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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

What a Trump White House Might Look Like

Anita McBride, Executive in Residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, American University
Cleveland, OH
July 19, 2016

Date: 07/19/2016 Location: Cleveland, OH Description: Anita McBride, Executive in Residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, speaks with journalists about what a Trump White House might look like. - State Dept Image

12:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: (In progress) at the Center of Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. Professor McBride previously served as assistant to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush from 2005-2009. Her White House service spans two decades and three presidential administrations, including as director of White House personnel under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and as director of the U.S. speakers bureau at the United States Information Agency. Also under President George W. Bush, Professor McBride served as a special assistant for White House management, as senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Organizations, and as the State Department’s White House liaison.

Without any further ado, I welcome Professor McBride. She will begin with opening remarks and then we will take questions and answers. Thank you.

MS MCBRIDE: Thank you. Well, good afternoon, everyone. I’m really glad to be able to be part of your agenda. I’m also part of the team here this week that’s helping with the ambassadors, the foreign ambassadors accredited to the United States that are here for the convention and also will be in Philadelphia next week, as I’m sure many of you will be. So this is something, as all of you know – and I’m sure you’re talking to some of the ambassadors from the countries of the outlets you represent – this is a convention that is unpredictable and one that we’ve had a lot of interest in. Probably this is my seventh convention, and I’ve seen more interest from the foreign accredited ambassadors to the United States than I have seen in the past. So that’s a good thing. I think that’s a reflection of what’s happening overall in the United States and the record numbers of people that are coming out to vote in the primaries – certainly on the Republican side some people who have never voted before. But they are waking up and they are paying attention, and they know that we are at an inflection point in our country.

You heard my former colleague Joe Schmitz, who was kind to come before me as I got delayed with some other interviews today, so I’m sure offered you more of a glimpse and a snapshot into what the foreign policy perspectives (inaudible) priorities would be for a possible Trump administration.

I come to you as someone who has worked in three different administrations at different levels. Of course, with Ronald Reagan I started at a very junior staff level, but over the 12 years of Reagan and Bush, many people like myself came from all over the country and were able to grow in different positions, be promoted into different positions, and learn different things about our government, our agencies, and certainly in my case, about the operations of the White House. And that is an expertise of mine. I was part of five presidential transitions. I worked in the State Department, as Jennie had said, in the old U.S. Information Agency, which was our early public diplomacy arm.

And then the capstone, of course, to my career was working with – for First Lady Laura Bush, and particularly in her second term, because the second term was one of major growth and very global-oriented. And I would do many briefings like this with foreign journalists before we did trips overseas, because she went to 77 countries overall in eight years, but 67 of them in the second term. And a lot of them were on the promotion of global health and education initiatives and priorities of the Bush administration, including the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which is still in existence, the Malaria Initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Some of you, if you are from countries where the – where your citizens have been recipients of these programs, you know what I’m talking about.

But I raise that point only because when we are talking about a new administration, you’re looking – there’s a great interest as to who are all the people that will be surrounding the next president, advising him, whether it’s on foreign policy or trade policy, economics, education, domestic issues – whatever it might be. But one of the most important surrogates for any president is the president’s spouse. And I saw that firsthand with Mrs. Bush on all of our travels overseas. This is the closest person to the president, the one that has their greatest amount of confidence and trust, and I would often say it’s probably the only person on their team who won’t be fired for anything they say or do. So it’s a very empowering position, and it’s a platform that’s very important.

And the reason I was delayed coming to you today [is] because of some of the controversy surrounding the speech of Mrs. Trump last night. I’m not on the Trump campaign; I am a longtime Republican. I’m here, like many Republicans who have – were not part of the Team Trump from the beginning – I’m looking to hear what people are saying and what all of the people on the podium are saying. I thought Mrs. Trump’s speech was one that – first of all, I would sum it up in this way: She went to bed last night with a victory and she woke up with a controversy. And the one thing a presidential spouse never wants to do is really be the subject of controversy or be a distraction.

So for a scripted convention, although this is not as scripted as others in the past – this is very (inaudible), of course – this was one example of where the staff surrounding or the campaign staff surrounding the candidate could have done a better job to support the spouse, because it was a highly anticipated speech and it was a very genuine speech. It opened with a thank you to the American people for supporting her husband, but it also did something that is really important, and something that the candidate and his other surrogates have not done, and that was really a gracious nod to unity and with respect and appreciation and gratitude towards all of the 16 other candidates that went through a bruising primary. That’s something I was looking for to see, and again, it’s the unique role that the candidate’s spouse plays.

