Linda McMahon Gets a Ringside Seat for TrumpMania

Linda McMahon has been praised for her leadership of the Small Business Administration under President Trump, a longtime friend who once paid her his highest compliment: “She’s a killer.”

WASHINGTON — It was fight night in Atlantic City — bright lights, big hair, foam fingers — and the luminaries were out in force: the not-yet-president, a future cabinet member, a Gotti-aligned Mafioso and Andre the Giant.

Donald J. Trump, nominally the evening’s host, held court ringside, posing beside his first wife, Ivana, and glad-handing the high-rollers. Linda E. McMahon, a new business partner with promise, entertained sponsors off-camera, her company’s annual spectacle nearly ready for prime time.

“Everybody in the country wanted this event,” Mr. Trump said at the time, promoting the grand 1988 affair, WrestleMania IV, alongside Hulk Hogan. “And we were able to get it.”

It did not much matter that the venue was not the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, as television viewers were told, but an adjacent convention hall, or that the outcomes of the bouts had been predetermined, as Ms. McMahon would begin arguing to regulators, a back-office masterstroke to sidestep state rules governing true athletic competitions.

Appearances were all that registered. The perception of success was success.

And in this corner office … in a drab government building between the White House and the Capitol, the president has a collaborator, three decades later, who shares that instinct.

“Don’t you think that successful people, male or female, have certain personalities?” Ms. McMahon, who now leads the Small Business Administration under Mr. Trump, said in an interview last month.

They seem to, in Mr. Trump’s Washington.

Credit...Ariel Zambelich for The New York Times

Since his election, the president has stocked his inner circle with friends, donors and assorted rich people accustomed to his rhythms. But there is no other cabinet member who understands Mr. Trump as Ms. McMahon does.

One of the highest-ranking women in government, Ms. McMahon, 69, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, has helped steer a more than $1 billion empire built on branding sizzle and sleight of hand. She found politics late in life as a business-minded Republican during two unsuccessful United States Senate campaigns in Connecticut.

She and her husband, Vince — the W.W.E.’s public face and musclebound showman even into his 70s — have been among the most prolific donors to Mr. Trump’s foundation, giving a total of $5 million, according to public filings. Mr. Trump gave $5,000 to Ms. McMahon’s 2012 Senate campaign.

She has the distinction of being the only cabinet member whose spouse the president shaved bald and faux-body-slammed, to cheering throngs at a WrestleMania “Battle of the Billionaires” in 2007. (Last year, the president posted on Twitter a doctored version of a clip from the event with the CNN logo superimposed on Mr. McMahon’s head.)

In private, Mr. Trump, who had lunch with Ms. McMahon at the White House on Wednesday, has blessed her with his highest praise for a woman in business or politics: “She’s a killer.”

“He’d say, ‘You have to be,’” recalled Sam Nunberg, a former campaign adviser, “‘being married to Vince.’”

Yet if Ms. McMahon’s career has often paralleled Mr. Trump’s — big swings, many misses, huge ratings — it is a sign of the times that a professional wrestling magnate can feel like the cabinet’s least conspicuous member. More precisely, as Democrats in Congress strain to prevent many agency leaders from rolling back Obama-era policies, Ms. McMahon has distinguished herself as the rare high-ranking administration official deemed broadly unobjectionable.

“Some of these department heads made it pretty clear that their mission was to destroy the agency they were running,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who defeated Ms. McMahon in 2012 but supported her nomination by Mr. Trump. “She clearly is interested in making the Small Business Administration work better.”

On Ms. McMahon’s watch, the agency’s lending to women-owned businesses has increased by almost 7 percent, according to federal statistics. Disaster loan assistance totaling billions of dollars has been approved for hurricane victims from Texas to Puerto Rico — an agency mandate, Ms. McMahon said, of which she was unaware before her nomination. (That did not stop Ms. McMahon, years before taking the job, from suggesting that the S.B.A. should be eradicated as a stand-alone agency and folded into the Commerce Department.)

As the administration pushed for tax cut legislation in Congress, the signature feat of Mr. Trump’s first year, Ms. McMahon was a key emissary and public surrogate, promoting its merits in a national tour of businesses that have benefited from S.B.A.-backed loans.

She has handled foam “cheeseheads” in Wisconsin, thrown on a hairnet at a Maine coffee-roaster and made the rounds in an Alaskan village accessible only by boat.

“As an entrepreneur myself, I can tell you it’s tough,” she said last month at a White House round-table discussion for women in business, delivering what has come to resemble a regular stump speech as she recounted her travels. “What I heard from every small business owner was, ‘If I get a tax cut, I’m going to take that money, I’m going to reinvest it in my business.’”

