Mark Meadows finds it’s not so easy being chief

In the White House, Meadows quickly learned to yield to the existing power structure rather than trying to commandeer it. That means essentially recognizing the West Wing is Jared Kushner’s domain, a third senior administration official joked.

Early on in his tenure, Meadows clashed with the president’s son-in-law by trying to prevent him from bringing to the president not-yet-fully-formed plans related to Covid-19, such as the idea that Google was developing a screening website that would tell Americans whether they should be tested for the virus.

Meadows also sought to exert his control early on by overseeing and approving all staff promotions, raises, presidential commissions and detailees to White House to make sure the chief’s office had a handle on personnel. That worked fine until Kushner complained and told Meadows his staff was off limits. Meadows eventually acquiesced to Kushner’s demands, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Kushner’s right-hand aide and Middle East envoy, Avi Berkowitz, saw his salary jump from 2019 to 2020 from $158,000 to $183,000, according to White House data, making him one of the highest-paid staffers on par with Meadows, Hope Hicks and Pat Cipollone, the White House’s top attorney.

Now, Meadows and Kushner huddle each morning along with a few other top senior staff. Worried about leaks, Meadows has reduced the number of large senior staff meetings to just once a week.

Clamping down on leaks was part of Meadows’ sales pitch to the president when he talked to him about the job. Recently, the chief of staff has been trying to investigate how key details from small Oval Office meetings have ended up in headlines so quickly. He’s also been alarmed by the intelligence leaks that Russians tried to pay Taliban fighters bounty money to kill Americans, along with the story that the president went down to the White House bunker on a night of particularly volatile protests in Washington D.C.

While senior White House officials praise Meadows’ work ethic and point to his role in negotiating the CARES package or keeping immigration front-and-center as examples of success, morale inside the White House remains remarkably low. With ongoing leak investigations, Trump slumping in the polls and the terrible headlines about the coronavirus, West Wing staffers feel demoralized.

Streams of staffers, from top aides to low-level ones, have left in the White House in the last few months. This has left Trump with an unusually young and inexperienced staff at a time when he is facing a pandemic and recession, both of which have upended his presidency and threaten his re-election.

Officials and allies say Meadows does not regret taking the job because he enjoys the perks of working in the White House — be it flying on Air Force One or appearing at events alongside his wife. A copy of a menu from Air Force One hangs in his West Wing office, along with other memorabilia signed by the president, said two officials. Still, the job is far more complex than Meadows realized.

At the same time, conservatives are starting to grumble — anonymously, for now — that Meadows has not lived up to his reputation as the former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus or pressured the administration to follow those values.

“Conservatives want the action,” said one Republican close to the White House. “They want Attorney General Barr’s program to reflect what Trump’s tweets say: Why is the Justice Department not arresting thousands of people who are burning cities down?”