mexico City Policy. He restored the health care benefits for many coal miners that came to the White House probably in early February or so in their gear, some of them very moved and very tearful about getting those health care benefits back.
The president also took us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by way of executive order in his first couple of weeks because he believes in free and fair trade, but he has said on the campaign trail and says now as president that he wants trade deals to benefit Americans and the American workers and not be so imbalanced against us. He believes in fair, free but reciprocal trade.
He also opened up the Keystone and the Dakota Access Pipelines, and this was very important, too. All those happened through executive order, but at the same time, he was working through the legislative process with the leaders and the relevant parties in Congress.
Would he think of health care, the Obama repeal–and-replace as his idea or Speaker Ryan’s idea? I mean, we’ve talked to everybody on that other side, and they all say they had to do it; they felt they had to do Obama[care]—I would assume he wanted to do infrastructure first. But tell me how it actually happened that Obamacare went first.
Repealing and replacing Obamacare had become a major principle of the Republican Party. The members of Congress who were here when President Trump arrived had all, in part, won their elections based on that commitment to indeed repeal and replace Obamacare. They had voted on it, in some cases, dozens of times, so we knew very clearly where they stood on that issue as a party, as a body, as a governing body.
Donald Trump, the candidate, also ran very strongly on repealing and replacing Obamacare, and he would take it a few steps further. He would say out on the stump, as he says now as president, he believes that we should have associated health plans so that folks can buy insurance across state lines the way you and I can buy our auto insurance. He believes in helping others share the risk, having risk pools where you share the risk and share the cost if you’re a small-business owner or self-employed. He believes in giving the states more control by block granting Medicaid, for example.
This president had a plan, he supported a plan that would have wildly expanded health savings accounts, which allow the individual more control over his or her health care spending. And he also, through his tax plan, a year after committing to repeal and replacing Obamacare, this president made good, in part, on that commitment by repealing the individual mandate in Obamacare through the tax plan.
That really is the heart of Obamacare, because the idea behind the individual mandate originally was that we would get the young and healthy to come to the exchanges through Obamacare and start to buy government-run insurance. That didn’t happen. The young and healthy were also smart, and they decided they didn’t want a bad deal like that.
So the insurers fled from the exchanges; premiums increased; choice, access and quality were reduced; and Americans got very frustrated. As for whose idea it was to repeal and replace Obamacare, that is something that had become a bedrock principle of the Republican Party that had won the House, the Senate and majority of governorships and many state legislatures and indeed the presidency.
Was he surprised, let’s say on the 21st of January, that there wasn’t a bill basically waiting on his desk? I mean, for seven years these guys have been complaining. They were in session before he was inaugurated. I could imagine that Donald Trump, who promised, right, “We’re going to get at this,” would be slightly disappointed out of the starting gate at least that it wasn’t there, or did he not really expect it?
Well, there were a number of bills that were under discussion and indeed under construction, if you will. There are members of Congress who agree with what you just put forth, which is we had all this time to get a bill together; perhaps he should have. But that happened in quick order. But first, the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare by the end of March when the bill was ultimately pulled, that really was a matter of different contingencies within the Republican Congress not feeling that they had been consulted or included in the process. That changed the second time around, and indeed the House did vote successfully to repeal and replace Obamacare, and their bill is for all to see. It fell short in the Senate at the last minute.
But the House did its job second time around, and in much shorter fashion than President Obama himself was able to pass Obamacare. That took 16 months.
Absolutely. When Ryan comes up to the White House on that Friday afternoon to pull the bill, are you around when that happened?
I was there. I was in the Oval Office when he arrived.
Tell me the story.
It was around noon.
What happens? How is he? What is the president’s reaction? I mean, ultimatums had been issued. This was the moment, and he’d been—I’m watching the president in stock footage going: “Let’s go, you guys. You promised Easter, right? And now here we are.” At that moment, please take me in the room and tell me what that was like.
