WASHINGTON (AP) — Hours after her friend and colleague at the Republican National Committee had been accused of sexual misconduct, Ronna McDaniel was on the phone with President Donald Trump for a difficult conversation.
Casino magnate Steve Wynn, the RNC’s finance chairman and a mutual friend, had to step aside, she explained to a man who also has faced accusations of sexual misconduct but refused to be derailed by them. McDaniel, Trump’s choice for RNC chairwoman a year ago, says the president listened, and ultimately agreed. Wynn had to go.
"There’s a personal element to this, that Steve is a friend," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But the allegations were serious. The president took them seriously. We needed to move forward."
And so McDaniel demonstrated the delicate candor and discretion that have served her well in first year as a top political lieutenant to a man who prizes loyalty and plays by his own rules.
McDaniel has proved a shrewd navigator of the president’s swirling currents, but not a sycophant. She has kept Trump’s confidence in a way other top advisers haven’t, certainly by posting a robust financial bottom line for the party, but also by being candid with him in private and discreet when she’s disagreed.
McDaniel’s place in the circle of trust wasn’t necessarily expected. A niece of one of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics during the campaign — 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney — McDaniel has sought to establish a political identity separate from her famous family.
She recently dropped Romney from her name in RNC communications and her Twitter handle. Trump had ribbed her about her name during the campaign, but the change was a nod to her husband and to signal her independence, aides and confidants said.
McDaniel now readies for her biggest test as chairwoman: protecting congressional majorities in the November elections while facing political headwinds fanned by the president’s low approval ratings and — more immediately — fallout from her finance chief’s departure.
"My job is to be truthful," she said. "My job is to share with him my recommendation."
She added: "We may have a dialogue about it. We may disagree. But ultimately I’m going to support the president."
"I’ve lasted a year," she said with a chuckle. "I’m still here."
Before last week’s resignation by Las Vegas casino mogul Wynn over claims published in The Wall Street Journal that he sexually harassed several women, McDaniel had largely steered clear of the drama that has ensnared the White House.
When the allegations surfaced, McDaniel called Trump in Europe but it was late Friday there and they reconnected the next morning.
Given the nature of the allegations, she said, "we came to a conclusion and Steve submitted his resignation."
It was awkward because Wynn had helped raised more than $107 million for Trump’s inauguration last year as well as to score record totals for the RNC. What’s more, Wynn had denied the accusations, just as Alabama Republican Roy Moore had last year before Trump reversed himself to side with him in the special Senate election.
That conversation wasn’t the first difficult one Trump and McDaniel have had in their year of working together.
In December, McDaniel argued to Trump that the RNC should not resume sending money to the Moore campaign after she had cut ties with it a month earlier, with Trump’s consent, over the allegations against the candidate.
But Trump reversed her decision on not sending money in December when some thought Moore had a chance at the seat in the narrowly divided Senate. Moore lost.
"There are times when she’s going to walk the line with what the president demands," said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican National committeeman from Massachusetts. "I think she understands that."
Though McDaniel is from a long line of prominent Republicans, as granddaughter of former Michigan Gov. George Romney as well as niece of Mitt Romney, she owes her new post solely to Trump.
As Michigan GOP chairwoman in 2016, McDaniel impressed Trump over Washington-based operatives bucking for the RNC post.
Neutral through the 2016 primaries, McDaniel later supported Trump, no small thing given her uncle’s criticisms of Trump.
She was at Trump’s side in working-class Macomb County outside of Detroit days before an election and watched him campaign across the upper Midwest, carrying once-reliably Democratic working-class suburbs.
"One reason she seems to connect with Trump is because she reflects what it is to be a Trump voter," said Margaret Metcalf, the RNC committeewoman from Guam. "Ronna recognizes the will of the people."
McDaniel, 45, greeted Metcalf with a hug and a squeal at the Washington Hilton before an RNC reception Wednesday.
Gregarious in a group, McDaniel is also a fierce fundraiser, boasting $132.5 million raised in 2017, the most of any party in a post-election year.
She shuttles between Washington and her home in Northville outside of Detroit, meets weekly with Trump and his political team in the Oval Office and talks to Trump by phone at least weekly. She often spends six hours a day fundraising.
She’s both a devotee to Trump the outsider and a figure of the Republican establishment; and a team player with a keen sense of her duty to one person, the president.
Some party members have complained that she’s been less accessible than predecessor Reince Priebus, who lavished attention on members. But she has a higher-priority constituent, the president.
"It’s not glamorous, it’s a grind," Mark Shields, who was chief of staff to Priebus, said of the job. "It’s to raise money, and to support the president. And Ronna’s a machine."
Still, McDaniel has injected personal ideals into sensitive national debate. She’s just done it carefully.
Without criticizing Trump, McDaniel insisted in August, over some quiet protests, that the RNC pass a resolution condemning white supremacist groups after violence at a demonstration by such groups in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump had condemned the groups, only to say later there was blame on "both sides" of the deadly clash.
While praising Trump for condemning the hate groups, McDaniel added during an ABC interview, "I don’t think comparing blame in this situation works."
With a light touch, McDaniel insisted the RNC speak up, without publicly crossing Trump, said Mississippi RNC committeeman Henry Barbour, whom McDaniel occasionally consults.
"I think it speaks to her leadership," Barbour said. "And sometimes that means leading in a way it’s clear she’s taking her own path and not just following."