Getting any president’s agenda passed in Congress is difficult, but it’s even harder when the president sends out a tweet or does an impromptu television appearance where he completely upends his previously stated policy positions or delicate negotiations that were already underway. But that’s Donald Trump’s style. And, as the newly minted head of the White House’s legislative affairs team, it’s now Shahira Knight’s job to get a continually shifting agenda over the finish line in an increasingly hyperpartisan Congress.
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The 47-year-old is used to being a part of intense, even frantic, negotiations from her Capitol Hill days. And she’s learned the president’s policy whims since arriving at the Trump White House at the dawn of the administration.
But after her predecessor, Marc Short, surprised many by resigning in July, Knight was thrust from deputy director of the National Economic Council (NEC) into this new role amid a government funding battle, a scandal-driven fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the possible departure of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign. All this while a multifront trade war escalates, and the Violence Against Women Act and the gargantuan Farm Bill still need to be reauthorized. “That’s certainly one of the hard things about it, is you are all of a sudden working on 10 different issues instead of a handful of issues,” Knight says in an exclusive interview.
She was a key player in negotiating the tax cut bill that has become Trump’s signature legislative achievement.
But in reporting this story, I spoke to several top appropriators who said Knight wasn’t actively engaged in the government funding negotiations, which included Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., telling me he’s never once spoken to her. After I sent partial transcripts of four of these interviews to the White House, the president’s communications team leaned on the GOP offices to paint a different picture of what their bosses had told me, including this: “From Shelby’s folks. ‘The Chairman speaks directly with the President on appropriations issues, and their staffs are in regular contact. Shahira has been nothing but helpful and engaged.’”
While her level of engagement at the Capitol is being disputed, we’re told she’s been busy working with her staff to make sure they’re on the same page in the transition to a new boss while spending about half of her days in meetings at the Capitol with senior staffers or key lawmakers before going home to field phone calls and catch up on emails. The work keeps her up until 1 or 2 a.m., but she’s still able to relax with an occasional glass of wine at night, a round of golf as often as possible and by helping rescue pit bulls.
After those few moments of relaxation, Knight is then thrust back into the perpetual twister of Trump’s Washington. And she’s playing the long game on issues like funding the wall on the Mexican border — an issue set to be put off until after the election, but which could cause a government shutdown in December. “We’re going to try again,” she says. “Border security is a priority for him, so we will definitely be working on that moving forward.”
Knight well knows the inner workings of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Born in Egypt to parents who were veterans of the Arab League of Nations and the World Bank, Knight moved to the D.C. area when she was 3. She earned economics degrees from the University of Virginia (bachelor’s) and George Mason University (master’s). On Capitol Hill, she worked her way up to staff director for the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees America’s byzantine tax code, and she was involved in the George W. Bush–pushed tax cuts of the early 2000s. Knight left the Hill to become a lobbyist, most recently for Fidelity Investments. She donated to Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in late 2015, but by early 2017, she had decided to join the Trump White House to work under NEC director Gary Cohn on economic policy. She was a key player in negotiating the tax cut bill that has become Trump’s signature legislative achievement.
“She was an honest broker, always informed, serious, conscientious,” says Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “I think she’ll be good here because she knows the issues and is trustworthy. People will trust when she tells them ‘yes’ and tells them ‘no.’” Trust is a precious commodity in a town known for backstabbing, vicious lies and cutting gossip. And lawmakers see Knight’s role as the legislative liaison as a two-way street. “She’s at once someone who has not just the ability to persuade us but also to be able to take our message to the White House. She has good connections there too,” Portman says.
But Knight has also attracted some critics over the years, especially for the tax overhaul. Many Democrats — who may gain control of one or both chambers of Congress next year — were left bruised by what they say became a partisan law aimed at helping the nation’s wealthiest. “I think it was unfortunate because she’s somebody who really has had experience on the Hill, but she was absolutely disinterested in even a modest effort to try to make the tax reform bill focus on the middle class, not blow up the deficit, not harm Social Security and Medicare and create a bipartisan bill,” says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Wyden was also personally frustrated because he had worked out a bipartisan tax bill with former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who is now the director of National Intelligence. Wyden maintains Knight and the White House never seriously tried to reach across the aisle. The White House points out that senior officials, including Knight, went to numerous meetings with Democrats but a compromise was elusive. “There was quite a bit of outreach to Democrats, and so it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Knight contends. “But at some point when we realized that none of them were going to be on board, we had to kind of focus on the folks who are willing to vote for it.”
While that tax bill squeaked by with only GOP support, any party-line strategies go out the window if Democrats capture the House — which would turn the White House’s already trying relationship with Capitol Hill on its head. Knight isn’t willing to talk publicly about what ifs. For now, she has to keep the government funded and rescue more pit bulls. You know, the easy stuff.