Newt Gingrich is becoming Trump's secret weapon

Newt Gingrich was dozing off and one could hardly blame him.

An equally wonky and dry panel session on potential regulatory reform under President-elect Donald Trump was slinking into its third boresome hour inside a sunlit white-walled conference room on the 10th floor of a premier Washington law firm.

The former House speaker was seated in the final plastic chair on the dais, next to seven other dark-suited experts plucked from think tanks, congressional committee staff and the American Forest & Paper Association. As one after another slumped over a podium and drawled on about how best to go about reimagining the byzantine sets of rules that guide the country's most rudimentary functions, even the brainy Gingrich looked disinterested, shutting his eyes for noticeably lengthy periods during the forgettable presentations.

Related: Newt Gingrich through the years

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Newt Gingrich through the years
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Newt Gingrich through the years
UNITED STATES FILE PHOTO: Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., gives a lecture on Sept. 18, 1993 during the first day of his 'Renewing American Civilization' course taught in fall 1993 at Kennesaw State College in Kennesaw, Ga. The course later became part of Congressional ethics violation charges leveled against Gingrich in 1996. (Photo by Bill Clark/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 5: Newt Gingrich(L), speaker of the US House of Representatives, laughs as US President Bill Clinton(R) looks on during a meeting of the bi-partisan leadership of Congress 05 January at the White House. The day after the opening session of the 104th Congress, Republicans and Democrats met with Clinton to discuss the legislative agenda. (COLOR KEY: Red in ties.) (Photo credit should read J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)
CLAREMONT, NH - JUNE 11: President William Jefferson Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, share a laugh at a meeting held at a senior citizens center in Claremont, N.H. (Photo by John Bohn/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
ME.Gingrich.Newt.RDL (kodak) House speaker Newt Gingrich greets supporters at a fundÂraiser at the Anaheim Hilton and Towers in Anaheim. TIMES (Photo by Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 15: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., speaks during the ceremony to unveil his portrait in Statuary Hall. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 17: (AFP OUT) Former U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA) (L) speaks as he is interviewed by moderator Tim Russert (R) during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 17, 2006 in Washington, DC. Gingrich spoke on various topics including the war in Iraq and the 2008 Presidential election. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 06: Newt Gingrich and Callista Gingrich attend the 32nd Kennedy Center Honors at Kennedy Center Hall of States on December 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
MANCHESTER, NH - JANUARY 07: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry participate in the ABC News, Yahoo! News, and WMUR Republican Presidential Debate at Saint Anselm College January 7, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The GOP contenders are in the final stretch of campaigning for the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation, to be held on January 10. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WOLFEBORO, NH - JANUARY 07: Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich speaks during a campaign town hall meeting at the Wright Museum January 7, 2012 in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. According to a CNN/Time/ORC poll released Friday, Gingrich has dropped from 43-percent in December to 17-percent, putting him even with fellow candidate, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. However, both are trailing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who is polling at 37-percent. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopefuls, former Massachusetts Govenor Mitt Romney (L), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, take the stage for the NBC News, Tampa Bay Times, National Journal Republican Presidential Candidates Debate at the University of South Florida, January 23, 2012, Tampa, Florida. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, delivers remarks during a Hispanic Town Hall January 28, 2012 at the Centro de la Familia church in Orlando, Florida AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages)
MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 22: Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich laugh as they participate in a debate sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona at the Mesa Arts Center February 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. The debate is the last one scheduled before voters head to the polls in Michigan and Arizona's primaries on February 28 and Super Tuesday on March 6. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Callista Gingrich speak during a tribute to former president Ronald Reagan at the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) -- Episode 4289 -- Pictured: (l-r) Newt Gingrich, Nicole 'Snookie' Polizzi, Callista Gingrich backstage on July 18, 2012 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 27: Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) addresses the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 25: Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright(L) and Newt Gingrich attend The Washington Post White House Correspondents' Pre-Dinner Reception at The Washington Hilton on April 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH- JULY 6: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) introduces Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally at the Sharonville Convention Center July 6, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Trump is campaigning in Ohio ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next week. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH- JULY 6: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) introduces Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally at the Sharonville Convention Center July 6, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Trump is campaigning in Ohio ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next week. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
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That is, until it was his turn to take the floor as the grand finale and pitch his new pet project: the selling of Trumpism.

