The ongoing government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, has crystallized for many Americans that Washington skews more “day-care center” than “center of the free world.” And as Republicans and Democrats alike address the furlough with all the sophistication of a playground brawl—dropping f-bombs, throwing “temper tantrums,” and snubbing lunch invites—there is Shahira Knight, the adult encouraging everyone to play nice.
The press has appointed a handful of staffers as the “adults” in Donald Trump’s administration, a classification meant to distinguish the few officials who have government expertise from the many who don’t. But even some of those officials eventually surrender to the rhythms of this West Wing, especially as Trump chafes against their constraints and helps fuel rumors of their diminished standing. They call one another “morons.” They form interoffice coalitions. They become “senior administration officials” for the reporters they profess to hate.
Knight is the rare exception. After nearly two years in Trump’s White House, the 47-year-old White House director of legislative affairs, the president’s chief advocate on Capitol Hill, has managed to evade the kind of credibility crises that consume her colleagues regularly. She’s become a key character in Trump’s circle even as she cuts the swampy profile his voters detest. And she’s done so by ditching the playbook that has guided most officials in the administration, preferring conference calls with congressional aides to Fox & Friends appearances and prioritizing sketching out tax policy to gaming out who might be the next chief of staff.
The result is perhaps the quietest ascent to power within this White House, the unlikely story of a Trump staffer content with both influence and anonymity. It’s a valuable quality, particularly as shutdown negotiations, such as they are, become more volatile by the day. According to more than a dozen current and former White House officials, lawmakers, and congressional aides, Knight is viewed as one of the only people who, three weeks into the closures, has maintained the respect of the president and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle—something that Trump’s top shutdown lieutenants, such as Vice President Mike Pence, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and the senior adviser Jared Kushner, have struggled to match.
Knight, they say, may be the White House’s only hope for ending the shutdown with a deal and not a national emergency. But as opportunities for compromise dwindle by the day, the thinking that good old-fashioned negotiating can solve the shutdown may be just short of wishful.
“If this ends in a way both sides are even somewhat happy with, it’ll be mainly because of her,” said one White House official who works closely with Knight and who, like most of the White House and congressional staffers I spoke with, requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
It was at former Chief of Staff John Kelly’s personal urging last summer that Knight took the legislative-affairs job. At the time, she was on her way out of the White House. In June, she announced that she was leaving her post as deputy director of the National Economic Council for a banking-policy and lobbying group called the Clearing House. The move made sense: When Knight joined the administration, some close to her wondered when the woman known for her competence would tire of a White House known for—well, not that. They expected she would quickly return to the private sector, where she’d lobbied for Fidelity Investments for eight years before joining the administration at its start. Prior to that, she had spent nearly a decade as a senior policy staffer on Capitol Hill.
“I was surprised when she went to the White House,” former House Speaker John Boehner told me. The two worked closely together on the House Ways and Means Committee, where Knight served as a senior adviser to the then-chairman, Bill Thomas. “And then when she announced she was leaving the White House, I thought, ‘Okay, that makes sense to me.’”
To Knight, too, the timing apparently felt right. Her first job within the administration was on the National Economic Council. She was conscripted by the then-chairman, Gary Cohn, to help pass tax reform, which Trump signed into law in December 2017. “After that, there was a sense of: What else do I have to accomplish here?” said one former senior White House official who worked closely with Knight.
But as is practically tradition in the Trump White House, an abrupt staff departure triggered a change of plans. In July, then-Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short announced that he was leaving the post to join a consulting firm and start a fellowship at the University of Virginia. There’s never really a quiet time to leave the White House, but Short had abandoned ship at a particularly crucial moment: The administration was gearing up for what would become an all-consuming Supreme Court confirmation fight, and preparing for the final months of the midterm elections. And because Short was one of Trump’s longest-serving officials, his absence was likely to feel acute.
Knight was as natural a successor as any. Her ties to the Hill long predated the administration, beginning with her climb in the early 2000s to staff director of Ways and Means, where she became well versed in the latticework of the tax code and helped shuttle through George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001.
Accordingly, she became a lifeline for lawmakers and the White House as Republicans drafted their overhaul of the tax code last year. Knight was valued not only for her policy know-how, but also for her familiarity with critical lawmakers and aides, which her colleagues lacked. Tax reform remains the administration’s most significant legislative achievement, and Trump saw Knight as one of its guides. “The president gained a tremendous amount of trust in her after that,” another White House official who works closely with Knight told me.
“He viewed her as, like, this brainiac that could come in and out-argue everyone on tax policy … like his pet genius,” the former senior White House official recalled. “We’d be in the Oval and she’d be getting really deep in the weeds on something. And Trump would just smile and look at everyone else like, ‘She’s good, right?’”
But whereas many officials in Trump’s orbit craved the limelight, Knight cowered from it. During the Oval Office signing ceremony for tax reform, Cohn recalled, he spotted Knight standing at the back of the room, hidden from view behind the cameras. “She has no ego to check,” Cohn told me. “It's a very rare quality in Washington."
