Zach Gibson / Getty Images
President Trump isn’t complaining publicly about the other former White House official who’s been quoted making provocative observations in a forthcoming book — in fact, prominent Trump allies are publicly standing by Katie Walsh, the former White House deputy chief of staff.
A Thursday report from Axios had Trump administration officials debating whether Walsh should be fired from a nonprofit advocacy group that operates with Trump’s blessing after a book excerpt quoted her as characterizing the president as an indecisive “child.” But several top-ranking officials with the nonprofit, America First Policies, quickly came to Walsh’s defense and made clear she is in no danger of losing her job as a senior adviser, a sign of how well Walsh has navigated the tricky politics of 2018.
“As the chairman of the board of America First and a longtime friend of the Trump family, I say with the utmost confidence that Katie Walsh’s work ethic, loyalty, and commitment to the president are incomparable,” Tommy Hicks Jr., a Trump fundraiser, said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. “We are proud to have her on the team at America First.”
Brian O. Walsh, the president of America First Policies (and no relation to Katie Walsh), also was unequivocal in his support for her. “Katie Walsh is a political professional who has navigated the DC Swamp with skill and grace and worked tirelessly to help launch our new president and his administration on a path to success,” he said. “She is a pivotal part of our team at America First, and there has been no discussion about any change in her role.”
Walsh has denied making some of the comments the book attributes to her.
“It is the honor of my lifetime to work for President Trump, as I have on his campaign, during the transition, in his White House and continue to do so every day because I believe in the president and I believe in his leadership,” Walsh told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. “I look forward to when we can get back to talking about the stunning economic comeback our country is experiencing because of the tremendous vision of President Trump.”
The response is starkly different from the fire trained on Steve Bannon: His criticism of Trump in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has burned bridges at a White House where he once served as chief strategist and possibly within the populist Republican political movement that he sees as his creation. On Thursday, influential Republican donor Rebekah Mercer publicly said that she does not support his “recent actions and statements.” Meanwhile, the Breitbart board is reportedly considering taking some action regarding Bannon, the right-wing news site’s executive chairman.
Brian Walsh’s point about “skill and grace” helps explain why Walsh appears to be on safe ground while Trump uses official White House statements to declare that Bannon has “lost his mind.” With her Republican National Committee background and subsequent assimilation into the political organization built from the remnants of Trump’s anti-establishment campaign, Walsh has friends — and business interests — in all corners of today’s GOP. That’s not the easiest of feats in a party fractured by Trumpism.
A St. Louis native, Walsh had a traditional upbringing in national Republican politics. She was a regional fundraising director for John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and then moved on to roles with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the RNC, where during the 2016 cycle she served as chief of staff under then-chair Reince Priebus. The RNC’s data operation played a substantial role in Trump’s victory and put Walsh in close contact with two of Trump’s top advisers: son-in-law Jared Kushner and digital director Brad Parscale.
Walsh followed Priebus to the White House, where she became his deputy chief of staff. But she lasted only two months. Some viewed Walsh’s departure as symptomatic of a West Wing shakeup following the collapse of a health care bill. Priebus, who would last only a few more months himself, sent Walsh to help turn around America First, which had been criticized for not providing enough advertising support for Trump during the administration’s early days.
“No one can fix this problem better than Katie Walsh,” Priebus said at the time.
After Walsh joined, America First became more more visible, particularly on health care messaging and on behalf of special election candidates Trump supported last year. The nonprofit, which is not required to disclose its donors, has counted several core Trump allies among its team of advisers, including Parscale, who remains close with Walsh.
Walsh also returned to the RNC as a senior adviser for data. She’s not on the payroll, but the party paid her consulting firm, the Laymont Group, $135,000 last year, according to Federal Election Commission filings. And Walsh’s husband, Mike Shields, has a new consulting firm that worked extensively with one of those special election candidates — Trump-endorsed Karen Handel in Georgia — and the National Republican Congressional Committee last year.
“Katie has worked tirelessly for the party and is a valuable asset to the RNC as we head into the midterm elections,” RNC spokesperson Ryan Mahoney said Thursday.
The perception among several GOP sources who spoke with BuzzFeed News is that Walsh has thrived financially and professionally in the Trump era without attaching herself too firmly to Trump’s brand. It’s a notion that’s undermined a bit by her brief White House tenure and prominent role with the main outside group responsible for promoting Trump’s agenda.
But excerpts from Wolff’s book suggest Walsh was no Trump acolyte. Walsh comes off as the type of operative you’d expect to find in a typical Republican White House, thrown into a White House that was anything but — and as someone who bailed out of the job early because she had had enough. Wolff portrays her sympathetically, as a frustrated aide struggling with the competing interests of Priebus, Bannon, and Kushner, and with the whims of Trump. The killer quote attributed to Walsh compares managing Trump to “trying to figure out what a child wants.”
Elsewhere in the book, Walsh is quoted saying that Trump “fundamentally wants to be liked. He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly that it’s always … everything is a struggle for him.”
According to Wolff, Walsh was an equal-opportunity critic in her quest to achieve White House order, fuming about advisers of all ideologies. She is quoted as disapproving of “Bannon’s Breitbart shenanigans”; observing that getting Gary Cohn “to take a position on something is like nailing butterflies to the wall”; and predicting that Dina Powell “will expose herself as being totally incompetent.” As for Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump: “If they tell [the president] the whales need to be saved, he’s basically for it,” Walsh reportedly said.
Walsh has denied making the “what a child wants” comment and told Jon Ward of Yahoo News that Wolff misattributed some Bannon quotes to her. Walsh declined to respond Thursday when asked by BuzzFeed News if she denied giving any of the other quotes attributed to her.
The comments, which have not gotten as much attention as Bannon’s assertion that a 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower was “treasonous,” nonetheless caused a stir among GOP operatives. Some doubted Walsh would say such things on the record. Others doubted she could keep her place in the Trump orbit if she can’t convincingly prove that she didn’t.