Donald Trump is everything to Newt Gingrich.
He’s “the grizzly bear in ‘The Revenant,’ ” he told HuffPost; a “pirate” willing to get things done outside the system he proclaimed to Fox News; and a shrewd businessman who “likes to invest in winners because they make more money,” he said to the New York Times. He “resembles [Margaret] Thatcher much more than [Ronald] Reagan,” “channels” Andrew Jackson and is “the most divisive president since Lincoln.”
Trump is also — perhaps most importantly to a man who has not held elected office since 1999 but who still wants to be in the mix — the reason Gingrich’s phone keeps ringing off the hook, and why his speaking fees have gone through the roof.
At a time when everyone is trying to figure out what’s going on in the mind and administration of our president, Gingrich has become one of the hottest dial-a-quotes around. He’s dished on palace intrigue in the pages of the Times, discussed Trump’s 2020 reelection chances with George Stephanopoulos and talked presidential television habits with The Washington Post.
“[Trump] is very attuned to the fact that cable networks have 24 hours a day that they need to fill,” he told The Post. “And if you’re interesting, you are gold.”
Naturally, Gingrich knows he, too, can help fill the void with his endless supply of ever-mixing metaphors. Which is why a reporter on deadline — looking for an on-the-record source to go with a dozen anonymous ones — can rely on him for a colorful quote about a White House that, depending on which day you reach him, feels like either “an off-Broadway performance of a show that is now the number one hit on Broadway” or the “U.S. Navy,” another “corporate structure” that is “very hard on pirates.”
“I try to educate the press,” Gingrich said in an interview for this article. “It’s one of my major jobs.”
It is true that unlike plenty of quotable politicos, Gingrich does have an added benefit: he might actually know what he’s talking about. He was an early adviser to Trump, and was once thought to be in the running to be his vice president (a former Trump staffer said Gingrich irked the candidate by publicly promoting himself for the job), and is still considered part of the Trump’s kitchen cabinet of outside advisers.
“Newt really is a strategic visionary,” said Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser to the president. “Many people in the White House call him a friend.” He talks regularly, she said, with her, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner. He’s known Vice President Pence a long time and has a handful of former staffers working in various departments in and around the White House.
It makes some sense to have him around. Before Trump took over the Republican Party, there was the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 (it may have blown up in his face by 1999, but, hey, that’s five good years of experience before he resigned).
“There just aren’t that many people who understand large-scale movements like Newt,” said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s former spokesman.
“My job is to be a problem solver,” Gingrich said. “It keeps me reasonably busy.”
And while Gingrich may have initially wanted a role in the administration, life is pretty good for him on the outside. His speaking fees have reportedly gone up $15,000 per speech (for events west of Chicago, Politico reported, he is asking for $75,000 plus first-class travel for two). He’s writing a book due out in June called “Understanding Trump.” And he says he can be more candid in interviews than if he worked officially with the administration.
“There is some virtue in being your own person,” he said. “It allows you to render independent judgment, to not have to say black is really green or red is really purple. When you are in the White House, any White House, you can get isolated from the larger world.”
In practice, Gingrich rarely strays too far from the official line. Instead of saying everything is going “great” inside a White House that by many accounts has been tumultuous, he will say, “I think things are going reasonably well.” And when he goes too off message, as he did by saying Trump no longer wanted to drain the swamp, he will apologize for it.
“I want to report that I made a big boo-boo,” he said in a video late last December. “I talked this morning with President-elect Donald Trump, and he reminded me he likes draining the swamp.”
But perhaps the greatest benefit to not being part of the administration is . . . not being part of the administration. He takes little blame when things go south, and is happy to talk to the media about how they are “greatly exaggerating” the turmoil. He can have fun spinning like a pro: “The president’s restlessness gives him a much better opportunity to do things most presidents don’t do.” And most importantly, he’s not bogged down working endless hours in a cramped West Wing office.
Had he been, he and his wife, Callista, never would have taken the 23-day cruise to Antarctica they embarked upon earlier this year. It was the “trip of a lifetime,” he said, noting they spent eight days surrounded by thousands of penguins.
“They do tend to smell bad, frankly, but not as bad as sea lions,” said Gingrich, who fancies himself something of an amateur zoologist. “After enough time you become a connoisseur of these things.”
And no, that’s not another political metaphor. Unless, of course, you’re in need of one.