This made the legislative-affairs job as defined by Short a difficult sell for Knight. During his tenure, Short had elevated the typically behind-the-scenes role to a higher-profile one that became almost an extension of the communications department. He was accessible to reporters and regularly appeared on the Sunday shows to tout the administration’s legislative agenda. Anonymous, he was not.
When Kelly pitched Knight on succeeding Short, she articulated a different vision for the role. “I was pretty excited about it. I’m obviously a creature of the Hill,” Knight told me. “But the nature of this job requires you to be an honest broker, and it requires you to be a bit more behind the scenes … It depends on relationships and trust and people knowing you’re getting and giving honest feedback.” To Knight, trumpeting the president’s message on cable news didn’t seem like the best strategy for engaging in good-faith negotiations with lawmakers. Kelly agreed.
Congressional aides long close to Knight told me the challenges of negotiating and communicating on behalf of a famously mercurial president quickly became clear to her in the legislative-affairs job. In addition, they said, Knight had to contend with multiple White House officials who, when it came to pushing their respective pet projects, often bypassed her team to communicate directly with lawmakers and aides. “There are a lot of voices on the Hill for the administration, and they’re not always well coordinated,” said a former House GOP leadership aide who recently left Capitol Hill. “For us, the goal was to figure out that just because someone is a senior adviser to the president [doesn’t] mean they speak for the president.”
Through the fall, Knight began tailoring her communication strategy to satisfy both her whim-driven boss and lawmakers desperate for clarity. She learned how to discern the difference between what she calls Trump’s “hard yes” and “soft yes,” and how to hedge during negotiations on the Hill without sacrificing authority.
Lawmakers and aides frequently gripe about the president’s opacity during times of crisis; they’re often unsure about what Trump wants. This is exacerbated, they say, by the impression of multiple competing agendas within the White House. But Knight is “always extremely careful to make clear when she’s speaking for [Trump] and him alone,” the former leadership aide said.
Congressional sources I spoke with, both Republican and Democrat, also said they trust Knight’s interpretation of where the president stands on any given issue at any given time. “When she says, ‘This is what the president wants,’ he may change his mind later, but you can take her at her word in that moment,” a senior House GOP leadership aide told me. “A lot of West Wing folks are trying to interpret or guess what the president wants, but I think people here feel most comfortable when they hear it from her.”
All of this has evidently served Knight well over the course of the shutdown, especially as officials as senior as Pence have struggled to convey Trump’s shifting positions on how much money he wants for his border wall and whether he’s inching closer to declaring a national emergency as an exit strategy.
“Shahira is an indispensable asset to this administration,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told me in a statement. “She is constantly engaged with my team on all issues before the Senate and has been working hard behind the scenes during this Democrat shutdown.”
Democratic and Republican aides alike told me that their reliance on Knight as a Trump interpreter has increased as the shutdown has gone on and as their trust in other negotiators such as Kushner and Pence has dwindled. But having a respected staffer, no matter how experienced or well connected, in the middle could matter next to nothing with the president and Democratic leaders both showing little appetite for a genuine compromise.
If Knight can’t facilitate a deal, current and former congressional aides close to her said they wondered at what point she’d tire of it all, having transitioned from writing high-stakes policy in a unified government to navigating the politics and personalities of a bitterly divided one. Those sources also noted that Knight has never identified personally with Trumpism, meaning shutting down the government over a border wall is probably not something that, unlike the president, she was “proud” to do. “The folks she’s most used to dealing with are people in the center. In [legislative] affairs, you’re dealing with … people more on the ideological edges,” said the former House GOP aide close to her. “That’s the biggest challenge she’s had.”
But one clue to Knight’s longevity in both Washington and the Trump administration is how she doesn’t let on about her true feelings on any particular policy matter. “The difference between Shahira and almost everyone else in the Trump White House is that she truly loves being a staffer. She’s not trying to be a principal,” the former senior White House official told me.
On our brief call, Knight was positive about her experience working in the White House, praising the president’s accessibility and saying the only downsides to her role are “the hours and the time. It’s just all-consuming.”
And yet when I asked Knight if she was happy with how her team has handled the shutdown so far, she let out a sigh. A White House press official who was on the call quickly interjected. The official asked if the answer could be off the record, and then whether we could skip the the topic altogether.
I said no, that it was a pretty basic question.
Knight cut back in. “You know, I do think the team has handled it well,” she said. “What the team has communicated particularly well is that there is a crisis, and that the president cares deeply about it. And I’ll just leave it at that.” It didn’t sound like the kind of triumphant answer she might have given after, say, the passage of tax reform.
There’s something to be said, though, for surviving the first two years of the Trump administration—maintaining not only employment, but also the respect and praise of those in Washington who knew you before joined the team. But whether Knight can keep that record is as open a question as ever. As Knight likely knows well, perhaps the only constant in Trump’s White House is its unpredictability.
I asked Boehner what advice he’d give his old associate for navigating the yet-unknown while trying to remain the adult in the room. “Good luck,” he said with a chuckle. “Good luck.”