DC’s oddest power couple is giving a great lesson in what not to do

The latest episode in Washington’s reality-show politics is nothing to emulate.
The latest episode in Washington’s reality-show politics is nothing to emulate.
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Is the pairing of Kellyanne Conway and her lawyer husband, George—a match of two millionaire, far-right conservatives—falling apart, right there on our handheld devices, thanks to the increasingly divisive Donald Trump presidency they helped create?

Is the unprecedented public squabbling featuring Trump, his advisor and her husband just another elaborate piece of performance art, designed to ensure that the Conways’ post-Trump life is as lucrative as the years before?

Either way, it has brought Washington’s politics to a new level of bizarre. What once seemed a sideshow took center stage in this month, most recently with the Conways openly disagreeing about the Department of Justice’s analysis of the Mueller report. “Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal,” George wrote in a March 26 Washington Post op-ed.

Ruse, reality, or a mixture of both, the whole production can be hard on a marriage.

Quartz asked DC-area counselors who advise the district’s “power couples” how they assess what they see from afar. They stressed that they didn’t know the couple and don’t make armchair diagnoses. But they had plenty of advice for the rest of us.

Where we are in the saga

A quick recap for those who have sworn off Twitter and Trump news: George—a prominent conservative attorney—has been tweeting about Trump’s unfitness for office for months, Trump on March 20 called him a “stone-cold loser,” Kellyanne then sided with her boss in multiple interviews, and slipped in a dig about who does more to get the kids ready for school. At last count, George is still out there, tweeting away insults about his wife’s boss, and mocking her colleague Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s claim Trump has been “completely exonerated” in the Mueller probe.

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“The exchanges that are being witnessed between Kellyanne and her husband George are not indicative of a thriving, fortified relationship,” said Sara Oliveri, a Washington life coach who counsels couples. Public disagreements are never good, and siding publicly with someone else over your spouse is a textbook way to damage a marriage, she said.

“The research actually, specifically says literally ‘If you want your relationship to survive, then you have to take your spouse’s side in public,'” she said. It’s more prudent to discuss your disagreements in private.

Most people don’t get into public fights with their spouse and their boss that are witnessed by millions. Oliveri does liken what we are seeing to a situation many couples may relate to: tension between their “origin family” (parents and siblings) and their spouse over things like holiday traditions.

“If what you want is a strong, thriving relationship, you have to send a clear message to your origin family and your partner that you are with your partner, and they are your first choice,” Oliveri said. “They are your new family, and you come as a package deal.”

The message to the world someone in Kellyanne’s position is sending is “your regard for your spouse and your commitment to them is influenceable,” Oliveri said. Your partner, in turn, will “feel rejected and hung out to dry.” Ultimately, they will feel like “the relationship that you have with that other person is stronger and more valuable to you than the relationship you have with your spouse.”

The loyalty question is apparently a matter of discussion in the Conway house. “I feel there’s a part of him that thinks I chose Donald Trump over him,” Kellyanne said of her husband in a Washington Post interview last August. “Which is ridiculous. One is my work and one is my marriage.” George has “certainly” asked her to leave her job at the White House, she told Fox News March 21, but “what message would that send to the feminists everywhere who pretend they’re independent thinkers and men don’t make decisions for them?”

The bizarre situation has some DC precedent. Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign chief John Mitchell ultimately resigned after his outspoken wife, Martha, demanded he choose between her and his boss. The former attorney general said, “I have found that I can no longer [carry out the job] and still meet the one obligation which must come first: the happiness and welfare of my wife and daughter.” (They ultimately divorced.)

Dual jobs, dueling egos

At 2.5 divorces per 1,000 residents in 2017, Washington has one of the country’s lower divorce rates, well below the national average. It also has an oversize share of dual-income, dual-ego households. Just 22.4% of the city’s families with kids have a stay-at-home parent, compared to the national average of 32%. The gender wage gap is lower than the national average, meaning husbands and wives are on more equal footing than in other parts of the country, when it comes to working and earning outside the home.

As a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz for decades, George has defended cigarette maker Philip Morris and the National Football League. Before his public criticism of Trump he was best known for being one of the “elves” behind Bill Clinton’s impeachment, where he coordinated with future Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was an aide to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. In 2017, he turned down a top job in Trump’s Justice Department.

As head of a right-wing polling company, Kellyanne’s clients included a think tank run by Frank Gaffney, an extremist Islamophobe, and FAIR, the anti-immigration group. Her appointment as Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016 propelled her to a new level of fame.

