Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Meadows that the phone had to go, or he did.
Still Meadows refused.
Pelosi suggested that Meadows’s aide exit the room with Meadows’s phone and alert him when the call arrived.
Meadows said the assistant had to stay to take notes.
Finally Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin intervened, offering up a Treasury Department staffer to exit the room with Meadows’s phone and tell him when the call came through. Meadows accepted that solution — while insisting to Pelosi that he was not the source of any leaks.
The incident illustrated the outsize presence Meadows brought to two weeks of coronavirus negotiations. Those talks collapsed in acrimony Friday when the two sides couldn’t make a deal, despite the health-care and economic needs racking a shaken nation. As the phone incident showed, there was never much mutual trust between the White House and Democrats, which prevented the negotiations from ever gathering steam.
More than 30 million Americans lost access to enhanced jobless benefits because the talks unraveled, and the White House and Democratic leaders blame each other for the misstep. The U.S. economy remains extremely weak, and it is unclear what will happen in the coming weeks and months as households struggle to adapt to school reopening plans and the expected onset of the next flu season. On top of all this, political talks appear to have completely halted.
In private, Pelosi began to refer to Meadows as “the Enforcer,” the implication being he was there to ensure Mnuchin didn’t make a deal with the Democrats.
Unlike in previous rounds, when Pelosi held out for a better deal for Democrats and ultimately forced major concessions from Republicans, this time administration officials, led by Meadows, walked away. Now, Democrats are facing questions about their tactics and whether playing hardball will continue to work when someone like Meadows is intimately involved.
White House officials believe President Trump gained leverage Saturday when he signed four measures that he alleges will provide some economic relief through new unemployment aid and changes to payroll tax rules. Meadows played a central role in pushing Trump toward these executive actions, which aim to strip away some tax and spending powers from Congress. It is unclear whether the measures will work, though, and state leaders and business executives were confused about timing and implementation.
Trump on Monday alleged his refusal to accept Democrats’ demands had forced them to restart negotiations. On Twitter, Trump wrote that Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) “know my phone number!”
Democratic leaders said that they have always wanted to cut a deal and that their position had not changed since the executive actions were signed.
The measures do not address the full range of issues the White House and Democrats had negotiated about during their talks, including aid for business owners, schools and hospitals, among other things.
Meadows had held a pessimistic view from the outset about the prospect for an agreement with Congress, based on his public statements. He argued in public and in private that Democrats were not serious about making a deal, but Democrats say it was Meadows more than anyone else who was responsible for the failure to deliver on this round of talks. They had successfully negotiated four bipartisan bills in March and April, mostly before Meadows had officially joined the White House as chief of staff.
“His positions are quite hardened and non-compromising, more so than Mnuchin,” Schumer told reporters Friday. Schumer contended that in the case of Meadows and others associated with the tea party, “ideology sort of blinds them.”
In previous coronavirus relief negotiations earlier this year, the administration and senior congressional officials moved with notable alacrity to enact more than $3 trillion in aid to combat the crippling economic and health effects of the expanding pandemic.
Yet in these latest negotiations, the presence and influence of Trump’s fourth White House chief of staff, according to Democrats, significantly complicated matters. They felt they could work with Mnuchin, whose relative ease at dealmaking with Pelosi and Schumer also opened him up to grumbling from Republicans who deemed him too eager to reach an agreement more beneficial to Democrats than to the Republican Party. In turn, Republicans felt Democrats were too obstinate, unwilling to budge from their initial $3.4 trillion offer that would almost certainly not pass the GOP-controlled Senate, much less get signed into law.
For two weeks, the four chief negotiators struggled to agree even on an overall price tag for the next phase of coronavirus relief, much less the fine print of the aid package. Mnuchin would emerge from talks hopeful, pointing out areas of agreement. Meadows, however, often emerged from discussions and emphasized to reporters how poorly talks were going and how far apart both sides were.
Meadows’s support for the executive-order strategy essentially served to undermine the talks on Capitol Hill, even as he was purporting to lead them, Democrats say.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. One administration official close to Meadows argued that Democrats wanted unrelated policy items the White House did not support.
