Washington (CNN)Kim Kardashian West met with President Donald Trump and other officials, including senior adviser Jared Kushner, at the White House on Wednesday to discuss prison reform.
In a White House known for chaos, the process of developing the U.S. response to the Syrian government’s alleged latest gas attack was proceeding with uncharacteristic deliberation, including several national security briefings for President Trump.
But then Wednesday morning, Trump upended it all with a tweet — warning Russia, the Syrian government’s backer, to “get ready” because American missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ”
White House advisers were surprised by the missive and found it “alarming” and “distracting,” in the words of one senior official. They quickly regrouped and, together with Pentagon brass, continued readying Syria options for Trump as if nothing had happened.
But the Twitter disruption was emblematic of a president operating on a tornado of impulses — and with no clear strategy — as he faces some of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, including Syria, trade policy and the Russian interference probe that threatens to overwhelm his administration.
“It’s just like everybody wakes up every morning and does whatever is right in front of them,” said one West Wing aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion. “Oh, my God, Trump Tower is on fire. Oh, my God, they raided Michael Cohen’s office. Oh, my God, we’re going to bomb Syria. Whatever is there is what people respond to, and there is no proactive strategic thinking.”
The president has been particularly livid in the wake of Monday’s FBI raids on the home, office and hotel room of Cohen, his longtime personal attorney. In the days after, he has seriously contemplated a shake-up at the Justice Department in the hopes of curbing the expanding probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose referral led to the Cohen raids. Trump is considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the probe, several people familiar with Trump’s private comments said.
By Trump’s admission Wednesday on Twitter, Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice has consumed “tremendous time and focus.” And in denying allegations of wrongdoing, the president seemed to equivocate in a parenthetical aside: “No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back),” he wrote.
On trade, meanwhile, the president is grappling with the potential economic fallout of his threatened tariffs, especially within the agriculture sector, which could harm some of the rural states that carried him to electoral victory — all against the backdrop of his ongoing effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement more favorably for the United States.
Trump also finds himself facing the surprise retirement of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), signaling more turmoil for the fractious Republican Party heading into the midterm elections.
These and other pivotal developments come as many of the guardrails that previously helped stabilize the president — from West Wing aides to clear policy processes — have been cast aside, with little evident organization or long-term strategy emanating from the White House.
This portrait of Trump in the current moment comes from interviews with 21 administration officials, outsider advisers, lawmakers and confidants, many of them speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details and conversations.
Save for his Wednesday morning tweet, the president’s Syria deliberations have largely been the exception to the chaos engulfing the White House, underscoring the high stakes of a decision, White House officials said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday afternoon that Trump continues to review options for a military strike in Syria and that his tweet should not be read as an announcement of planned action.
“We’re maintaining that we have a number of options, and all of those options are still on the table,” Sanders said. “Final decisions haven’t been made on that front.”
The National Security Council met Wednesday afternoon at the White House, chaired by Vice President Pence, to finalize options that could be presented to the president, Sanders said. She said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser John Bolton and other senior officials have been in regular contact with their counterparts from Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom and other partners around the world as the administration weighs its military options for Syria.
Yet Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday afternoon that he had yet to hear from Trump or other administration officials about impending action in Syria.
“I have no idea. So far, it appears to me to be bluster,” Corker said. “Then I saw a tweet come out about us working with Russia right after we’re getting ready to bomb them, so I mean, who knows? Unfortunately, there are a lot of things announced by the administration that never come to pass or evolve.”
The more general question of U.S. engagement in Syria has confounded and divided the administration. Officials at the White House and Pentagon, for instance, were blindsided by Trump’s pronouncement at a rally in Ohio in late March that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon,” and in the first hours after the speech, they scrambled to get a sense of what he meant.
Trump initially told aides that he wanted U.S. soldiers and Marines to leave in 48 hours — an impossible timeline that alarmed the Pentagon and sent officials racing to dissuade him, two U.S. officials said.
Eventually, Mattis and others persuaded Trump to give the military another six months to wipe out the remnants of the Islamic State. The timeline was far from ideal but was viewed as a major victory compared with Trump’s original timeline, officials said.
Senior U.S. officials describe a president who is operating largely on impulse, with little patience for the advice of his top aides. “A decision or statement is made by the president, and then the principals — Mattis or Pompeo or Kelly — come in and tell him we can’t do it,” said one senior administration official. “When that fails, we reverse-engineer a policy process to match whatever the president said.”
On a potential shake-up at the Justice Department, Trump has been receiving a range of advice and has sent mixed signals about his intentions. Within the White House, advisers have largely counseled caution and urged him not to make changes. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and counsel Donald McGahn have tried to calm Trump several times, as has Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the Russia probe.
Yet others, including many in the president’s orbit who don’t work in the White House, have counseled a more aggressive approach, saying the raid of Cohen’s home and business crossed a line. This advice has left White House staff on edge, nervous about what the president might do.
