The ‘Unflappable’ Guy Helping Paul Ryan Keep Peace With TrumpBy
Jonathan Burks is House speaker’s newly elevated top aide
Burks says he’s working ‘incredibly closely’ with Trump’s team
If President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan manage to maintain their fragile truce in the coming months, it will be partly thanks to Jonathan Burks.
Ryan’s 38-year-old chief of staff is responsible for keeping the White House, the Senate and restive House Republicans united on a legislative agenda -- and for avoiding any policy surprises in Trump’s tweets.
That’s no small task, given that Trump and Ryan had never been seen in public together before Election Day. But Burks is particularly well suited to the role, say friends and associates -- with jobs for Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney and Mitch McConnell on his resume and a reputation as a policy wonk that matches Ryan’s.
“The path is not always smooth” in moving forward on Trump’s issues, said David Hoppe, Burks’s predecessor as Ryan’s chief of staff. “One has to be able to adjust" to the president’s goals, he said, "and Jon will do a very good job of that.”
Trump and Ryan have gotten off to an unexpectedly warm start, but their relationship will be tested in the coming weeks and months as the House starts moving on a health-care overhaul and tax changes.
Ryan has charged his chief of staff, who was promoted to that job in December, with closing the gaps between his “Better Way” proposals and Trump’s plan for American greatness, to make the most of the unified Republican government.
“The key to making things work in Washington is almost always the personal relationships that develop,” Burks said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We’re off to a great start on that front with the speaker and his staff working incredibly closely with the Trump team.”
Burks said having also worked for so many top Republicans -- including McConnell, the Senate majority leader -- gives him “an appreciation for the different incentives and pressures the key actors will face.”
He’ll need to draw on all of that experience to help overcome the inevitable conflicts that will arise working with a president who ran against the GOP establishment.
Ryan is already pushing ahead on his ambitious agenda, launching the Obamacare repeal process with a budget resolution that had only nine Republican defectors. The health-care overhaul has since slowed, as Trump turns his attention to unrelated executive action and the GOP hesitates over the risks of scrapping Obama’s Affordable Care Act without an immediate replacement.
Despite Ryan’s assurances that there’s very little “daylight” between his office and the White House, communication hasn’t been perfect. Republican leaders were caught by surprise when Trump promised “insurance for everybody,” compared with the more nuanced “universal access” lawmakers have promised in their plan to do away with former President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
It will be up to Ryan and his staff to try to tease disparate replacement proposals into pieces of legislation that Republicans can rally around, which the speaker says should happen in the first quarter of this year. This is where Burks is at his best, according to eight people who have worked with him, and where he’ll be needed to coordinate congressional action with Trump’s health care-related executive orders.
“I always had the most detailed questions, and Jon could always come back with detailed answers and the strategies we needed,” said Bill Flores, a Texas Republican who worked with Burks on the House Budget Committee when Ryan was the chairman. “He was all business, all the time.”
While most of Burks’s current and former colleagues said he brings a self-deprecating sense of humor and lighthearted nature to his work, one Republican aide said he could also be an aggressive negotiator when needed.
Burks, like his boss, is not an isolationist, according to the aide, which could be an early flash point with Trump’s foreign policy reversals and antipathy to free-trade deals. Ryan has already had to clean up after Trump’s early diplomatic overtures, reassuring allies including Australia and members of NATO.
Before he was named chief of staff, Burks was Ryan’s national security adviser and his liaison to Trump’s transition team, so he has experience on where some of those disagreements are likely to arise. Aides in Republican leadership say the six years he’s been working for Ryan means Burks has the confidence to represent the speaker’s positions.
“Even if people don’t know where Trump is going, people are going to find that Jon plays it straight,” said Lanhee Chen, who was the policy director for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Burks joined Chen’s policy team, which at the time was seen as a hint that Ryan would be Romney’s vice presidential pick.
Burks was a calming presence on the campaign, helping defuse tense situations and keeping the team focused on the big picture, Chen said. After Romney was widely criticized for his overeager response to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, it was Burks who would “talk me off the ledge,” Chen said of his worst moments on the campaign.
“The word I would use is ‘unflappable’,” Chen said. “No circumstance will knock him off his game.”
Chen said he was impressed by Burks’s sense of resolve following Romney’s defeat. Although the loss was doubly difficult for Burks given his proximity to Ryan, who was also on the ticket, Burks “dove back head first” into his work in Congress, Chen said.
‘A Challenge for Anyone’
Burks said he shares Ryan’s affinity for talking policy, especially when it comes tackling the country’s structural deficit and debt issues. Ryan, in turn, credits him with helping pass his first budgets back in their committee days.
Burks was also the policy adviser for budget and appropriations for McConnell in the Senate, legislative affairs director at the Securities and Exchange Commission, a senior Treasury official and a special adviser in the George W. Bush White House.
Hoppe, who stepped down as Ryan’s chief of staff in December, said staffers at this level tend to limit their extracurricular activities to spending non-work time with their families. This will certainly be the case for Burks, who got married last year.
Burks is a native of Pennsylvania and got his masters degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Burks is the first African-American to serve as the chief of staff to the House speaker since that title came into use in the 1980s, according to photographs of those who have held the position.
Burks is “actually quite humble,” given his long list of accomplishments at a relatively young age, according to Chen, Romney’s former policy director. With Trump in the White House and all eyes on the Republicans, Burks is the best person Ryan could have chosen for the “unconventional” time that lies ahead, Chen said.
“The enormity and the gravity of that task would be a challenge for anyone,” he said.
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