This would be a very historic – no matter who wins the presidency, whoever becomes the president’s spouse is making a historic leap into the position. This would be only the second foreign-born first lady we ever would have had. In Bill Clinton’s case, this is someone who has held the job as President of the United States. We start with the complication of even what do we call the job and how is the office reorganized. I think the greater complication for former President Clinton will be what his outside positions are, what his outside earned income is. He has a job, and when you come into the White House, the ethics rules are so tight and really difficult, and it – this will be a challenge for the counsel’s office in the White House to make sure there would be no distraction and no controversy by the former president’s work that affects what the current president is trying to do. But certainly he’s one who understands the job deeply, and I would suspect that President Hillary Clinton, should that be the case, would identify a specific role and carve out a specific task that she would want him to lead.

So again, those are just very brief opening remarks so you understand my background. I’m coming from the position of having seen a woman’s leadership role up close and personal in our government, and that’s what the first lady’s office has been. And it’s a unique opportunity. The position may change. My understandings of the inner workings of the White House, because I have been there so many times – I know what’s most important for the spouse to be effective is that that person has the president’s support. Without that, they would not get assets or support from the staff. So I’d like to turn this over to some questions, perhaps, or if Jennie – if you have other points that you want me to touch that I may not have.

MODERATOR: No, thank you very much. We are actually just – I want to make one announcement – Joe Schmitz has agreed to come back at 1:30 to continue taking questions, so after Professor McBride is done, we’ll have a short break and Joe Schmitz will come back. But now we’re going to open it up for questions for Professor McBride. As a reminder, if you can state your name and media outlet.

MS MCBRIDE: Yes sir.

QUESTION: David Smith of the Guardian.

MS MCBRIDE: Oh, sure.

QUESTION: Could you just give us a bit of an insight into how the process of a first lady’s speech would work at a convention like this?


QUESTION: Would she generally write it herself or would it be mostly written by others? And do you happen to have heard on the grapevine sort of how this particular one worked?

MS MCBRIDE: David, that’s a great question, and actually, those are the interviews I’ve been doing all morning since 6 o’clock this morning about that, about how this could happen. To your point, does she write it herself? At the end of the day when you’re delivering that speech, those words are yours and you own it. Now, is there a process that goes into helping to develop the themes? Absolutely. Is there a speechwriter or, certainly for a presidential candidate, there may be – and the president, there would be a team of people. But I know from experience in a campaign, for the spouse, it’s a very lean staff, if at all.

And I think this underscores that there needs to be an infrastructure around Mrs. Trump if she’s going to continue to be used as a reflection of her husband and as a surrogate. We all know that she had great trepidation to come out to do these remarks. She was very nervous. She executed it beautifully. I think – watching it in the hall, I thought you would never detect a sense of nervousness. So she clearly had practiced that speech, whether she practiced it alone or certainly with someone.

So the process would be that you would sit down with the principal and you would gather ideas of what they wanted to say, and it would be crafted into a draft. This is the way presidents do it too. I think the exception to that might be Mr. Trump. I’m not sure he follows a process like that. But my sense was that there was a process with this, and that when she came to deliver that speech, she was prepared and comfortable with all the words that were in it.

I think for the controversy over the words that appeared – that were the same that were used by another first lady, the bottom line answer to that is that is poor staff work, and they did not serve her well. And one thing that campaigns make a mistake of over and over again – and it takes one mistake like this to make it happen; it never happens again – is not give the appropriate support to the spouse. I’m sure that won’t happen again if she chooses to continue to go out and make speeches. I hope she does, because I think she was very effective, but clearly there was not enough fact checking to the – and I wouldn’t go as far as what Chairman Priebus said today is that the speechwriter should be fired. That’s a little harsh. This is a campaign. Things are very fluid. But nevertheless, it required a fact checking that clearly did not take place.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Professor McBride, we have a question over here.

MS MCBRIDE: Yes. And this – actually, she had her hand up before – oh, but you’ve got the microphone. Okay. Whatever.

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: This is Jose Carreno with Excelsior in Mexico City.


QUESTION: Being you’re an expert on the relationship between the White House and Congress, I’d like to ask you about the interaction between – in this case the Trump campaign or an eventual Trump administration and Congress. It seems that he has problems with the congressional delegation, even the Republican congressional delegation, and he has been accused, if you want to use the word, of being a bit on the authoritarian side. So I’d like to know your view about this.

MS MCBRIDE: Sure. Well, I think one of the best ways to respond to it is to look to the choice that – as a vice president. Mike Pence is someone who had great relationships in the Congress, understands the sensitivities that members of Congress feel about having their input as part of important decisions. I think that that will help Mr. Trump a great deal – at least I hope it does. If he does become President of the United States, he will need that, because I think there is a sense on the part of the Congress – many members of the Congress – that they are irrelevant to the process and that their experience is not respected. And that is something that will have to – for anything to get done will really have to be addressed.