Trump, for instance, yelled about Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for several hours Monday and has continued to complain about them since. But some described his complaints as just “venting,” with one outside adviser saying that while the president is “steamed and unhappy,” that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s prepared to take action.
“I heard or saw nothing that would suggest he was planning to make a change at the Department of Justice,” said Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor who dined at the White House with Trump on Tuesday night. He said they mainly discussed the Middle East and Russia.
Rosenstein, meanwhile, seems to have made peace with any eventuality, said one person who has had a conversation with him. He understands he might be squarely in Trump’s crosshairs, and “is ready for whatever comes and confident in his own behavior.”
Trump has also devoted a portion of his days to trade policy. Over the past eight weeks, the president has initiated trade disputes with several of the largest countries in the world, driving forward pronouncements without fully vetting most of them with key aides.
In some cases, he has backpedaled on his vow to impose steep tariffs on countries such as Germany, Canada and Mexico. But he has also refused to waive tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Japan, a major U.S. security ally and trading partner.
Some Senate Republicans fear that Trump’s loosely formed trade war with China could end up cratering the agriculture industry at a time when many Midwestern farmers are preparing to plant crops. China has promised to impose tariffs on U.S. farm exports as a way of retaliating against Trump’s planned tariffs. The White House promised to backstop U.S. farm groups, but they have yet to share what they would do or how they would do it.
“I don’t know what kind of cockamamie scheme we could come up with that would be fair,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Tuesday.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was similarly frustrated by Trump’s trade agenda. “I think the president has some ideas about trade that are not generally shared by the Republican conference,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his frustrated ranks during a closed-door lunch this week to call Trump and air their trade-related worries, according to a person familiar with the Kentucky Republican’s remarks. Roberts and others planned to meet with Trump on Thursday to discuss the matter.
On some level, White House aides have simply reconciled themselves to the reality that they have little to no control over Trump’s actions and instead remain prepared to explain them away or clean them up.
“Trump is truly serving as his own chief of staff, communications director, and policy maven,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House. “He’s singing the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ ”
Josh Dawsey, Greg Jaffe, Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.
After Kelly told Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier in a January interview that Trump’s immigration views had not been “fully informed” during the campaign and had since “evolved,” the president berated Kelly in the Oval Office — his shouts so loud they could be heard through the doors.
And less than two weeks ago, Kelly grew so frustrated on the day that Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin that Nielsen and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both tried to calm him and offered pep talks, according to three people with knowledge of the incident.
“I’m out of here, guys,” Kelly said — comments some interpreted as a resignation threat, but according to a senior administration official, he was venting his anger and leaving work an hour or two early to head home.
The recurring and escalating clashes between the president and his chief of staff trace the downward arc of Kelly’s eight months in the White House. Both his credibility and his influence have been severely diminished, administration officials said, a clear decline for the retired four-star Marine Corps general who arrived with a reputation for integrity and a mandate to bring order to a chaotic West Wing.
Kelly neither lurks around the Oval Office nor listens in on as many of the president’s calls, even with foreign leaders. He has not been fully consulted on several recent key personnel decisions. And he has lost the trust and support of some of the staff, as well as angered first lady Melania Trump, who officials said was upset over his sudden dismissal of Johnny McEntee, the president’s 27-year-old personal aide.
“When you lose that power,” said Leon Panetta, a Democratic former White House chief of staff, “you become a virtual White House intern, being told where to go and what to do.”
This portrait of Kelly’s trajectory is based on interviews with 16 administration officials, outside advisers and presidential confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to assess the chief of staff. Kelly declined interview requests.
In large part because of his military credentials, Kelly still commands a level of respect from Trump that sometimes eluded his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whom the president would derisively refer to as “Reincey.” On issues such as national security and immigration, Trump continues to listen to Kelly. And for all the evident chaos, the West Wing now features less knife fighting and dysfunction than in the early months, when Trump set Priebus on coequal footing with then-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
One senior White House official disputed that Kelly’s relationship with Trump has been especially turbulent in recent weeks, noting that the president still talks to Kelly more than any other official. This official explained that Kelly initially viewed his job as babysitting, but now feels less of a need to be omnipresent, while Trump, who once considered Kelly a security blanket, feels increasingly emboldened to act alone.
But inside and outside the White House, Kelly’s credibility has suffered from a string of misstatements, most recently over his management of domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter and of Trump’s decision to oust Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. And for all the structure he has brought to the bureaucracy, colleagues still view Kelly as tone deaf in dealing with politics.
Kelly is the latest high-profile example of a West Wing Icarus — swept high into Trump’s orbit, only to be singed and cast low. Nearly everyone who has entered the White House has emerged battered — rendered a punchline (former press secretary Sean Spicer), a Justice Department target (former national security adviser Michael Flynn) or a diminished shell, fired by presidential tweet (former secretary of state Rex Tillerson).
