02:46 - Source: CNN
Donaldson: Trump, Conway like mongoose and cobra
CNN —  

It’s h-a-r-d to survive very long in the Trump White House. The President is a hugely judgmental man who also happens to be incredibly mercurial; people he loves today may be people he hates – or at least distrusts – tomorrow. Like, literally.

Which brings me to the somewhat curious case of Kellyanne Conway, the senior counselor to President Donald Trump. Conway has been a regular presence at Trump’s side since spring 2016, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for whom she had been serving as an adviser, dropped his challenge to Trump. She eventually rose to be Trump’s campaign manager for the final months of the campaign and has been ensconced in a top role in the White House since Day 1.

Which is weird because so many people in those senior administration jobs are gone. Reince Priebus. John Kelly. Sean Spicer. Jim Mattis. Rex Tillerson. H.R. McMaster. Anthony Scaramucci. Hope Hicks. Rob Porter. Scott Pruitt. Steve Bannon. There are SO many more. But you get the idea.

And yet, Conway remains. Not only that, but she is never mentioned as someone who has fallen out of favor with Trump, someone he has lost faith in, someone who is clinging to their job. She seems to sort of skate under the radar – despite the fact that she is one of the most recognizable and high-profile figures in an administration filled with them.

How, you ask? Good question! And a new excerpt from former Trump aide Cliff Sims’ book on his time in the White House – “Team of Vipers” – offers one very likely theory: Conway is the person most like Trump in the White House. Here’s the key bit from Sims:

“Her agenda—which was her survival over all others, including the president—became more and more transparent. Once you figured that out, everything about her seemed so calculated; every statement, even a seemingly innocuous one, seemed poll-tested by a focus group that existed inside her mind. She seemed to be perennially cloaked in an invisible fur coat, casting an all-knowing smile, as if she’d collected 98 Dalmatians with only 3 more to go.

“I’m not sure the president ever fully understood that about Kellyanne. But what he clearly shared with her was a love of media attention. Unlike most human beings, Trump’s greatest fear wasn’t death or failure or loss. It was obscurity. If he was noticed, he mattered. And he didn’t care much if the attention was good or bad, as long as it wasn’t indifferent.”

That’s an important bit of insight into Conway and Trump. They both view their ultimate gift as their ability to survive anything – and to even thrive. Trump went bankrupt three times but declared victory every time and just kept surviving. Conway worked for Cruz, who savaged Trump as a “sniveling coward” during the primary, then managed to work her way into Trump’s inner circle, and stay there. Trump was confronted with audio of him talking about women in deeply misogynistic terms just before the 2016 election and won anyway. Conway invented the phrase “alternative facts” and suffered no negative consequences inside Trumpworld. Even her husband’s public and oft-stated opposition to Trump doesn’t seem to have hindered Conway’s central role in the White House.

The other important thing to note in that Sims’ excerpt is the obsessive focus on the media – and its opinions – of both Conway and Trump. While Trump attacks the media at every turn, he is also the most avid consumer of its journalism – especially via cable TV – of any president ever. And while Trump will never admit it, he cares deeply what the media a) thinks about him and b) says about him. (“Trump sincerely held most members of the media in low regard – that wasn’t just for show,” writes Sims. “But what he didn’t like to admit was that he also craved their approval.”)

What Conway has understood throughout her time with Trump is that how the media perceived her – and her value to Trump – was the coin of the realm. Every adviser in the White House could tell Trump that Conway was a leaking nightmare – that’s certainly how Sims portrays her – but none of it mattered if Conway was regarded by the media as someone who was an effective advocate for Trump. If the media thought she mattered, then she mattered to Trump. Period.

Like her or hate her, that was Conway’s central insight – and what has kept her in the White House (and still with the ear of the President) long after many of her colleagues have either been fired or fallen out of favor. She endeared herself to Trump by being like him. If she leaked, well, hell, he likes to leak – for his own benefit – too! If she used people to accomplish some broader goal, well, he did the same! If lots of people said she was bad and needed to go, well, hadn’t people been saying that about him his whole career?

Asked about the book’s accusations of her leaking, Conway said Thursday that if she has something to say to the press, she says it in public. “You know who the real leakers are,” she told reporters. “If I reveal … them I’d have to reveal who they leaked to. That would be a lot of fun.”

For Trump’s part, you just don’t fire yourself. Or someone who reminds you of yourself.

“What a job she’s done,” Trump said of Conway last year. “What a job she’s done.”

Indeed.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.