Duke Alum Shares Insights from Trump White House

Paul Teller talks with students about policy, politics and his boss

Duke Alum Shares Insights from Trump White House
Paul Teller T'93, a White House special assistant, speaks to Duke students Thursday. Photo by Jared Lazarus

DURHAM, N.C. – Inside the Trump administration, there’s more collaboration than what the media would lead you to believe.

With Congress, “It’s less partisan than you’d think.”

Those are two of the insider views shared Thursday by Paul Teller, a 1993 Duke graduate who now works as special assistant to the president for legislative affairs. He is the White House’s liaison to House and Senate conservatives and to conservative groups.

“My work is to advance President Trump’s agenda” and ensure there’s collaboration and communication with and among his strongest allies, Teller told a few dozen students at the Sanford School for Public Policy.

He said Trump almost “lamented” the partisanship he encountered in Washington, especially with efforts to reform health care, because he came from the deal-making business world.

Teller said the complexity of health care reform and a lack of placing “a huge premium on working with the other side” in Congress contributed its failure.

Tax reform, however, appears much more bipartisan, he said.

“(Trump) kind of always challenged us to bring in Democrats when we could,” and tax reform is one area with much broader support, Teller said.

Teller said when he spoke at Duke about a decade ago, a student named Stephen Miller spoke with him and said he was inspired to enter a career in politics. The two stayed in touch, and Miller is now a senior policy adviser to Trump.

Political science professor Michael Munger, who hosted the American Grand Strategy event, said a reporter recently asked him if he was embarrassed that Miller graduated from Duke.

“I worked with Stephen Miller, we didn’t agree on very much,” Munger said, calling the question “nonsense.”

He said Miller has achieved a lot at a young age and that Duke “partly prepared him.”

“One of the tests of a first-rate mind is to be able hold on to two contradictory views without cracking up,” Munger told students, urging them to remember that and when they hear different views Thursday.

A sophomore asked Teller to do what he can to expedite an immigration policy solution for children like him who were born in the United States to parents who came here illegally. Trump last month ended DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which protected such children from deportation.

Teller said Trump believes President Obama illegally enacted the policy instead of letting Congress do its job.

Trump has provided Congress with some immigration reform principles, he said.

“The short answer is right now more just taking temperatures” to see where members of Congress can give and take on finding a solution, Teller said.

Regarding the Iran nuclear deal Trump intends to decertify, Teller said he is not sure Congress will remain as divided over the deal. “A lot of people on both sides of the aisle feel that was not a great deal,” he said.

Asked about the administration’s supposed relationship with the “alt-right,” Teller said the administration has “absolutely no relation” with them.

Teller, the former chief of staff to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, said he’s doesn’t always agree 100 percent with a policy he’s worked on. “You may love the policy but hate the process and vice versa,” he said.

His biggest surprise working in the White House?

“How much folks working in Congress often want to defer to executive branch,” he said. “For example, on tax reform, if I had a dollar for every time someone in the Congress world say, ‘Why don’t you just write a bill?’”

Asked if he had a resignation letter written, Teller joked: “No, but let’s face it, you could always type fast if you need to.”