Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Habits Are Slow To Die. Trump's Assistant Still In The Mix
Need to reach Trump? Call Rhona.
The president's acquired a White House staff, but his old friends still prefer to go through his longtime Trump Tower assistant.
When longtime friends and associates of President Donald Trump want to reach him, they don’t go directly to the White House. Instead, they call the woman who’s been the gatekeeper at Trump Tower for a quarter century: Rhona Graff.
Since Trump took office in January, Graff has become a conduit for those who want to quietly offer advice, make personnel suggestions or get on the president’s calendar when he’s at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The list includes investor Ken Langone and Hank Greenberg, the chairman & CEO of CV Starr whose assistant recently went to Graff about trying to set up a lunch with Trump, according to a person with knowledge of the call.
POLITICO spoke to seven associates of Trump who still pass on messages to the president through Graff, most of whom requested anonymity so as not to risk their access.
“If I really wanted to whisper something in his ear, I would probably go to Rhona,” said New York grocery billionaire John Catsimatidis, who’s dabbled in New York Republican politics and has known Trump for decades.
Some of the calls are just a matter of habit for people who have dealt with Graff for decades — but some see her as a way to get around White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and others surrounding Trump in Washington.
Roger Stone, a Republican strategist and long-time confidant of Trump, described Graff as a favored point of contact for “anyone who thinks the system in Washington will block their access.”
“I go through Rhona,” said Stone. “She’s a woman of excellent judgment who reflects her boss’ views. She has to field requests from a lot of people.”
Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort also stays in touch with the president through Graff, though a person close to Manafort said “it’s so infrequent, it’s not worth the mention.”
“If I wanted to get something to Trump without calling his cell phone, I’d send it to Rhona,” said another confidant who goes through Graff to get to Trump. “Rhona is always going to be around.”
During the campaign, Graff was instrumental in coordinating Trump’s travel and personal schedule. She considered moving to Washington, but decided to remain in New York, where her daughter is in high school. Instead, she passes requests along to Trump’s personal assistant in the White House, Madeleine Westerhout, who was trained by Graff during the transition.
Graff declined to comment for this story.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters rejected the idea that Graff continues to play a role in connecting Trump with people outside his administration as “completely false.”
“All correspondence goes through the White House,” Walters said.
"Rhona is not a go around," Walters also said.
The White House is bound by the requirements of the Federal Records Act, which governs the preservation of all records including schedules and correspondence from the president, the vice president and their staffs in the National Archives.
“There is a duty of the president to document his service and his activities as president and if you had a private employee who is creating a bunch of records outside of the federal government, then you do create a problem,” said Douglas Cox, a law professor at the City University of New York, who focuses on government records law. But, Cox went on, “there’s a distinction for so-called personal records, anything that’s purely private or non-public and does not relate to carrying out the duties of the president.”
Presidents George H.W. Bush, George Bush and Barack Obama relied on White House staff to handle all their scheduling. “It strikes me as unusual,” said Ryan Streeter, a former assistant to President George W. Bush. “I remember [Bush's] schedule being driven very much internally.”
Before Trump moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Graff warned deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, who now oversees the President’s schedule, that many of Trump’s longtime friends and their assistants would likely contact her to reach him purely out of habit, according to a person with familiar with the conversation. Walsh specifically requested that Graff forward the requests along, this person said.
“She’s still a factor, that’s all I know,” said New York Congressman Peter King, who arranged a meeting with Trump in December through Graff. “She gets things done and she’s very straight. It’s not a diplomatic call.”
Trump associates nevertheless say they’d rather go through Graff than through official White House channels, because they can be assured that messages will actually get to the President. Trump has even directed some people to go directly to Graff rather than the White House, according to two associates who have received this advice.
The president has been resisting the isolation of the White House by spending his weeknights making phone calls to old friends — a kitchen cabinet he relies on, to the irritation of some staff, including Priebus. Yet people who have Trump’s cell phone number say they’re wary of abusing that privilege and instead flag their interest in talking by passing on messages through Graff.
“Do you know the number of people who have his cell phone?” said a person who has the president’s number. “It’s a joke.”
Graff’s greatest influence is over Trump’s calendar at Mar-a-Lago, where his schedule is less tightly controlled by Washington staff. The president requests blocks of personal time be left free, which he uses to meet with friends, many of them club members who alert Graff in advance that they’re planning to be in Palm Beach at the same time as the president.
During Trump's first few trips to Mar-a-Lago, his official schedule was left open for meetings coordinated by Graff, according to a person with knowledge of his schedule.
White House spokeswoman Walters responded: “I would question your characterization of the President’s schedule, as he keeps a full schedule - always working for the American people.”
Like Trump, Graff, 64, is a native New Yorker from Queens. She holds a master’s degree in education and psychology from Queens College and ran a sports marketing company before starting with the Trump Organization nearly 30 years ago, working for Trump’s previous assistant, Norma Foerderer.
Now a senior vice president at the Trump Organization, Graff is a central figure in Trump’s world. She’s occasionally spoken on the record as a representative of the company, acting as a publicist thanks to her longstanding relationships with reporters.
She appeared on some episodes of “The Apprentice,” acquiring enough name recognition that people would know to call Trump Tower looking for her. In a 2004 interview after the show took off, she said that sometimes Trump would give people a code to use with her, so that she would know he’d already talked to them. “There’s a little code name, that I know that it's okay to set this meeting up or to go further,” she told Real Estate Weekly. “It helps, it definitely helps.”
While the president has removed himself from the day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization, he’s also remained in contact with his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, who continues to represent Trump in a personal capacity.
Friends said it would be unrealistic to imagine Trump cutting himself off from people like Graff who have been integral to his daily life for so long – or to give up control over his independent channels to the world beyond the White House bubble. “He’s always been an amazingly accessible person,” said Roger Stone.