Well, I would never divulge any confidential conversations, but I will tell you that leading up to the Friday when the bill was pulled, Friday, March 24, when the first health care repeal-and-replace bill was pulled from a vote, the president had been working the phones and working the members and entertaining different ideas and hosting different meetings at the White House.
For example, the day before, the president had met with both the Freedom Caucus, the more conservative members, and had met with the so-called Tuesday Group. Those are your more moderate members. But the president met with both of them. The day before that, the vice president had met with the Freedom Caucus. I sat in all three of the meetings that I just mentioned to you, and it became very apparent that the split of opinion was not on whether to repeal and replace Obamacare, but how, and with which mechanism and which bill.
I think Washington still has not fully adapted to and assimilated the presidency of Donald J. Trump, because he is a non-politician who came to Washington owing no one anything, and this is a town that likes to just sort of button it up and go through the process, and if it fails, you shrug your shoulders. You’ll probably get re-elected anyway.
Donald Trump is a man of action. He’s a builder. So the idea that folks who had promised to do something for seven years and he had been here for less than seven weeks, practically, the idea that that couldn’t get done was really a moment of “How does this happen?” But eventually, it did get done.
But how was Ryan in that moment, Miss Conway? How is he when he walks in there? Is he chagrined? Is he embarrassed?
Speaker Ryan was very candid and very forthright. He said: “We’re going to pull the bill. We don’t have the votes.” I think that’s obviously public record. But he said that, and then they went into lunch. They had some lunch in the presidential dining room, discussed it some more, and it became apparent that there were members of the Tuesday Group who couldn’t support it for some reasons. There were members of the Freedom Caucus who couldn’t support it for some reason.
But I think Speaker Ryan and President Trump and the rest of us realized something positive out of a negative, and it’s this: The Republican Party, Donald Trump’s Republican Party, is much more complex and much more diverse in its geographic locations that are represented in Congress and its ideological moorings. It’s a much more diverse group that thinks differently about a core issue like health care than perhaps it has been in the past, or certainly than perhaps a minority Republican Party before it took the majority had seen itself.
… When you have about 23 or 24 Republican members of Congress representing districts that Hillary Clinton carried in the presidential race, they had very different concerns than, say, Republican members in districts that they won by 30 points and Donald Trump won by 32 points, for example.
But that’s a positive sign of growing pains for a majority party that is trying to assimilate many different viewpoints and different members and perspectives. But it all worked out in the House later on, second bite of the apple. It just fell short in the Senate. But this is a president who won’t give up on it, either. This president, to this moment, remains committed to delivering quality, affordable, accessible health care and health insurance to upward of 20 or 30 million Americans who post-Obamacare don’t have it.
In what way were the House people unprepared for Donald Trump, the CEO, to come in as president of the United States and deal with it?
The answer—was Washington prepared? Washington has never seen the likes of Donald Trump. Even those outside-of-Washington presidents—I’m sorry. It is Washington in the main that was unprepared for President Donald J. Trump. Why? He beat the establishment of two parties—not just one, but two. He was told again and again, as were his supporters: “You can’t win. You can’t prevail. Don’t do this. Why are you doing this? Go back to building buildings. You can’t win. There’s not support for you there, and she can’t lose.”
Having been told that, I think most in Washington had convinced themselves that Donald Trump could never be elected, so they weren’t prepared for his ascendancy to the presidency. Even outsider candidates like Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, who came to Washington with their first job in Washington, first big job in Washington being president of the United States, even they had been governors of their respective states, Reagan in California, Carter in Georgia. They still had run a race with their name on the ballot. They still had been a chief executive in the public sector.
Donald Trump is the first person to never have any political or military experience to become president. He’s ready for the job, but Washington was not quite ready for him.
How does that make him different, I mean in the sort of daily sense, dealing with this legislature?
