For two years, Donald Trump mastered the art of disruption. Name a political precept and he probably broke it during his improbable march to the White House. But disruption in government–the rulemaker breaking the rules–turns out to be more costly. In the first month of his presidency, the New York billionaire has witnessed the lesson of Samson: toppling the temple can be painful if you try it from the inside.
Federal judges in four courts froze a hastily issued Executive Order barring certain immigrants from entering the country. Intelligence officials leaked descriptions of classified intercepts in a winning attempt to force Trump to fire his National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, who had misled the nation about his ties with a Russian diplomat. Then more leaks came, from current and former officials to the New York Times, asserting that Trump campaign aides and senior Russian intelligence officials had been in contact during the 2016 presidential campaign. And the President of China, Xi Jinping, successfully pushed Trump to retreat from his pledge in December to give more recognition to the government in Taiwan.
Disruption can take many forms. Protesters have filled the streets, blocked airports and interrupted town-hall meetings by lawmakers across the country. Republicans, meanwhile, have been growing increasingly restless, with the House Oversight Committee probing Trump’s security protocols for discussing classified information at his weekend retreat in Mar-a-Lago, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell suggesting that the Senate investigation of Russian interference in the election would expand. Others in the GOP have raised concerns that their legislative hopes under unified Republican control could fade, given the confusion over Trump’s priorities on issues such as tax reform and trade. “There are a lot of questions on the part of the people who took the President home after the dance,” explains Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas.
In response, the White House has fallen back on its reality-show ways, distracted by the internecine drama of senior aides who spend their days mixing government business with jockeying for position and favor with the boss. No one has felt the pressure more than White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who was christened as the man “in charge” by the President mere weeks ago yet has been trailed ever since by snipers regarding his aptitude and longevity for the job. Running the White House in a normal environment can be overwhelming. But the affable 44-year-old routinely finds himself rushing down the hallway from his office to intercept unscheduled visitors to the Oval Office. He had to break up one impromptu meeting of Trump and his Homeland Security adviser after an aide asked the chief if there had been a change to the schedule.
Little takes place in the White House these days without a complication or contradiction. Take the dismissal of Flynn. As senior aides prepared to announce his departure as a resignation, counselor Kellyanne Conway, who often boasts of her direct access to Trump, went on television to declare that Flynn had “the full confidence of the President.” Then as officials quickly tried to correct that statement, Priebus received notice on his phone that a release had misspelled the name of Colombia, a South American ally whom Trump had called earlier in the evening. At roughly the same time, others close to Trump were telling Breitbart News, the conservative website once run by Trump strategist Steve Bannon, that aides were drawing up a list of replacements for Priebus. (Bannon denounced the story. “This guy is doing an amazing job,” he tells TIME of Priebus. “I’m proud to call him a partner.”) The next day, Conway was on Twitter fending off reports of her own demise–“Uninformed chatter doesn’t matter”–just hours before the Office of Government Ethics suggested that the White House discipline her for likely breaking government rules when she endorsed Ivanka Trump’s fashion line on live television.
The result of all the melodrama is a sense of constant chaos for a watchful nation and a crippling anxiety for White House officials. Some aides now refuse to communicate by email, given that federal law requires such messages to be archived for historians and investigators. Many have taken to using encrypted apps to get around the investigations Trump has ordered to clamp down on leaks. Others are skittish about even picking up the phone, assuming someone is always listening or monitoring calls. “It’s dysfunctional, as far as national security is concerned,” says Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “Who’s in charge? Who’s making policy? Who’s making decisions? I don’t know if anyone outside of the White House that knows.”
At the center of this tempest of confusion Trump has continued to hold court and set the tone, doing things as he has always done them, in his own way. Without his wife or family in the residence, he calls friends late at night and rings up offices through the White House switchboard early in the morning. He invited his daughter Ivanka, an amorphous adviser without an official title, into sensitive meetings, and cheered his policy aide Stephen Miller when he went on television to peddle baseless conspiracy theories about phantom Massachusetts residents voting illegally in New Hampshire last fall.
Ultimately, Trump is the only person who can calm the storm, fan it further or just let the show go on. Aides say he would like there to be less celebrity-like coverage of every staff skirmish, and he has become increasingly concerned about the leaking, from within both the White House and the intelligence community. But he has so far resisted many binding efforts to create a more conventional order around him, encouraging aides who color outside the lines on television, maintaining walk-in power for each of his senior staff members and starting each morning with a tweetstorm that often upends the news cycle in unexpected ways. Bottle up the disruptive methods and Trump fears he could lose the magic that made him President.
But the clock is ticking. Even popular new Presidents enjoy a limited window of effectiveness, at best six to nine months. Congress needs to pass a spending bill by April 28 and another in September, renew the Federal Aviation Administration and boost the debt limit. That’s before lawmakers tackle Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court or his big-ticket items like building a border wall, creating an infrastructure package, repealing Obamacare and replacing or rewriting the tax code. At some point, Trump may have to decide whether to risk his agenda by continuing with his old ways, or ditch what he knows best to get something done.
