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President Donald Trump’s chief Capitol Hill negotiator should be one of the most high-profile people in Washington, especially now that the Republican health care effort will live to see another day.
But last Tuesday in the Capitol, when the Republican health care bill was on its deathbed, reporters swarmed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), which enabled Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, to zip by nearly undetected.
He laughed quickly when asked how he was feeling about the health care debacle and dashed off to join Vice President Mike Pence, who brought him into Trump's orbit in the first place.
His new boss, the president, might be making Short's job exponentially harder by singling out senators on Twitter — senators such as Murkowski, whose support he needs to piece together a coalition to move legislation forward.
“Look, I think we're all impatient, but that's healthy, right?” he wondered aloud in an interview with Independent Journal Review a couple of days after last week’s clean repeal effort failed. “I don’t think you want to be complacent with that.”
Instead, he said, drinking from a can of Coke at 10:30 that morning, the process is necessarily slow, just like the country’s founders intended.
Short’s standing desk in his office on the second floor of the West Wing was covered in stacks of manila folders. He had been spending the past couple of days in strategy sessions with the staffs of a few of the Republicans who bolted from the repeal effort, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s.
“I think there’s an assumption out there that we have to accept until the health care gets completed: Media will have a narrative about a signature item not being accomplished,” he said.
Staying on Script
Short's friends and colleagues say he’s quiet, intensely focused, and strategic — if anything, the opposite of Donald Trump. Those traits are helping to keep him as one of the most highly influential forces inside the White House, and one of the only ones playing the long game.
He’s made a couple of brief TV appearances, and he never goes off script. Unlike other administration officials appearing on camera to defend the president, his television hits never get circulated among media reporters for headline-making claims, and he doesn't have a public Twitter account.
He tends to shadow the vice president, and, in the same way Pence has done, he’s distanced himself from the palace intrigue controversies dogging Trump’s other top lieutenants.
One of Short’s early bosses, Young America’s Foundation President Ron Robinson, said that while Short is highly opinionated, he’s effective in advancing his ideas by not being verbose — and not leaking to the press.
“I've seen too many people who are all big talk, and it's kind of refreshing to see a quiet person who just works away and accomplishes things," Robinson told IJR.
Deep Republican Roots
Among the other ironies: He’s a longtime Washingtonian deeply connected to establishment Republicans and the super PAC groups Trump disdained when he was campaigning.
Over several decades, Short hopscotched across the Beltway and settled in as Pence's chief of staff when he led the Republican House Conference. In that role, he got to know the Koch Organization, which is closely tied to Pence’s political network. And after three years of working for the Hoosier, he convinced his boss to step down from leadership to run for governor of Indiana.
Short, in turn, jumped a couple of tax brackets in 2011, when he went in-house for the Koch Brothers and became president of Freedom Partners.
"They admire Mike, and they were looking for someone to launch their political operation, and I think we accomplished a lot in the five years I was there,” he told IJR.
Indeed, the Koch network was influential in helping the GOP win the majority in the Senate and expand its majority in the House in the 2014 midterm elections. Short was compensated handsomely, earning more than $1 million in 2015, according to IRS filings.
He naturally wanted to extend those victories into the next election cycle, but what happened next makes it seem almost implausible that Short would eventually wind up in the Trump White House.
His friends call him a “true blue conservative,” and they say wading in the Kochs’ libertarian pool was about as deep as he was willing to sink his ideological limit in a job.
In fact, the National Review reported that in February 2016, Short made a presentation to Charles and David Koch about how they should deploy their forces to defeat Donald Trump in the primary.
But as U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Political Strategist Scott Reed, who’s had a two-decade-old friendship with Short, told IJR, "The Koch network was not engaged in the primary presidential race, which is one of the reasons why I think he left.”
Off he went to advise Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, just when that more-conventional Christian conservative was struggling with the “Little Marco” moniker.
A Man of Faith
Multiple former colleagues, including Freedom Partners spokesman James Davis, say Short’s Christian faith has guided him through much of his professional career. Short says he picked that up from Oliver North when he worked on his unsuccessful Senate campaign in Virginia in 1994.
"I was excited to work for someone I viewed as an American hero, but what I didn’t understand was how deep his faith was,” Short said, describing his surprise in learning that as he barnstormed the commonwealth with the decorated Marine. “That led me to explore more what I felt was missing in my life and to want to accept Christ as my savior.”
(And it may explain the copy of “Les Miserables” currently sitting in his White House office — at least if you can see the comparisons between North, and his attempt at redemption after his participation in the Iran-Contra affair, to Jean Valjean.)
And it might explain why it was so crucial for Pence to get Short involved in the 2016 campaign and then into the White House; the admiration goes both ways.
"I think there’s probably been nobody that I’ve seen live out their faith in public service the way that Mike Pence does,” he said, adding that “being around other people of such strong faith certainly deepens mine.”
What’s not yet clear is where his faith, his true-blue-conservatism, and his closeness with Pence will clash with the loyalty and urgency he’s expected to have for Trump. But he seems to be aware of appearances.
“When I joined the campaign, it wasn’t a campaign for Mike Pence,” he cautioned. “I joined the Trump-Pence team. That’s the way I've viewed it ever since.”
'An Honorable Broker'
The Pence connection is helping Short achieve some incremental victories on the Hill.
Consider the mentality: “When I worked for Pence, he always said that we have a servant's heart in the way we're trying to serve the House of the Congress,” he said in the interview.
And that’s something House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) appreciates. He talks with Short regularly.
Even though Meadows led the caucus in resistance against a preliminary version of the House's American Health Care Act and wasn’t initially pleased with the administration, he said of Short: "In the end I have found that he has been an honorable broker and one who will not paint a rosy picture if it’s not a rose.”
He added that Short has had opportunities to serve up his characteristic strong convictions in Hill meetings, including on immigration, but has let them pass.
“He came to the defense of the Trump agenda and was singularly focused on that,” Meadows added.
In order to push that agenda, and to get Republican lawmakers to fall in line, Short told IJR that one thing the administration might do a little more of to apply pressure on tax reform and border security is send the president out to key districts to promote policies directly to those constituents.
“If we are making our case to the American people about tax reform and about border security, and they will make sure that’s the priority in the individual offices they are hearing from back home,” they should stand a better chance of success, he said.
Short has acknowledged that the constant drumbeat of investigations on the Hill has distracted lawmakers, and the White House needs to find a way to compete with that.
“I feel like we really have a unique opportunity right now to help change the direction that our country has been on,” he said.
“I am blessed to have this chance, and I mean that sincerely,” he added. “I don’t view that there will be any better opportunity than what I got right now."