It’s nothing short of a blessing and a privilege to work in the West Wing for this president and this vice president. But it also is such a unique vantage point to have a ringside seat to history while history’s being made by someone who came to shake up and change Washington, not to learn to conform to it. That is and remains and will continue to be the essence of President Donald John Trump. He is someone who is attempting to transform to Washington in the way that makes it more responsive to the people that have elected him and the others who are here. In a full-fledged democracy, we must truly have government by the people, for the people, and we don’t have that if the special interests, if the wealthy and the well-connected are doing the best. And that’s what happened before he got here.
And of course the process that he walks in and inherits, even with his own party in power. Let’s take the skinny bill, moving it. He’s not really allowed to be very involved. They kind of close the doors, McConnell closes the doors, a bill gets written and [Sen.] John McCain (R-Ariz.) walks in and gives it the thumbs down. His response to McCain’s thumbs down?
Well, there was great surprise. We hadn’t anticipated that. We were provided a list of a few senators who may or may not be onboard with that particular bill, which you referred to as the skinny bill correctly. The president had spoken with those senators over time, as had our legislative affairs team, [as had] certainly our vice president, Mike Pence, who himself had been in Congress for 12 years, had been governor of Indiana for four and knows the process and has great respect on Capitol Hill.
So we were prepared for those members who were perhaps a little bit more on the fence and what were their concerns. I’ll give you a great example: that in the Senate bill that did not get a vote, there was $45 billion additional spending for opioids and that came in direct response to a number of senators who said we could use more money for what we in the administration refer to as the crisis next door. That ended up in the Senate bill that did not get a vote.
The reason I mention that is it’s a great example of the president leaning all the way in and being fully involved and invested in the process by which to get a bill he will sign onto his desk. At the same time, as we just witnessed during the government shutdown, as we saw during tax cuts, as we will see for infrastructure, and certainly as we saw through both iterations of the health care legislative process, the Constitution demands that we have three branches that are equal and separate, and the separate is just as important as the equal part. The president knows that he executes the laws but that the Congress makes them, and even though he’s been fully involved and invested, it is Congress who at some point has to shut the doors, roll up their sleeves and get to a bill that they put onto his desk.
You saw that I think in sharpest relief during the government shutdown where some people said: “Where is the president? Why isn’t he leading?” He was leading by allowing the Congress to try to work out the legislative process on a spending bill. This was a spending bill. This was a CRA spending bill, a continuing resolution spending bill. The president was prepared to sign it when it passed, and indeed he did.
This is the thing I think most people do not understand, is the extent to which the president comes in and something like health care fails, skinny health care fails. After all these months, after all this work, nothing else has actually happened. He’s sitting over there doing what he can do, but of course, there’s not much he can do. The level of disappointment from him must have been profound at that moment.
Well, the president was disappointed that health care failed, but he also remains resolute that there are other things that he can do—
Sure, but what about the process?
—by himself and has done, by the way. He signed an executive order several months ago after the bill did not pass, and it was something that talked about associated health plans, talked about being able to buy insurance across state lines. Again, the president is doing what he can with his pen or in concert with the governors. Although through his tax bill and having repealed the Obamacare individual mandate through the tax bill, he’s still doing what he can, because Donald Trump is a builder, and he is a negotiator and a dealmaker.
What does that mean as president and in Washington? What it means is when you are a builder, you must have a finished product. You must deliver a tangible.
You can’t just study it and have a commission or a markup or kick it down the road. People expect you to build the building, and that is why you line up the financing, you line up the construction crews, you get the permits that you need and all of the environmental permits that you need, and you work literally brick by brick, floor by floor, to build the building.
That’s why this president is bent on rebuilding America, whether it’s through its roads and bridges and reducing its permitting process by committing more than $1 trillion into infrastructure, or whether it’s by improving access to quality, affordable health care and health insurance which Americans who were lied to that they can keep their doctor, keep their plan are still struggling to find that kind of health care; whether it’s in rebuilding a competitive global economy here in our country, where those jobs and the trillions of dollars of wealth that are parked legally overseas come back to this country.
