“Nothing’s done until it’s done, and that’s always been true in Trump world and this is yet another of many examples,” said a person close to the White House.
The DPC is a little-known but influential office within the White House. During Trump’s tenure, various White House power centers have vied over installing allies to lead the council. The latest jockeying came after Joe Grogan, who had worked closely with departed acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, recently announced he would leave his position.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, floated several people for the role, including both Lyons and Rollins. Newly installed chief of staff Mark Meadows floated his own name, Stephen Miller, an influential immigration policy aide. It was expected that the domestic policy chief would play a significant role in the president’s efforts to reopen the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After several days of deliberations, it appeared Kushner and Meadows selected had Lyons to serve as acting DPC director for the rest of Trump’s term, while continuing in his current role as White House staff secretary, a key official who manages document flow to the president.
POLITICO reported on May 6 that Lyons had been selected, citing four people familiar with the decision, including two White House officials. The next day, another White House official didn’t dispute the appointment and provided a comment.
“Derek is a loyal and highly respected member of the Trump White House who has worked to implement Donald Trump’s policy agenda for three and a half years as staff secretary,“ the official said May 7.
But the decision apparently wasn’t final. And the news of Lyons’ likely appointment frustrated some conservatives, given his former affiliation with Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Lyons, a lawyer and Harvard Law School grad, started his career as a law clerk to Brett Kavanaugh when the Supreme Court justice was still a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. He later worked on Capitol Hill.
But it was his time with Jeb Bush’s campaign that made some conservatives suspicious. His affiliation with Kushner also raised some eyebrows, given that Trump’s son-in-law has pushed for some more moderate policies, including business-friendly immigration changes that hardliners say are too lenient.
“This is not what #AmericaFirst voters signed up for,” tweeted conservative commentator Michelle Malkin May 6 using the hashtag #JaredKushnerIsNotMyPresident. Malkin described Lyons as someone who comes from Jeb Bush’s “Illegal Immigration Is An Act of Love” wing of the GOP.
“Trump has picked Derek Lyons as the head of the Domestic Policy Council…- he’s a former Jeb! Person,” tweeted Ryan Girdusky, a conservative writer and political consultant.
This past Friday, that White House official said Lyons was never officially offered the job. But others in the White House thought Lyons had the gig. They noted that on an internal White House deregulation policy call several days earlier, Rollins even congratulated Lyons on his reported new policy role, according to a White House official familiar with the call.
A same White House official said Meadows received praise internally about Lyons but some in the White House worried that criticism from influential conservative pundits, such as Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson of Fox News, would soon follow.
A senior White House official pushed back on conservative complaints about Lyons’ ideology, noting he has been directly involved in “crafting, finalizing and executing the staunchest border security measures and most rigorous immigration control measures that we have put in place.” Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who worked with Lyons in the White House during impeachment, called him “a true conservative” who has “an excellent relationship with the president.”
In a statement Friday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany praised Lyons.
“Derek Lyons is an invaluable member of the White House and a highly impressive and respected colleague,” she said. “He has been elevated to one of the highest titles in the White House, and for good reason.”
There was another problem that arose during deliberations: Meadows and Kushner had yet to have Trump sign off on Lyons’ appointment when the news broke, according to two White House officials.
The White House official said Lyons and Rollins were finalists for the job, but the job ultimately went to Rollins in part because she would be able to appear on television as part of “the public facing role” of DPC director.
“There was talk of [Lyons] doing both roles, but it was decided the roles shouldn’t be combined,” the official said.
By the end of this week, Rollins had been tapped to head the DPC in an acting capacity. The New York Times first reported Rollins’ appointment Thursday night. Rollins introduced herself as DPC director on at least two calls with White House staff Friday, according to two people. A formal announcement is expected Monday, according to the White House.
“Brooke is really Jared’s person. … I think that played a big part in it,” said one person close to the White House.
Rollins didn’t respond to a request for comment. Lyons had no comment.
After the White House settled on Rollins to lead the DPC, Lyons was elevated to the title of counselor, making him one of the closest advisers to the president alongside Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway, who have similar titles, although Conway is senior counselor. The move was seen internally by some as a face-saving measure and by others as a Kushner attempt to diminish Conway’s status.
Rollins also serves as director of the Office of American Innovation, a Kushner-launched office that handles various policy issues. Rollins and two others in that office, Ja’Ron Smith and Theo Wold, were similarly considered for the DPC job. All three worked with Kushner on criminal justice reform and his long-stalled push to overhaul the immigration system.
Rollins, Grogan said, is “a committed conservative, she’s a team player, she’s very smart, not just on policy but also on communications. I don’t know that there’s a better choice.”
Previously, Rollins served as president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank based in Austin partly funded by the Koch Brothers, and as a top aide to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who went on to become Trump’s first Energy secretary.
Kushner previously suggested Rollins for the DPC job in late 2018, before the job ultimately went to Grogan.
Rollins has more credibility with some conservatives than Lyons on a number of issues, such as fiscal policy. But not everyone was satisfied.
“Picking the former leader of a faux nonpartisan research institute funded by corporations and billionaires like the Koch brothers speaks for itself,” a conservative close to the White House said.
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.