How Frank Luntz went from Trump enemy to White House insider






Frank Luntz

Frank Luntz’s rise in the White House reveals how access works in Washington — and how one valuable personal relationship can overcome even the enmity of a president. | ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

White House

The famous GOP pollster clashed with Trump during the 2016 election but has helped shape his message thanks to a friendship with chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Frank Luntz had long been a loyal Republican insider — until Donald Trump came along. During the 2016 campaign, Luntz openly criticized Trump, who attacked the storied pollster as a “low class snob” and called for Fox News to dump him from its airwaves.

After Trump’s election, Luntz seemed likely to be shut out of the White House — a painful fate for a lover of the presidency who built replicas of the Oval Office and Lincoln Bedroom in his Los Angeles home.

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But Luntz has now found a key way into the Trump White House. Thanks to his longtime friend and Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Luntz has provided advice of late about the political messaging of major issues like immigration and the budget.

Luntz made his name by advising Republicans to repackage their policies with language designed to play more to emotion than intellect. He convinced conservatives to say they oppose a “death tax” rather than an “estate tax” on the inheritances of the wealthy, and urged the Bush administration to call global warming “climate change.” Critics said such tactics only obscure and muddy the truth.

Since Mulvaney’s December arrival in the West Wing, Luntz has applied his signature rebranding tactics. Heading into the 35-day government shutdown, Luntz urged Mulvaney to move away from the dry phrase “funding the border wall” for the more evocative theme of “border security” — a language tweak the White House adopted.

Luntz has also given Mulvaney advice on Trump’s most recent budget proposal, and even turned up at an exclusive White House party with the president who once called for him to be fired.

Luntz’s surprisinginfiltration of the White House is a story about the way access works in Washington — and the way one valuable personal relationship in the West Wing can overcome even the enmity of a president. This account of the quiet influence Luntz has exerted at the Trump White House is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior administration officials and close White House allies.

Luntz and Mulvaney have known one another since 2007 when Mulvaney served in the South Carolina General Assembly as a lawmaker. The two continued to see each other at annual Republican lawmaker retreats once Mulvaney was elected to Congress in 2010 and struck up a friendship.

When Mulvaney joined the Trump administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget in early 2017, Luntz visited the office three times over a nine-month period — including for a one-on-one lunch, according to agency visitor logs. The two men also spoke regularly by phone, with Luntz offering Mulvaney messaging advice on the president’s annual budget proposals to Congress.

Once Mulvaney landed his long-coveted gig as White House acting chief, he was in a position to give his friend even more entrée into Trump’s White House. Days after accepting the job, Mulvaney added Luntz’s name to the invitation list for one of the White House’s most exclusive Christmas balls.

More substantively, as Mulvaney helped to draw up Trump’s most recent budget proposal, Luntz counseled him to illustrate Trump’s idea of referring of a five percent reduction on domestic spending with a picture of a five-cent coin. Trump himself had wanted to refer to it as the “nickel plan.”

The White House press secretary did not respond to a request for comment.

Mulvaney allies stress that Luntz plays no formal or advisory role in the Trump administration, and over the past year, Luntz has also met with Jared Kushner and talked with Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, meetings that pre-dated Mulvaney’s arrival in the West Wing.

But there’s no disputing his rapport with Mulvaney. People who have seen Mulvaney and Luntz interact say they admire one another’s blunt personalities.

Luntz, in an email to POLITICO, described Mulvaney as a genuine friend, which is “tough to find in Washington.” He said he offered zero advice on the government shutdown and did not have any relationship with President Trump.

He did not respond to a later query about advice he’d given to Mulvaney as actingchief of staff. A person familiar with the White House’s budget planning said Luntz provided advice to Mulvaney several times in recent months.

Luntz’s entry into the Trump fold squares with his reputation among some detractors as a showman who craves the spotlight almost as much as the president — and whose primary concern is remaining relevant.

“For at least two decades, he has been trying to provide guidance to the GOP on how to communicate and simplify stories. Trump came in and immediately related to the American people and brushed Luntz aside,” said one Republican strategist.

But he retains legions of GOP admirers. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is close to Trump and worked with Luntz in the 1990s, says Luntz has played a huge role in the party’s politics.

“Frank had a remarkable way with words and on a number of occasions, he was able to shape language so that it had a big impact,” Gingrich said, adding that Luntz helped Republicans understand “the importance of building messages around small business rather than big corporations.”

It’s unclear whether Trump himself has come around on Luntz, or if he’s even aware that he has spoken words influenced by the message man.

The bitter history between the two men dates to a July 2015 Iowa summit sponsored by the Koch brothers, at which Luntz interviewed Trump onstage.

“Don’t you feel that you went too far in what you called Mexicans coming across the border?” Luntz said moments after they took the stage.

“Oh no, not at all,” Trump said.

Later at the same event, Trump made his infamous declaration that Senator John McCain wasn’t a true hero “because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

In the ensuing weeks, Trump urged Fox News via Twitter to fire Luntz, who conducted post-debate focus groups for the network that the candidate deemed “anti-Trump.”

Luntz is “a low class slob who came to my office looking for consulting work and I had zero interest. Now he picks anti-Trump panels!” Trump tweeted that August. (Trump told POLITICO that Luntz was angry at him because Trump had declined to hire his polling firm.)

Luntz told POLITICO at the time that Trump’s f— you attitude resonated with voters but did not ultimately solve anything. “‘F—- you’ doesn’t make life any better. ‘F—- you’ makes you feel good, but it doesn’t get you where you need to go. ‘F—- you’ doesn’t make America strong,” he said.

Privately, some Mulvaney aides are aware that his friendship with Luntz comes with a potential risk of annoying the president, and many of the acting chief of staff’s allies downplay the relationship.

But since the 2016 election and Trump’s success in bending the GOP to his will, Luntz has launched something of an apology tour.

Following the 2018 State of the Union address, Luntz wrote on Twitter that he owed the president an apology. “Tonight, I was moved and inspired. Tonight, I have hope and faith in America again. It may go away tomorrow. But tonight, America is great again,” he wrote.

He added in a later tweet that “this speech represents the presidential performance that Trump observers have been waiting for — brilliant mix of numbers and stories, humility and aggressiveness, traditional conservatism and political populism. Only one word qualifies: Wow.”

Luntz’s rehabilitation tour seems to have worked to some extent. Luntz showed up at an election night watch party in November 2018 in Trump’s private residence as a guest of Mulvaney’s, schmoozing and watching the results alongside other close Trump allies including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Corey Lewandowski, and Vice President Mike Pence.

When Trump announced Mulvaney’s promotion to chief-of-staff in a late afternoon tweet one Friday in mid-December, Luntz quickly responded to extol the hire’s brilliance on Twitter.

“No one understands how government works better than Mick,” Luntz wrote. “He is respected on Capitol Hill and in all the agencies – very smart choice.”

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