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How two old-school Washington insiders became the cool kids of Trumpism

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2017-03-20 Ben Terris

Matt Schlapp and his wife Mercedes on stage in February at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is the annual conference of the American Conservative Union. © Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post Matt Schlapp and his wife Mercedes on stage in February at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is the annual conference of the American Conservative Union. The day after a tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women went public in October, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, appeared on Fox News to defend him.

A minute after his segment ended, his wife and fellow pundit Mercedes called to say it might be time to take a break from television.

Matt had done a fine enough job. He looked great — white teeth, whiter hair, purple tie, comfy physique of a lobbyist who enjoys a good happy hour. He had signalled his continued support for the GOP nominee while also denouncing as “repugnant” his language in the shocking “Access Hollywood” tapes. And he seemed genuinely sympathetic when Marjorie Clifton, a Democratic strategist sharing the segment with him, began to cry.

But under the circumstances, it just looked bad, Mercedes told him. And the Schlapps had their five daughters to think about.

So Matt and Mercedes, members of the Republican establishment who had been defending Trump longer than most, drove to “Victory Farm,” their weekend home in Virginia, to ponder whether to stick with him. They split a bottle of wine and debated well into the night.

The decision was unanimous.

“We decided to double down,” Matt said.

“Of course we did,” said Mercedes.

The mogul’s “grab them by the p---y” banter may have horrified them, but the Schlapps decided life would be better under a President Trump than a President Hillary Clinton. And so far that appears to be true — at least for the Schlapps.

“They’ve become a really fun new power couple,” said Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary who worked with them in the George W. Bush administration.

They’re everywhere these days: Making the rounds on television, co-hosting a new satellite radio program, and overseeing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — including, in Matt’s case, moderating an appearance by Trump’s top lieutenants, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.

“I want to thank Matt Schlapp and his very, very incredible wife and boss, Mercedes,” Trump said in his own CPAC speech. “When I watch them on television defending me, nobody has a chance.”

While other establishment conservatives have come around to Trump, the Schlapps’ early enthusiasm earned them a place in his circle of unofficial advisers. They speak nearly every day with someone at the White House — often, they say, Bannon or Priebus. Sometimes even Trump himself.

Among the motley crew of outsiders and neophytes speaking up for Trump on cable news, the Schlapps stand apart. More than mere talking heads, they are experienced political operatives with gold-plated résumés; savvy networkers who have long known half of the District on a first-name basis and down both sides of the aisle.

They are, in other words, well equipped to take on another task for their president — as unofficial ambassadors to The Swamp.

Mercedes and Matt Schlapp at their home in Alexandria, Va., with their five daughters, from left: Ava, 6, Viana, 13, Elissa, 9, Lucia, 5 and Caterina, 12. © Andre Chung/for The Washington Post Mercedes and Matt Schlapp at their home in Alexandria, Va., with their five daughters, from left: Ava, 6, Viana, 13, Elissa, 9, Lucia, 5 and Caterina, 12. They met in the Bush White House in 2001. He was a sarcastic Midwesterner in the political department; she, in her words, was “a fashionable Latina Miami girl” in the press shop. After a staff meeting, Mercedes approached Matt and suggested they chat about the topics where their portfolios overlapped.

“I thought she wanted to get together,” said Matt, now 49.

“Really?” said Mercedes, now 44. “No, I was taking my job very seriously at that point.”

Matt grew up in Wichita and went to Notre Dame, where he was so politically active the school newspaper joked his future kin would run the college chapter of the “Young Fascist Republican Pigs.” After graduating, he worked as a tennis coach, then ran the successful 1994 congressional campaign of Kansas conservative Todd Tiahrt.

“When we got to Congress, he was my eyes and ears,” Tiahrt said. “He was a natural when it came to finding out who you needed to know to get things done.”

Mercedes’s family came from Cuba, where her father was arrested for trying to orchestrate an assassination of Fidel Castro. In prison, he prayed to the Virgin Mercedes, the patron saint of political prisoners, and vowed to name a daughter after her if he ever got out.

After graduating from Florida International University, Mercedes made her way to Washington for grad school. When she met Matt for their first dinner date, she needed to know one thing.

“I asked what he would do about Elian Gonzalez,” she said, referring to the Cuban boy whose mother had drowned on their ill-fated raft trip to the United States; in 2000, his father back in Cuba won a contentious custody battle to bring him home, inflaming Florida’s vocal anti-Castro community. Should he have been sent back, Mercedes asked?

“I told her,” Matt said, “You don’t ever send anyone back to the commies.” Within a year they were talking marriage.

Matt Schlapp, left, with Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus at CPAC in February. The Schlapps say they speak most days to someone in the higher ranks of the White House — including, sometimes, President Trump. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Matt Schlapp, left, with Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus at CPAC in February. The Schlapps say they speak most days to someone in the higher ranks of the White House — including, sometimes, President Trump. They told their story in the kitchen of their five-bedroom brick home, down the road from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, while their five daughters, all under the age of 14, gathered around a piano in the next room, belting out “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast.”