You have a few members – and we saw some of the members of Congress that spoke last night: Tom Cotton, Jeff Sessions – they are – particularly Jeff Sessions, who I heard again today, is very much in his camp. These are people I think that candidate Trump and president – and if he were to be President Trump would have to deploy very – he can’t see – would have to deploy to help him repair the relationships that he does not have at this point.

QUESTION: I agree with you, but the point would be that both Mr. Pence and Mr. Sessions are – have been at the fringe in – even among the congressional Republicans. So that is --

MS MCBRIDE: I would agree with that, but I think – but they are representative of the mood of the American people now, and that is something that can’t be – people like Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions, Mr. Cotton, and others have a sense of the exasperation of a lot of the American people. 15 million people voted for Donald Trump; 17 million people in the primary didn’t. Those are the ones they’re going to have to go over and try and win over, but I think that this is an inflection point in the party. This is a review of what are the principles of the Republican Party. And if they are not pure in following what they believe to be right, then they’re going to lose.

But I think – you know what, there is a tension between standing for principle and finding common ground. That is (inaudible) the key in this next Congress whoever comes in. Mrs. Clinton will face the same thing – she really will.

Yes ma’am.

QUESTION: Hi. Claudia Trevisan from the Brazilian newspaper Estado de Sao Paolo.


QUESTION: I have two questions. You touched a bit on the first one now. You said earlier that the country – not only the Republican party, the country is in inflection point. If you could elaborate what you mean by that.


QUESTION: And the second question is, considering your experience with the work of Ms. Laura Bush, how do you see the role of Ms. Trump should Mr. Trump be elected as president?

MS MCBRIDE: To your first question, I think there’s been a – there is a growing sense of concern amongst many American people that our country has lost its way, that our role of leadership in the world is at question, that our strength – especially economically – is in question, and that there have been a series of policies over a period of time – and certainly the Republican Party would argue over the last seven and a half years – that have put us on a very unsure footing for the future of our own people and our place in the world. That’s the inflection point. It’s what are the policies that are driving this sense of discontent and true worry for the future, and it’s a set of principles that on both sides of the aisle there is going to have to be some common ground, which we talked about with the journalist from Mexico. The attempt to reach unity at this point of inflection is going to be very difficult and it’s going to take leadership. Those who support Mr. Trump think he’s the one that can do it. Those that support Mrs. Clinton think she’s the one that can do it. It’s the ones who are not sure that now have this period from July 29th, when the Democratic Convention is over, untilNovember 8th to make a decision. And that case is going to have to be made very clear.

Now, to Mrs. Trump, what potentially would she do? I think that this is something – I would start out by saying that the position is so ill-defined, and I mean that in a positive way. There’s no position description for the role of first lady of the United States. Each occupant that has come into it has made it into something that is a reflection of them. At the platform of that position, though, is one guiding principle for them: They want to add value, and value that is directly tied to the goals of the administration. They are the person who is most invested in the success of the president, like no other advisor or confidant. My sense – and the three first ladies I have watched up close, and by some extension to Mrs. Clinton, because I know her and her staff very well too – that they are best at it when they choose something that is genuine and authentic for them: something they have experience, something they have interest and would have credibility. It’s a much better place to start, and you can grow. Nobody expects you to come in and do everything at once. That is the best part of being the spouse of the President of the United States. The president has every single problem of the world come to his desk. The spouse gets to pick and choose what they want to do. So it’s a very empowering position, but it’s one that I think Americans increasingly have a great interest in and a great expectation that the person who occupies the position does something meaningful and valuable with it.

Yes, she has a follow-up, sure.

QUESTION: In the question of Ms. Trump, what would be her values? What it would be she related to?

MS MCBRIDE: Well, I think, from what I know – and I don’t know her intimately at all, but what I have read and what I have researched, there are a few humanitarian causes that she is interested in, and related to children and related to children of abuse. And I think my sense is that it would be something along those lines – it’d be something related to children and perhaps education, not unlike her two predecessors. Mrs. Obama’s issues or initiatives are all directed to children and families, as with Mrs. Bush as an educator. So I would expect, because she already has said, she considers herself a traditional wife, and I think that she will be focused on her family first and probably continue to focus on some issues related to children.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Hello. I’m Olivier O’Mahony with Paris Match, the French magazine. You just mentioned that you knew the Clinton team very well, so I want to ask you, what should be the role of First Gentleman Bill Clinton in the White House?

