The Republican Party these days is full of plutocrats turned populists who think the only way to make it is to fake it as MAGA true believer. But sometimes … you might wish they had a little more dignity.
Take Goldman Sachs partner Dina Powell, the irresistibly charming, gossip-slinging, Washington–Wall Street power-brokering insider who served as Trump’s deputy national security adviser and emerged un-muddied, coming off as just another one of the administration’s civic-duty, adult-in-the-room types. She isn’t running for office herself, but she’s been working hard to help her zillionaire hedge-funder husband, David McCormick, win the Republican primary to replace retiring senator Pat Toomey in his home state of Pennsylvania. (Despite years in D.C. and Connecticut, he still owns his family’s Christmas tree farm in the state.) Team McCormick got Trumpy quick. Stephen Miller works for the campaign, along with Hope Hicks. A whole raft of Trumpian camarilla is lending support. McCormick has also got Breitbart apparatchiks and ran “Let’s Go Brandon” Super Bowl ads.
Then, last weekend, Shane Goldmacher reported in the New York Times how McCormick and Powell schlepped down to Mar-a-Lago to grovel for Trump’s endorsement. Four sources told the paper that, while there, Powell whipped out an image of her husband’s main primary opponent, Dr. Oz, a Turkish Muslim, that showed him “alongside others wearing Muslim head coverings,” to illustrate that he was too Muslim to win.
Even among political and media elites who have experienced how tough Powell can be, this was shocking. “That doesn’t sound like the Dina Powell I know at all,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “I’ve never heard her say anything bigoted in all the years I’ve known her, not once.” After all, she is an Arabic-speaking Egyptian who left the country when she was 4 years old because her family were Coptic Christians, a persecuted minority.
And so, it left many of her other Establishment friends suddenly wondering what’s happened to her.
Powell disputed the nature of the meeting; McCormick spokesperson Jess Szymanski called it “an anonymous, false smear on a candidate’s wife.” And Hicks insists Powell is barely involved with the campaign. “We wish we could have more of her time,” Hicks tells me.
But Pennsylvanians are seeing quite a lot of Powell. She appears in ads and B-roll footage, smiling in front of a barn and holding her husband’s hand while walking beside a river. He invokes her Trump administration bonafides — Trump liked her so much that he reportedly considered her for the U.N. ambassadorship, too — with voters as a way to burnish his own suspiciously globalist credentials as a onetime Jeb Bush supporter who worked for W. and ran a hedge fund, Bridgewater. And so, she carpetbags it to Pittsburgh on weekends and introduced “special guest” Tom Cotton at a dinner and after-party for McCormick. He sent her as a surrogate in his place at a GOP event in Northampton. She appealed to Matt Schlapp so McCormick could have a private audience with donors at CPAC.
She’s been texting positive articles and polling numbers about the campaign to conservative activists. Local Republicans were astonished in late January when she turned up at a function in western Pennsylvania, and, in the words of two people who witnessed it, “accosted” Oz and another candidate, Jeff Bartos, accusing them of running negative campaigns, while McCormick sat nearby and watched. “She totally lost it in public,” remembers a third person who was present.
“It wasn’t a large scene, only those of us who were there noticed that anything happened at all,” says Noah Jennings, who is working on the McCormick campaign.
No matter how Hicks characterizes it, Powell is all-in. You don’t conquer Washington and Wall Street and wrap the media around your fingers to then sit on your hands while your other half reaches for the Russell building.
But some of her admirers — among other people, reporters love her, she’s real fun to have a drink with — are left feeling queasy. They tell me they’re shocked the McCormick campaign has hired Miller, the architect of Trump’s racist immigration policies, including the Muslim ban and child separation. This, and the sustained sucking up to Trump, has come as a real slap in the face for Powell’s Democrat friends and old-school Republicans, the people who defended her in liberal D.C. and Manhattan for the last five years as but a reluctant performer in Trump’s Grand Guignol, there only because she was pals with Ivanka and because she loved her country, or something. Now, these people worry she’s gone over the line. When Powell sent around emails about a fundraiser for McCormick at the Metropolitan Club on the Upper East Side in January, some groused to me that they wanted nothing to do with it.
Tim Miller, a former top Jeb! aide and now columnist at the Bulwark, says he “finds it bewildering” that Powell “maintains her status while also working side by side with Stephen Miller who is basically an ethnonationalist. She seems like a rare person who can pull this off.”
Powell was born in Egypt in 1973, the daughter of a former army captain and a mother who attended the American University in Cairo. She and her parents emigrated to Dallas in 1977 with her younger sister. Her parents wanted opportunities for their girls and worked a series of odd jobs; her father drove a bus and mowed lawns. (Today, he is a real-estate entrepreneur, while her mother received a master’s degree and became a psychologist.) Powell put herself through the University of Texas by waiting tables at the Tavern, a well-known Austin sports bar, and working as a junior policy aide for a state senator. She next landed in Washington as an intern for Texas Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. From there, she got a staff position working for House leadership, including then-Majority Leader Dick Armey, of Texas.
