The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The partisan warrior leading the White House’s shutdown response

Russell T. Vought has served as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget for a little more than a week.
Russell T. Vought has served as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget for a little more than a week. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

The White House nerve center spearheading the erratic response to the government shutdown is run by an interim director and longtime conservative firebrand whose confirmation last year was nearly derailed because of his inflammatory comments about Muslims.

With limited governing experience under his belt, Russell T. Vought took the helm of the Office of Management and Budget a little more than a week ago, after agencies began closing their doors. In just a few days, he has used his perch to make several controversial decisions aimed at blunting the impact of the partial government shutdown — moves meant to buy President Trump more time to drag out the closure, which is on the verge of becoming the longest in U.S. history.

It was Vought who led the decision to allow the Internal Revenue Service to pay tax refunds during the shutdown, something that hadn’t been previously allowed and that some Democrats called legally dubious. He was also involved in the effort to find money to pay food stamps in February, after it appeared that millions of Americans could lose the benefit.

President Trump on Jan. 8 addressed the nation on border security, the topic at the crux of the partial government shutdown. (Video: The Washington Post)

Vought briefed House Republicans on both decisions Tuesday night, in an attempt to encourage nervous lawmakers to stand by Trump’s request for border wall funding.

Trump team promises shutdown won’t stop food stamp payments in February

Still, government officials said the results of his short tenure have been mixed, underscoring the tensions that come with having a deeply ideological operative thrust into a position with complicated, often nonpartisan challenges.

Several officials involved in the shutdown said they have had a hard time getting clear direction from the OMB about how to proceed because so many things are in flux. The OMB has approved a number of other late-stage changes, leaving agencies at the mercy of its legal opinions.

After President Trump addressed the nation Jan. 8, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s easy to throw bombs when you’re out of power,” said veteran GOP strategist Mike Murphy, a Trump critic. “This puts him in the painful position of having to govern.”

Vought’s background as a conservative warrior has given him little currency with Democrats. His three-page letter Sunday to Congress requesting $5.7 billion for a border wall was immediately dismissed by Democrats as unrealistic, reflecting the limits of a partisan fighter in the current White House.

“I wouldn’t know him if he walked down the hall,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But Vought, 42, has won plaudits within the administration for his energy, creativity and willingness to cast aside precedent. “He’s always kind of all-hands-on-deck,” said Marc Short, former White House legislative director, who has known Vought for more than a decade.

Federal agencies are supposed to have hard-and-fast rules about how they manage themselves during a shutdown, but the OMB — under Vought’s direction — has directed agencies to make multiple changes on the fly.

The office has also had to deal with a number of federal officials and Cabinet secretaries who scattered for vacation after the shutdown began Dec. 22 and were slow to identify problems.

Several OMB responses to various flash points have come after officials read media reports, reflecting a lack of communication between agency leaders and the White House’s central clearinghouse for shutdown information.

“I feel like they are making up the rules as they go along here and are going to get themselves in trouble legally,” said William Hoagland, a Republican who served as staff director on the Senate Budget Committee during a government shutdown in 1995. “I’m not sure Russ’s strong suit is on the legal side and the management side.”

Vought spent much of his past 15 years in Washington as a political brawler, waging war against GOP leadership first as a staffer on the conservative House Republican Study Committee and later as a top official at the Heritage Foundation’s political arm. This endeared him to Mike Pence, who hired Vought when the vice president was a congressman from Indiana, and later to Mick Mulvaney, who is now the White House chief of staff but previously served in the House.

Vought has argued for Trump to take the deficit and debt more seriously, without much success so far. He was key to many of the proposed budget cuts at federal agencies and clashed with Cabinet secretaries and their deputies, who argued that the cuts would hobble important government functions. He has proved to be the lead proponent of shrinking the federal government, even though he’s lost many battles internally and on Capitol Hill. 

“Vought knows every penny that’s everywhere; he ran the operation for Mulvaney,” former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon said. “He’s an old-school, Heritage Foundation conservative who actually wants to cut spending.”

Pence and Mulvaney were crucial to luring Vought to the White House. Vought’s wife, Mary Vought, is also a longtime adviser and friend of Pence, having once served as his spokeswoman. Mulvaney has served as Trump’s budget director since early 2017, and Vought was nominated later that year to be his deputy. 

But the nomination took months and was almost derailed because of incendiary commentary Vought wrote in 2016 that “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

This led to a tense exchange during his confirmation hearing, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) grilled Vought over his religious beliefs.

