"I’ve lost friends from being here; I haven’t lost my soul."
In 2018, some of US President Donald Trump’s most senior advisors were called to the White House Situation Room.
As an NBC report from an anonymous source goes, they were called to discuss a policy to separate migrant children from their parents under a zero tolerance approach to deter illegal immigration through the US’ southern border.
The source said the advisors were then asked, by a show-of-hands vote, to decide what would happen to the migrant parents and children.
Among the top advisors at the meeting, according to an invitation list obtained by NBC, was Matamata-born Chris Liddell. He was deputy chief of staff for policy co-ordination at the time.
Two years on, Liddell told TVNZ1’s Q+A from the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room “we’ve never had a vote by a show of hands.
“We don't run our own little democracy inside here,” he said.
“Had there been a meeting like that, had there been a vote, I would certainly have voted against child separation.
“I think it was a terrible policy.
“In fact, my office ran a policy process to come up with an executive order which clarified shortly there-afterwards that child separation shouldn't be part of our policy.”
Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 stopping the family separations. But, as of November this year, NBC reported lawyers still haven’t been able to find nearly 700 children’s parents.
This is Liddell’s first televised interview since taking on his role in the White House. Because of his current role in handling the transition to the next White House administration amid Trump’s fraud claims and refusal to concede the result, Q+A agreed to strict parameters for interview subjects.
There are some things he would not publicly comment on. But, he addressed several controversies from his time working as Trump’s advisor.
Despite the controversy, Liddell said he never considered resigning.
“From my point of view, have there been times where I've disagreed with the president's decision? Of course.
“But, I've never felt that I'm so disagreed with what he's doing that I've ever seriously considered leaving.”
He acknowledged the personal cost for working for Trump.
“The way I describe it — look, I've lost friends from being here; I haven't lost my soul.”
Liddell added: “I believe in what I'm doing. I'm proud of what I've done here.”
As for Trump’s character and how he reckoned with it, Liddell said he continued to respect the president.
“I think he represents a core constituency of this country that desperately needs representing.
“So, from my point of view, that's worth the bloody noses and the criticism that I get externally for being here.”
MEETINGS WITH TRUMP 'THE MOST STIMULATING PART OF MY DAY'
Liddell described his role in the White House as being responsible for “com[ing] up with policy options for the President to consider” after meeting with heads of agencies.
“This is the biggest and most difficult job in the world … I wanted to challenge myself.”
He particularly enjoyed policy meetings with Trump, who enjoyed “vibrant conversation” and “vigorous debate”.
“Our meetings on policy will have four, five, six Principals, and they will represent different views depending on the topic … and we’ll debate the topic.”
Before becoming New Zealand’s so-called man in the White House, Liddell gained degrees in both the University of Auckland and Oxford University, then gained senior roles in Carter Holt Harvey, General Motors and Microsoft.
It’s because he wanted to challenge himself that Liddell said he enjoyed working with the “difficult” Trump. He's now been nominated by Trump to become secretary-general of the OECD.
“The most stimulating part of my day is the interaction I have with him. He's tough, and he pushes me, and he pushes everyone else around there. But, at the same time, he asks my opinion.”
It’s his bringing together of different perspectives that made him “reasonably successful”, and why he’s now the longest-serving administration official, he said.
“They trust me to represent their opinions in front of the president, and the president trusts me to make sure that the right opinions are in front of him as well. So it's critical, obviously, that he hears different perspectives.”
He said many people come into the White House with a personal agenda,
“I don't have that. For me, it's, 'I want to be that honest broker. I want people to trust me, and I actually just want to get to the right result.’”
He said he understood Trump was “unpopular” in New Zealand.
“But I also accept that my job is to do something important. And, this is a blood sport. And if you're not willing to sort of take a few punches, then, you know, you shouldn't be here.
“But in terms of dealing with the president, I've actually found that incredibly refreshing and not easy, because he's difficult … and he looks you directly in the eye, and he makes sure if you have an opinion.”