Among her former peers, Ms. McMahon’s position has signaled professional wrestling’s hard-won acceptance in polite society. “It shows W.W.E. has arrived,” said Glenn Jacobs, a wrestler known as Kane who is now running to be mayor of Knox County, Tenn. Mr. Jacobs once co-starred with Ms. McMahon in a scripted bit that found him grabbing her by the throat and appearing to knock her unconscious.

Like her boss, Ms. McMahon is familiar with bankruptcy filings.

The year was 1976, and her family — laid low by a series of missteps that included an ill-fated Evel Knievel stunt project on a jet-powered sled — appeared to reach financial bottom in West Hartford, Conn.

“My house was auctioned off,” Ms. McMahon said. “My car was repossessed in the driveway.”

The McMahons’ fortunes would turn on a simple truth: Competitions need not be real to be entertaining — presaging the kind of “reality” television that would sustain and enhance Mr. Trump’s celebrity more than two decades later.

Wrestling was already the family business on Mr. McMahon’s side. The couple had met in church in North Carolina, when Ms. McMahon, the tomboy daughter of a budget analyst and a shop foreman, was 13. She was 17 when they married, joining him at East Carolina University and graduating early to match his exit year. Once out of school, Ms. McMahon worked as a paralegal in Washington, where Mr. McMahon’s father had founded a regional wrestling company, Capitol Wrestling, enlisting his son as a promoter and television announcer.

By the early 1980s, the McMahons had moved to Greenwich, Conn., with higher ambitions and a new plan.

Historically, wrestling companies had kept to their own territories, observing certain unofficial rules of the trade. The McMahons resolved to snub such niceties as they bulldozed smaller competitors with national events that earned them deep industry hostility and a swelling market share. Their focus expanded from live events to pay-per-view to action figures.

Mr. McMahon became the telegenic ringleader of the enterprise, at ease on camera as the sport’s manic hype man. Ms. McMahon ran the back office, establishing herself — not for the last time — as the even-keeled counterweight to a less-temperate leading man.

Behind the scenes, her contributions were essential, according to former colleagues. Perhaps most significantly, Ms. McMahon became the first prominent industry insider to admit publicly that wrestling was scripted, as part of a largely successful bid to bypass a thicket of regulations from state athletic commissions.

“She did a beautiful job of laying that out and saying, ‘What needs regulation here? This is completely part of entertainment,’” said Dick Ebersol, a former chairman of NBC Sports, who collaborated on projects with the McMahons. “She was no cream puff. That partnership — for it to have worked, they sacrificed everything together. He was Mr. Outside and she was Mrs. Inside.”

As the business grew — drawing millions of weekly cable viewers and making megastars out of wrestlers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Triple H, who is now Ms. McMahon’s son-in-law — Mr. Trump became a friend, partner and occasional combatant in the W.W.E.’s weekly soap opera.

He played host for back-to-back WrestleMania events in Atlantic City, and years later took a razor to Mr. McMahon’s head as the wrestling boss wailed. (Mr. Trump’s tale of the tape that night included this rendering of his weight: “less than Rosie O’Donnell.”)

In 2009, Mr. Trump feigned an acquisition of the company’s flagship program, “Monday Night Raw,” appearing via satellite to deliver the fake news — which, taken seriously by some investors, set off a brief stock price tumble before the matter was clarified.

In 2013, he was inducted into the W.W.E. Hall of Fame, tuxedoed and smirking, as the audience jeered, a badge of honor in the pro wrestling world. “Nobody ever got booed like he did,” said Dave Meltzer, the longtime editor of Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which covers the industry.

Ms. McMahon played down the depth of any personal connection to Mr. Trump through the years. “We’ve been business friends,” she said. “We weren’t family friends. Our families didn’t go out to dinner.”

The W.W.E. makes no such distinction. Mr. Trump is listed on the website among the company’s “superstars,” with a curated accounting of career achievements.

“Former owner of ‘Monday Night Raw.’”

“2013 W.W.E. Hall of Fame Inductee.”

“45th President of the United States.”

For decades, Ms. McMahon’s on-camera work had been limited but memorable.

There was the story line that had her emerging from a coma to kick her cheating husband in the groin. And the time she went flying to the mat after her daughter smacked her in the face. And the evening when Ms. McMahon recoiled, pulling away, as another man sidled up, called her a “big-breasted beauty” and forcibly kissed her as the crowd roared.

“I’ve seen myself, on the very few times I was on TV with the W.W.E.,” Ms. McMahon said in the interview. “I knew I should stick to my day job.”

By 2010, that day job became more visible: Ms. McMahon, spending tens of millions of dollars of her own money, left the company to target open Senate seats in consecutive election cycles.

