WASHINGTON — George Conway, a prominent conservative lawyer, is married to Kellyanne Conway, a White House counselor well known to cable viewers as a passionate defender of President Trump. But for months, Mr. Conway has been developing his own following through his frequent criticisms of the president on Twitter.
And this week, Mr. Conway finally got the treatment the White House and its allies reserve for critics.
“Of all the ugliness in politics, the utter disrespect George Conway shows toward his wife, her career, place of work, and everything she has fought SO hard to achieve, might top them all,” Eric Trump, the president’s son, tweeted. “@KellyannePolls is great person and frankly his actions are horrible.”
Even in an administration where staffers and family members have routinely stabbed one another not just in the back, but in the front, commentary by a president’s son on the marriage of a top White House adviser seemed unusual.
Eric Trump’s jab was retweeted more than 15,000 times. But it received more than twice as many replies, many reminding him of his father’s own indiscretions. “If he thinks that’s horrible,” the comedian Jimmy Kimmel said on his show, “wait until he hears what Daddy and Auntie Stormy did to his step-mommy Melania. Talk about disrespectful.”
Inside the West Wing, however, Mr. Trump’s decision to tweet about one of Washington’s most discussed marriages was greeted as a welcome defense of one of the president’s longest-serving aides, according to multiple White House officials.
In fact, while Mr. Conway’s criticisms of the president have made him something of a cult figure among progressives and never-Trump conservatives, his voice has also created an internal moat of support around his wife.
If his motivation was ever to encourage her to leave an administration he despises, Mr. Conway so far has had the opposite effect, binding Ms. Conway more closely to the president and in particular his family members, who have come to see her as a more sympathetic figure because of it. Speaking to law enforcement agents in Kansas City, Mo., on Friday, the president singled out Ms. Conway for praise for her work on fighting the opioid epidemic, asking her to stand up and calling her a “very special person.”
For her part, Ms. Conway has told friends that she viewed Eric Trump’s tweet favorably, seeing it as motivated not by a desire to knife her husband, but to defend her in public. She has also made clear what she thinks of her husband’s criticism of her boss, telling The Washington Post in an interview last summer: “I think it’s disrespectful. I think it disrespects his wife.”
But in general, Ms. Conway, usually the more public-facing of the duo, avoids commenting on her husband, telling friends that she does not jump into this fray because of how it would affect her children.
Even internally, Ms. Conway deflects questions about him by sighing and joking about all “the tweeting men in my life.” In her office, the dueling presence of those tweeting men is on display: Behind Ms. Conway’s desk hangs a blown-up photograph of the entire Conway family, including all four children and both parents, walking along the White House colonnade.
On an adjoining wall hangs an oversize picture of Ms. Conway standing next to the president.
Last month, the president did weigh in against her pesky husband, referring to him as “Mr. Kellyanne Conway” and accusing him of “just trying to get publicity for himself.”
When he took to Twitter on Monday, Eric Trump appeared to have been set off by one of Mr. Conway’s most recent tweets, in which he responded to the president’s praise of a former adviser, Roger J. Stone Jr., for claiming he would “never testify” against him.
The Trump family has tightened its embrace of Ms. Conway as her husband has attacked the president.CreditTom Brenner for The New York Times
“File under ‘18 U.S.C. §§ 1503, 1512,’” Mr. Conway tweeted, referring to a federal statute that pertains to obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
“I’ve never said anything publicly critical of Kellyanne,” he said in a Twitter message. “To the contrary, I’ve consistently praised her — including for virtually single-handedly winning an election for a profoundly flawed candidate who was headed for a crushing defeat until she took over his campaign.”
Mr. Conway’s evolution into one of the president’s most acerbic and high-profile legal critics can be traced back to the early days of the administration, when he happily moved from New York to Washington with hopes of joining his wife in the Trump trenches.
When he withdrew his name from consideration for a top post at the Justice Department, overseeing the Civil Division, he said in a letter to the president in June 2017 that “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.”
But that sentiment started to change that same month after Mr. Conway and his wife attended the wedding of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, where he had a run-in with the president himself.
At the wedding, the president praised Mr. Conway for turning down a job that would have meant reporting to such a “weak” leader, assuming that he had rejected the Justice Department job offer because he shared his disdain for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Mr. Conway did not disabuse the president of that view in real time. But soon after, he began weighing in with a light footprint, mostly expressing himself through retweets on Twitter. His tweets generated interest because of his spouse, but they resonated more broadly because they rebuked his fellow conservative Federalist Society members — those elite lawyers who chose not to criticize Mr. Trump publicly in exchange for influence in his judicial nominations as he reshaped the federal bench.
But in recent months, Mr. Conway has become even more vocal, outlining developed legal arguments in the opinion pages of The Post and The New York Times, and on the blog Lawfare. He has criticized both the appointment of the acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, and the president’s proposal to end birthright citizenship as unconstitutional.
If it’s a lonely feeling being an exile from one’s own party and from the views of one’s own spouse, Mr. Conway has found some new friends along the way.
“George is really a prisoner of his own conscience,” said Neal K. Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general in the Obama administration and recently co-wrote two opinion articles with Mr. Conway. “He feels just a moral duty to speak out, which is really not easy for him, I can tell you firsthand. This is a very wrought process.”
Last month, Mr. Conway doubled down on his criticism of his wife’s boss — he started a group of conservative lawyers called Checks and Balances, whose stated purpose is to encourage debate about Mr. Trump’s policies.
Joined by prominent conservative lawyers like Peter Keisler and Paul McNulty, the group was viewed in legal circles as something of a coming-out party for Mr. Conway, and yet another rebuke of the Federalist Society, which held its annual gala the weekend the group was announced.
If he is gaining followers among conservatives who share his views, Mr. Conway may also be testing the limits of the Trump family’s toleration of dissenters.
“He started with retweets, graduated to tweets and then began writing thoughtful legal arguments on matters of intense public concern,” said Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare. “That is clearly getting under the skin of the people close to the president.”