Partnering “with someone who is equally as powerful as you is often an egotistical challenge for both men and women,” Oliveri says. Individuals need to pinpoint “the criteria on which you have hung your self-worth, whether it is professional status or attractiveness or popularity,” she said. “If your partner is out-performing you in that area, it will be deeply uncomfortable,” she said, and there will be an urge to react. Recognizing those instances will help you control your reaction, she said.

Resolving differences between couples who hold different political opinions is a “perennial topic here,” said Keith Miller, a Washington psychotherapist and creator of a mindfulness-based stress reduction course for couples, in part because there is more public scrutiny. “People from the outside look at it and say ‘How in the world is it possible for people to have such disparate views on things they hold sacred?’”

“What we do is help find them things they value in common,” Miller said. “People successful in long-term relationships can do that.” The prevailing wisdom in Washington now—that giving an inch to your political opponent is a sign of defeat—isn’t conducive to fixing politically divided marriages, Miller notes.“Compromise is such a dirty word in politics right now,” Miller said, who notes how destructive that can be in any kind of relationship: “The body and the mind don’t work that way. We actually do need other people.”

Couples who find themselves at an impasse need to be prepared to negotiate, to give “something of value to the other person, and to offer first and demand second,” Miller said. If you focus on your demands first, you make yourself “a target,” he said.

Both Oliveri and Miller said they hope the Conways are play-acting for the public. “If they’re doing this on purpose, at least that’s good news for their marriage,” Oliveri said of the couple. “If they’re not, I think they are kind of doomed.”

Jointly, part of the DC elite

Washington has the highest per capita income of any American city, and the Conways made their way here with a splash, after living in Trump Tower in New York. Last spring, they bought an eight-bedroom, 11,000-sq-ft home in northwest DC near Embassy Row with a backyard pool for $7.8 million.

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Image: Redfin/MRIS

Kellyanne’s job as a White House advisor pays $180,000 a year. Before she took her job with the administration, Kellyanne had more than 70 different consulting clients who paid her over $5,000 a year, many of them backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, from Citizens United to Americans for Prosperity to the Tea Party Patriots to Iowa congressman Steve King, according to her White House financial disclosure filed in 2017. Her polling firm is valued at $1 million to $5 million.

George’s income from Wachtell, Lipton, and Katz isn’t listed, but his 401(k) retirement account and another “capital account” are each valued at over $1 million on Kellyanne’s forms. The average Wachtell partner makes a profit of $5.8 million a year, Reuters reports, and senior Wachtell partners make three times what junior partners make, a recent AbovetheLaw article said. Conway has been a partner for more than 20 years.

Conservative politics is awash with the “performance art” George and Kellyanne are accused of, and no one outside of the two main players can be sure about their true aims.It’s either the biggest ruse ever, where they’re playing a big joke on us, or it is just sad,” an early Trump transition-team advisor said. “Either way, we’re all talking about it.”

George gets special attention

It’s certain the president doesn’t attack all of his conservative critics as harshly as he slams George Conway.

Anti-immigrant talking head Ann Coulter, an early Trump supporter whose book In Trump We Trust made the New York Times bestseller list in September 2016, recently she declared that America’s “only national emergency is that our president is an idiot.” (Coulter—who claims to have worked behind the scenes with George on the anti-Clinton team—is credited with introducing him to Kellyanne. Coulter also recently declared the Conway’s marriage a “national emergency.”)

Asked last month whether he is swayed by conservative commentators, Trump expressed his affection for Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, then added: “Ann Coulter, I don’t know her. I hardly know her. I haven’t spoken to her in way over a year. But the press loves saying ‘Ann Coulter.’ Probably if I did speak to her, she’d be very nice. I just don’t have the time to speak to her.” (For the record, Coulter introduced Trump at some of his 2016 campaign rallies.)

Even if going after George is part of Trump’s ongoing performance art for media attention, Kellyanne’s public rebukes of her husband make matters cringe-worthy for anyone looking past the politics.

“There is a shared, selective understanding that we all know that this is a carnival and outrage gets attention,” said Mandy Stadtmiller, former New York Post dating columnist and author of Unwifeable, a memoir about her life as a “self-destructive exhibitionist” who finds love and redemption in a second marriage.

“I have been pitched so many Page Six items about reality stars that are negative, by the reality stars themselves,” Stadtmiller said, referring to the Post’s gossip column. “They understand how the media cycle works,” she said—and that negative stories get a lot more pickup than positive ones.

That said, Stadtmiller added, if her husband sided publicly with a female boss over her, “I would be f—ing enraged.”