Her pitch seems familiar now: a brash, unconventional business titan was the cure for what ailed Washington. But her task was formidable, requiring a political newcomer in a solid-blue state to embrace the biography that made her unique and distance herself from its excesses. She did this while struggling to project both toughness and compassion standing astride three institutions — business, politics and wrestling — dominated by men.

“Part of the challenge was conveying this message that the product that she sold wasn’t real,” said Ed Patru, her communications director in 2010. “The business side, creating a global brand — that, in fact, was real.”

Campaign ads tracked her rags-to-riches story. One tried, semi-plausibly, to establish her as a sort of internal industry censor, with Ms. McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, saying her mother “was instrumental in making the W.W.E. more family-friendly.”

Inevitably, though, wrestling’s underside came to the campaign fore: questions about safety shortcomings and the deaths of several relatively young wrestlers; accusations of sexual harassment against top executives from some of the company’s “ring boys”; a congressional investigation that found “pervasive” steroid use across an industry refusing to address the problem.

Ms. McMahon impressed Republican operatives as a quick study in retail politics, charming residents in person with a southern lilt and an easy laugh. But she lost by 12 points to Richard Blumenthal, her Democratic opponent.

When another seat opened two years later, Ms. McMahon tried again, against longer odds, in a presidential election year among Connecticut voters who broadly supported the Democrat in the White House.

“I said, ‘On a good day, you have a 40 percent chance,’” Chris LaCivita, a top adviser, recalled telling Ms. McMahon as she weighed another run. “She said, ‘So you mean there’s a chance?’”

She would lose by 12 points again.

Ms. McMahon’s ultimate path to Washington ran through an old friend.

Her embrace of Mr. Trump in the 2016 campaign had been halting. He was not her first choice, she allowed in interviews, and some of Mr. Trump’s disparaging comments about women struck her as “deplorable.” But by the fall, she had poured at least $7 million into so-called super PACs that supported him.

Three weeks after the election, Ms. McMahon was summoned to Trump Tower for a meeting. A week after that, she had the job.

Her confirmation hearing, held amid a blitz of cabinet proceedings for far more contentious nominees, was incident-free, bordering on breezy. Her two former Democratic opponents in Connecticut, Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Murphy, introduced her.

Ms. McMahon quickly disavowed her past suggestion that the Small Business Administration need not stand on its own. “When I was asked if I supported merging S.B.A. into Commerce, I really was not focused on S.B.A. or Commerce,” she told lawmakers. She simply liked the idea, broadly, of merging agencies to save money at the time. President Barack Obama had in fact floated the proposal himself, even as he elevated the position of S.B.A. head to cabinet-level status.

“It is a really critical thing that it has a seat at the table,” said Karen Mills, a small business administrator under Mr. Obama, cheering the Trump administration’s extension of the practice. “I think it is now well understood that it needs to continue.”

Through Ms. McMahon’s early days in Washington, she found accommodations, like many new imports to the capital, at the Trump International Hotel. “Convenient, food was good, service was good,” she said.

But since assuming the role, she has spent a large chunk of her time on the road, visiting the agency’s local offices and sitting for business gatherings on a kind of meet-and-greet tour that resembles a campaign schedule.

She has strolled through a chocolaterie in Iowa (the company had grown with the help of three S.B.A.-backed loans), acquired a bobblehead doll from a grain company in Oregon (it now sits on a shelf in her office) and rerouted her team to a Dairy Queen in Pennsylvania after learning the identity of an attendee at a local chamber of commerce event.

“She kind of looked at me and said, ‘Are you the Dairy Queen person?’” said Judy Lynn-Craig, a franchisee for the ice cream chain. “She had read our bios.”

Ms. McMahon’s more consequential work has come in extreme weather, briefing the cabinet on recovery efforts for storm-affected businesses and overseeing the allocation of aid. The agency said it had approved more than 100,000 loans for nearly $6 billion in disaster-loan assistance for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, outpacing the loan totals and processing times from Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. (The agency issues loans directly after natural disasters; in nonemergencies, it guarantees a portion of a loan in the event of default, reducing the risk for lenders.)

If Ms. McMahon has retained any discomfort with Mr. Trump’s behavior since taking office, the two seem to have had little friction, in part because her agency’s mission is less politically fraught than some others’.

Reminded that Washington’s power structure now included two prominent W.W.E. veterans, Ms. McMahon disputed any suggestion that the capital had come to resemble a professional wrestling scene. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “I don’t think that’s it.”

But the president has not forgotten their shared history.

“She has been incredible,” Mr. Trump told guests at a White House event last summer. “Known her for a long time.”

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