No one knows how many days remain for Kelly, but when he leaves — either by the president’s hand or because of his own mounting frustration — he is almost certain to limp away damaged.
“Everybody in the orbit of Donald Trump gets sucked in and tarnished or destroyed,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “Kelly has been tarnished, no doubt about it.”
When Kelly, then the homeland security secretary, was appointed chief of staff late last July, the news was met with enthusiasm. Many Trump watchers hoped Kelly would prove a voice of reason and restraint in an administration often perceived to be teetering out of control. And many West Wing aides similarly welcomed the new discipline, thinking Kelly’s regimen would free them to do their jobs.
Initially, at least, Kelly was successful. He began closing the door to the Oval Office, so aides couldn’t loiter or wander in and out hoping to sway the president on issues outside their purview. He made meetings smaller, which helped reduce leaks to the press and make conversations more efficient. And he limited the number of aides who had Oval Office walk-in privileges to a small group.
“I didn’t know the Oval Office even had a door,” one staffer joked to Kelly, several months after he’d taken over. Kelly, meanwhile, marveled that in the early days staffers sometimes entered still chatting on their cellphones.
Under Kelly’s watch, the president now has “Policy Time,” sessions once or twice a day where advisers present and argue their competing views over a specific issue, with Trump presiding. He has also implemented bimonthly Cabinet meetings, with a focused agenda, as well as restored order to the morning senior staff meeting. And attendance for most Oval Office meetings is still run through Kelly’s office.
But about a month into Kelly’s tenure, Trump began to chafe at the strictures. The president invited staff and Cabinet secretaries into the Oval Office without scheduled appointments and called friends and advisers late at night, without Kelly’s sign-off. An early sign of trouble came when Trump polled confidants about his enforcer: “What do you think of Kelly? How’s Kelly doing?” the president asked.
Kelly was an intimidating presence, confiding to some colleagues that he preferred to be feared rather than loved. Yet he was reluctant to be the bearer of bad news. Enter Nielsen, who centralized power as his enforcer, earning her internal enemies.
Kelly requested that staffers back-brief him when the president violated his processes — for instance, by calling a staffer to demand action after watching a Fox News segment. But several aides said they found Kelly difficult when they retroactively filled him in. He often repeated a version of the same response: “I guess you’re the chief of staff now, so why don’t you handle it?”
There were other signs of tensions, as well. Early on, Kelly convened a video conference with aides who were with Trump on vacation at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J. He was beamed in from Washington but erupted when the audio didn’t work. “This is [expletive] ridiculous,” he said, canceling the meeting and storming out of the room. Aides who had not been aware of his temper were stunned.
Days after the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” — a devastating portrayal of the West Wing, informed by Wolff’s hours of unsupervised time there — Kelly berated senior staff, saying the book should have never happened. “This place was a [expletive] before I got here,” Kelly fumed.
Though some staffers felt unfairly critiqued, others agreed with his assessment.
During the Porter crisis, Kelly found himself under intense scrutiny for the veracity of his whipsaw statements. He publicly praised Porter and privately urged him to stay. But Kelly later claimed that he had demanded Porter’s resignation just 40 minutes after learning the details of the allegations, which conflicted with the White House’s official account delivered by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Many senior staffers were convinced that Kelly was distorting the facts to try to exonerate himself, though some others say his account was accurate.
In March, Kelly again offered contradictory explanations. He privately told staffers that Trump had decided to oust McMaster. But after The Washington Post reported that Trump had made his decision, Kelly began telling others the opposite — while still maintaining to some Trump advisers that the president’s decision had been made. Some advisers thought that Kelly was using the president to push a personal vendetta against McMaster.
In an off-the-record session with reporters, parts of which later were reported, Kelly also said that when he called Tillerson to let him know he was fired, the secretary of state was on the toilet with “Montezuma’s revenge.” Though White House aides said Kelly was simply joking — and the State Department contested his version of the phone call — many staffers found the comment crude and demeaning.
“At the top, you have someone who consistently does not tell the truth,” said James K. Glassman, the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. “That’s a signal to the people below him that they don’t have to tell the truth either, that this is the way we conduct government — we lie when we have to, we mistreat people when we have to, we humiliate them.”
In many ways, the Trump-Kelly alliance was always going to be strained. As a business executive, Trump is flexible and freewheeling, prone to impulse and whim. As a retired general, Kelly is structured and partial to hierarchies and rigor.
As chief of staff, Kelly was thrust into the role of disciplinarian. He faced bitter factions, especially among those whose White House access he had cut off (such as Anthony Scaramucci, whose 11-day run as communications director was ended by Kelly) or curtailed (such as Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager).