You’ve seen the unbelievable, historic, eye-poppingly positive and simply buoyant—the buoyancy in the economy now with all these private employers coming forward and saying: “Here’s your bonus. Here’s your raise. Here are capital investments in our local communities, in education money for our employees, in skills training for our employees.” You’ve got Apple saying, “Here’s 20,000 new jobs in America,” something the president actually promised on the campaign trail. He said, “I won’t consider being a successful president until Apple starts building some plants here and not just abroad.”
But let’s go back—
And boom, here they are.
Let’s go back if we can just to the narrative arc of what actually happened during the year just so that I have you in the film saying those things, too. He didn’t get the building with health care. He’s the chief architect and the chief builder. He goes toe to toe through tweets and other things and a phone call with Leader McConnell. Why, how, what happens? What’s the result? What does he think about this? Give me a real sense of what that struggle is about with him, because he’s at it with these guys.
The president has forged a very positive and productive working relationship with Leader McConnell, with Speaker Ryan and a number of the different chairmen for the relevant committees. I think most recently, the whole world saw this president is trying to work with Democrats across the aisle also.
He held forth for one hour live, raw, real footage that people never get to see inside the Cabinet Room, where the president held forth in the issue of immigration with a bicameral, bipartisan collection of men and women from the Senate and the House. That’s all positive for the country, and that is the kind of transparency and accountability and progress, really forward motion in government that this country logically expects.
On the matter of health care not passing, of course the president and all of us were disappointed—most disappointed for those millions of Americans who still don’t have health care—
—who lost what they had that they actually liked. Out on the campaign trail, the president heard from so many people coming up to him and saying, “I lost my health care,” “I lost my job,” “I lost my wages,” “I lost my benefits,” or, “I’m working two jobs now, but just 23 hours per job. Got to switch the uniform out because those two employers don’t want to meet the minimum requirement hours that would compel them to provide me the worker health care. So I have two jobs, two different uniforms, two different locations, [more] time away from the kids as a single mom and still no health care for them. This has to change.”
He, the president, agrees, and he’s resolved to change it. So when you are a builder, you rely upon other people help you build that building, and especially if they have committed to building it in the past. But this positive, productive relationship is directly—with Ryan and McConnell and the others—is directly responsible for a historic tax cut that—
Sure. But let’s get—
—that passed on party lines, unfortunately. It should have been bipartisan, and I believe the Democrats will wonder why they did not vote for something that is so stimulative to the economy. Even many self-avowed Democratic and liberal CEOs are saying because of the Trump tax cut, we’re now investing in our workforce and our workplace.
Let me be clear. I’m trying to tell a story across an arc. You’re my eyewitness inside a lot of these things. We’ll get to the tax cut, but right now we’re—
And the only reason I got there is because of the individual mandate. I think eventually, he—eventually the president would tell you that by December, he had gutted—I think he said struck at the heart of Obamacare by repealing the individual mandate.
He sure did. But at this moment which is, whenever this is, July 27, John McCain has dropped the thumb. There we are. He didn’t get the building built. All I was really trying to get was a sense of [was] how that—because now the press, everybody’s on him. I’ve got all these reports of all these people on him. The 100 days are up; the four-month period is up. How is that for him? What is that? Because this is a man of action, as you say. How does he handle that?
Well, the president says we’re now moving on to tax cuts as we have been, and we will—“I remain pen in hand ready to sign into law any meaningful repeal-and-replace bill. If the Congress wants to go back and do it again, I’m ready. I’ll make it the law.” But until then, successful businessmen also realize that you don’t just do one thing at a time. He had been working on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act for quite a while. He’d been out there talking about it out on the stump. He had [this] certainly as a crown jewel of his overall economic plan, which include repealing and replacing of the Obamacare, taxes, but also reducing the overburdensome regulatory state, which he has done masterfully.