MS MCBRIDE: That will be one of the most interesting things that can happen that comes out of this election. In addition to the history-making fact that we would have a first woman president, we also would have a first former president and male as the spouse of the president. I think for somebody like Bill Clinton, who is such a policy person and who has been on a national and global stage for so long, it would not be enough for him to continue or to do the traditional duties of a first spouse, of a first lady. I think he understands them and respects them, and Mrs. Clinton when she was first lady very much wholeheartedly respected them as well.

I think that it is a possibility, because we’ve heard Mrs. Clinton say this, that she would identify a particular issue that she would ask him to lead. And what she has said – and I don’t know whether this bears truth if she becomes president, but what she has said is the fact that during the period of time that he was president, he presided over a period of prosperity in the country, and she would look to give him some responsibility related to the economy. And for anybody that’s worked in the government like I have, the first thing that went up – antenna that went up in my head – well then, what does that mean about the relationship that he would have – former President Clinton would have – with the secretary of the treasury or with the secretary of commerce? That will be a delicate balance, and I’m sure, given his position as the president’s spouse, he would have a lot of authority.

The challenge will be how he manages his outside private, professional responsibilities with the White House, because there really are a number of rules and ethical considerations about any outside earned income from sources that may be in contradiction to what the U.S. Government is trying to do. So it will be a delicate balance. I think the White House structure adapts to any occupant to the position, and the people who have the position adapt to the limits. But he’ll do something significant, I’m sure.

I think – I’ll leave it to them.

QUESTION: I’m Ole Nyeng from the Danish weekly Weekendavisen. I would like to ask you – we don’t know much about foreign policy under Mr. Trump, partly because he hasn’t said much about it. But from what you know and from your dealings with his advisors and so on, how would you outline the differences between foreign policy of Mr. Trump and the foreign policy of former Republican governments?

MS MCBRIDE: Well, first of all, I am not a member of the Trump campaign. I do not have contact with their foreign policy advisors. I do happen to know Joe Schmitz, which is why I recommended that he come and talk to you today – someone who is more in the inner circle on the campaign and on foreign policy. So I can’t venture to say exactly what his policies would be. What I can answer, though, is the second part of your question, is how different it would be.

Candidate Trump has been quite clear that he feels the interventions of the past – certainly the past Republican administration of George W. Bush – went way over the line and were a mistake in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and also believes that the amount of development aid that we as an American government contributes is – needs to be scaled back. There’s been a lot of effort and – put into a global development and partnership with other countries to help developing countries, and there are a lot of members of Congress, going back to the Mexican journalist’s question too, who would disagree with – even members of the Republican Party who were there at the time of approving big plans, like the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as one of them, who support those interventions.

This will be a crossroads for a Trump administration, because there is a belief amongst people, particularly like Senator Lindsey Graham, who truly believes in – to his core that U.S. aid for global development and a strong military, but particularly for global development, is directly tied to our own security. And so this will be a challenge, I think, for a Trump administration. But I would definitely ask your question again of Joe Schmitz when he comes back.

Yes, sir.

MODERATOR: Okay, this is going to be our very last question.


MODERATOR: Sorry, but we have a need to get Professor McBride to her next appointment.

MS MCBRIDE: Sure. I can probably take two more.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Mort Bertelsen of Norway and Dagens Naeringsliv.

MS MCBRIDE: Thank you.

QUESTION: If I could go back to Melania, she’s a very glamorous woman (inaudible). How should she be presented (inaudible)? How would you go about it?

MS MCBRIDE: Well, I think last night was certainly an opportunity – a very unique opportunity – to present her to the broad public. This convention (inaudible) – it has a lot of interest that – again, because it is more unscripted than the ones we have had in the past. We aren’t even sure until an early part of the day who all the speakers are going to be. There’s a great – there was a great interest in what she would say and how she would present herself, how – what kind of picture she would paint of her husband. It was a rare opportunity for her.

I was actually very surprised at the initial response on sort of both sides and both camps that she did very well and presented herself in a very professional way – in a classy way, in a non – doing something that spouses should do because they don’t have to be the attack dog of the candidate, but to present this case for unity. She did it in a very subtle way. So I think that that earned her some points and she scored some points with that. Unfortunately, the controversy of the speech now might result that she won’t come out very much for a while, so that we could lose an opportunity to see more of what she can do.

There’s no question that her life or the current way she leads her life is very different than the vast majority of Americans. But what is important about her story, and I think that she spoke to it well last night, is she is an example of how immigration does work and should work. And that is something that for the campaign is such a sensitive topic and has garnered such concern, but her story and her one of pursuing an American dream and working hard to get it is something I think a lot of people can identify with that path, not necessarily the current lifestyle.

MODERATOR: Great. Well, we want to thank you, Professor McBride, for making the time today. On behalf of the State Department, this is a very small token of our appreciation. Thank you so much.

MS MCBRIDE: Thank you all.

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