Meadows, 61, was never a legislative guru during his seven years on Capitol Hill — a tenure that was marked more by his willingness to wage ideological internecine warfare against other Republicans and, later, become one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in Congress.
As a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Meadows was a lead critic of excessive federal spending and endorsed an ultimately futile strategy in 2013 to force a government shutdown over funding for the Affordable Care Act. He served on committees that tended to showcase partisanship, rather than consensus, and he channeled Trump’s thinking to his colleagues and to the press as one of the president’s informal liaisons to the rest of Capitol Hill.
But Meadows had to pivot in his role as White House chief of staff as he took on his first major negotiation.
His style as chief of staff has brought preliminary praise, both private and public, from some GOP senators and senior aides who knew Meadows as nothing more than a legislative bombardier who had a major hand in ousting the speaker of his own party from office.
During one meeting with senior Senate GOP appropriators, Meadows acknowledged that he was in an awkward position of advocating for a deal he would not have supported but that his task now was to help Trump strike an agreement, according to an official familiar with his remarks.
“If Mark Meadows were still alive, he’d be appalled at the amount of spending going on around here,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quipped at a closed-door party lunch on Aug. 5, according to two people with knowledge of his comments.
Everyone laughed, including Meadows.
Senior GOP officials who had regularly dealt with the White House, including its Office of Legislative Affairs, say Meadows — unlike a traditional presidential chief of staff — is a much more regular presence on Capitol Hill, makes himself accessible and is detail-oriented. Toward the end of last week Meadows, along with Mnuchin, pledged to hold daily, late-afternoon phone briefings with any Republican senators who wanted to join until an agreement was reached.
“Up to now, it’d be legislative affairs saying, ‘This is the way it will be.’ Now, it’s Meadows saying: ‘We’re in this together. How do we get what we want?’ And it’s a mutually respectful process,” said one senior GOP aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe relations with the White House. “Which is really weird considering how he was as a member, but right now I’d say we have fewer complaints than ever.”
The praise for Meadows is not universal on the GOP side, with some welcoming Meadows’s manner but questioning his ability to land a deal.
“Mark Meadows, he brought a refreshing look,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said at one point during the talks. “His tone is good as far as engaging people. This is his first big deal, and we’ll have to see.”
The most contentious moments have come inside the speaker’s office at the Capitol, where Pelosi, Schumer, Mnuchin and Meadows met until Friday for close to a dozen near-daily negotiating sessions that ran up to three hours at a time. Those talks ultimately ended with the parties not much closer to an agreement than when they started.
Pelosi and Meadows publicly sparred over what transpired at the meetings. She alleged he slapped the table at one point, something he adamantly said never happened. In the aftermath, reporters overheard a member of Meadows’s entourage say of Pelosi, “She’s insane.”
Meadows was also more willing than Mnuchin to cast political blame on Democrats in their post-negotiations briefings with reporters — while the Democratic leaders similarly singled out the chief of staff for the lack of progress, a view shared by some inside the administration.
“What the president doesn't understand is that Meadows knows how to do one thing — be a Freedom Caucus member,” said one senior administration official who was not authorized to comment about Meadows and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He isn’t some consensus-builder or a dealmaker.”
Administration officials say Meadows has become obsessed with legislative affairs and communications, leaving much of the rest of the White House’s many disparate operations alone. His imprint is particularly acute with the legislative-affairs shop, which has largely diminished under his tenure.
During one of the biggest congressional negotiations of Trump’s presidency, the White House legislative-affairs team has been mostly sidelined, and its acting head, Amy Swonger, has seen the president far less than her predecessors have, according to aides.
Meadows has instead taken a young aide into all meetings, surprising staffers on both sides of the aisle who expected to be dealing with experienced officials such as Swonger or Russell Vought, the head of the Office of Management and Budget.
In an interview on “Full Court Press With Greta Van Susteren” that aired Sunday, Meadows praised Trump for acting on his own in face of the impasse on Capitol Hill, contending that it was up to Democrats whether talks would continue.
“We’re still willing to talk as part of a broader deal,” Meadows said, “but really it’s incumbent upon the Democrats to come back with a counterproposal.”