The White House's Man in the Middle
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s trying to make the shotgun marriage between Trump and Congress work.
By Daniel Malloy
You won’t find Rick Dearborn, with his big laugh and slicked-back black hair, on television crusading for Donald Trump. Through nearly three decades developing deep ties in Republican Washington, Dearborn has a noteworthy trait of not caring a whit about his own publicity. And yet, in an administration that loves the spotlight, it is Dearborn who now finds himself in a critical West Wing post, serving as one of Trump’s three deputy chiefs of staff, overseeing a vast portfolio that includes smoothing White House relations with Capitol Hill and state governments.
Friends and White House watchers say Dearborn, who managed Trump’s Washington office during the campaign and helped direct the transition from Trump Tower, is one of the few top staffers with close ties to both the Reince Priebus — read: establishment — and Steve Bannon — read: insurgent — camps. He is seen as indefatigable amid the young administration’s daily drama. “He doesn’t pay attention to that nonsense at all,” says Robert Wasinger, a lobbyist who worked on the Trump campaign and has known Dearborn for two decades. “Whatever you might hear about the winds and buffets of fate just have no effect on him. He’s just working on getting the job done.”
The Oklahoman got his Washington start in 1988 working for Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, later serving as an aide to Senators Trent Lott of Mississippi and Bob Kasten of Wisconsin. For the latter, he worked alongside a peppy intern named Paul Ryan. Dearborn’s varied résumé includes stints at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and George W. Bush’s Department of Energy. In both spots, he was a liaison to Capitol Hill, conducting Senate relations for Heritage and leading Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs for DOE. He was always a networker, but friends recall him being as enthused about connecting younger colleagues with jobs as he was about furthering his own career. Those who know him often used a term uncommon in Washington to describe Dearborn: “nice.” (The White House did not reply to requests for comment or to interview Dearborn.)
Dearborn spent the bulk of his career in the Senate working with Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general. In the Senate, Sessions, best known among liberals for his checkered racial past and controversial meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., was seen among colleagues as a polite but firm Alabamian who tended to stick to his hard-right guns on spending and immigration. Dearborn started early with Sessions, who was first elected in 1996, and became Sessions’ chief of staff in 2004, after the Bush administration detour. Dearborn was known around D.C. and Alabama as a true conservative idealogue who could speak for Sessions and be straight with friends and foes. “The hand of the king,” as Clay Ryan, the head of government affairs for the University of Alabama system and former aide to Gov. Robert Bentley, described him.
He could get things done too, as former Alabama Republican U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner recalled in the case of a bill to make sure states affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill got most of the payout from BP, rather than the federal government. Bonner says Dearborn was “vitally important” to shaping the policy and executing the plan.
Other descriptors include a jovial drinking partner and a college football devotee — holding firm to his Sooners in Crimson Tide country. Joan Kirchner Carr, chief of staff to Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, relished Dearborn’s “smart-ass” commentary in weekly chiefs of staff lunches. Once, Carr recalls, a management expert was briefing all the Senate chiefs on how to handle millennials (delicately). Dearborn told the group about his methods: To deal with one habitually late young aide, Dearborn gathered his staff in the conference room to wait for the late arriver and then left them in there for a few minutes to sort the problem themselves. Lateness promptly ceased.
Last spring, after Sessions became one of Trump’s first endorsers in Congress, Dearborn joined the campaign to manage its Washington outpost. Dearborn had many friends in town, while Trump did not — and associating with Trump in Washington GOP circles was still risky. Dearborn’s job was to help translate — and evangelize — Trump’s policies to influential members of Congress, lobbyists and think tankers. The Washington Post reported in September that the policy shop was neglected and several staffers quit after they were not paid, but they didn’t blame Dearborn. Still, Trump was pleased enough with the results that he made Dearborn executive director of the transition. As job-seekers swarmed Trump Tower, those who worked with Dearborn say he was organized and calm, able to effectively prioritize tasks during a process that was often painted from the outside as ragged.
Now in the West Wing, Dearborn presides over a vast portfolio that includes relations with Congress — thorny under any administration. After a rocky start with the travel ban rollout, Capitol Hill aides are getting a heads-up on executive orders, and members and staff have made frequent visits up Pennsylvania Avenue. At 1600, Dearborn is pushing the agenda but also making relationships work beyond policy. Last week, 46 governors visited the White House for a black-tie ball. Axios, a politics and technology online publication, reported that Hill staffers from both parties have been invited to bowl on the White House lanes and dozens have watched Marine One take off from the South Lawn.
Dearborn’s low-profile nature contrasts with top aides like Stephen Miller, a fellow Sessions alum and policy maven who is publicly outspoken and is a big target for criticism. In an administration bedecked with controversy, Dearborn’s steady hand and low profile stand out. If Priebus ever falls by the wayside, some see Dearborn stepping into those shoes, standing alongside Trump and Bannon: a temperamental balance if ever there were one.