Kelly’s tensions with Lewandowski boiled over near the end of February, during a meeting with the president. Kelly entered the Oval Office, saw Lewandowski and griped that Lewandowski had been attacking him on television over the Porter fallout but was unwilling to say it to his face. A blowup ensued, with Trump ordering the two to get along. They left the Oval Office for less heated conversation, then reentered and announced a truce.
Asked about the incident, Lewandowski said only, “I am on President Trump’s team and every person who’s supporting this president, which includes John Kelly, is on the team that I’m on.”
Since last fall, tensions between Kelly and Trump have blossomed in episodic bursts.
In one contentious incident in autumn, when Trump moved to fire Tillerson, Kelly dissuaded him during a heated argument in which he threatened to resign. Trump told Kelly he could keep “his guy,” but soon had his revenge, tweeting “Save your energy Rex” on North Korea.
In fact, Kelly has threatened to resign on multiple occasions — “It’s sort of a weekly event,” one senior White House official quipped — though officials explained his declarations as expressions of momentary frustration. (Axios first reported some details surrounding Kelly’s March resignation threat.)
More recently, Trump has told friends he is eager to stage more energetic, frenzied rallies — yet another realm where he can theoretically slip Kelly’s shackles.
“There has to be a bond here between the chief of staff and the staff and the president, and that fundamental bond has been broken,” said Panetta, also a former defense secretary and CIA director. “When that happens, it’s just a matter of time.”
One Trump adviser said the president “doesn’t like a lot of the stuff he has done. He often gets angry and says, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ But Kelly has a longer chance of surviving because Trump respects him.”
And there are signs that Kelly is adapting to Trump’s world. Last month, the chief of staff who once fumed about the access given to Wolff carved out time in his schedule for a book interview of his own. For about 30 minutes, Kelly sat down with Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro for her forthcoming tome.
Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer who had been leading Trump’s response to the probe, has been predicting that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe is almost over. He had predicted it would end by Christmas and then by Jan. 1. The outreach to Flood is a sign that the White House has recognized that the investigation will probably continue for some time.
Cobb has said he has no imminent plans to leave but has always told the president that he views the job as temporary and will stay until his work is done. He has said that his work will be finished when the president’s interview is complete and all the White House witnesses have been interviewed by the special counsel’s team. The White House is now negotiating with Mueller over a possible interview with the president.
Cobb and Flood each declined to comment when reached Saturday.
One White House adviser said Flood could also be considered for the job of White House counsel.
Though a Republican, Flood worked for President Bill Clinton during his 1998 impeachment proceedings. He also served in the White House Counsel’s Office under President George W. Bush and has represented former vice president Richard B. Cheney.
Flood was interviewed over the summer about joining the White House Counsel’s Office to manage the special counsel probe. He was one of more than a half-dozen top lawyers to decline to assist Trump.
But there have been significant changes to Trump’s legal team since then. Marc Kasowitz, a New York litigator with a combative reputation who had represented Trump in business disputes, was replaced as head of Trump’s personal legal team by John M. Dowd, who had deeper Washington experience. He is assisted by Jay Sekulow, known for assisting conservative organizations in civil litigations.
Trump also hired Cobb to serve as the White House’s point person on the Russian probe, preparing documents requested by Mueller and managing requests to interview White House staff.
Experts have questioned the tiny size of Trump’s team and suggested that the complexity of the investigation would probably require him at some point to expand.
“Corrupt kleptocrats and international criminals make themselves rich in criminality and corruption,” he said. “Then at some point they need the legitimate world in order to protect and account for their stolen proceeds.”
What? Whitehouse sketched a new bipolar world order, in which the so-called legitimate world, which includes the United States, is not at war with, but rather deeply enmeshed in, the corrupt one, where governments are built on bribery, kleptocracy, electoral fraud, slush funds, legal plunder and nepotism.
Whitehouse then addressed William F. Browder, the hedge funder turned global finance reformer, who was giving testimony on foreign-agent registry violations. “How good a job is the legitimate world doing about fencing off the corrupt world rather than facilitating it? ”
Browder didn’t mince words. “The legitimate world, and America in particular, are failing in an absolute way,” he said. The corrupt “steal the money, commit their crimes and kill the people, and then come here in the legitimate world with the rule of law, with the property rights, and with all the protections and keep their money.”
Crooks seeking legitimacy are not fenced out in America. The U.S. is teeming with enablers champing at the bit to serve rich thugs: lawyers, lobbyists, bankers, security firms, consultants and PR people.
The enabler sector now boasts several household names. Among them are the lobbyist and onetime Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has been indicted for financial crimes; and Trump’s favorite child, Ivanka, who holds an indeterminate public-facing position in the White House — or in real estate, or maybe fashion.
Oh, Ivanka. Her livelihood is as opaque as her full-coverage foundation, but she plays a critical role in her father’s administration — and in the broader danse macabre of corruption and legitimacy.