When she was 29, Bush appointed her the head of presidential personnel, the youngest person in history to hold that job. At 31, she received confirmation by the Senate to work as an assistant secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice, whom Powell counts as a mentor to this day. At State, she directed huge sums of grant money to programs fighting poverty abroad. Writing about her appointment then, the Times called her “a new face of the administration as it tries to repair its image overseas.”
Powell moved to New York and Goldman in 2007, just in time for it to get no small part of the blame for wrecking the economy. As the head of the bank’s foundation, she helped dilute its mephitic scent, setting up initiatives for women and small businesses and shoveling mountains of Goldman bullion toward them.
In 2010, she became a partner. One person familiar with her time at the bank then noted: “It was a big deal when she became a partner, because when you’re not actually making any money but just spending it — people were surprised.” But she was good at it. The gig allowed her to embed herself within New York’s philanthropic circles. She created Goldman’s “10,000 Women” project, which aims to help close the credit and opportunity gap between the sexes, and collaborated with Tina Brown on her “Women in the World” conferences. It’s a world she may still have been in were it not for Trump’s victory in 2016.
After the election, Ivanka asked Powell to join the administration as a White House senior counselor for economic initiatives. When Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster came aboard as national security adviser in 2017, he elevated Powell to be the deputy national security adviser, providing direct access to the president. She stayed with Trump for little more than a year. The week of her good-bye party — thrown for her by the Javanka squad at Cafe Milano, the power-pasta joint in Georgetown — Trump was under fire for referring to Haiti and various African nations as “shithole countries.” Probably a good time to skedaddle.
You could look around and see Powell traveling in all sorts of circles closed to many of her fellow Trumpists. There she was with Kobe Bryant and Bob Iger at a Hollywood dinner hosted by Brian Grazer and Ari Emanuel for Mohammed bin Salman in 2018. In 2019, she married McCormick. (They both had been previously married.) Afterwards, a glittering cross section of the ruling class hauled itself to Egypt for a days-long riverboat cruise down the Nile, from Aswan to Luxor: There was Paul Ryan, Axios founder Jim VandeHei, journalist turned Facebook exec Campbell Brown and her husband, Dan Senor. Oh, and fashion designer Tory Burch. (Hardly “populist potential,” as Breitbart pigeon Matt Boyle absurdly cooed about McCormick in a headline.)
When Vandehei’s star reporter, Jonathan Swan, married another reporter, Betsy Woodruff, Powell was at their Virginia wedding. When the Times opinion section had a pre-coronavirus Valentine’s Day party in the office, Powell was there at the invitation of Nicholas Kristof. She brought Washington Post columnist David Ignatius to a box to watch the Army-Navy football game in Philly with Trump.
Reporters like her because she’s got information and seems to know everyone. But also because she’s fun and, when she’s not trying to wiggle out of your notepad, she’s pretty nice, too. After I wrote a Times op-ed last year about how opiates pulverized my hometown, she was the first person I heard from. Tell Powell you’re writing about her and your phone will blow up with encomiums from the Dina-hive: Arianna Huffington and Bob Steel and this one and that one.
But the best is Roy Castro, a cool Bronx guy who overcame poverty and started his own frozen-food distribution business. He says his life changed the day Powell’s business card landed in his lap. She’s his hero. How does he square the many contradictions of diamond Dina? “When I saw her working for Trump,” he says, “I was so busy being happy for her being the only woman in the room. I saw that picture [below] when Trump was sending the Tomahawks to Syria, and they were with McMaster and everybody in that war room, and she was the only female in the room. I got a picture of that that I framed. I hung it in my daughter’s bedroom.”
As for the charge that there is something a bit unseemly about the campaign’s whatever-it-takes mentality, “That’s not how I think of what Dave is doing,” says Mary Erdoes, a top JP Morgan financier and friend of the couple who sits on the board of the Robin Hood Foundation with Powell. Robin Hood’s CEO Richard Buery tells me he isn’t so put off by Powell’s politicking in MAGA land either. Ditto Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans. “Just because you have a relationship with somebody doesn’t mean you endorse everything about them or their politics,” he says, “and I think she was someone who, in my dealings with her and my work with her, has a personal and professional commitment to issues of racial justice.”
In other words, Powell and McCormick have lots of fabulous friends who, when I reached out, would really rather not go on the record slagging them as dangerous opportunists to me. And even the haters can’t help but marvel: There hasn’t been this good a tightrope walker in lower Manhattan since Philippe Petit. Many top officials who worked for President Trump plummeted to their reputational deaths — ker-splat! — but, until recently, Powell has had nary a bad word printed about her, and didn’t have to choose between her many friends in the media and the various other anti-Trump elites and her Trumpworld associates. She’s worked for several of the more despised institutions in modern American history — Dubya’s State Department, the Vampire Squid, and Donald Trump — and many people still dig her.
“She’s not running for political office,” Erdoes points out, “but if she was, her background is like — she’s the epitome of the American Dream, right?”