On the morning of June 5, Trump announced that not only would his administration end such research at the NIH, but it would also cancel an HIV research contract with the University of California at San Francisco, which required fetal tissue for its work on new HIV therapies. “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” HHS said in a statement that day.
Read: Health and Human Services and the Religious Liberty War
In nearly any other administration, a DPC aide less than six months into his or her job would, to a Cabinet secretary, be the equivalent of a sand flea. To be sure, this used to be the dynamic in the Trump administration as well, with policy staffers running up against not just the Cabinet but also the president’s children and others who had early on claimed key issues as their own, as Jared Kushner did with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But unlike his predecessor, Grogan has apparently found a way to use that dynamic to his advantage. White House officials often refer to the “shiny-object phenomenon” when discussing the president or those closest to him—the tendency for Trump and Kushner, mainly, to find themselves consumed by whatever the hot topic of the day is, and not much else. There are downsides to this, officials say, in that attempts at well-laid plans are often railroaded on a whim, and that what should be good news has an uncanny tendency to devolve into bad news. But there are upsides, too: Working as a policy staffer on an issue that Trump and Kushner do not fancy at the moment allows one to make plans with less fear that they might spontaneously combust. And in some cases, it allows one to shuttle through controversial policies without many people noticing.
At least, that’s how Grogan sees it. And according to a dozen current and former White House and administration officials who spoke with us on the condition of anonymity to divulge private conversations, that “aggressive” posture, as one official put it, has made for a noteworthy shift in the Domestic Policy Council’s clout. As Mulvaney’s functional deputy, these sources say, Grogan is deeply invested in bringing the acting chief of staff’s health-care and deregulatory vision to life. At times, that vision has notably clashed with both Azar and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on issues such as drug pricing or deregulation. But Grogan’s ideological kinship with Mulvaney has helped render the Cabinet less and less an obstacle. Grogan’s approach, he told us in a phone interview, is “to be on permanent offense around here, constantly driving policy forward … and not wasting time.”
The ceaseless churn of news in the Trump era means White House decisions that at one time would’ve dominated headlines for weeks barely register. In no episode was that more apparent than the fetal-tissue research ban: Whereas the George W. Bush administration’s decision to ban federal funding for stem-cell research in 2001 made for a defining cultural flash point, hardly anyone seemed to notice the White House’s announcement on fetal tissue, even in a moment when the abortion debate is more fraught than ever, with nine states, including Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio, signing early or near-total abortion bans into law. As Grogan sees it, though, with such dissonance comes power—the ability to realize conservative policy goals, expand Mulvaney’s reach across government, and evade any of the backlash that those actions, in another time, would surely spark. The result is a dynamic that, for better or worse, could make the next two years the most quietly impactful period of Trump’s presidency.