Mercedes, just home from a Fox News segment about Jeff Sesssions, put the finishing touches on a salmon dinner. Matt showed off his home office. There was a portrait of Lincoln, a couple plaques honoring the Schlapps for their White House work, and two notes from George W. Bush — one thanking him for his campaign work, one wishing him well when he left the administration to lobby for Koch Industries.

“Matt has built over the years deep trust across the political spectrum all around Washington,” said Ken Mehlman, his former boss in the White House. “He understands the policymaking process, and is one of the rare few who is actually really fun to be around.”

During a recent night of punditry on PBS about Trump’s address to Congress, Matt bantered merrily between segments with his fellow talking heads, including the journalists and liberals that he jokes are the “opposition party.” He regaled the crowd with his reviews of Washington’s green rooms — NBC, “junky”; Bloomberg, “fancy fancy”; CNN, “outrageously luxurious.”

“Fox, I think, is very cheap,” he said. “They have rickety furniture. They give the money to their people.” (Mercedes has a contract with Fox.)

Matt contends that being on the inside does not necessarily make one an insider, especially as a hardline conservative in Washington.

“I know what it’s like when you’re not part of the cool club,” he says. “It’s painful. Especially when you know you’re talented and you have as much to add, or more, than any of them, but they don’t want to hire you or have on the team.”

Mercedes Schlapp with White House advisor Kellyanne Conway at CPAC. © Mike Theiler/AFP/Getty Images Mercedes Schlapp with White House advisor Kellyanne Conway at CPAC. Perhaps this is why Matt welcomed outsiders — including controversial ones — when he took over the ACU. In 2014, Matt recruited Bannon to speak at CPAC, after a couple years in which the far-right media executive had hosted a rival event called “The Uninvited.” This year, Matt touted an appearance by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, a mascot of the more sexist and bigoted quadrants of the so-called “alt-right” movement. He ended up rescinding that offer after an outcry over Yiannopoulos’s past comments in seeming support of pedophilia. 

In 2016, Trump canceled his CPAC appearance at the last minute, anticipating an unfriendly crowd. But Matt wouldn’t hold a grudge, and soon he was regularly getting booked as a surrogate for the campaign. He liked that Trump wanted to shake up D.C., and appreciated the way he channeled anger and passion like no other Republican in decades.

Not everyone in his circle agreed about Trump. And many of them let Matt know it.

“Trump is destroying the central pillar of conservatism, and that’s a belief in limited government,” said Peter Wehner, a conservative think-tanker and former White House colleague of the Schlapps. “You’d think the chairman of the ACU would have a problem with that, but I guess not.”

It’s hard to square, Wehner said: How can people who believed in George W. Bush align with Trump? They worked for a president who spoke up for “our many Muslim friends,” but now bolster a president who ran on keeping Muslims out of the country. The couple who would never have sent Elian back to the commies now support the threatened deportation of millions.

As far as critics go, Wehner has been one of the kinder ones.

“I lost a lot of friends,” Matt says. “In the last year I probably drank more red wine than I had in the previous decade. I probably put on about 50 pounds.”

He used to get mistaken for Mike Pence. Now people keep thinking he’s Glenn Beck.

The Schlapps at home. Matt Schlapp says it was a comment from their oldest daughter Viana, second from right, that made them decide to recommit to Trump. © Andre Chung/for The Washington Post The Schlapps at home. Matt Schlapp says it was a comment from their oldest daughter Viana, second from right, that made them decide to recommit to Trump. The night after their October retreat to Victory Farm, Matt was back on air to stand by his party’s nominee. 

Trump “apologized in the tape before, and he reiterated it at the debate, and he moved on,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in a panel discussion.

Matthews interrupted his guest.

“How do you do this?” the anchor asked incredulously. “How do you do what you’re doing right now?”

It was a good question. So many other Trump surrogates had gone missing in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” scandal. Many would eventually return, of course. But in those first bad days, Matt and Mercedes already had clarity. Their 13-year-old daughter, Viana, had said something that stuck with him: So many times, she reminded him, he had told her how terrible Clinton would be for the country; why would he do anything to help Clinton now?

Matt decided to do what he thought best for the country. He did, after all, have five daughters to think about.

So Matt told MSNBC viewers that he wanted Trump to try to be a better man, but then reminded them of Bill Clinton’s own indiscretions. Of course, he conceded, the “Access Hollywood” tape should “play into the equation,” but Trump could still win if he kept talking about “upending Washington.”

“You’re to the bitter end,” Matthews mused. “Until the last dog dies.”

Everyone laughed. And no one laughed harder than Matt Schlapp.

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