Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan: The Kiwi in the West Wing

Newly appointed Assistant to the President Chris Liddell and wife Renee Harbours with NZ Ambassador to the US Tim Groser (left) and his deputy Caroline Beresford (far right).
Newly appointed Assistant to the President Chris Liddell and wife Renee Harbours with NZ Ambassador to the US Tim Groser (left) and his deputy Caroline Beresford (far right).

Kiwi businessman Christopher Liddell will be a part of a powerful troika of advisers in the West Wing, empowered to deliver the new President's mandate.

Bold, ruthless and well-connected - Liddell will need all those attributes to make headway in the Trump White House.

Liddell gets down to work today, immediately following the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.

The troika includes Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Reed Cordish. All three are Assistants to the President - high-ranking members of Trump's executive office. They are not part of Trump's Cabinet.

They will focus on big-picture initiatives critical to Trump's success. As leader of the Strategic Development Group, Liddell will focus on the priority projects.

A statement fleshing out what Liddell's group will do has been deferred until next week, but insiders suggest it will be critical to Trump's success.

Trump has paid tribute to Liddell and Cordish, saying their skills are "exactly what is needed to effect substantial change", including system-wide improvement to the Government's performance.

An observer suggests one transformative change could be the greater use of data and analytic capability to help close the US$200 billion tax revenue gap. Infrastructure is another key priority, but the key question will be how to get it funded. The trade agenda will focus on bilateral deals, but there are issues over how Trump's simplistic approach to multilateral trade agreements will play out in the rules-based World Trade Organisation.

Liddell's personality suggests he will not be uncomfortable in seeking ideas from outside the administration.

But the troika must also mix it with other key players in Trump's West Wing, including two key executives.

One is Stephen Bannon, the President's chief strategist.

Bannon stepped aside from his executive chairmanship of the far-right Breitbart News to work with Trump on the campaign. He is seen as something of an evil genius, but with a strong pedigree dating back to his time in mergers and acquisitions with Goldman Sachs.

Chief of Staff "Reince" Priebus is the other,

It is thought that Bannon will be focused on the politics of getting the Trump mandate implemented and ensuring there is a compelling narrative. Priebus has to keep the ship in order.

Republican elites, still coming to terms with the Trump presidency, will find Liddell's appointment comforting.

It is no secret that many find the new President an affront to civility.

Liddell is a known quantity, with an international business career spanning roles as chief financial officer at companies ranging from General Motors, to Microsoft and International Paper. But Liddell will have his work cut out for him as the President's point man with the private sector.

Trump is an unknown quantity to many of the chief executives who run America's biggest companies. He has not hesitated to bully CEOs to cancel plans to invest offshore and instead expand in the US.

Now Liddell will be the key conduit to chief executives of major companies like General Motors and Ford, who the President has pushed to increase jobs in the US.

Business lobbies are still grappling with what a Trump presidency means. In Washington this week, those I approached wanted to be "on background". They felt it was not safe to put their heads up over the parapet with news media, in case they invited public retaliation from Trump.

Liddell and Cordish will form and oversee a series of high impact task forces.

Cordish will focus on presidential initiatives that require multi-agency collaboration, technological innovation and modernisation. Like Kushner - to whom he is close - Cordish is part of the East Coast Jewish community and shares a business background in real estate.

Kushner's portfolio is broad, but he will be the President's new point man on the Middle East peace process.

It's notable that Liddell has played a different hand to Peter Thiel - the co-founder of Paypal, who is an investor in Rod Drury's Xero and now chairs Palantir.

Thiel - a big wheel in the digital economy - was one of the few well-known US businessmen to back Trump early on.

It was thought Thiel might get a White House role. However, the conflict of interest with Palantir - a data mining company which has major government contracts - ruled him out.

Liddell comes with no such baggage. He wrote the book on presidential transitions and has overseen presidential appointments as a member of the transition team in the past six weeks.

Now he must get on with delivering on Trump's mandate.

- NZ Herald

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