In the Oval Office, senior aides to President Donald Trump sometimes steal glances at one another while he speaks. Silent and stone-faced, they dare not say what they are thinking, but they communicate nonetheless. Beyond the President’s earshot and eyeshot, the concern comes through in less subtle ways. The West Wing’s thick walls, even with the TV turned up, cannot muffle the sounds of staffers shouting behind closed doors.
It is a terrible thing to work every day for long hours in a hostile environment you can’t control. It is worse when the stakes are as consequential as those at the White House, when your public reputation is on the line and when the man in charge blames those around him for his self-made misfortune. The fourth month of the Trump presidency has unfolded with all the suspense of a reality show. No one knows what will happen next because the President changes his mind in real time. “We watch Twitter,” says one aide. “We’re just as in the dark,” allows another.
Senior officials walk through the building with funereal looks on their faces. Others complain that the White House is being “paralyzed” by the commotion. “He likes everyone always being on thin ice,” explains one adviser of the President’s management style. A few West Wing aides have begun to look for lifeboats, shopping résumés to think tanks, super PACs and corporate communications firms in the market for anyone who can make sense of the White House’s bizarre workings. When news broke on May 15 that the President had revealed sensitive classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian ambassador in an Oval Office meeting, one White House staffer sent a message to a friend outside the building: FML, read the text–abbreviated millennial slang for an unprintable curse on one’s own life.
The President they serve, duly elected by the nation, has decided to govern as he lived before winning the election: impulsively, extemporaneously, with his emotions on full display. But the effect has been different in the White House. There, his decisions have jeopardized foreign intelligence relationships, affected ongoing criminal investigations and provoked the investigatory powers of the FBI and Congress.
No less than Vice President Mike Pence has been caught as collateral damage, his credibility in question after he falsely described the reason for the firing of FBI Director James Comey–only to be contradicted a day later by the President. “The good news is that if you don’t like a decision, there’s a good chance the President will come up with a new one if he watches enough Fox & Friends,” deadpans another senior White House aide.
That leaves White House staff struggling to create a structure that will allow him to succeed. Some are grappling with how much they should try to dissuade the boss when he has his mind made up. Many wrestle with how they can maintain their own reputations while proving their loyalty by going on television to defend him.”It’s exhausting,” says a midlevel aide. “Just when you think the pace is unsustainable, it accelerates. The moment it gets quiet is when the next crisis happens.”
In the end, how to respond is a decision each person must make alone. The presidency of Donald Trump, in short, has become an acute test for those helping to lead the nation. At the White House, up on Capitol Hill and in the bowels of the three-letter national security and law-enforcement agencies, men and women are weighing the sometimes conflicting interests of their country, their careers and the President they serve.
It is a political dilemma, to be sure, but also a moral one: a test of allegiance to the truth, to the law and to the traditions of government. For many, the priority now is to limit the damage so the mistakes that have been made don’t multiply into something more disastrous. “The situation is what it is,” Andrew Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush, told MSNBC. “And we have to mitigate it.”
For Trump, the learning curve at the White House has been steep. In 2014, Trump said the thing he looks for most in an employee is loyalty. And for decades that is what he demanded, dismissing advisers and executives whose commitment or capacity he came to doubt. But loyalty in business flows directly to the boss. In the federal government, allegiance is sworn to the Constitution, and evidence is growing that Trump does not understand the difference.
Associates of Comey’s say the President repeatedly asked for the top law-enforcement officer’s loyalty at a private White House dinner in January, even though the FBI director should be loyal to the law only, and at the time Comey was investigating Russian interference in the election and possible ties to Trump’s campaign. Then in February, Comey met privately with Trump in the Oval Office, and, according to a memo he wrote at the time, the subject of the recently fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn came up. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to the notes, which were first reported by the New York Times. Although short of a command, the plain language of the request, if accurate, comes dangerously close to a President intervening in a criminal investigation of his own associate.