The so-called first daughter proves that “laundering” applies to more than money. She washes and gilds just about everything she touches. Consider her warehouses upon warehouses of petroleum-based separates, many of them sewn for poverty pay in sweatshops. When you call this schmatte smorgasboard the Ivanka Trump Collection it does brisk business — if not on Rodeo Drive, then in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
She has the same magic touch with the multitudes of flesh-and-blood rogues who flock to her for redemption. It’s Ivanka who first brought Gen. Michael “Lied to the FBI” Flynn into the administration, according to the New Yorker; she praised him for his “amazing loyalty” and offered him his choice of positions at a transition-team meeting. One person present said, “It was like Princess Ivanka had laid the sword on Flynn’s shoulders and said, ‘Rise and go forth.'”
The laying on of that princess sword seems to be Ivanka’s favorite pastime. In 2006, when she was 25, she toured Moscow with Felix Sater, who in 1998 pleaded guilty to a $40-million stock fraud scheme run by the Russian mafia. She also collaborated with the Soviet-born businessman Tamir Sapir, whose top aide in 2004 pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy with the Gambino crime family.
It’s impossible to keep track of all the gangsters Ivanka has palled around with. But what’s truly damning are the shady real-estate projects she has made rise and go forth.
In 2006, she oversaw the development of the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City. The project was connected to a Brazilian money launderer later arrested for fraud and forgery as well as a Russian investor who’d previously been jailed in Israel for kidnapping. On Wednesday, a dispute between Trump’s company and the building’s owner turned violent. The journalist Marcy Wheeler has suggested the fight concerns records that may show Ivanka knew the property was laundering money. Police in riot gear stormed the hotel that Ivanka once hyped as “exemplary of the grandeur in which we like to enter a market.”
Ivanka was also a ranking official on the Trump SoHo, which has since shed the name Trump. In 2010, as ProPublica and WNYC have reported, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office began building a criminal case against Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. for using inflated sales figures to defraud prospective buyers. After receiving a visit from Trump family lawyer and campaign donor Marc Kasowitz, then-DA Cyrus Vance Jr. backed off.
Just Thursday, CNN reported that FBI counterintelligence officials are investigating another Trump real-estate deal, the 63-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver, which opened after Trump became president.
Ivanka has been described as “point person” on the development, which features an Ivanka Trump-branded spa. No one yet knows why it caught the FBI’s eye, but Ivanka’s long-awaited top-secret security clearance may turn on what the agents find out.
When an organization exists not to build buildings but to brand them, its business is optics. And Ivanka has long window-dressed the Trump Organization’s deals. She was born to make the shoddy look cute, to legitimize corruption.
And if it’s the coverup and not the crime that will ultimately bring down the Trump syndicate, Ivanka may turn out to be the point person for its demise.
Once the prince of Trump’s Washington, Kushner is now stripped of his access to the nation’s deepest secrets, isolated and badly weakened inside the administration, under scrutiny for his mixing of business and government work and facing the possibility of grave legal peril in the Russia probe.
Kushner’s tensions with chief of staff John F. Kelly have spilled into public view, while other dormant rivalries have resurfaced. Some colleagues privately mock Kushner as a shadow of his former self; one official likened the work of his Office of American Innovation to headlines in “The Onion,” the satirical news website. Others said fear of the Russia probe has made some officials wary of interacting with Kushner on sensitive matters. And his reputation as an interlocutor for foreign governments has been undermined by the lowering of his security clearance level, which generated embarrassing headlines worldwide.
For President Trump, his son-in-law’s downfall has been difficult to stomach, if not entirely unexpected, aides said. As Trump said a week ago, “Jared’s done an outstanding job. I think he’s been treated very unfairly. He’s a high-quality person.”
But privately, the president has reiterated his long-standing concerns. He was angry that Kushner — and, by extension, daughter Ivanka — were in his view being dishonestly maligned. But he also mused this week that everything might be better for them if they simply gave up their government jobs and returned to New York, according to a White House official who has discussed it with him.
“This was predictable from the get-go,” said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and CIA director in Democratic administrations. “Under the best of circumstances, these are tough jobs. But when you now add to that list family members who have no clear-cut role, no experience, no real understanding of the rules and a host of financial connections and business dealings that can obviously be used to manipulate you, then that is a prescription for the kind of chaos you’re seeing in the White House.”
This portrait of Kushner’s standing in an especially turbulent period of Trump’s presidency is based on interviews with 20 senior administration officials, congressional aides and other advisers to the president, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
It took the tabloid photos of Hicks and Porter out on the town to set the current crisis in motion. Shortly thereafter, both of Porter’s ex-wives came forward with allegations of domestic abuse, over which he ultimately left the White House — but not before serious questions were raised about the administration’s vetting and security clearance process, including the special privileges afforded to Kushner.