“I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith,” Vought said.

Sanders, and every Democrat in the Senate, unsuccessfully opposed Vought’s nomination. 

“This nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said at Vought’s hearing.

Friends say Vought is a dyed-in-the-wool social and fiscal conservative who proudly attends a Baptist church. But he has surprised friends by defending Trump, who is known for profane talk and frequent misstatements. 

In a White House full of bombastic personalities, Vought isn’t known for speaking much — instead carrying large binders to senior staff meetings and homing in on data inside the Executive Office Building beneath his wire-rim glasses. “I never saw him blow up on anyone,” said Paul Winfree, a former senior Trump administration budget official.

It was Vought, one former White House official said, who helped come up with the White House’s initial request for $1.6 billion to fund the creation of parts of a wall along the Mexican border. This figure was included in the White House’s formal budget request to Congress. Democrats would later agree to fund between $1.3 billion and $1.6 billion for border security upgrades, including replacement of existing fences, but they objected to using any of that money for the creation of a wall. Vought and the OMB argued that the federal government could spend only that much money in a year and that the government had to be careful in its spending.

Now, Trump is demanding more than $5 billion — and has shut down the government because he has not gotten it. 

The OMB endured major turnover last year. Mulvaney was spending half his time simultaneously running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the OMB’s other deputy director, Margaret Weichert, was tapped to also run the Office of Personnel Management. Then, in December, Trump announced that Mulvaney would serve as acting White House chief of staff. Vought was quickly elevated to acting OMB director, though an official announcement was never made. 

Vought’s personal Twitter feed reflects a range of interests and passions, from musings about marriage and fatherhood to enthusiasm for sports. But he also mixes in plenty of opinions about politics, not avoiding controversial viewpoints.

“The reason the Left doesn’t trust citizens with guns is because they dont trust ordinary educated people,” he wrote in 2012. 

Vought does not shy away from political confrontations on both sides of the aisle and has even attacked Republican leaders who sought to cut budget deals with Democrats.

For instance, he helped plan the Republican Study Committee’s “Operation Offset” in 2005, an effort demanding that new spending to cover the damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita be offset by cuts in programs like Medicaid. The pitch was popular with many conservatives but infuriated House GOP leaders because it split the party. Republicans would go on to lose control of the House the following year in part because the party had splintered.

After leaving Capitol Hill, Vought became a top official at Heritage Action in 2010, where he intensified his attacks on Republicans he felt had strayed from the party’s core principles.

“He was a small-government conservative that some of the moderate Republicans didn’t like because when he was at Heritage Action, he held them accountable,” said Short, the former legislative affairs director.

In 2011, Vought, writing for the right-wing website RedState, again infuriated House GOP leadership when he argued that conservatives in the House should push the party “as far to the right as is possible and flat out oppose it when necessary.”

Also that year, he attacked GOP leaders for what he said was complacency and failing to escalate fiscal fights when necessary. 

“They come here with their main goal being to have a tranquility with the powers-that-be that keeps them from taking the steps to change the country,” he said at a panel session in 2011.

Vought’s views made him an ally not only of Pence but of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, a group that emerged out of the Republican Study Committee because some members did not think the party was conservative enough. Jordan is now close to Trump.

“He was Mr. Freedom Caucus before the Freedom Caucus existed,” said Kurt Bardella, a former House GOP staffer. “He was a thorn in the side of John Boehner and Eric Cantor,” the former Republican House leaders.

At the OMB, Vought played a critical role in designing a package of spending cuts that was offered to Capitol Hill amid growing GOP anxiety about the expanding budget deficit last year. 

The proposal went nowhere, however. And Vought’s most recent budget correspondence with Capitol Hill seems more tailored to Trump’s demands than the strategy he used when he was a staffer. The letter he signed Sunday, for example, demanded $7.2 billion in new spending on immigration policy without requesting any offsetting cuts. But there will be plenty of time to seek new cuts. Vought is currently writing next year’s budget request, which could come out in a few weeks.

He declined a request for an interview, but several White House officials praised his performance so far, as did allied Republicans.

“I’ve been in a lot of tough fights with him, and he doesn’t wither under fire,” said former Texas congressman Jeb Hensarling, who has worked closely with Vought. “And he’s a real committed conservative, a policy wonk with command of the budget.”

Erica Werner contributed to this report.