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Spouse of top Trump counsellor takes White House to task on Twitter

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In Washington, Mr Conway, 54, a corporate litigator, is known as the high-powered other half of a conservative power couple: His wife, Kellyanne Conway, is counsellor to the president.

[WASHINGTON] In legal circles, George Conway III is perhaps best known as the lawyer who argued a securities case before the Supreme Court and won with an 8-0 vote, or for his behind-the-scenes work that ultimately hastened the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

In Washington, Mr Conway, 54, a corporate litigator, is known as the high-powered other half of a conservative power couple: His wife, Kellyanne Conway, is counsellor to the president.

But on the fleeting battleground that is Twitter, George Conway is known as a political spouse who has for months seemed to publicly question decisions made by a turbulent administration in which his wife holds a central role.

Examples abound: Mr Conway made headlines in June when he took President Donald Trump to task for complaining in a tweet that a “watered down, politically correct” version of the White House’s travel ban had an uphill battle through the courts.

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“These tweets may make some people feel better,” Mr Conway wrote, but the president’s lament would not assist the Office of the Solicitor General, which would be arguing the case before the Supreme Court. (“Sad”, Mr Conway added with a Trumpian flourish.)

And after one of Mr Trump’s newest lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said on Fox News last week that the president had reimbursed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a US$130,000 payment to a pornographic film actress, Mr Conway shared a Wall Street Journal editorial that read, “Trump should worry that Americans will stop believing anything he says”.

(In another tweet, Mr Conway supplied a helpful link to campaign finance rules about personal gifts and loans, in case the president’s team needed to brush up.)

When asked about her husband’s reasons for dispensing what amounts to criticism of her boss, Mrs Conway has publicly berated journalists for broaching the topic, which has had the somewhat counterintuitive effect of elevating those posts. The question remains: Is Mr Conway sending signals that he is at odds with an administration where his wife is a key player, or is he just another lawyer watching a slow-motion legal car crash unfold from a safe distance? The Conways declined to comment, but several of Mr Conway’s associates stepped in to fill in the gaps.

They unanimously described Mr Conway as a high-calibre colleague and thinker; he graduated from Harvard University at 20 and attended Yale Law School. Mr Conway is known to relish getting into the weeds of case law — “We are the weeds,” as his friend Joseph Grundfest, a law professor at Stanford University, put it in an interview. They also described him as a husband who moved his four children down from the New York area to Washington to support Mrs Conway’s career move, and whose politics have stayed aligned with hers throughout.

“He’s one of my most conservative friends,” said Lisa Blatt, a lawyer who has known Mr Conway for six years. “He hasn’t changed that much to me since before Trump was even a candidate.”

With his Clinton-era background, Mr Conway understands how volatile political climates work. Now at the white-shoe law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, he may have a better understanding than most of the political maelstrom that faces the White House legal team, especially as midterm elections approach. But he has in recent years focused on securities and antitrust cases, not criminal or campaign-finance law.

“George would be spectacularly qualified to give legal advice to just about anyone on any topic,” Prof Grundfest said. Asked whether Mr Conway’s experience in Washington suited the president’s current needs, Prof Grundfest said: “My neighbour has a poodle smarter than some of the people on Trump’s legal team.”

(Prof Grundfest stressed that he had picked an intelligent dog breed.)

Still, David Lat, a friend and founder of the legal news website Above the Law, said that Mr Conway “has a practical understanding of what it’s like to be walking the legal tightrope while in the public spotlight”. At the dawn of the Trump administration, Mr Conway took himself out of the running to lead the Justice Department’s civil division, citing family considerations.

Mr Conway said in a statement last year that it was “not the right time for me to leave the private sector and take on a new role in the federal government”. He added, “Kellyanne and I continue to support the president and his administration, and I look forward to doing so in whatever way I can from outside the government.”

In the months since, the Conways have appeared to adjust to life in Washington, though they are hardly glued to each other’s side. During the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, for instance, Mrs Conway attended a dinner hosted by David Bradley, founder of Atlantic Media, solo. She later joined Mr Conway at a party at the British Embassy.

Mr Conway’s tendency to share opinions critical of the Trump administration has warranted more attention than his movements in Washington, but he has offered little hint about whether it suggests a deeper political discord. In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Mr Conway described himself as having “contrarian tendencies” and a willingness to subvert expectations.

Whatever their purpose, Mr Conway’s messages have caught the attention of aides in the West Wing, according to a White House official. That official said some advisers were miffed by the tweeting, and considered Mr Conway’s public criticisms to be potentially harmful to Mrs Conway, who remains poised to assume more of the duties left behind by Hope Hicks, the departed White House communications director.

But the president does not seem to share those concerns, according to a senior White House official familiar with his thinking. He continues to trust Mrs Conway, and he appeared to enjoy her response after CNN journalist Dana Bash recently asked her to explain her husband’s social media missives.

“It was meant to harass and embarrass,” Mrs Conway said of the question. She said there had “been a different standard” for her than others when it came to scrutinising her husband’s opinions, and she chided Ms Bash for pressing about “how people’s spouses and significant others may differ with them.”

(Mr Trump has attacked the perceived political leanings of the partners of several adversaries, including Jill McCabe, who is married to Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI.)

“Let me just tell you something,” Mrs Conway said. “By definition, spouses have a difference of opinion.”

In that interview, Mrs Conway said that her husband also posted pictures of corgis and Philadelphia sports teams, suggesting that those interested in his thoughts put too much stock in Twitter ephemera. Indeed, during Prof Giuliani’s latest bombastic soliloquy on Fox News — this time with Jeanine Pirro on Saturday night — Mr Conway was busy sharing tweets critical of Brad Marchand, the Boston Bruins forward who found himself in trouble for inexplicably licking his opponents.