Dina Powell is the Trump administration’s Ms. Fix-It.
The deputy national security adviser for strategy, one of the few White House aides with extensive experience in a past Republican administration, has taken on a large list of responsibilities touching on foreign and domestic policy.
Besides serving as a deputy to national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Powell was asked by senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, to serve in a new office tasked with using private-sector ideas to overhaul the federal government.
Powell, who speaks Arabic and moved to the United States from Egypt at the age of 4, is also advising President Trump and his daughter Ivanka on economic initiatives.
Her rising power has brought additional scrutiny on the 43-year-old, who has come under criticism from some Trump loyalists and outside conservatives for her work at Goldman Sachs. Some accuse her of being a “Democrat in disguise.”
Her boosters inside and outside the White House say such claims are laughable given her years working for former President George W. Bush’s administration and for congressional Republicans, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).
“I don’t think she started life as a Trump person, but remember, she worked for Dick Armey. She didn’t start life as a left-winger,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), an informal adviser to Trump. “She was with us when we were getting some very conservative things accomplished.”
Powell spent the past decade in New York working at Goldman Sachs, where she led the bank’s nonprofit foundation. She oversaw the 10,000 Women initiative, which provides mentoring and networking opportunities for female entrepreneurs.
Her work caught the eye of Ivanka Trump, who cold-called her following the election to discuss the program, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
Powell began informally advising the influential first daughter during the transition and was hired by then-President-elect Trump in January to work on issues related to entrepreneurship, small businesses and women’s empowerment.
For Powell, who has two children, that continues to be a part of her portfolio. This week she sat in on a roundtable meeting for female business owners hosted by Trump and Vice President Pence.
As deputy national security adviser, Powell has been directly involved in preparations for meetings between Trump and the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and China. She’s working with McMaster on long-term strategy and helping lead the interagency process with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and leaders of the intelligence community.
At the age of 29, Powell succeeded Clay Johnson, a close confidant of Bush, to become the youngest person ever to direct the presidential personnel office, which was tasked with identifying hundreds of appointees and top staff members across the federal government.
“She has get-it-done skills,” said Johnson. “That is exactly her strong suit. She’s a doer.”
She then served as assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs under Karen Hughes, who was Bush’s head of public diplomacy.
Powell’s experience has made her stand out in a White House wracked by infighting that has struggled to master the art of governing.
But it has also made her a target for conservatives who worry that Powell, working with Kushner, Ivanka Trump and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, could push a softer White House line on trade, Wall Street and climate change policy.
“This is not who we voted for. The base voted for Trump and his policies. Not Gary Cohn’s, not Dina Powell’s. Not the left wing of the Democratic Party. This is a Republican White House,” said one GOP operative on Wall Street.
“No one is questioning their competence,” the operative added. “But there are a lot of questions about whether they are trying to pull away from Trump’s agenda.”
Gingrich and others scoffed at the notion that Powell will pull Trump to the left.
“Dina is a strong conservative,” said Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonConservatives target Biden pick for New York district court GOP anger with Fauci rises Cotton swipes at Fauci: 'These bureaucrats think that they are the science' MORE (R-Ark.), who has known Powell for around five years. “I’ve come to rely on her for advice and insight. She has a wide range of experience that few people in Washington have.”
Former Bush officials credit Powell’s success to her willingness to offer unvarnished advice to the president and senior officials on whom to hire and how to frame a message, while backing it up with ample facts and figures.
They also say she has unrivaled people skills that have helped her form long-lasting connections in the Capitol.
Margaret Spellings, who served as Bush’s Domestic Policy Council director and later as Education secretary, said she became friends with Powell sitting next to her at the daily 7 a.m. senior White House staff meeting.
“When you’re a young mother with children at 7 o’clock, sometimes you have makeup on sometimes you don’t. Sometimes your hair is wet, sometimes it is not,” said Spellings, who is now president of the University of North Carolina system. “We had a lot in common keeping it all together while working, and I am a huge fan of hers. She is unique in the way that she brings people together.”
Powell traveled throughout the Middle East in her State Department role and has spoken about her experience growing up in the Dallas area trying to balance her desire to blend in among her American peers with her Egyptian heritage, instilled in her by her Coptic Christian parents.
“I so desperately wanted a turkey and cheese sandwich with potato chips,” Powell told The Washington Post in 2005. “And instead I always got grape leaves and hummus and falafel, not even in a cool brown paper bag. And now, of course, I appreciate so much that I did.”
Powell will now be charged with helping to explain Trump’s policies, including his proposed ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, to allies that have been shaken by the president’s stances on issues such as trade and intelligence.
Spellings says that Powell, based on her experience with her, can be effective within the administration and outside it.
“The thing that makes Dina so effective is that she is not a credit-seeker,” said Spellings. “She wants to get a result while elevating the principals. That is a skill that can hold you in good stead in Washington. She can bring that kind of discipline, that kind of skill to a new White House.”
--This report was updated at 8:08 a.m. An earlier version said Powell is married. She is not.