"I think the odds are better than even money that Nov. 8, 2016, was a watershed event," Gingrich told the modest crowd assembled at the Covington Group on Wednesday morning without much modesty at all. "The basic radicalism of Trumpism is dramatically greater than Reagan was in 1980 or we were in 1994."

In a brief interview afterward, Gingrich told U.S. News he's already been enlisted by the incoming Trump administration to perform his unofficial, but preferred, role of "senior planner."

"It is happening. I'm doing it now. But it's not an official job," he says.

Yet a Trump transition aide declined to ascribe that title to Gingrich, saying only that he's continuing in his role as vice chairman of the transition.

That Gingrich is already embracing a job he hasn't been formally assigned explains his own healthy ego as much as it does his driving ambition to remain an influential player in Trump's orbit, even if a few rings removed.

Passed over for the vice presidential slot and – by his own request, he says – a Cabinet position, the 73-year-old Gingrich's next play is to be Trump's unofficial ambassador to official Washington.

"Developing the agenda, pushing the agenda, explaining the agenda, learning as things change," he says. "I told Trump that I wanted to do what I'm doing, that I did not want a government job."

Being Trump's unsanctioned whisperer has its advantages, of course, and lends Gingrich a certain amount of freedom to preserve his prized commodity as an intellectually superior provocateur. With no formal tie to the White House but a direct line in – he reportedly would email Trump several times a day during the campaign – Gingrich can serve as an independent conveyor of information from the seminars, salons and forums he populates and often dominates.

But as an independent actor, he'll also be able to shape Trump's policy agenda as he sees it through his own unique lens, while hawking his latest book, which is currently and conveniently titled, "Electing Trump" and available on Amazon for $3.99. At the same time, if Gingrich meanders too far off the reservation or steps into controversy, the White House can avoid express responsibility.

"He's been very direct about the president-elect when he disagrees with him. It strengthens his role as an outside adviser," says Ed Kutler, a former staffer for Gingrich in the 1990s. "He can help people focus on the larger goal with a little more candor and feeding that candor back to the White House apparatus. He can serve as an early warning system on things brewing downtown. Newt knows all the games that are played in this town."

Related: Trump's official picks for cabinet and administration positions

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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions
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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions

Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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A longtime student of the media with a love for stunts and hyperbole, Gingrich has a raw instinct for how to command attention all on his own.

More than 30 years ago, as a young Georgia congressman, he outlined his approach to a group of conservative activists.

"The No. 1 fact about the news media," he said back in 1984, "is they love fights."

"You have to give them confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate."

On Tuesday, during a speech at The Heritage Foundation, a longtime Beltway conservative think tank that generates lengthy policy prescriptions, Gingrich fleshed out that strategy with a modern-day example.

"You have to have rabbits that the media can chase or they'll invent their own. I think [Mitt] Romney, by the way, was a two-week long rabbit," he said of Trump's dangling the 2012 GOP presidential nominee as a contender for secretary of state. "Trump's going, 'Good, that's good. Better than other things you could be talking about.'"

With delicious impromptu riffs like these, Gingrich is already applying the principle of media manipulation to his current endeavor, while simultaneously layering his analysis with just enough independence to keep his audience hungry.

"I am so happy that Hillary's not going to be president that nothing Trump does bothers me," he told the Covington audience, eliciting laughs before turning serious. "And it allows me to deal with the fact that he's inevitably going to make mistakes. He is a rollout quarterback who throws deep. Well, if you're that kind of player, you're going to throw interceptions. Question is, do you throw a lot more touchdowns than interceptions?"

