She’s a strategic adviser in President Donald Trump’s West Wing. He’s a lobbyist who moonlights as the head of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — a key gathering for Trump supporters.
Meet Mercedes and Matt Schlapp, a power couple tailor-made for Trump’s Washington.
The two began their careers in the bastion of the establishment GOP — President George W. Bush’s campaign and White House — but have embraced their parallel roles as loyal surrogates for a president whose rise has reshaped their party and upended the conservative movement.
Now, Mercedes Schlapp — known as Mercy — is among the leading candidates to become communications director after the resignation last week of Hope Hicks. The move, said to be favored by White House chief of staff John Kelly, would further solidify the image of Schlapp and her husband as critical power players in Washington.
“Mercy is the natural choice,” said Bryan Lanza, who served as deputy communications director for Trump’s campaign. “She has the experience. She has the respect of the staff. She has the respect of, obviously, General Kelly. And from the position that she can execute, I think there’s very few people in New York or D.C. that can execute with this president as effectively as Mercy.”
Other internal candidates under consideration include Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who could take on a dual role, as her predecessor, Sean Spicer, did.
Schlapp, a former Fox News contributor who was tapped in September by Kelly as a strategic communications adviser, has already been doing much of what a traditional communications director would have in previous White Houses, running meetings with the press team and coordinating external messaging. She has filled the role of communications director in interactions on Capitol Hill, according to a senior GOP Hill aide.
While not in Trump’s inner circle of advisers, Schlapp is also well-liked by the president, in part because her husband is so often on television defending him.
A veteran of the George W. Bush White House and the Koch brothers’ Washington operation, Matt Schlapp was elected chair of the American Conservative Union in 2014. The group had already served as something of a testing ground for Trump, who appeared at the conference in 2011 and 2014.
Schlapp has become one of Trump’s more vocal defenders on cable television, a known way to the president’s heart.
“Matt has successfully been representative of the conservative movement and been able to defend Trump without looking like a sycophant, as many others who have attempted the same have failed,” said Rick Tyler, a former communications director for GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
In an interview, Schlapp explained his relationship with Trump as an effort to be “a conservative resource for him.” In early meetings with Trump, he said, his “goal was to try to impact him on conservative philosophy and try to explain to him conservative solutions to all the questions he’s had.”
But others have criticized Schlapp for simply rebranding Trump’s ideas as conservative ones.
CPAC, once a tea party-fueled gathering, appears to have become fully Trumpified. One anti-Trump speaker this year was loudly booed and had to be escorted out with security guards for her own safety. The conference also attracted controversy in 2017, when Schlapp invited alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (Yiannopoulos was later disinvited when a recording surfaced of him making light of pedophilia).
This year, the conference hosted a range of speakers from what were once the fringes of the Republican Party, and even hosted French nationalist Marion Le Pen.
Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor at the conservative magazine National Review, pilloried CPAC in a recent episode of his podcast, “The Remnant.” He described it as “super Trumpy, through and through” and noted the lack of speakers critical of the president, and criticized the willingness of many conservatives to abandon past positions to better suit the Trump era.
“The sort of personality cult aspect of the Trump presidency … have caused people to have sort of a fire sale on long-established conservative principles,” Goldberg said.
Schlapp dismissed the idea that he had moved CPAC in a Trumpist direction as an “absurd charge.”
“Those conservatives who are dubious about President Trump’s approach have withered down to next to nothing,” Schlapp told POLITICO. “It’s not CPAC’s change of attitude toward Trump, it’s the American conservative activists who have changed their attitude toward Trump. … By the way, we agree with them.”
Schlapp’s proximity to power and influence — or at least perception of influence — has proved lucrative.
Cove Strategies, Schlapp’s lobbying firm, brought in more than $1 million in revenue in 2017 — up from $640,000 in 2016 and $600,000 in 2015.
“He has professionalized the conservative movement to be the backbone of the Republican president in power,” Lanza said. “I think he would have been equally successful if it were President Jeb or President Cruz. ... He knows how to move his organization to maximize his influence.”
“Matt has hit the sweet spot with the conservative movement that is now lined up very much in concert with the president,” Lanza added.
Theo Meyer contributed to this report.