It also includes unleashing energy, American energy. It includes getting us out of bad trade deals that are nonreciprocal and imbalanced against the United States and her workers. But the crown jewel of that is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. So the president then moved into that a little bit more deeply and actively all the while saying—and he would say it right now—that “I’m ready to sign into law a meaningful repeal-and-replace bill, something that improves health care and access to health insurance in this country.”
Can we talk about Charlottesville? What happened?
Well, the president said many times, even though it gets no coverage, that he denounces racism. He said during the whole Charlottesville incident, the time in and around that, that he expressed grief and sympathy and outrage at the death of the woman who lost her life and to her family. He also denounced racism; he denounced hatred and bigotry and violence. He said it several times beginning on Aug. 12, and he continued to say that.
But some of the Republicans, certainly in the Senate and other places, [Sen. Jeff] Flake (R-Ariz.) and others, pushed back saying, “Come on, make a great, strong statement.” It became inside the party now a thing. We’ve talked to lots of people, and they say this was the moment where for some in the party, the establishment Republicans, like Flake, [they realized]: “I’m not. This guy is not my guy. This is not our president.”
So Sen. Flake is not a Republican who didn’t just vote for Donald Trump’s tax cut? He did just vote for his nominee to the Health and Human Services Cabinet department and his DHS [Department of Homeland Security] secretary. He did. And he’s still a Republican. I know he is a big critic of the president. I do want to thank you and PBS for referring to Sen. Flake as an establishment Republican. Some of us would agree, even though he was one of Mike Pence’s best friends when they served in the Congress together and was a Club for Growth conservative when he started out.
At the same time, we appreciate Sen. Flake’s votes on true Republican ideals like repealing and replacing Obamacare, like the jobs and taxes.
What’s up with him?
You’d have to ask Sen. Flake that.
Well, I did, but—
But I did note that—I noticed that he’s now retiring, so he will not run for re-election in 2018. President Trump will still be here, and the fact that is—again, we appreciate that Sen. Flake votes with the president on—votes in favor of many of the president’s signature pieces of legislation like the Jobs Act, like the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and like for his nominees to the Cabinet and to the federal judiciary. That’s very positive.
I know Sen. Flake gave a speech last week. I think one or two senators were there, didn’t get much attention. Probably didn’t get the attention he intended.
So they’re giving you the windup. Let me ask you this question about the tax bill. One of the things we’re assessing is when is the Republican Party Donald Trump’s Republican Party. I know a lot of people would say at the very beginning when he won the presidency, but the manifestation of it, when [Sen.] Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is standing there—that photograph in the back of the White House is magnificent, everybody all lined up; [it’s] going to be a big part of this film. Is that the moment that Donald Trump really has—because there’s been a lot of contentious stuff along the way, which we’ll report. But at that moment, Dec. 20, 2017, effectively the end of his first year, there’s Donald Trump receiving the praise of Orrin Hatch and many others. Would you think, would he think, that’s the moment that the Republican Party is his, especially because people like [Sen. Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.) and Flake have announced they’re leaving? That sort of side of the Republican Party is leaving. Is it his party then?
Well, whether to stay or to leave your job in the United States Senate is a very personal one and is based on many different factors, so let’s not confuse causation with coincidence or cofactors. In fact, shortly after Sen. Hatch referred to President Trump as the best president in his lifetime, and he served in the United States Senate for over 40 years, Sen. Hatch announced his retirement. Now, someone like Sen. Hatch is retiring to allow a new senator, a new generation of senators, to continue the work he’s done, which to hear him say it has now been on behalf of the most consequential or best president that he’s ever served under.
People leave for all different kinds of reasons, and I don’t want to conflate the two. After Sen. Corker was critical of the president, he, too, has voted for a number of the measures, a number of the nominees that are the president’s. And Sen. Corker after that, very recently got on Air Force One and flew to Tennessee with the president. So I just want to make sure that the full story is told so that we don’t—
You got it.
