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Marc Short
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Marc Short’s Spent Weeks Debating Trump With Students. And With Himself.

The former senior Trump official was shaken by Jan 6. and has been leading discussion groups about what has happened to his party. But like many conservatives, his path to a voting booth in November is uncertain.

Before he held forth on Donald Trump, free trade and his own growing alienation from the political party he once helped run, Marc Short stopped to make a critical announcement.

He brought Chick-fil-A for the whole class.

Short, former chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence, arrived last week to a Georgetown University classroom to lead a discussion for the eighth and final time, mostly about how the Republican Party had changed — and was continuing to change — under Trump. Like any true-blue Republican, he had turned to the conservative-friendly fast-food restaurant to feed the roughly dozen students seated before him.

But as they munched on chicken nuggets, Short raised a Trump plan to devalue the nation’s currency, an idea that had maybe escaped Washington’s attention but not his own.

“Does anybody have any concerns about a policy like that?” he asked.

If you knew Marc Short, you would know he did have major concerns about the Trump proposal — and a great many others like it from the man whose administration he once served in and whose reputation he had religiously defended.

Since Trump left office, Short has reconsidered his party and its relationship to Trump, questioning whether the beliefs that once guided him to the GOP were still valued. It’s part of what led him to teach this Georgetown seminar, where over the course of a semester, he helped students assess how both parties had both changed in recent years — a discussion that, at least on this day, naturally bent toward the party and ideological movement he worked within for the better part of three decades.

In an interview after class, Short explained his dismal view of the current relationship between the conservative movement and Trump: The equal partnership it had once forged with the former president has been shattered, replaced by one in which Trump does whatever he wants — even if it cuts against the movement’s long-held principles — and conservatives meekly nod their heads in agreement.

“I think he felt, in many cases, that traditional conservatives were understood as a necessary coalition to get what he wanted done. ‘I’ll give them that, and they’ll vote for me,’” he said. “I think he feels right now, he owns them. So he doesn’t need to negotiate on those issues as much.

I asked Short if Trump was right to feel that way.

“I think you see so many conservative leaders walk away from the policies they’ve long advocated for,” he said. “It’s hard to say he doesn’t have control.”

Short said his view was also, of course, shaped by the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which threatened the safety of his then-boss Pence, calling it a “foundational event in my life.”

It’s also an opinion that will come under heavy scrutiny, including from many conservatives who argue that the movement capitulated on its principles to Trump long ago. Those criticisms will only intensify because Short, for all his deep-seated concerns about Trump, won’t even definitively say he won’t vote for him in November.

“I’ll probably leave that private,” he said.

Short’s former boss, whom he remains tightly linked to, has said much the same. In March, Pence announced that he would not “endorse” Trump but said he would leave his ultimate vote private, while saying he’d never vote for President Joe Biden.

The views of Short and Pence and voters like them are politically important this year. They represent a real segment of the electorate that voted for Trump in 2020 but are at least considering abandoning him now, after the events of Jan. 6 and because of what they think is a shift in the way the former president would govern in a second term. Whether Trump or Biden can actively win them over now is maybe less the question than how they reconcile their own passionate, and discordant, beliefs about the last eight years.

Marc Short Mike Pence
Andrew Harnik/AP

Short served as Pence’s chief of staff from 2019 through the end of the Trump administration, the culmination of a career in conservative politics that included stints as chief of staff for former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and president of Freedom Partners, a conservative nonprofit group funded by Charles and David Koch. He worked directly under Trump as his director of legislative affairs before being elevated to Pence’s office.

Georgetown officials approached him six months ago about leading one of its discussion groups. He said he wasn’t exactly sure why he wanted to talk with young students about the changing nature of each political party, only that it felt natural because he had just lived through it.

The classroom sessions, as Short recounted last week, included discussions about free trade, support for foreign allies, the Republican Party’s relationship with technology companies and the national debt. While leading the debate, the veteran Republican spent more time quizzing the gathered students about their views of different issues, rather than talking about his own opinions.

After the class, however, he was more than happy to share how he felt about an array of recent positions taken by Trump and the GOP, blasting different Republicans (though not by name) for their support of TikTok to their opposition to funding for Ukraine. Groups ostensibly dedicated to free trade are now suddenly OK with a candidate proposing an across-the-board 10% tariff on goods entering the country, he added, while anti-abortion advocates continue to effusively praise him as he backs away from national abortion restrictions.

“You see an acquiescence on a lot of issues,” Short said.

“I’ve seen what I thought were leaders who said that we stand for principles over party, but that doesn’t seem to be exactly what they practice. Maybe in what they preach. But it doesn’t seem to be what they practice.”

In Short’s view, that turn away from traditional conservative principles is a significant change from Trump’s first term in office, when he collaborated with conservatives on everything from tax cuts to judicial nominations. He defended Trump’s foreign policy, too, saying he had done more to combat Russia’s influence in the Middle East and help Ukraine bolster its defenses than critics give him credit for.

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When asked why Trump had changed, Short pointed to the personnel around him now. In his first term, he said the GOP leader was surrounded by longtime conservatives like Pence or former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — the kind of leaders he doesn’t think will be there in a second term.

“I’m not so convinced that the people that are around him are convicted, philosophically, in much of anything,” said Short, who declined to name any specific people he had concerns over. “So it’s all transactional. It’s not so much I look at it and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they have a totally isolationist worldview that is different than where I come from.’ It’s that … many are simply for sale.”

Short has been openly critical of Trump since 2021. In 2022, he testified about the Jan. 6 attack to both a House committee investigating the riot and a federal grand jury investigating the events of that day.

The attack on the Capitol has weighed heavily on Short, who, earlier this month, included a discussion about law and order in his group curriculum.

“There’s no doubt that the days leading up to that, I saw a lot of people in my party who I thought were committed to constitutional principles, who were, it seems, quickly ready to forego those for political convenience,” he said.

It’s not clear how widespread Short’s viewpoint is among traditional conservative voters, those who have already been willing to overlook so many of Trump’s words and actions.

In a close election, as most observers expect 2024 will be, the opinions of Republicans like Short and Pence could theoretically help tilt a small but important group of GOP-leaning voters from voting for Trump, helping Biden hold on to an edge in November.

Complicating that push for Biden, however, is the fact that for all of Short’s concerns about Trump, he won’t advocate for people to vote against the former president. In the interview, he said he didn’t think Trump was a worse president than Biden and made clear he didn’t think there was anything the Democratic incumbent could do between now and the election to win him over.

But it’s a question, evidently, that he wrestles with to this day.

“I think that the left-wing policies of the Biden administration, I look and say, that created much of our border insecurity,” Short said. “I think it creates enormous challenges socially in our fabric of our country. I don’t support any part of his economic plan. So no, there’s no part of the Biden administration I feel like I could support.

“But, he added, “I do think that foundationally it’s important that your leaders respect the rule of law.”

When asked how he weighs policy disagreements with Biden against an apparent belief that Trump violated his oath to the U.S. Constitution, Short responded that was the “conundrum” he faced.

“I don’t know the answer to that. It’s a great question,” he said. “I think it’s the ultimate question you asked before of how I end up voting.”

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS.