Trump struggles to stay calm on Russia, one morning call at a time
President Donald Trump listens during a demonstration at the American Leadership in Emerging Technology event in the East Room of the White House on June 22, 2017. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)
President Donald Trump has a new morning ritual. Around 6:30 a.m. on many days – before all the network news shows have come on the air – he gets on the phone with a member of his outside legal team to chew over all things Russia.
The calls – detailed by three senior White House officials – are part strategy consultation and part presidential venting session, during which Trump’s lawyers and public-relations gurus take turns reviewing the latest headlines with him. They also devise their plan for battling his avowed enemies: the special counsel leading the Russia investigation; the "fake news" media chronicling it; and, in some instances, the president’s own Justice Department overseeing the probe.
His advisers have encouraged the calls – which the early-to-rise Trump takes from his private quarters in the White House residence – in the hope that he can compartmentalize the widening Russia investigation. By the time the president arrives for work in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, he will no longer be consumed by the Russia probe that he complains hangs over his presidency like a darkening cloud.
It rarely works, however. Asked whether the tactic was effective, one top White House adviser paused for several seconds and then just laughed.
Trump’s grievances and moods often bleed into one another. Frustration with the investigation stews inside him until it bubbles up in the form of rants to aides about unfair cable television commentary or as slights aimed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
And, of course, it emerges in fiery tweets about the "WITCH HUNT" – or, as he wrote Thursday morning, shortly before an event promoting leadership in technology, "a big Dem HOAX!"
The morning calls reflect another way that Trump’s tumultuous administration is adapting to an unremitting season of investigations and to the president’s seemingly uncontrollable reactions to them. Interviews with 22 senior administration officials, outside advisers, and Trump confidants and allies reveal a White House still trying, after five months of halting progress, to establish a steady rhythm of governance while also indulging and managing Trump’s combative and sometimes self-destructive impulses.
The White House is laboring to prevent the Russia matter from overtaking its broader agenda, diligently rolling out a series of theme weeks, focusing on topics including infrastructure and workforce development. West Wing aides are working to keep the president on schedule, trotting him around the country in front of the supportive crowds that energize him. And Trump is planning several big announcements on trade in the coming weeks, before jetting off to Poland and Germany in early July.
"This is not astrophysics," chief strategist Stephen Bannon said. "You solidify your base and you grow your base by getting things done. That’s what people want to see."
Senior officials have also been devising an overhaul of the White House communications operation to better meet the offensive and defensive demands of the president they serve, as well as the 24-hour cycle of tweet-size news.
"As his detractors suffer from this never-ending ‘Russian concussion,’ the president has been tending to business as usual – bilateral meetings, progress on health care, tax and infrastructure reform, and job creation," said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. "Conjecture about the mood and momentum of the West Wing is inaccurate and overwrought. The pace is breakneck, the trajectory upward."
Inside and outside the White House, advisers and friends are also engaging in quiet, informal conversations about when it makes sense for embattled Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to step aside – and who his replacement should be. Some of Priebus’ most senior colleagues speak ill of his leadership abilities, with one tagging him "the most imperiled person here," although others insist Priebus is in solid standing with the president.
Some in the White House fret over what they view as the president’s fits of rage, and Trump’s longtime friends say his mood has been more sour than at any point since they have known him.
They privately worry about his health, noting that he appears to have gained weight in recent months and that the darkness around his eyes reveals his stress.
But others who interact with Trump each day have a more positive interpretation of his behavior, saying his mood is far sunnier than news reports would suggest. Hope Hicks, Trump’s director of strategic communications, who sits at a desk just outside the Oval Office, said the president is optimistic and expressing the fighting spirit that appeals to voters.
Citing his 1987 book, "The Art of the Deal," Hicks said, "Perhaps President Trump said it best many years ago when he wrote, ‘My general attitude all my life, has been to fight back very hard. . . . [A]s far as I’m concerned, if they had any real ability they wouldn’t be fighting me, they’d be doing something constructive themselves.’ The president promised the American people they elected a fighter, and he embodies that with his instincts, spirit and energy."
Many Republicans observing from the outside, however, voice dismay about the president’s behavior.
"What’s playing out is a psychological drama, not just a political drama or a legal drama," said Peter Wehner, who was an aide in George W. Bush’s White House and has frequently been critical of Trump. "The president’s psychology is what’s driving so much of this, and it’s alarming because it shows a lack of self-control, a tremendous tropism. . . . He seems to draw psychic energy from creating chaos and disorder."
After Trump fired James Comey as FBI director in May and scrutiny over Russia by investigators and journalists intensified, the president and his inner circle settled on a combative strategy to discredit critics, undermine the probe itself and galvanize his most loyal supporters.
The approach also put Bannon on firmer ground after a rocky patch just weeks earlier, resulting in part from feuds with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Trump views Bannon as his wartime consigliere – the sort of political street fighter he wants as his presidency is threatened.
