Politics & Government

Republican acting whip argues Trump is better behind closed doors

In this photo taken Aug. 5, 2013, Rep. Patrick McHenry speaks to a full house during a town hall meeting in Lincolnton, N.C.
In this photo taken Aug. 5, 2013, Rep. Patrick McHenry speaks to a full house during a town hall meeting in Lincolnton, N.C. AP

Donald Trump has attacked his own party. He has threatened to use military force against Venezuela. He has thanked Russia for punishing American diplomats.

And this chaotic White House is watching Trump’s poll numbers sink.

But U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry is trying to convince North Carolina voters that the public Trump they see on television and on Twitter is not the real Trump.

“How he operates in small meetings is very different from how he participates in mass rallies. If people saw more of the president at work, I think they would see the reason why he has been successful personally in terms of the Trump Organization. It would be reassuring to a lot of folks that are not supporters of the president in how he wrestles with decisions,” McHenry, the acting majority whip, told McClatchy this week.

“I’ve also gotten to see him adapt and change in his interaction with members of the House. He is learning and improving in those interactions and that’s a meaningful thing when you see someone in office grow and adapt and evolve and change. Those are the things I’ve been able to see and it is reassuring as an American and meaningful to me as a Republican.”

McHenry, whose job it is to know how House Republicans will vote on legislation, said Trump has helped move votes, including on the House’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The House passed the American Health Care Act on a vote of 217 to 213 in March, before the repeal effort collapsed in the Senate.

“He can read people very well. That’s a great gift that he has. When he’s given those opportunities, it makes a difference in terms of our vote counts in the House. It makes a difference for moving policy,” said McHenry, who is in his seventh term representing his southwestern North Carolina district.

McHenry, 41, was first asked about Trump’s abilities after a town hall meeting last week in Shelby. A constituent, who said he voted for McHenry and wanted to see him and House Speaker Paul Ryan usher in a new era of conservative governance, asked the congressman why he didn’t take a more forceful tone in denouncing some of Trump’s statements.

McHenry told the constituent that Ryan had spoken out forcefully numerous times when warranted against Trump. McHenry said many of the things Trump did were meant to “whip up” the media and that he was different behind the scenes.

“Those are the direct interactions I can give an opinion about, not responding to a tweet about someone else. It’s about my direct view into his actions in groups that I’m in with the president,” McHenry said in an interview this week.

“Also in terms of innovation and technology, which is one of (senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared) Kushner’s portfolio items, I’ve seen him interact, and he does have policy depth and he does have policy interest beyond what is publicly viewable.”

McHenry said he knows that sounds strange to many, especially given recent reports. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, questioned Trump’s “competence” and “stability” for the job. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, questioned Trump’s fitness for office. And reporters like CNN’s Brian Stelter and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame have questioned why members of the news media aren’t doing more to air concerns about Trump’s stability.

Trump, the first American president without previous government or military experience, stunned pundits and the establishment in both political parties with his political success. A billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star, Trump relied on huge rallies — and often free-wheeling speeches that contained controversial statements and hard-hitting jabs at rivals — to fuel his campaign.

“He didn’t build a real estate business of the type of sophistication he did by mass rallies. He did it in board rooms and working with people and wrestling with tough decisions, strategic decisions and seeing opportunities where other didn’t see it. He clearly sees opportunities where others don’t see it and responds in crisis in ways traditional politicians could never respond. It’s utterly confounding to people who pay attention to the political process and political pundits,” McHenry said.

“He ran an unconventional campaign and won a highly unconventional election. He certainly has his own approach.”

That approach has been under fire from many in government, especially as Trump’s approval rating has fallen into the 30s and his feuds have intensified with congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Near-constant staff changes at the White House have not projected an image of stability, either, but McHenry said John Kelly could have a positive impact as White House chief of staff – if Trump lets him.

“It’s his decision. He has advisers around him. Kelly’s doing a very good job as chief of staff. The benefits will accrue with time in having a more disciplined staff so the president can function as previous presidents have in decision making,” McHenry said. “It will be the president’s decision on whether or not he wants to take that tack, if that is something of interest to him.”

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC

Note: This story has been updated to correct McHenry’s age.