Newt, Trump’s Inconvenient Truth-Teller
January 8, 2017
He has dismissed a Trump business decision as “weird.” He openly fretted that the Trump team might “lose their nerve.” And he likened Donald Trump to an aggressive bear from the movie “The Revenant”: if provoked, “he will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”
Newt Gingrich has been something of an unorthodox surrogate for the president-elect, blithely serving up a potent, public mix of irreverence and admiration for Trump on Sunday talk shows and on Twitter, at think tanks and through e-books.
Gingrich, an informal adviser to Trump who says he speaks with the president-elect about once a week, has emerged as one of the few surrogates openly willing to flout the Trump transition party line — even when it ends up getting him in trouble. But being able to speak unconstrained, both to and about the incoming administration, is an essential part of Gingrich’s role as he sees it, he said in a recent interview.
“I’m a private citizen, that’s the whole point,” he said, when asked why he feels empowered to speak so freely. “If they decide I’m right, they will do it because they think it’s right.”
He plans to keep up that running — and informal — dispensation of advice after Trump takes the White House later this month, weighing in periodically, and directly, with big-picture thoughts on government reform and probably, in the process, some smaller-ball thoughts on Trump’s unconventional approach to the presidency.
“Almost nobody thinks strategically about the federal system,” Gingrich said. “But I’m trying to think about, how do we so effectively serve the American people that in 2025, we’re swearing in the next Republican president, Senate and House because we’ve done our job. I know it’s different. It doesn’t fit anyone’s normal boxes.”
Offering that advice from the outside, he added, offers “a flexibility of focus.”
It has also allowed him a flexibility of rhetoric that sometimes strays far from the transition talking points. For example, he tweeted harshly about Russia last month, just a few days before Trump took to Twitter to lavish praise on Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And when he was asked last Sunday about his biggest fear for the Trump presidency, Gingrich replied, without hesitation, “that they will lose their nerve.”
“I’m worried when they realize how big the problem is, they decide they’ll do the best they can and give in,” he said in an interview with ABC, noting pressures from the left he expects the new White House to face.
“He doesn’t want an administration job, and so when you don’t have that pressure, it’s a totally different thing,” explained Rick Tyler, who served as a longtime top aide to Gingrich. “When people can speak freely, and then all of a sudden have the prospect of getting a job in the administration changes your tune — he’s not subject to that.”
So far, he’s taken that approach with few apparent repercussions — except for an awkward kerfuffle over the holidays involving whether or not Trump would stay true to his campaign pledge to “drain the swamp.”
In an interview with NPR late last month, Gingrich said of Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric: “I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore.”
Apparently, that wasn’t the case, and Trump himself made that clear. In a phone call with Gingrich, Trump “raised it,” Gingrich said, and indicated he was in fact not through with the campaign slogan. Gingrich promised to clarify, and the morning after the initial incident, he was up with a Facebook video proclaiming, “I made a big boo-boo. I talked this morning with President-elect Donald Trump and he reminded me, he likes draining the swamp, I mischaracterized it the other day.” Trump also took to Twitter to issue a correction.
In the interview with POLITICO, Gingrich was unfazed.
“I called him to talk about something else, he raised it, I said I would do it,” Gingrich said about his public mea culpa.
Asked about Gingrich’s involvement, Jason Miller, the Trump transition’s communications director, noted that the former speaker is a member of the transition executive board and added that he’s been engaged in supportive outside activity, pointing, for example, to Gingrich’s op-eds on Trump’s behalf.
Much of that public action from Gingrich — a onetime history professor — has centered on explaining Trump. He delivered a speech at National Defense University last month, titled “Trumpism explained,” in which he noted that in the spring he will publish “Understanding Trump,” following his e-book, “Electing Trump.” In public remarks, Gingrich is respectful as he marvels at the Trump phenomenon, calling the incoming president a “potentially transcendent figure.”
Privately, he is regularly in touch with Trump and members of Trump’s transition team, and he expects to continue that relationship of offering informal advice going forward. For Gingrich, it’s not a new role. The longtime Republican eminence and former presidential candidate has plenty of experience advising officeholders from the outside.
Mike Pence, the vice president-elect and a former congressman, served in leadership on the Hill and was at that time in touch with Gingrich, who had left Congress, Tyler said.
“He’d ask advice, how do you manage this latest issue, are we winning, losing, what can we do, who can we call?” Tyler recalled.
And during the George W. Bush administration, Gingrich kept up a running dialogue with officials like then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. Interviews with former aides to both ex-officials paint a picture of Gingrich as a big-thinking outside counsel, often in touch through meetings and memos. Gingrich himself cited his experience with those two men, suggesting that his role with Trump would be similar.
“Newt amounted to an outside one-man think tank in the Rumsfeld Pentagon. He’d send in memos and ideas with astonishing speed,” said Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld’s former chief of staff. “They’d deal with everything from modernizing conventional forces to counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rumsfeld found his advice and outside perspective indispensable.”
Gingrich took a similar approach to advising on health care issues. He and Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin, got to know each other through the welfare reform efforts of the 1990s, said Scott Whitaker, who went on to serve as Thompson’s chief of staff at HHS. They kept up the relationship when Thompson was in the administration, with Gingrich often popping in to discuss big ideas.
“He would come in to see the secretary periodically and share his thoughts and issues on broad health care reform,” Whitaker said. “I would bounce ideas off of him, using him as an adviser, a sounding board on things as well … From the perspective of serving in the administration, it’s nice to have people like that to bounce ideas off of, both on policy and strategy as well.”
Added Bob Wood, another Thompson chief of staff: “He certainly was … along with others, a kind of kitchen cabinet adviser to Secretary Thompson.”
His communications to, and ultimately about, the Bush administration, however, were not always appreciated. Gingrich morphed into a critic of the way the Iraq War was being conducted as early as 2003, raising hackles among some Bush allies at the time when he publicly and repeatedly claimed that the conduct of the war had gone “off a cliff.”
“If he disagrees with it,” Tyler said, “he’ll tell you he disagrees.”
Tyler went on to add, “He won’t hold back.”