WASHINGTON — Matt Schlapp, the pro-Trump chairman of the American Conservative Union, had a remarkable on-air clash not long ago with his old friend Michael Steele, an anti-Trump former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
At issue was Mr. Schlapp’s defense of Ian Walters, the conservative union’s communications director, who told an audience: “We elected Mike Steele to be the R.N.C. chair because he’s a black guy. That was the wrong thing to do.”
Mr. Steele invited Mr. Schlapp on his radio show the next day and berated him: “Do you know how that sounds to Americans? And do you know how they then equate that level of stupidity to conservatism?” Mr. Schlapp apologized, and pointed out that Mr. Walters had, too. But he chastised Mr. Steele for being “critical of some of the more conservative aspects of the Trump phenomenon,” adding, “You need to have some grace.”
Mr. Steele blew up: “I’ve spent 41 years in this party, 41. I’ve taken crap you have no idea about.” And finally: “There’s only one word I can say and I can’t say it on this air.” The two men haven’t spoken since.
“I find myself shaking my head,” Mr. Steele said in an interview, “and saying, ‘Who is this person?’”
Mr. Steele is not the only one in Washington asking that question. Today Mr. Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications at the White House, are the most visible in the city’s cadre of conservative Republicans who, faced with a populist Trump juggernaut, chose to scramble aboard.
This past weekend they aired their disgust at the comedian Michelle Wolf’s takedown of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. “It’s why America hates the out of touch leftist media elite,” Ms. Schlapp tweeted from a limousine en route to an exclusive after-party organized by NBC/MSNBC.
(Asked about the couple’s own membership in the elite, Mr. Schlapp responded, “I mean, I’m not trying to act like I’m driving a garbage truck in Des Moines.”)
To some Republicans the Schlapps are a conservative “it couple.” To others they’re opportunists. Either way, they’re symbolic of a deep rift within their party.
Business is in the meantime booming at Cove Strategies, the lobbying and public relations firm the Schlapps founded in 2009 (Ms. Schlapp stepped away from the business when she took her White House job). Their lobbying income alone has surged in the year since Mr. Trump took office, to more than $1 million in 2017 from $600,000 in 2015. Koch Industries — Mr. Schlapp is a former chief Washington lobbyist for the corporation — was Cove’s first client. He said there was even more income from Cove’s strategic communications work, which he declined to reveal.
Ms. Schlapp has been a board member and paid strategic communications consultant for the National Rifle Association, a role she gave up the month she entered the White House. In 2015 she earned $60,000 from the N.R.A. for an average of one hour of work per week, according to N.R.A. tax filings, and $45,000 in 2016.
“I hate losing friends, which I have lost,” Mr. Schlapp said, acknowledging the ire the couple’s support for Mr. Trump has drawn from some fellow Republicans. He spoke in a cafe near his office in Alexandria, Va., where the Schlapps just bought a $3 million home to go with their weekend retreat, Victory Farm, a 30-acre idyll in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Ms. Schlapp, 45, who was mentioned early on as a potential replacement for Hope Hicks, the former White House director of communications, predicted in 2015 that Mr. Trump is “really going to struggle if he goes and continues to push a very strident immigration policy that doesn’t show in any way that we can in fact find a legal path for these individuals who are here, for these undocumented immigrants that are here.”
Now Ms. Schlapp describes herself as representative of “Hispanic voters that absolutely agree that there should be no illegal immigration,” and is working with Stephen Miller, the White House senior adviser for policy and an immigration hard-liner, to promote Mr. Trump’s tough agenda.
“As a conservative, let’s be honest, what’s there for me to be disappointed about?” Mr. Schlapp, 50, said over dinner one recent night with his wife and their five daughters in a favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. Ms. Schlapp’s cellphone beckoned every few minutes as Mr. Schlapp, who said he had gained some 50 pounds during the campaign, ordered a green salad and offered to split an entree with his wife. He looked weary. The Schlapps had spent the weekend schlepping to multiple performances of their daughter Viana’s school play, in which she played Liesl in “The Sound of Music.”
As they ate, the couple placed Mr. Trump’s appointments of conservative judges near the top of his list of accomplishments, along with cutting taxes, rolling back regulations and reducing the size of government. On Twitter last week, Mr. Schlapp called the Trump agenda “conservative nirvana.”
The Schlapps met in the George W. Bush White House, where Ms. Schlapp, who is known as Mercy and grew up in Miami as the daughter of a Cuban émigré, was a liaison to Hispanic and specialty news media outlets. Mr. Schlapp rose to the role of White House political director. He grew up in Wichita, Kan., where he was a top-ranked tennis player and taught Charles Koch’s son Chase how to play.
