Steve Schmidt on the time he met Trump, who he's voting for, and the legacy of Sarah Palin

Plus: the Edelman veteran and longtime GOP operative on Twitter Trump vs. real-life Trump.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Steve Schmidt, political luminary and former Republican, is now a free agent.

The former GOP operative left Edelman this month after serving as vice chairman of public affairs for eight years. He also doubled down on his "never Trump" position and became an independent.

Schmidt is focusing on "discrete advising" of clients on image, reputation, and crisis work, in addition to his political commentary for MSNBC. He’s the owner of Park City, Utah-based SES Strategies, which he launched five years ago.

The veteran of the George W. Bush White House, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign, and Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) national run chatted with PRWeek about his new political identity, the time he met Donald Trump on St. Patrick’s Day, and why the Democratic Party should "purify" the country.

If Trump were a client of SES, how would you counsel him?
[Laughs] Tell him to resign.

Look, any person who’s ever been involved in a crisis situation, whether it be corporate America or politics, will tell you that the first thing you have to get your hands around is, "what’s happening? What are the facts here?" If you have a culture where everybody’s lying all the time, and there’s no ability to get to the truth, you have the type of chaos that you’re seeing out of the White House.

Political communications has increasingly [been] about incitement, not about persuasion. Nobody’s trying to convince anyone of anything. [They’re] trying to incite as much intensity in the most fervent supporters on both sides. It’s clearly "Trump strategy," [who] makes no pretense about being president of all the country. He’s the leader of a faction, about 40% of the country, and that 40% is fairly obedient to him.

You live in Utah. Will you vote for [Democrat] Jenny Wilson over [Republican] Mitt Romney?
I will vote for Mitt Romney, and then I will vote a straight Democratic ticket for the first time in my life. Romney presents a thin reed of hope, and I hope he rises to the occasion because this country needs a figure of probity and rectitude in a dramatic way. It needs a statesman and Mitt Romney has the potential to be that person.

Before, though, it seemed like you were going to go straight Democrat up and down the ticket.
No one has ever asked the question before. I’ve urged that the Democrats take the House of Representatives. I’d like to see them take the majority in the U.S. Senate. The reality is that Mitt Romney will win in the state of Utah, and I have high hopes for Senator Romney, so I’m an independent voter now.

Have you ever met President Donald Trump? Can you describe that meeting?
I did meet him on St. Patrick’s Day of 2016 at Trump Tower. I have the type of personality that if someone said, "Hey, Steve, there’s a UFO that just landed in Central Park, you want to go on the UFO?" I would 100% go on the UFO, right? It was an opportunity for me to take his measure, see what he was about, see the reality of a man face-to-face. On MSNBC, we were talking about [him] all the time. As somebody who grew up in North Jersey, [Trump] was just front-and-center of my consciousness for, I mean, my whole life, from 10 years old, from 1980. He was avuncular, he was friendly, he was charming. You could see the salesman in him.

Is there a disconnect between that persona that we see on Twitter versus the one who you met in person?
Well, no. I mean, the argument that the Trump people were making at the time was that Donald Trump was a sophisticated, smart, intellectually curious, outsider candidate who was in this steel cage match to the death with the 17 other Republicans. [Then] he was going to run a campaign that had an optimistic vision for the country, that wasn’t going to be divisive, that wasn’t going to be all the things that you saw during the primary.

When I met him, you didn’t seen any of the inherent meanness, cruelty, bullying. What you saw was kind of a small operation where, over the course of it, [then-campaign press secretary and former White House Communications Director] Hope Hicks came in several times and was reading off of emails, like basic reporter inquiries. He was hands-on in the management of the media in a way that I knew him to be. But no, it was a totally normal interaction.

Is his Twitter persona an act?
I believe that Donald Trump got into a presidential campaign believing that it’d increase his brand in market share, that it would be good for business. No matter what the outcome was, he believed he would have accumulated a type of celebrity political power that he could translate into any one of a number of other different types of license ventures.

Over the course of the campaign, he found his way to an ideology and I think ideologists found their way to him and they came up with this home brew of nationalism, populism, and great power politics philosophy that is as illiberal as it is contrary to America’s global interests.

Take the difference between Trump and [former White House Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon: Bannon believes this stuff; Trump uses it as a vehicle. And believing in it and being for it are two different things, and you see this reciprocated by the capitulation by so much of the Republican political establishment in Congress. But I think that he intuitively understands how to incite these people and how to change the subject and how to manipulate the media.

Many pundits have pointed out there’s some connective tissue between the rise of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin and the rise of Trumpism. Have you ever wondered to what extent you may have been responsible for today’s GOP?
I dismissed the cause and effect notion of Palin. There’ve always been demagogues in American life, and Sarah Palin decided to cash out of her political career and become a reality TV star. To the best of my ability for many years, I’ve warned about the dangers of the type of languid populism that we saw the first signs of at the end of the 2008 election.

Palin was a harbinger for Trump in this one regard: when she resigned her office of governor, people in the conservative commentary, in the immediate aftermath when it just seemed so obvious this person was just so manifestly unfit, still praised her life and her future as a leader in the Republican Party.

What she represented was the ability to suspend disbelief about what is clearly staring in front of you. The fundamental question in the case of Sarah Palin, which we really never answered, was: is this a person who in fact knows nothing about anything? And, therefore shouldn’t be anywhere near the levels of power? Or is she a victim of some type of conspiracy against her? She represents this moment in time where becoming a victim became a virtue. A victim though can never lead other victims.

What Trump understood is that the victims were looking for a type of strength. And the type of strength that Trump represented was a fearlessness about assaulting and assailing all of the people that the victim class that has grown to approximate Trump’s base in this country [dislike].

People have always understood that Trump’s gravitational pull isn’t necessarily built on fidelity to Trump as much as it is based on their hatred of people who hate Trump. One commentator said, "They’re not pro-Trump and much as they’re anti-anti-Trump."

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