Trump — not lawmakers — set to be biggest challenge for new legislative affairs chief Ueland

John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Eric Ueland, hand-picked by President Donald Trump to be his third legislative affairs director, has decades of experience in the D.C. "swamp" his soon-to-be boss loathes. But the former senior GOP aide will quickly learn it is the president alone who is, as one official put it this week, "the decider."

Ueland has been chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and a Senate Budget Committee staff director. Experts and former officials describe him as highly qualified for the tough task of being the messenger between Trump and a Congress with a Democrat-controlled House that regularly riles up the president and a Senate where Republicans lack votes to pass most major legislation.

But they doubt Trump will cede many points or delegate many decisions -- tactical or substantive -- to the 53-year-old Portland, Ore., native. So do White House officials.

"Eric Ueland is not coming to set the agenda. The president sets the agenda. He's 'the decider,'" said one White House official, granted anonymity to be candid. "Certainly, we will lean on his expertise with issues that will need to be addressed like the debt ceiling, like spending caps."

"We can't and shouldn't ignore his experience," the official added. "But at the end of the day, it's the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House and, of course, the president who make the decisions in this town."

Norman Ornstein of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute noted that Trump himself has shown up at the end of negotiations involving his aides and congressional Republicans and Democrats and pulled the plug. Those aides have included Ueland's predecessors as legislative affairs director -- Marc Short, now Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, and the outgoing Shahira Knight.


"Just look at the 2017 Senate immigration bill that was bipartisan -- until the president blew it up," Ornstein said. "In this very non-typical White House, if you're the chief of staff, you're just not going to be able to send your legislative director up to the Hill and say, 'Go cut a deal,' because it's just not going to hold."

The White House touted Ueland's "more than two decades of experience serving on Capitol Hill," with one official echoing experts in calling him "respected" by members and aides in both parties.

But several senior Democratic sources declined to comment, saying they and their bosses don't know Ueland well enough to weigh in. Since Trump took office, Democratic aides have griped that even if Short or Knight appeared to be negotiating honestly and listening to their side's demands, they never could be sure either spoke for Trump.

What's more, the White House last year withdrew Ueland's nomination for a senior State Department management position, with a spokeswoman for Senate Foreign Relations member Jeff Merkley of Oregon telling The Oregonian that too many panel members had "serious doubts about Eric Ueland's ability to achieve the tasks that the country needs" in that role. (Another Merkley spokeswoman did not respond to a query seeking more information Thursday.)


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