The end result, delivered in a memo last Friday initiated by Kelly, stripped a number of staffers, including Kushner, of their access to top secrets because of the interim status of their security clearances caused by complications with their FBI background checks.
Shortly after Kushner’s clearance was downgraded from the “Top Secret/SCI” level to the “Secret” level, he began to lose his access to the highly classified information he previously had been given on a regular basis, according to people familiar with the matter.
Kushner no longer receives the President’s Daily Brief, a daily digest that’s restricted to Trump and about a dozen other top officials, these people said. Kushner also was removed from a number of less-exclusive but still highly classified intelligence reports that are sent daily to senior administration officials, because he no longer has sufficient clearance to read them. His chances of eventually having his clearance access restored or made permanent remain unclear.
“It’s amazing how Rob Porter taking Hope Hicks out on a date and getting a picture taken in that British paper led to so many unintended consequences,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House, speaking anonymously to share a candid opinion.
For months now, Kelly has been considering changes to professionalize the security clearance process, alarmed by how many staffers had interim clearances and how lax the enforcement of access to classified materials seemed to be, according to White House officials.
But under scrutiny because of the Porter scandal, Kelly hastened his process and issued a public directive of changes. He coordinated with the White House Personnel Security Office, in part to insulate himself from allegations that he was personally targeting Kushner, officials said.
Kelly insisted on treating Kushner just like any other staffer, officials said, and when Trump was asked last week whether a special exception should be made for his son-in-law, the president said he deferred that decision to Kelly.
The eventual outcome, however, left Kushner the subject of a disproportionate amount of negative media attention.
“You tell me who wants Jared out of power and that’s where the attacks are coming from,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who was fired as White House communications director by Kelly. “The Rob Porter scandal was a crisis of John Kelly’s own doing, and he flipped it into a discussion of security clearances and used it as a foil against Jared. This is how Washington works. It was a coordinated hit.”
Barry Bennett, a former senior Trump campaign adviser, praised Kushner as a hard worker who entered a Washington ecosystem that resented his wealth and proximity to the president. “You wouldn’t blame him if he just said the hell with it,” Bennett said.
One senior White House official described Kushner as looking “really beaten down” this past week, though the official said he remains “a smooth operator” even if the outside world no longer sees him as “the main artery to the president.”
This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe private interactions, said the uncertainty surrounding special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe has cast a cloud over Kushner in particular.
“Some of his administration colleagues are just more reluctant to have conversations with him or in his company because they’re not sure if he’s a witness or a target of the Mueller investigation,” the official said.
The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a friend of Trump’s and a mentor to Kushner, wrote Thursday that Kushner had become a political target for the president’s adversaries. Describing Mueller’s interest in Kushner’s business dealings and foreign contacts, the editorial continued: “Only he and his lawyers know if there are other vulnerabilities. If there are, he and President Trump would both [be] better off if Mr. Kushner were out of the White House before they become public.”
Trump and his family were frustrated by how Kelly handled the rollout of clearance changes and felt Kushner was unfairly exposed, according to people who have spoken with them. The president’s adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric, were especially angry and felt that by not protecting Kushner, Kelly had been disloyal to the president himself, these people said. Kelly, for his part, has steadfastly denied any effort to target Kushner and praised him last month for his “valuable contributions.”
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways to manipulate Kushner through his myriad financial interests — a factor in his inability to obtain a security clearance. On a separate issue, the New York Times reported that Apollo, a private equity firm, and Citigroup loaned more than $500 million combined to the Kushner family real estate business, after executives of the firms attended meetings with Kushner at the White House.
William M. Daley, a former White House chief of staff and Department of Commerce secretary under Democratic presidents, said, “A family member with no experience at anything other than real estate, no real profile other than a family-run business with a shady past, given incredibly complicated tasks, was a joke.
“People elect a president knowing so much about them, good or bad, but no one knows Jared Kushner in the game he is playing,” Daley continued. “The fact that he made so many blunders, starting with the back-channel talks with Russians, should have told one how in over his head he was.”
Kushner continues to help manage the Middle East peace process and the administration’s relationship with Mexico. He also convenes weekly meetings on restructuring the prison system, telling colleagues it is his main domestic focus even though the president has given it scant attention.
Early on, Kushner was a conduit to the business community, regularly checking in with corporate leaders and convening them for White House meetings. But the president’s business councils disbanded last summer over his divisive remarks following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and in the months since, Kushner has had less official contact with business executives.
“Jared has faded from the scene,” said one executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the White House. “People haven’t heard much from him in months.”
Amid the chaos, Kushner has attempted to maintain a sense of normalcy. On Tuesday, he and Ivanka dined at the BLT Prime restaurant in the Trump International Hotel down the street from the White House, along with Eric Trump and his wife and the president’s youngest daughter, Tiffany.
