WASHINGTON — Amid the sense of chaos within a White House obsessed with Twitter, unsubstantiated accusations, palace intrigue, and regular jaunts to Palm Beach, Fla., one group in the Republican Party has racked up some impressive wins: conservatives.
The GOP’s right wing — which was always skeptical of Donald Trump — is now cutting smoothly through the choppy West Wing waters and even taking advantage of Trump’s popularity on the right to advance longtime goals of shrinking government as a force in American life.
That’s left Trump with little trace of the billionaire populism that helped usher him into office, the notion that only a fabulously successful deal-maker like him could effectively defend the little guy against corporate and global elites.
Instead the Republican agenda in Trump’s Washington is driven by hard-line conservative doctrine about starving the beast of government, slashing programs for the needy, and — upcoming on the agenda — tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that supposedly will help those farther down the food chain.
The hardest evidence so far of this shift from Trump’s campaign rhetoric to his governing reality is the two specific, sweeping proposals released in the last two weeks: the plan to replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and Trump’s budget outline for 2018.
The latter reminded many in Washington of a straightforward Reagan-era plan that would eviscerate environmental regulations and programs for the poor, including children and the elderly.
In a White House briefing to explain the budget, Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, questioned the effectiveness of much federal spending, including on Meals on Wheels programs for the elderly and programs for needy children that provide them with extra meals after school.
The rural poor and elderly, especially, would be hard hit by both the health care plan and the budget, despite Trump’s success in winning support from white, rural residents of Rust Belt states during his campaign.
“There is a certain vindictiveness to all of this,” said Steve Bell, a Republican and former Senate Budget Committee director.
He said he sees no trace of Trump’s populism. “When I actually look at the budget, I see a tired old budget from 1984 put together by the Heritage Foundation. It is the same old, same old nonsense.”
Facing trouble winning hard-line conservative support to fulfill his campaign promises to replace the Affordable Care Act, the president leaned even harder to the right last week, offering to add to the GOP’s health care plan a requirement that able-bodied Medicaid recipients must work to qualify for coverage.
The plan already would dramatically cut subsidies for working-poor beneficiaries of the Obama program, with the heaviest burdens — thousands of dollars a year in additional expenses — falling on people from 50 to 64 years old.
It also would break a campaign promise that Trump made not to cut Medicaid: Instead, it slashes deeply into the program. In all, official estimates say 24 million people would lose insurance by 2026.
And what about his record of standing up against corporate elites, the ones he railed against in the campaign?
Trump’s leadership circle, both in the Cabinet and the White House, contains no fewer than five former Goldman Sachs executives. His team has five millionaires and four billionaires and has been heralded as the most conservative fielding of executive branch power players since Ronald Reagan.
House Speaker Paul Ryan explicitly credited Trump for helping push long-held conservative policy objectives like the health care bill.
“Did you see him yesterday in Detroit, in Tennessee?” Ryan asked reporters at his weekly press conference, detailing how the president is helping Republicans move the controversial health bill forward.
“The president has a connection with individuals in this country. He goes — no offense — but he goes around the media and connects with people specifically and individually,” Ryan said. “That helps us bridge gaps in Congress and get Republicans unified so we can deliver on our promises. And that is extremely constructive.”
He has called the health care bill a “conservative wish list” and touted the goal: ‘‘Most importantly, we get Washington out of the business of being a nanny state,’’ Ryan said earlier this month.
Trump’s first months in office have been a relief to people like Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and president of Potomac Strategy Group, who had been skeptical of Trump during the campaign. Now, Mackowiak said, conservatives feel they have “a lot to be excited about.”
“You can credibly say this is the most conservative Cabinet at least since Reagan and perhaps even going further back than that,” he said. “I really have been encouraged in a lot of ways.”
“My sense is Trump wants to be successful,” Mackowiak said. “He’s less concerned about specifically what success means. He’s more concerned with the perception that he is successful and the best way for him to be successful this calendar year is to remain united with Republicans and to advance a conservative agenda.”
The tone of Trump’s agenda raises questions about how much the New York billionaire is able — or even inclined — to influence the direction of his own emerging bureaucracy, which is heavily influenced by top adviser Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chief executive whose publicly stated goals in Washington are to solidify a Trump-led nationalist movement in America and usher what he calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.’’
The conservative circle around Trump includes his budget director, Mulvaney — who was such a committed deficit hawk in Congress he even advocated for cuts to military spending, which is outside typical Republican thought — and Tom Price, the president’s new health secretary, a former Representative from Georgia who was one of the most vehement opponents of the Obama health law in Congress.
Nevertheless Trump’s team still finds itself defending the president to conservatives. On Friday morning, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway sold Trump’s right-leaning bona fides to a Washington audience.
“I do think Donald Trump is a conservative,” she said, listing his budget and health care plan. “I think the National Review crowd should be very happy.”
The embrace of the party’s conservative flank has many in Washington baffled.
“It’s bizarre in a lot of ways,” Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and no fan of Trump’s, said of the president’s conservative agenda focus.
He highlighted what he sees as the most “bizarre element” to date of Trump’s shift in focus and priorities: the lack of an infrastructure plan.
Again and again, Trump has promised to invest in rebuilding the nation’s crumbling bridges and roads; Bannon embraced a trillion-dollar infrastructure program as key to his plans to build a new political coalition.
But the budget Trump unveiled makes deep infrastructure cuts, with the exception of putting aside money to build a wall on the Southern border. (Trump’s team says a building program is coming later in the year.)
But like many observers, both supporters and critics of Trump, Ornstein doesn’t think the conservative budget tilt is a conscious choice of the president’s. “My guess is that the budget is basically [White House budget director] Mick Mulvaney’s, and Bannon is happy because he wants to blow up the state and engage in disruption,” Ornstein said.
Trump has put conservatives in key positions, and their work product is showing.
“Trump is a New York Republican who has surrounded himself with conservatives,” said one Republican strategist with ties to the Trump White House.
The conservative staffers in the White House trenches, including Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn, along with Vice President Mike Pence’s team, have been successful in winning the president’s trust, said the strategist who requested anonymity to freely discuss the West Wing workings.
“I wouldn’t say they see chaos, they see opportunity,” the strategist said. “The people who see a job that needs to be done will go out and do it.”