When Donald Trump rang West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin after the two spent an hour together at Trump Tower last week, the president-elect made a surprise proposition.
Not an offer of the Cabinet post for which Manchin was reportedly considered, but rather an invitation to stay in touch. “Any time you have a concern, any time you have a good idea, give me a call,” Manchin said Trump told him.
The gesture made a strong impression on the red-state Democrat. “I’ve had my side of the aisle in power for eight years and I’ve had nowhere near that kind of access,” he noted.
While Trump has dismayed many Democrats with his vows to dismantle Barack Obama’s initiatives and the ideological slant of some of his Cabinet picks, he has struck a more amicable tone in recent meetings at Trump Tower with members of the opposition. In those encounters, he has been collegial, inquiring about visitors’ expertise and expressing interest in collaborating with them, especially when that might mean an early victory for the White House, according to several Democrats who have either met with Trump or been briefed on the discussions.
Trump’s early interactions with Democratic moderates are unlikely to signal the dynamic of his relationship with the opposition party. Like most politicians, he is adept at modulating his tone for different audiences and it is significant that Manchin and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, for instance, represent states that voted overwhelmingly for him. Still, these early, positive engagements could pose a hurdle to the faction of the Democratic Party that wants to draw an obstructionist line in the sand.
Trump’s transactional approach jibes particularly well with moderates who thrive on cutting deals with their counterparts across the aisle. Manchin, Heitkamp and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii have all broken with their party at times and Democrats off Capitol Hill, such as former Washington schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz, are similarly used to working with both parties to advance their agendas. All five have met with Trump about Cabinet posts.
“I did not get the impression that whether you were a Democrat or a Republican mattered very much to him,” said Moskowitz, a Hillary Clinton supporter, who was reportedly under consideration for Education secretary. “That was not his focus. His focus was bringing very significant change and finding talent.”
The recent meetings tended to focus on each Democrat’s signature issues, with Trump asking questions and probing for areas of overlap, according to sources familiar with the meetings. Both Heitkamp and Manchin, for instance, have invested significant time in bills on clean coal and coal miners’ pensions, and Trump was keenly interested in discussing the well-being of coal workers and of rural America with both of them.
But he didn’t share many clear-cut plans of his own in meetings with potential cabinet nominees, multiple people noted.
“He clearly was interested in my thoughts on how to build out various campaign promises into comprehensive policy initiatives,” said a politically unaffiliated former Cabinet official. “Understandably, he wants to follow through with what he advanced during his campaign, but he realizes that those statements need to be fleshed out and made part of coherent policies.”
One of the least-discussed topics was Cabinet nominations, although that was the ostensible reason the Democrats made the trip to New York. Some sources said they had heard about being under consideration for a Cabinet post only via the media — not too dissimilar from some of their Republican counterparts.
Trump spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Trump will continue to consult with people across party lines. “President-elect Trump is dedicated to uniting and representing the voices of the entire country, and will continue to consult with the best and the brightest minds, regardless of party, so that we can grow and progress America for all people,” she said.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is locked in its own internal debate over whether to follow a path of all-out obstruction against Trump, or try to find common ground on issues like infrastructure investment. Gabbard was criticized by a former primary challenger for meeting with Trump and not condemning him for selecting Cabinet members like senior adviser Steve Bannon.
“I knew I would get political blowback, but I’m not interested in playing politics when the lives of countless people lay in the balance,” Gabbard said in an email. She met with Trump in November and was reportedly under consideration for various Cabinet positions.
Gabbard said Trump “seemed to be genuinely interested” in her thoughts on the Middle East and the two “found some areas of agreement,” but she expressed disappointment in some of his comments since then.
“Recent statements he’s made in regard to setting up a ‘safe zone’ in Syria have me concerned,” Gabbard said. “Although well-meaning, the consequences could be disastrous for the people of Syria and the world.”
For the Democratic lawmakers, the potential benefits of building a relationship with the president-elect could be significant. Heitkamp and Manchin are widely considered two of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats heading into the 2018 midterm elections; Trump beat Clinton in West Virginia by a landslide 69 percent to 27 percent and North Dakota by a similar 64 percent to 28 percent. Establishing an early relationship with Trump could be well-received by constituents. Manchin has spoken frequently in public about Trump and his meeting with the president-elect in the days since.
Heitkamp has remained quiet about her meeting, although she said Thursday she expects to stay in the Senate.
But taking a meeting with the president-elect is one thing — becoming the lone member of the opposition party in his administration is a more difficult decision, said former Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who was nominated to be Obama’s Commerce Secretary in 2009.
“Your job is to be a hundred percent with the president a hundred percent of the time,” Gregg said. “So if you’ve got deep differences, and mine were on fiscal policy, then it’s hard to be a member of the Cabinet.”
When he was first named in the weeks before Obama took office, excitement ran high in both parties around the incoming president’s “hope and change” message, Gregg noted. But that sense of bipartisanship soon faded, he noted, as Democrats took advantage of their control over both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“Unfortunately over time, that erodes,” Gregg said. “It certainly did under Obama.”
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