On Wednesday, Kushner attended the morning senior staff meeting where, at Kelly’s prompting, he spoke about the recent announcement that Brad Parscale, a close friend of his who worked on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, would be running the 2020 reelection.
Explaining why Parscale was chosen, Kushner spoke of his digital savvy, and also stressed that Parscale has the full support of the president and his family. It is unusual for government officials to so openly discuss campaign politics in a White House staff meeting.
Parscale’s appointment — first teased out by the Drudge Report, whose founder, Matt Drudge, communicates regularly with Kushner — came as a surprise to some West Wing officials and was seen as an attempted consolidation of power by Kushner at an especially precarious time. Some Kushner critics said the announcement was premature, arguing that the president’s political team should be squarely focused on the midterm elections this November before staffing up for a reelection more than two years from now.
By this week, that once powerful foursome — Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Hicks and Porter — was fractured and in varying states of disarray. Porter left the administration last month and is no longer dating Hicks, the White House communications director. Hicks, meanwhile, abruptly announced Wednesday that she is giving up her post after six years of working for the Trump family in one capacity or another.
In times of duress, Kushner has leaned on Josh Raffel, a deputy White House communications director, to help cope with unflattering coverage. But with crises mounting, Kushner will now need to look elsewhere.
Raffel, too, announced this week that he is leaving.
Robert Costa, Shane Harris and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.
Courtesy: The Washington Post
These are the darkest days in at least half a year, they say, and they worry just how much farther President Trump and his administration may plunge into unrest and malaise before they start to recover. As one official put it: “We haven’t bottomed out.”
Trump is now a president in transition, at times angry and increasingly isolated. He fumes in private that just about every time he looks up at a television screen, the cable news headlines are trumpeting yet another scandal. He voices frustration that son-in-law Jared Kushner has few on-air defenders. He revives old grudges. And he confides to friends that he is uncertain about whom to trust.
Trump’s closest West Wing confidante, Hope Hicks — the communications director who often acted as a de facto Oval Office therapist — announced her resignation last week, leaving behind a team the president views more as paid staff than surrogate family. So concerned are those around Trump that some of the president’s oldest friends have been urging one another to be in touch — the sort of familiar contacts that often lift his spirits.
In an unorthodox presidency in which emotion, impulse and ego often drive events, Trump’s ominous moods manifested themselves last week in his zigzagging positions on gun control; his shock trade war that jolted markets and was opposed by Republican leaders and many in his own administration; and his roiling feud of playground insults with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Some of Trump’s advisers say the president is not all doom and gloom, however. He has been pleased with the news coverage of his role in the gun debate and lighthearted moments have leavened his days, such as a recent huddle with staff to prepare his comedic routine for the Gridiron, a Saturday night dinner with Washington officials and journalists.
Still, Trump’s friends are increasingly concerned about his well-being, worried that the president’s obsession with cable commentary and perceived slights is taking a toll on the 71-year-old. “Pure madness,” lamented one exasperated ally.
Retired four-star Army general Barry McCaffrey said the American people — and Congress especially — should be alarmed.
“I think the president is starting to wobble in his emotional stability and this is not going to end well,” McCaffrey said. “Trump’s judgment is fundamentally flawed, and the more pressure put on him and the more isolated he becomes, I think, his ability to do harm is going to increase.”
This portrait of Trump at a moment of crisis just over a year after taking office is based on interviews with 22 White House officials, friends and advisers to the president and other administration allies, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss Trump’s state of mind.
The tumult comes as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russia’s 2016 election interference and the president’s possible obstruction of justice has intensified. Meanwhile, Kushner, a White House senior adviser, was stripped last week of his access to the nation’s top secrets amid increasing public scrutiny of his foreign contacts and of his mixing of business and government work.
Trump has been asking people close to him whether they think Kushner or his company has done anything wrong, according to a senior administration official. Two advisers said the president repeatedly tells aides that the Russia investigation will not ensnare him — even as it ensnares others around him — and that he thinks the American people are finally starting to conclude that the Democrats, as opposed to his campaign, colluded with the Russians.
Still, the developments have delivered one negative headline after another, leading Trump to lose his cool — especially in the evenings and early mornings, when he often is most isolated, according to advisers.
For instance, aides said, Trump seethed with anger last Wednesday night over cable news coverage of a photo, obtained by Axios, showing Sessions at dinner with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation, and another top Justice Department prosecutor. The outing was described in news reports as amounting to an act of solidarity after Trump had attacked Sessions in a tweet that morning.
The next morning, Trump was still raging about the photo, venting to friends and allies about a dinner he viewed as an intentional show of disloyalty.
Trump has long been furious with Sessions for recusing himself from oversight of the Russia probe, and privately mocks him as “Mr. Magoo,” an elderly and bumbling cartoon character. But this past week the president was irate that his attorney general had asked the Justice Department’s inspector general — as opposed to criminal prosecutors — to investigate alleged misdeeds by the FBI in obtaining surveillance warrants.