The White House denies both claims. But no one can dispute Trump’s singular, at times disproportionate, obsession with anything concerning the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Nor does the White House deny the President’s decision on May 10 to give classified intelligence about the Islamic State, which had been handed over by a foreign intelligence service, to the Russian Foreign Minister, whom Trump had invited to the Oval Office. That development, first reported by the Washington Post and apparently a spontaneous boast, appeared to violate long-standing commitments for the U.S. not to share intelligence from allies without permission. Trump’s second National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, argued that the decision was “wholly appropriate,” adding that the President did not even know the source of the information he described to the Russians. McMaster, who wrote a book about military officials’ failure to challenge a doomed strategy in Vietnam, appeared to be threading the needle, maintaining his loyalty to Trump, while carefully protecting his own reputation by declining to deny the facts of the President’s actions.
And so the Russia specter continues to descend from several directions on the executive mansion. Anger at U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation led Trump to tweet a false accusation that President Obama had wiretapped his campaign at Trump Tower. Trump has never given up that claim, even as evidence compounded against it. Instead he has argued that the entire Russia-meddling investigation is a sham–and that “wiretapping” can mean things not found in the dictionary–even railing at a televised hearing in the presence of TIME reporters on May 8. Three days later, the President admitted that Comey’s pursuit of the Russia investigation played a role in his dismissal, after first announcing to the world that he was only acting on the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General, who faulted Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
All these claims have put the country and its caretakers on notice. For a small group of influential officials, the proper response to this test has been to go public, albeit anonymously. A flood of leaks has resulted, allowing the national press to fulfill its role as a check on the powerful. Similarly, officials at the nation’s investigative agencies continue to remind themselves of their professional code. “It is significant that we take an oath to support and defend the Constitution and not an individual leader, ruler, office or entity,” reads an explainer on the oath on the FBI website. “A government based on individuals–who are inconsistent, fallible and often prone to error–too easily leads to tyranny on the one extreme or anarchy on the other.”
In practice, this means the FBI is built to resist loyalty requests from a President. Andrew McCabe, the bureau’s acting director and a candidate for the job, has testified to the Senate that there will be no letup, whatever the wishes of the President, in the inquiry into his campaign’s contacts with the Russians. “There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date,” he said. “You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, from protecting the American people, from upholding the Constitution.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has echoed the same line. In office less than a month, he wrote a memo urging Comey’s firing on the grounds that the FBI director had mishandled the investigation into Clinton’s emails. For less than 48 hours, Trump adopted this memo as his justification before recanting, and then openly citing the Russia investigation as the cause. With the embarrassing episode behind him, Rosenstein says he plans to return to his primary mission, regardless of the questioning of his motives. “I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Rosenstein said in a May 15 speech to business owners in Baltimore. “There is nothing in that oath about my reputation.”
Two days later, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein acceded to the demands of Democrats in Congress by appointing a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, to take over direction of the Russia investigation, creating a new buffer to protect the probe from political interference. Mueller ran the FBI from 2001 to 2013.
The system demands a different role to be played by the elected members of Congress, who pledge allegiance to the Constitution but are directly answerable to voters. Here, too, two weeks of disturbing revelations from the White House have begun to shift calculations. For Democrats, the pressure to oppose Trump is overwhelming. For most Republicans, loyalty to the President will last as long as their interests align.
So far, the GOP’s 52 Senators have all voted in accordance with the Trump Administration’s preferences at least 88% of the time. But in sotto voce conversations across the Capitol, Republican lawmakers are venting about the President’s recklessness. At a minimum, they are fed up with his antics. Some question his suitability for the job. “Probably two-thirds of the Republicans in the Senate are deeply worried about President Trump,” says Senator Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who was Clinton’s running mate in 2016. “A handful have been willing to say so.”
But the past few weeks have done little to dent Trump’s popularity among Republican voters. White House aides remain confident that most Trump supporters see the scandals primarily as media creations. “Our shock absorbers are thick,” says one senior White House official, citing campaign controversies like the Access Hollywood tape. When Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974, 24% of the American public still approved of his presidency. That was more than two years after the Watergate break-in. As it stands, according to Gallup, 38% of Americans support Trump. But that includes more than 70% of Republicans in recent polls. “There is an overwhelming percentage of Republican [voters] who are still loyal to Trump,” explains Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. “And so it unnerves them when they think about retaining control of the House and Senate.”