"This is a train that’s coming," said Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser and longtime confidant, referring to the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller III. "These guys are going to move on him despite the fact that they don’t have a case. The question on the table is, what is he going to do about it, and that is a legal and political question."
Trump and his top aides have tried to partition the Russia matter away from official White House business. Although the president’s personal lawyers and communications strategists have counseled him and manage inquiries from outside the White House, they nonetheless visit the West Wing for meetings and coordinate some matters with administration officials.
There is disagreement within the Trump circle about how large the outside legal team should be. It is led by Marc Kasowitz, a New York-based lawyer who has worked with Trump off and on for several decades. Jay Sekulow, a Washington lawyer with deep ties to the Christian conservative movement, is the public face of the team. Some White House officials said they felt Sekulow got roughed up in a series of television interviews last Sunday but noted that Trump admires Sekulow’s aggression and polished appearance.
"Having worked for both of them, the president and Jay have a lot of similarities – media savants, quick on their feet, fighters, and I think the president would, of course, appreciate Jay’s many connections and past experiences in D.C.," said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser.
Two other lawyers – Michael Bowe of Kasowitz’s firm and John Dowd, a veteran of District of Columbia legal circles – as well as communications strategist Mark Corallo are part of the outside team.
White House Counsel Donald McGahn – who has been trying to separate himself and his office from the Russia probe so that they can concentrate on official business – has advocated for the outside team to retain additional lawyers, according to officials inside and outside the White House. But Kasowitz maintains that at this point he has the appropriate legal strategy and sees no need to enlist additional help, the officials said.
Trump is most bothered by what he views as the one-sided portrayal and overall unfairness of the Russia investigation, senior White House officials said. He thinks media reports automatically treat Comey’s version of events as superior to his own and have not focused enough on Mueller’s hiring of some investigators who have donated to Democratic candidates.
He is angry that Comey’s reputation has not been tarnished by his admission that he asked a friend to leak a private memo of his interactions with Trump to the news media. And he is irritated that – as he tweeted – Rosenstein penned a memo outlining possible justifications to fire Comey and then appointed Mueller to investigate Trump, in part, for doing just that.
The president has also seemed at times to regret his decision to fire his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russians.
Shortly after dismissing Flynn, the president mused privately that maybe he could bring him back – despite understanding, said a senior White House official, that Flynn faced other challenges within the administration and realistically could not rejoin the team.
Still, the president continues to privately praise Flynn, calling him a "nice guy" who "served the country well" and accusing the news media of bringing him down.
"The president just has to get it out of his mind, stop tweeting and focus on running the government, and let the investigation go on, because without that, he’ll always have this problem," former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg told CNN this week.
The president’s senior aides, including Priebus, who have tried for months to wean Trump from his Twitter habit, have resigned themselves to managing – rather than curtailing – his nearly daily missives.
But inside and outside the White House, patience is running thin with Priebus, whom many perceive as looking out only for himself and as having failed to bring order and discipline to a White House that often appears to lack both.
Priebus allies say they think the chief of staff’s tenure will last at least a year. Indeed, news reports about Priebus’ imminent demise often only heighten the president’s sense of loyalty toward his chief of staff, whom he views as hard-working.
Those frustrated with Priebus stir rumors of an earlier departure, possibly as soon as the congressional recess in August. If a health-care bill passes the Senate, they say, and tax reform is up next on the docket, Priebus can plausibly save face by leaving as the White House appears on the way to notching a few legislative achievements.
"For somebody who was rumored to be on his way out week one, if he lasts six or seven months, it is a success," one senior White House official said.
Several White House aides and Trump confidants say that, for his next chief of staff, they expect the president to choose someone whom he views as more of a peer or someone with more governing experience.
Two names being floated are Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y.
Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said Priebus is committed solely to helping Trump succeed.
"Reince’s only priority is moving the president’s agenda forward, and he works day and night toward that goal," Walters said. "He is keeping the entire administration, from the White House to the agencies, focused on the president’s top policy objectives: repealing and replacing Obamacare, significant tax reform and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure."
Last month, White House communications director Mike Dubke resigned from his post, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer – who has taken on many of Dubke’s responsibilities as officials try to recruit a replacement – is expected to transition into a more behind-the-scenes strategic messaging role.
The White House is also considering a communications "brain trust" – basically, a media team equipped to handle incoming and outgoing issues, as well as facets including surrogate response and regional and national media. Conway has been asked to play a larger role on the communications team, where she could possibly oversee surrogacy and other areas.
Trump is hungry to see his spokesmen and spokeswomen more aggressively defend him and take the fight directly to his critics, people familiar with his thinking said.
"I don’t care if it’s Mickey Mouse, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Donald J. Trump, you have to have a communications strategy to defend the president," said one friend of the president’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly.
Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, said he understands why the president seems "horribly frustrated."
"He’s being called a traitor, and he knows none of it is true," Bennett said, "and no one seems able to stop the stories."