On Friday morning, Trump targeted his ire elsewhere. About an hour after Fox News Channel aired a segment about comedian Alec Baldwin saying he had tired of impersonating Trump on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Trump lit into Baldwin on Twitter, initially misspelling his first name. “It was agony for those who were forced to watch,” the president wrote at 5:42 a.m.
“Trump’s fundamentally distorted personality — which at its core is chaotic, volatile and transgressive — when combined with the powers of the presidency had to end poorly,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of the three previous Republican administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “What we’re now seeing is the radiating effects of that, and it’s enveloped him, his White House, his family and his friends.”
Trump jetted Friday to his favorite refuge, his private Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida, where he dined on the gilded patio with old friends — former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and wife Judith and Blackstone Group chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman, among others. Trump tried to convince his companions that trade tariffs were more popular than they think, according to someone with knowledge of their conversation.
Shortly after 8 a.m. Saturday, he rolled up to the Trump International Golf Course for a sunny, 70-degree morning on the greens. Rather than firing off a flurry of angry messages as on other recent weekend mornings, the president tweeted only, “Happy National Anthem Day!” But then shortly after noon, once he returned to Mar-a-Lago from the golf course, Trump tweeted that the mainstream media has “gone CRAZY!”
Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and a Trump friend, said, “I’m bewildered when I see these reports that he’s in turmoil. Every time I speak to him he seems more relaxed and in control than ever. He seems pretty optimistic about how things are shaping up.”
Trump is testing the patience of his own staff, some of whom think he is not listening to their advice. White House counsel Donald McGahn and national economic council director Gary Cohn have been especially frustrated, according to other advisers.
The situation seems to be grating as well on White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, who had been on the ropes over his handling of domestic-abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter but who now appears on firmer footing. Talking last week about his move from being homeland security secretary to the West Wing, Kelly quipped, “God punished me.”
Last Friday, Kelly tried to explain anew the timeline of Porter’s dismissal with a group of reporters — an unprompted move that annoyed and confused some White House staffers, who thought they were finally moving past the controversy that had consumed much of February.
“Morale is the worst it’s ever been,” said a Republican strategist in frequent contact with White House staff. “Nobody knows what to expect.”
Since Trump entered presidential politics three years ago, Hicks has been his stabilizing constant, tending his moods and whims in addition to managing his image. Within the president’s orbit, many wonder whether Trump has fully absorbed the impact of Hicks’s upcoming departure.
Trump told one friend that Hicks was a great young woman, who, after three intense years, was ready to do her own thing. He told this friend that he recognized the White House was full of “tough hombres,” according to someone briefed on the conversation.
But other confidants said the president feels abandoned and alone — not angry with Hicks, but frustrated by the circumstance. Coupled with last fall’s departure of longtime bodyguard Keith Schiller, Trump will have few pure loyalists remaining.
“Losing people is too much of a story for the president,” said oil investor Dan K. Eberhart, a Trump supporter and a Republican National Committee fundraiser. “It just seems like it’s imploding . . . Trump had momentum with tax reform, the State of the Union speech. He should try to keep that going.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were left in varying states of consternation by Trump’s whipsaw on guns. He suggested publicly last Wednesday that he favored tougher background checks and would forgo due process in taking away guns from the mentally ill, but then sent opposite signals after huddling with National Rifle Association lobbyists the next night.
Trump’s aides said his vacillation was a function of the controlled chaos the president likes to sow. Trump recently has come to favor opening his meetings to the media — “It’s like his own TV show,” said one adviser — where he often chews over outlandish ideas, plays to the assembled press and talks up bipartisan consensus, even if it never leads to actual policy.
Trump doesn’t see guns through the traditional prism of left vs. right, but rather as a Manhattan business developer, said one senior administration official, adding that he has told staff that he doesn’t understand why people need assault rifles.
The president’s decision last Thursday to announce steep new tariffs on aluminum and steel — and gleefully tout a possible trade war — caught almost his entire team, including some of his top trade advisers, by surprise.
Earlier in the week, Cohn was telling people he was going to continue stalling Trump on tariffs. He described the tariffs as “obviously stupid,” in the recollection of one person who spoke to him.
“Gary said to him, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” a senior administration official said. “The more you tell him that, the more he is going to do what he wants to do.”
Trump’s allies say that in his past ventures he has thrived in chaotic environments, and he has replicated that atmosphere in the White House. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) recalled visiting Trump in the Oval Office for a bill-signing photo opportunity a few weeks into his presidency that was scheduled to last just a few minutes.
“We were in there over an hour, and every White House character was in there at one point or another. . . . It was like Grand Central station,” King said. “He has a way of getting things done. He had the worst campaign ever. On election night, he was the guy smiling and had won.”
Courtesy: The Washington Post