Mr. Schlapp, who had a preference for apparel emblazoned with the leprechaun mascot of his alma mater, Notre Dame, was nervous about asking the glamorous Mercy for a date. But the couple bonded over dinner at Morton’s, a Washington steakhouse, where Ms. Schlapp ordered a slab of beef. “I thought: ‘I’m going to like this girl. She didn’t get bird food,’” Mr. Schlapp said.
There was a time when the Schlapps were fed up with Mr. Trump. In 2015, when Mr. Schlapp assumed the chairmanship of the American Conservative Union, which the conservative standard-bearer William F. Buckley Jr. helped found, it was in such dire financial straits that he worried he would be presiding over its demise.
So he and his staff worked to revitalize the annual Conservative Political Action Conference by moving it to a glitzier venue and signing new sponsors. In 2016 he invited a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates to speak at CPAC, insisting that they take questions from a journalist.
But as the Republican front-runner, Mr. Trump wanted more speaking time than the others, and no reporter questions. Mr. Schlapp refused and Mr. Trump abruptly backed out, leaving Mr. Schlapp to try to appease conservatives furious that Mr. Trump had been invited in the first place. Others were disappointed that Mr. Trump had bailed. Mr. Schlapp parried with his critics on Twitter until the wee hours, when “Mercy took my phone away.”
But as Mr. Trump closed in on the presidency, the Schlapps drew closer to Mr. Trump, who despite his no-show at CPAC had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the group in earlier years. By the end of the campaign, the Schlapps were making some 30 press appearances a week for Mr. Trump. Before falling asleep each night, the couple would lie in bed rehearsing how they would explain this or that Trumpian tweet or uproar on TV the next morning.
There was one setback: Ms. Schlapp seeing her husband defend Mr. Trump on Fox News after an “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced of the candidate boasting of grabbing women’s genitals. Mr. Schlapp did condemn Mr. Trump for “inexcusable talk” and evoked his wife, “who has been in situations where it was hard for her to be an attractive woman in the workplace.” But he concluded it would be terrible if Mr. Trump lost: “Hillary Clinton gets elected, Bill Clinton is right back in the Oval Office.”
Ms. Schlapp, watching, was shocked to see her husband appearing alongside a tearful and outraged Clinton surrogate, who accused him of defending sexual assault. She called him on his cellphone. “You’re benched,” she said.
The couple escaped to their Virginia farm, where they say that Viana, their eldest daughter, mentioned what they had said all along: Despite Mr. Trump’s personal failings, the Clintons posed the greater danger to the nation.
Ever since, Mr. Schlapp said, “we’ve been all-in.” But he said he still can’t bear to watch his televised defense of Mr. Trump that day.
Mr. Trump appeared at CPAC as president in 2017 and in February was again the star of the three-day conference, attended by about 10,000 people and underwritten by a multitude of sponsors and exhibitors, some of them former Cove Strategies clients. While Mr. Schlapp said not all participants are pro-Trump, prominent “Never Trump” conservatives like John Kasich, George Will and Bill Kristol were not invited to speak. Mona Charen, a conservative writer, was booed and escorted out by security for her safety after she criticized pro-Trump Republicans’ failure to condemn the president’s sexual predations.
‘I’m Not Delusional’
At the Tex-Mex restaurant, the couple had paused to pray before dinner. How do they square their faith and values with their support for the man on the “Access Hollywood” tape?
“I’m not delusional on who Donald Trump is,” Mr. Schlapp said. “But I think there’s great virtue in the fact that he aggressively fights for the things I care about.”
“Everyone assumes that Donald Trump changed our politics, that Donald Trump has perhaps coarsened our society,” he said. “My view is that he’s a function of what’s happening in society.”
Ms. Schlapp karate-chopped the table for emphasis, and the cutlery jingled.
“I always think back about Matt’s sister, whose husband lost his job,” she said. “They live in the Midwest; he was in the oil industry for a long time. I remember when the whole Donald Trump phenomenon happened she said, ‘I want to send a message to you people in Washington.’”
“She said it was a ‘screw you’ message,” Mr. Schlapp interjected.
At home recently, the Schlapps prepared for a night out while pondering their status as political lightning rods. “Are we?” Ms. Schlapp asked her husband. “Maybe you are.” He laughed uneasily.
“I don’t have that many friends left,” Mr. Schlapp said.
Ms. Schlapp smiled. “We have each other,” she said.
Kenneth P. Vogel and Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.