—we don’t allow folks to cherry-pick their own moments.
Why do they vote for those things if they then—on one hand, it’s “adult day care” at the White House; on the other hand, you’re voting along with it. This isn’t—
It is not an adult day care at the White House.
I know, but that’s what he said, right?
And he’s mistaken. With all due respect to Sen. Corker, who I’ve always had a good working relationship with and I respect his service to the good people of Tennessee and his great success in the private sector before he ran for office, the fact is that Sen. Corker represents a state in Tennessee that doesn’t even have a state income tax. His folks want lower taxes. They expect to not be overly burdened by a tax and regulatory state that’s out of control.
And he’s supportive of those measures. But it took this president to enact that into law, to sign the law. And as the president said very recently in the East Room to a couple hundred mayors or so, he said to them: “Even we didn’t anticipate how much investment, how many raises, how much pay raises, how many companies would voluntarily increase their minimum wage to $15 or $18 an hour, how many then would provide things like maternity leave or day care centers, or, you know, all these things that the liberals and the Democratic Party have said the government must provide this.”
It turns out that if you just stimulate the economy and return to corporate America and to the job seekers and jobholders themselves more of the money, they have a flexibility and a freedom to do the right thing, and they are. To have reduced that corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent has led to literally a flood of prosperity and economic investments in our nation’s workplaces and workforces by many of those same CEOs who have been critical of the president.
And that’s all right, because we don’t look at this. If you work in the Trump White House, indeed if you’re successful in any administration, you ought to stop looking at politics and governance through the lens of an individual, through the lens of the person and not the principles, through the lens of politics and not policy. We’re there because we’re governing. It’s policy, not politics. It’s principles, not personalities. And senators like Bob Corker see that and vote according to the same good Republican free-market democratic principles that helped to elect both he to the Senate in the state of Tennessee and Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
So before you go, just please give me a statement I can use over that picture of everybody at the White House signing—what is the meaning of that to the Trump presidency and the Republican Party?
Dec. 20 showed to the country what unified government looks like. My prediction is the Democrats will soon be running their campaigns on the value of “divided government” of checks and balances on Donald Trump’s White House, on Donald Trump the president, on his administration; that we need divided government to make sure bad things don’t happen. That argument is not going to be as successful as it was against President Clinton in 1994 and President Obama in 2010 and 2014. Why? Because the Republicans just showed America on Dec. 20 with that picture what unified government looks like, regrettably without a single Democratic vote, because none of them can see past petty partisan, peevish politics to go and give a tax break to their job creators and their jobholders in their own states to vote for this tax bill. Republicans passed it all on their own in the House, the Senate and the White House.
The value of unified government is why you just got the $1,000 bonus, is why if you are one of the very lucky 20,000 in this country to get an Apple job that’s coming your way. If you are one of the lucky people who works for Walmart or Wells Fargo or Starbucks or Disney and you’re getting money in your pocket and also capital corporate investments that also benefit you as a direct result of unified government, Republican unified government, giving you that tax cut, you know who’s there for you.
I think it’s going to be very difficult now for Democrats, even though all the trends favor parties out of power, and our eyes are wide open to that. It’s going to be more difficult for them to run on the value of divided government and checks and balances when that picture you just referenced from Dec. 20 tells the tale of unified government in action and what it means to your pocketbook.
It’s not just wallpapering over of civil war that’s happening inside the party?
It’s real money for people. This is the paycheck president, and the Republicans in the House and Senate also earned the right to say: “When I had a chance to give you, the hardworking men and women of my state a tax break, reduce the bracket you pay, double the childcare tax credit, repeal the individual mandate, which is the largest and most unfair tax of all, perhaps, for many Americans, and then also, after 40 years of trying and failing, open up responsible development of our own resources in Alaska through ANWAR, when I had a chance to do that, I did that. I voted yes, and yes means extra money in your pocket.”