The day after Donald Trump’s improbable election victory, the president-elect faced the task of forming a new administration to take over the country’s executive branch in two months.
Trump needed help, and a S.C.-based consultant who had been with the Trump campaign from the beginning was there with him.
“At 6 in the morning, we went to bed,” said political strategist Ed McMullen of Charleston. “And, at 8 o’clock, we were back in (Trump) Tower, planning the transition.”
The head of McMullen Public Affairs, McMullen has known Trump for years. The political veteran was one of the first to come on board with the Trump campaign.
McMullen was chairman of Trump’s successful S.C. GOP primary operation, helped plan the Republican National Convention and kept the outsider candidate’s ear throughout the general election.
After election night, McMullen stuck around as a member of the transition team and a vice chair of the Trump inaugural committee.
“The transition begins right after the last convention,” McMullen said. “That’s when it kicks in, and Mr. Trump asked me to help with the transition.”
McMullen’s presence helped raise South Carolina’s profile with those in Trump’s orbit.
“I think the reason why you see so many high-profile positions going to South Carolina, whether it’s Nikki Haley (as U.S. ambasador to the United Nations) or Mick Mulvaney (as director of the Office of Management and Budget) or Tim Scott and Trey Gowdy on the transition team ... a lot of that has to do with Ed,” said Bill Stern, a Columbia real estate developer and friend of McMullen’s. “Mr. Trump relies on him, calls him, has meetings with him.”
McMullen, a native New Yorker, moved to South Carolina almost 30 years ago with his S.C.-born wife, Margaret Ann, after a stint as an executive with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
McMullen went on to chair the S.C. Policy Council, later working for a string of political and corporate clients before he was approached by Trump about working on his fledgling campaign.
“Bringing him in early was an adrenaline shot of credibility,” said Robert Cahaly, a pollster and senior strategist for the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group. “In his years at the Policy Council, he had established himself in the conservative community.”
McMullen credits his staff with organizing South Carolina “like a combat zone,” leading to Trump’s 10-point win over a crowded field of senators and governors in February’s GOP primary.
In turn, McMullen Public Affairs was paid almost $7,000 by the Trump campaign, according to a spending summary filed with the Federal Election Commission.
McMullen says he was confident in Trump’s victory over the more traditional GOP candidates – partly crediting Cahaly’s “dynamic” polling at Trafalgar.
“Most pollsters were using the same old list of Republican primary voters, but he created a model of those who were more inclined to vote,” McMullen said of Cahaly.
“They did the only S.C. poll that was accurate three days before the primary,” McMullen said. “Everybody thought (Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco) Rubio had the momentum, he had all these endorsements. People are consoling me, and I’m seeing the internal polls.”
That confidence carried over into the general election.
As “Clinton was measuring the drapes in the White House ... I knew from the modeling that we were doing exceedingly well in the battleground states,” McMullen said. “There was an excitement among Reagan Democrats and independents who wanted someone other than Hillary.”
Voters’ enthusiasm for Trump became one of the campaign’s secret weapons.
“I had Politico and these Washington outlets on our back about our ground game,” McMullen said, recalling the S.C. primary. “Rubio had 10 offices in (South Carolina before the primary), and I said, ‘Then, he had to staff 10 offices ... while we have people working in the real world.’ We had people who did phone-banking from home.
“All these muckety-mucks were talking about their ground game, and Donald Trump ran circles around them.”
Cahaly credits much of that success to McMullen.
“There are a lot of people in politics who work 18-hour days,” the pollster said. “But there are few who are successful and willing to work 18-hour days. Ed brings the work ethic of someone who’s hungry with the security of being successful.”
The McMaster factor
To S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, Trump’s Palmetto State success was no surprise.
“He called Ed, and the rest is history,” said McMaster, who has known McMullen since the Republican’s unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1986.
McMaster thinks so highly of McMullen’s abilities that he named him to head his own transition to the governor’s office even as McMullen continues to work with Trump’s presidential transition.
“Ed understands the issues, he knows people all across the country, he understands trends,” McMaster said. “He sees where we’re going as a country.”
McMullen also played a role in McMaster becoming the first statewide elected official to endorse Trump.
“Henry was originally for Lindsey Graham, then once (Graham) got out, (McMaster) and I had a great conversation about it,” McMullen said, adding McMaster was “heavily courted.”
McMullen’s secret weapon in courting McMaster might have been the lieutenant governor’s wife. “Peggy McMaster loves Mr. Trump.”
For his part, McMaster remembers McMullen “promoting (Trump) for months” before he met the New York billionaire business mogul for the first time at an August 2015 fundraiser in Greenville – the same event where the wife of S.C. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, famously pulled Trump’s hair.
While Peggy McMaster and Trump formed “an immediate friendship,” Henry McMaster sized up the New Yorker as a force to be reckoned with.
“I knew he had what it takes to withstand the attacks from the Clinton machine, their allies and the press,” McMaster said. “I knew this was going to be the guy. ... (And) Trump was the only one who could speak directly to the people.”
‘Whatever role he wants’
After the election, McMullen spent a week in Washington working on transition issues.
“I was more involved in bringing in key business leaders who can give voice to the president’s policies,” he said. “We want people from all across the country to give input into what his presidency looks like.”
McMullen also was named one of 10 vice chairmen on the committee planning Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration – the only one who isn’t a billionaire.
“I significantly diminished the net worth of the vice chairmen,” he said jokingly.
With Trump preparing to move into the White House, McMullen could have found himself working with the new administration.
“I’m sure he could have whatever role he wants,” Stern said.
But with his family and business in the Palmetto State, McMullen isn’t interested in pulling up stakes again.
“I told Mr. Trump two years ago ... as long as I do not have to move to D.C., I’ll help him any way I can.”
Wherever he lives, McMullen says he will stay in touch with the new president.
“He knows I’ll give him the unvarnished truth. I’ll give him the perspective from the hinterlands,” McMullen said. “He has my cellphone if we need to talk.”