Frustrated by his Cabinet and angry that he has not received enough credit for his handling of three successive hurricanes, President Donald Trump is now lashing out, rupturing alliances and imperilling his legislative agenda, numerous White House officials and outside advisers said Monday.
In a matter of days, Trump has torched bridges all around him; nearly imploded an informal deal with Democrats to protect the young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children; and plunged himself into the culture wars on issues ranging from birth control to the national anthem.
In doing so, Trump is labouring to solidify his standing with his populist base and return to the comforts of his campaign – especially after the embarrassing defeat of Sen. Luther Strange, R, in last month’s Alabama special election, despite the president’s trip there to campaign with the senator.
Sen. Bob Corker’s brutal assessment of Trump’s fitness for office – warning that his reckless behaviour could launch the nation “on the path to World War III” – also landed like a thunderclap inside the White House, where aides feared possible ripple effects among other Republicans on Capitol Hill.
After a caustic volley of Twitter insults between Trump and Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, few Republican leaders came to the president’s defence Monday – though few sided openly with Corker either. The most vocal Trump defender was the one under the president’s employ, Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump in recent days has shown flashes of fury and left his aides, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, scrambling to manage his outbursts. He has been frustrated in particular with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was reported last week to have earlier called the president “a moron.”
Trump’s Sunday morning Twitter tirade against Corker caught staffers by surprise, although the president had been brooding over the senator’s comment a few days earlier about Trump’s “chaos” endangering the nation.
One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. “I think we are in pressure cooker territory,” said this person, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
This portrait of the president increasingly isolated in the capital city is based on interviews with 18 White House officials, outside advisers and other Trump associates.
In a late-afternoon, unsolicited email to reporters, Pence’s office on Monday blasted out a blanket response under the vice president’s name addressing “criticisms of the president.” The statement bemoaned “empty rhetoric and baseless attacks” against Trump while touting his handling of global threats, from Islamic State terrorists to North Korea.
“That’s what American leadership on the world stage looks like and no amount of criticism at home can diminish those results,” the statement concluded.
But Pence’s words did little to reassure some Trump allies, who fear that the president’s feud with Corker could cause more troubles for the administration and further unravel threadbare relationships on Capitol Hill.
One Trump loyalist – noting that Corker has many more friends in the Senate than Trump – said the rift could dash chances for tax reform or other meaningful legislation. “His presidency could be doomed,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate Trump or his staff.
“We have been watching the slow-motion breakup of the Republican Party and Trump is doing what he can to speed it up,” said Patrick Caddell, a veteran pollster who has worked with Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who now runs Breitbart News, a conservative website.
“Trump is firmly placing himself on the outside, trying to become an almost independent president,” Caddell said. “He knows that many people will be with him, that he helps himself when he’s not seen as the Republican president. But what about his program? That’s the question – and possibly the cost of what he’s doing.”
Inside the White House, reaction to Corker’s comments has been mixed. Some Trump aides believe it is dangerous for Trump to fight with Corker, the chairman of a powerful Senate committee who is not running for reelection and therefore feels he has nothing to lose.
Other Trump aides blame Corker for what they consider an act of betrayal, arguing that he started the feud in a bid for relevance by a lame-duck lawmaker. They also accuse Corker of hypocrisy, noting that he was chummy with Trump and did not voice any concerns with his leadership style when he thought he might be picked as vice president or secretary of state.
Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax and a Trump friend, said, “Donald Trump never truly severs relationships. There is always a dialogue. And with Corker, this isn’t a total endpoint. Trump sees relationships as negotiations, and that’s what they’re in.”
Many in the White House say they appreciate the disciplined structure Kelly has implemented, but it has left Trump without the free-flowing conversations with staff and outsiders that he had come to relish. These familiar faces often buoyed Trump’s mood and gave him a safe sounding board, even if they at times interfered with the workings of the government.
Trump is also without his longtime aide-de-camp and former head of security, Keith Schiller, who departed the White House this fall as director of Oval Office operations. Schiller was a constant at Trump’s side for years and adept at soothing his foul moods. His absence has left Trump with few generational peers with whom he feels comfortable venting about his staff or his rivals, or just talking about sports, according to some of the president’s friends.
Trump, meanwhile, has been seeking regular counsel from friends outside of the government, including investor Thomas Barrack, who chaired his presidential inauguration.
Among some in Trump’s circle, Barrack has been buzzed about as a possible replacement for Kelly, should tensions between the president and his top aide become unsustainable. But people familiar with Barrack’s thinking said he feels he can best serve Trump as a friend and outside adviser, as opposed to as a member of the White House staff.
Trump has given no indication publicly that he is mulling another change and over the weekend heaped praise on Kelly.
“John Kelly is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” Trump told reporters Saturday. “He’s doing an incredible job, and he told me for the last two months he loves it more than anything he’s ever done . . . He will be here, in my opinion, for the entire seven remaining years.”
Still, Trump is facing political headwinds, including from his own base. The Alabama Senate primary last month, in which a far-right challenger defeated a more establishment Republican whom the president had endorsed, served as a warning flare for Trump’s team, highlighting the risk he could run if he alienates the core supporters who helped lift him to electoral victory.
The president himself has groused to numerous White House aides about his concerns over his popularity with “my people” – his base. He blames the Republican establishment and others for failing to enact his agenda and making him look feckless, and is unhappy with losing in Alabama, according to people briefed on White House deliberations.
Trump also made it known to several people that he wished to have a rally in North Carolina over the weekend and not just hold a fundraiser – but he ultimately only flew down for the fundraiser, spending just two hours on the ground in Greensboro. Trump complained that he wished he had gotten back out in front of the rowdy crowds he loves, these people said.
“Donald Trump got elected with minority support from the American electorate and most of his efforts this far are focused on energizing and solidifying the 40 percent of Americans who were with him, primarily by attacking the 60 percent who were not,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “That is great for his supporters, but it makes it very difficult to accomplish anything in a democracy.”
Trump’s political calculus is complicated by Bannon’s return to his previous role at the helm of Breitbart. Now working to forward a nationalist agenda from outside the confines of the administration, Bannon has vowed war against any Republican lawmakers he believes are insufficiently conservative, or failing to help push through the agenda he and Trump outlined during the campaign.
Bannon is actively recruiting Republican primary challengers in nearly all of the 2018 Senate races, looking for candidates who could defeat Republicans he views as too establishment and highlight the president’s stances on issues such as immigration and trade.
The White House effort to woo back the populist wing of the party after stumbling in the Alabama Senate primary race has been mixed. When Trump advisers reached out to Breitbart writers on Sunday to highlight a list of hard-line immigration principles the administration had just released, there was little enthusiasm for the White House’s outreach and skepticism of Trump’s commitment to combating illegal immigration, according to two people familiar with the exchanges.
Even the Trump family has become a flash point. On Monday, the president’s first and third wives – Ivana and Melania, respectively – engaged in a public spat.
In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” to promote her new book, “Raising Trump,” Ivana Trump, the mother of the president’s three eldest children, said, “I’m basically first Trump wife. OK? I’m first lady.”
The actual first lady, Melania Trump, did not let the slight go unanswered. Her spokeswoman at the White House, Stephanie Grisham, issued a statement dismissing Ivana’s comments as “attention seeking and self-serving noise.”