Gingrich's definition of Trumpism is essentially a third attempt – after Ronald Reagan in 1980 and himself in 1994 – by conservatives to break the country cleanly away from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" big-government mindset. He sees it as a push to decentralize the many functions and services that have been guided by elites in Washington and return power and decision-making to the populace outside of the nation's capital. What makes such profound change possible this time? Trump is as disruptive as President Andrew Jackson, as energetic as President Theodore Roosevelt and as effective a salesman as P.T. Barnum, Gingrich says.

"By the way, he likes that analogy," he added on Tuesday, with a deliberate nod to his access to the president-elect. The only figure in American history who has had a dynamic rise comparable to Trump's, in Gingrich's eyes, is Abraham Lincoln's from his Senate defeat in 1858 to his presidential election two years later.

The fact that the PBS-loving, Ivy League-degree wielding, consultant-heavy Beltway bubble missed this on all levels allows Gingrich to relish in a strident anti-elitism that always plays well with crowds, no matter how unaware they are that in many cases he's essentially describing them.

"People are just idiots. They have a degree or they have a law degree or they have something. They're idiots. They shouldn't be allowed near anything that matters," he said.

There are no sacred cows in Trumpism, no rules that can't be broken, no standard operating procedures that can't be torn asunder. If executed effectively, Trumpism will amount to a wholesale revamping of the federal bureaucracy that will endure far beyond Trump's tenure and well into another generation. This mantra, Gingrich posits, is radical and unsettling only to those who rely on the rusty levers of the entrenched status quo to maintain power.

"If you weren't already doing it, would you start? If not, why are you still doing it? That's the heart of Trumpism," said Gingrich. "The great challenge to the Trump-Pence administration is going to be to get up every morning and remember, they're not here to accomodate Washington. They're here to kick over the table."

One example he cites is The Pentagon – an untouchable venue even for many Republicans – but a bureaucratic boondoggle that he views as deeply archaic, wasteful and redundant, and which he hints could be a fertile target for Trumpism.

"The minimum conservative goal should be to reduce the Pentagon to a triangle, by eliminating 40 percent. And you'd get faster airplanes, faster acquisitions," he said.

To ideological conservatives, smaller is almost always better – a peculiar trait to apply to Trump, who embodies a "big league" philosophy in measuring success, from television ratings to the height of buildings to the size of crowds. But Gingrich has evidence on his side when amplifying this argument, pointing to the New York City billionaire's achievements as a candidate against the better-funded, more richly staffed Clinton.

"Remember it's the smaller, less expensive Trump that actually figured out the keys to the American system," he said at Heritage on Tuesday.

In the short term, Gingrich is focused on defending Trump's Cabinet selections, boasting that they will likely number the fewest lawyers in modern presidential administration history, and therefore may be "the smartest Cabinet in modern times."

The fear that too many generals are creeping into the top echelons of power? Only in East Coast power centers, dismisses Gingrich. "'Oh gosh, shouldn't we replace two of those guys with lawyers? Or Harvard professors?'" he mocked. "This is why the left is in such trouble."

The slight that neurosurgeon Ben Carson doesn't have the aptitude to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development? "None of the people who write this, by the way, have ever been in the HUD building. Or they would know that, probably, Ben would be OK," he says.

Consistent throughout Gingrich's routine is a rolling hazing of the press corps, with which Gingrich, like Trump, maintains a love-hate relationship.

During his Heritage speech, Gingrich took ample time to explain to his listeners that the right should label mainstream journalists as the "propaganda media" in the incoming Trump era.

"Drop the term 'news' media until they earn it," he instructed.

He later took particular umbrage with a weekend story by The Washington Post,which reported that CIA officials had determined the Russians intended to help Trump win the election.

"The entire story in the Post is a lie. It's a lie," he said, noting the FBI later delivered a contrary account.

There are the same "idiots," Gingrich noted, who have been wrong for "two solid years" about everything revolving around Trump.

But at the same time, they remain the primary vehicle that will help market Gingrich's new mission for immediate influence and long-term historical relevancy.

So on Friday morning, Gingrich will again field questions at an event populated by his much-loathed capitol city elites to discuss the Trump transition and will likely offer up more scintillatingly partisan sound bites designed to ricochet around the political ether.

The event's sponsor? The Washington Post.

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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