Republican leaders have mostly gone to ground. House Speaker Paul Ryan has tried to change the subject, holding a press conference about tax reform in the midst of the uproar and offering only a weak assurance that he maintains confidence in the President. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has repeated his patient requests for less White House drama. Others have begun to break ranks more forcefully. “The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Obviously, they’re in a downward spiral right now.” In an interview with TIME, Senator John McCain exhorted colleagues to stop carrying water for the President. “I can’t relate to those people who weather-vane,” fumed McCain. “Do what’s right.” He later told an audience that the waves of revelations were reaching “Watergate size and scale.”
On the House side, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, who has announced that he will not seek re-election, sent a letter to the FBI on May 16 requesting all memos, notes and recordings relating to communications between Comey and the President. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have also promised to press on with their investigations, as has South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is leading a separate inquiry.
Top communications advisers to House and Senate Republicans have given up trying to coordinate messages with the White House, since no one is sure what the President will do next. In a telling sign of where the power in the White House lies, the calls of concern are going not to White House chief of staff and former party chairman Reince Priebus but rather to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has been quiet as the scandals have multiplied. “Jared,” says one longtime Senate campaign strategist, “might be the only one who can dig us out.”
That doesn’t solve the immediate problems that White House staff face in preventing Trump from further unforced errors. Inside the West Wing, daily staff meetings have become solemn affairs, with aides waiting for the next shoe to drop and no one quite sure whom the President will take counsel from next. “It’s really grim,” says one White House aide.
The dominant narratives of the early days of the Trump White House have proved wrong in recent weeks. Those who diagnosed chaos missed the controlling order. Those who focused on ideological splits, between globalists and nationalists, conservatives and moderates, missed the larger picture. The President is not living alone under siege, nor is he unaware of what is transpiring around him. The more operative divide now is that between those who are there to serve Trump himself and those who toil for the institution of the presidency.
There’s a chief of staff, a Vice President and a National Security Adviser leading hundreds of political and career employees working to keep the lights on. No one in this group has worked with Trump for more than a couple of years. Then there is a separate staff of Trump loyalists–a shadow Trump organization within the West Wing. It includes family members like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump; Trump Tower veterans like Keith Schiller, Hope Hicks, Dan Scavino Jr. and Jason Greenblatt; plus the coterie of outside friends who serve as a sort of rump Cabinet.
Both factions have labored to protect the President from his worst instincts. Aides have tried everything from restricting access to the Oval Office to filling the President’s schedule in a futile bid to minimize distractions. Staffers are frustrated by leaks about staff turmoil coming from Trump’s extended circle of allies. But Trump has so far resisted attempts to impose order, insisting on long stretches of unstructured time to watch television and call allies. Unlike most CEOs, he is an “instinctive and reactive” leader, in the words of one aide, “unwilling or incapable” of hewing to a long-term strategy. Others inside the White House have likened his itchy Twitter finger and obsession with cable chatter to a drug addict who cannot grasp that his habits have become a problem. A single segment “can take over the day” for the entire West Wing, complains a staffer.
The result is a dysfunctional workplace. The President has made clear that he believes he has been let down by his staff. Meanwhile, his staff is increasingly hesitant to sacrifice their credibility for a boss who won’t protect them. When news of the classified intelligence given to the Russians came out, the press office, still reeling from supplying bad information on the firing of Comey, sent out McMaster to issue a spirited defense. One day later, when news broke of Comey’s memo alleging that Trump had asked him to drop the Flynn investigation, no White House staff rushed to the cameras. Instead, reporters received a denial from the White House by email. No adviser to the President chose to attach their name to his defense.
–With reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER, PHILIP ELLIOTT, TESSA BERENSON, ELIZABETH DIAS and SAM FRIZELL/WASHINGTON
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Write to Alex Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org