This dilemma is nothing new. For years he instilled this sense of competition at the Trump Organization to, in his mind, great success. The enemy was both rival developers and down the hall. Once employees proved their loyalty, they took up offices on the 26th floor near Trump and his children. Most stayed over a decade once they got there.
But members of the new Trump team know they don’t have years to earn that trust. To expedite their rise, they have become intimate with each other’s biggest secrets and will spill them to their own advantage. Trump’s first campaign manager and the head of his transition project were each ousted when they questioned the calls of Trump’s son-in-law turned senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
Organizational consultants call it disruption. Trump sometimes hints that it is little more than good fun. He has called the Roosevelt Room, across the hall from his private office, a “boardroom,” as though it were just another television set where he could go around the table to tell those who fall on his bad side that they’re fired. If Flynn’s ouster is a script, we should expect the biggest dismissals to take place face-to-face in the Oval Office.
That constant fear of being fired has been paralyzing the White House, let alone the dozens of agencies and departments that make up the vast federal bureaucracy. Many senior-level aides spend a large amount of time anticipating what Trump might seize on. The President is a transactional leader. He looks for advantage in each situation, and the people in the room invariably change his outlook. Far more than most leaders, with set ideas and ideologies, he is often swayed by the person with whom he speaks last. Face time is power.
While Trump is busy disrupting, other factions are trying to restore order. Priebus brought with him large chunks of staff from the Republican National Committee who have sought to install tighter controls on whom Trump sees. The White House recruited Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff to monitor the Oval Office paper flow. Priebus recruited an 18-year aide to Speaker Paul Ryan to serve as a conduit for outreach to Capitol Hill. All these forces have made it more difficult for the President to pick up his cell phone from any caller who has the number. Ideally, nothing gets on the President’s desk without its being cleared by one of Priebus’ deputies.
But still the White House finds there is little it fully controls. Trump knew for 17 days that classified intercepts contradicted Flynn’s claim that he had not discussed sanctions with Russia before the first public breakup of the Administration. Aides also knew Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI about the contacts. But Flynn was shown the door only after it leaked to the press. Vice President Mike Pence also had to wait until the leaks to find out that he had misled the nation about the nature of Flynn’s call to the Russian diplomat. Aides say Pence is on good terms with Priebus. “He has the full support of the Vice President,” says Pence’s chief of staff, Josh Pitcock.
And then there are the President’s allies to worry about. Trump kvetched about the general state of affairs to his old friend Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, on a recent weekend in Florida, with the President sipping Diet Coke and Ruddy drinking scotch. The next day, Ruddy went on TV and offered an unprompted attack on Trump’s helpers. “I think there’s a lot of weakness coming out of the chief of staff,” said Ruddy. Within hours, Ruddy received calls from both Priebus and Kushner, urging him to keep an open mind and give the Trump team the benefit of the doubt. Ruddy subsequently said he was only speaking for himself.
That hasn’t stopped the leaking from elsewhere. Another Trump ally, who is not serving in the Administration, said Trump got what he wanted in Priebus. “He is the weakest character they can put in there,” this official said of Priebus. “They put a bull’s-eye on his back.”
While support for Trump remains strong among his voters, there has been a clear erosion of his national popularity, which the President has noticed. Disapproval of his job performance, as tracked by Gallup, rose from 45% of the country on Inauguration Day to 53% in mid-February. At this point in their presidencies, Trump’s predecessors going back to 1981 enjoyed a honeymoon of being favored by a net 17 to 49 percentage points. Trump has tweeted that the negative numbers are fake.
That instinct to fight might be what sustains Trump and allows him to once again escape his situation. His power is considerable, and his accomplishments in less than a month are significant. He has rebooted oil and gas pipelines, begun chipping away at Obamacare and abandoned a multinational trade deal with Pacific countries. He killed a banking rule that companies despised, reversed new regulations of money managers and promised to scrap two regulations for every new one. The wall on the southern border is being designed, and new immigration raids have fulfilled a campaign promise to crack down on undocumented workers. “We have a President who has done more in three weeks than most Presidents have done in an entire Administration,” said Miller, adopting a type of hyperbole long associated with the Trump brand.
Most important, Trump remains fascinated by his ability to shatter norms. He has taken to calling on New York tabloid reporters and those from conservative outlets at his press conferences. He ordered White House press secretary Sean Spicer to conduct his first press briefing as a frothing attack dog. Bannon and Conway, campaign holdovers, often goad Trump to return to what he likes best, the sneering and jeering that draws cheers from his supporters.
If anything is clear, it is that the drama will not soon end. The past few weeks have been remarkable for many reasons, but without a clear change in correction, more tumult awaits. It took a four-star general, speaking to a military conference in Maryland, to put the full stakes in context. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war,” said Army General Tony Thomas, who commands U.S. special-operations forces. “As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”
–With reporting by SAM FRIZELL and ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON
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