A top White House adviser was forced to go on television Thursday to assure the country her husband is wrong about President Trump. Kellyanne Conway’s husband, George, has certainly played a role in that latest development — he has been tweeting strong words at Trump for months. But the family feud really spiraled out of control this week, when Trump starting calling George Conway a “whack job.”
For Trump, this is par for course.
In a political system that generally frowns upon dragging family into the spotlight and pitting relatives against one another, Trump seems to relish his ability to leverage family dynamics and foment domestic drama. It is perhaps the most reality-show-esque feature of his reality-show presidency.
It started in the 2016 primaries, when Trump attacked the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Heidi. Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on her (about what, it was never made clear) and then retweeted a tweet that juxtaposed an unflattering picture of her with one featuring his wife, Melania, a former model. “The images are worth a thousand words,” the user wrote. Cruz called Trump a “sniveling coward” and later cited these attacks in pointedly declining to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention. (They are now allies, and Trump even interviewed Heidi Cruz for a World Bank job.)
During the Democratic convention, Gold Star father Khizr Khan spoke out against Trump with his wife, Ghazala, at his side. Even though she did not criticize Trump, Trump trained his fire on her, saying, “I’d like to hear his wife say something.” He later made clear he was alluding to their Muslim faith. “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” he said. “You tell me.”
Once he became president, Trump was back at it again. He repeatedly and publicly attacked top FBI official Andrew McCabe’s wife for her failed Democratic campaign for the Virginia Senate, suggesting her acceptance of money from Clinton allies compromised her husband. And we recently found out that once McCabe became acting FBI director after James B. Comey’s firing, Trump allegedly mused to McCabe about how his wife was a “loser.” (Trump has denied this.)
Also related to Trump’s Russia issues, he and his allies have focused on family while attacking former attorney and current antagonist Michael Cohen. Trump said in December that Cohen’s family had been “temporarily let off the hook” because of his cooperation with prosecutors. By January, right before Cohen was slated to testify on Capitol Hill, Trump suggestively pointed to Cohen’s father-in-law, and Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani soon suggested the relative “may have ties to something called organized crime.”
Cohen delayed his testimony, citing the “threats” to his family. But when it finally came, top Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) picked up where Trump and Giuliani had left off, tweeting a suggestion that Cohen had engaged in extramarital affairs and that his wife would cheat on him when he was in prison. Gaetz deleted the tweet and apologized. He also said he did not write it at Trump’s behest.
Trump has also divided some of the biggest families in politics. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel recently repudiated Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), her uncle, for his criticisms of Trump. But rather than just say Romney was wrong, she went an almost Trumpian step further by diminishing the former GOP presidential nominee as “an incoming Republican freshman senator.” It is not clear whether Trump or the White House requested McDaniel’s tweet, but it is worth noting that Trump once prevailed upon her to stop using her Romney maiden name — another example of his willingness to go there on family.
Then there are the Bushes. During the 2016 campaign, Trump made a point of attacking not just Jeb Bush, who was actually a candidate, but his brother George W. Bush and father, George H.W. Bush. He went so far as to blame George W. Bush for 9/11 — “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that?” — and said the country needed “No More Bushes.”
The two former presidents declined to support Trump, and both George W. Bush and Jeb Bush have criticized Trump. But Jeb’s son George P. Bush has been a Trump backer and accepted Trump’s endorsement for reelection as Texas land commissioner last year. Eventually, though, the Bush family’s criticism of Trump caused Donald Trump Jr. to cancel a fundraiser with George P. Bush.
Some of these family divisions would have existed even without Trump. And in some cases, like the Conways and the Romneys, Trump is hardly the only one causing tension. But all of these examples speak to Trump’s willingness to mess with his political foes’ families and even make people choose between him and their loved ones.
Having Kellyanne Conway go on TV is just the latest episode of this long-running serial. What better way to assert the loyalty of your allies, and what better way to get everyone to tune in for it?