United Way CEO on Trump: Focus on policy, not personality

United Way CEO: My one-on-one with President Trump
United Way CEO: My one-on-one with President Trump

When it comes to President Trump, United Way CEO Brian Gallagher says "focus on policy, not personality."

"If the administration works on something that matters, focus on it. Hold the administration accountable," Gallagher said in the latest Boss Files podcast episode with CNN's Poppy Harlow. "Not the words, not the tweets, unless they effect policy."

In February, Gallagher was one of the participants invited to the White House to talk with the president about how to combat human trafficking in the U.S. and around the world. Following the meeting, Gallagher says he stayed in the Oval Office to speak with Trump one-on-one.

"He likes to talk. He's engaging. He asked me who I knew in New York," Gallagher said of his encounter with the president. Trump went on to tell Gallagher how he had been a donor to the United Way's New York chapter.

"He's like every president that I've met," said Gallagher, who has been United Way's CEO since 2002 and has worked with past three administrations, including Trump's. "It is lonely in these jobs, and as weird as it sounds, my guess is he's feeling, like who do I trust? And there needs to be a personal engagement with him if you're going to get a real exchange."

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Gallagher suggested to Trump that he gather all the big non-profit leaders together, just as he has been doing with corporate CEOs, to talk about ways businesses and non-profits can partner more.

"That's a great idea," Gallagher recalled the president saying.

United Way is the largest privately funded nonprofit in the world. It works in more than 40 countries and raises $5 billion a year to improve education, financial well-being and the health of tens of millions of people.

When asked what he'd like to see from the Trump administration, Gallagher said "tax reform and a policy that embraces building the middle [class] again."

"We're in a tough spot right now. We've lost social and economic mobility in the country," said Gallagher.

He noted that the U.S. doesn't have enough skilled workers to fill its growing number of "knowledge-based jobs."

"We're trying to figure out how to get, train people up from middle-skilled jobs," said Gallagher. "There's a skill shortage in the U.S."

Gallagher also noted that Trump's proposed budget cuts to several programs aimed at helping lower income people would cause an even greater divide.

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"You can't cut dramatically the safety net programs that the administration is proposing to cut, and then say that you're building the middle class," he said.

Gallagher knows first-hand how much of a difference some government programs make. It happened in his own life. He grew up on food stamps and welfare.

He was also the first in his family to go to college and he long battled the emotional scars of an alcoholic dad.

"I learned to survive him, and survive the environment," says Gallagher.

In college, when he expressed interest in social work, Gallagher's father disapproved and told him he'd end up in the "trunk of a car." But that didn't stop Gallagher from pursuing a management training program at the United Way in Indiana.

In the last few years of his father's life, Gallagher went to visit him in Indiana. "[H]e was sober, and he had two visitors that day. One was a volunteer from Meals on Wheels, and one was a visiting nurse," said Gallagher. "I thought this is unbelievable. These are two organizations that we fund. That we partner with."

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