In a white-walled suite on the second floor of the West Wing, about a dozen of Donald Trump’s top aides gathered with their early-evening coffees on a recent Monday to map out the President’s midsummer message. Most people in the country now know that that task is akin to staging an opera in a hurricane. But for a handful of senior aides, imposing order on the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency has become something of an obsession.
Just a few weeks earlier, White House aides had christened June “Jobs Month” only to find the story line’s launch upended by a misfired May 31 midnight tweet from the President featuring the nonword covfefe. “Infrastructure Week” largely fell victim to the testimony of former FBI director James Comey, prompting mockery from no less than Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who returned from a trip to the gleaming airports of China to ask, “How did ‘Infrastructure Week’ go?” And “Workforce Development Week” might have had more success had Trump’s visit to Wisconsin not been overshadowed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ raising his right hand and taking an oath to tell the truth to the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Russia investigation.
Yet this group–including chief of staff Reince Priebus, staff secretary Rob Porter, legislative and policy aides, and press secretary Sean Spicer–has stayed focused on its task, plotting from the second floor where Trump seldom wanders. They tout accomplishments their predecessors have pulled off with greater ease, albeit under relatively easier circumstances. Trump’s overseas trip, organized by Jared Kushner and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, proved that a well-scheduled and prepared President could avoid major missteps. Since then, they have pointed to the months of meetings and meticulously staged announcements around Trump’s decision to quit the Paris climate accord and to privatize the air-traffic-control system as emblematic of the more ordered West Wing. “What people don’t see is that this stuff doesn’t just happen by accident,” says one senior official involved, who, like most of the 11 White House officials TIME spoke with for this article, asked not to be named in order to speak freely. “You can’t take 52 cards and throw them down and have them fall into a neat stack.”
Neat is not a word most people would use to describe anything about the Trump Administration to date. Most of the men and women working in the West Wing didn’t work with the President on the campaign before they took over the Executive Branch on Jan. 20, and many had never worked in government before. Their politics ran from far-right nationalist to centrist, and internal disagreements were frequent and noisome. Arguments became public, and senior advisers tried to circumvent one another for short-term advantage. The leaks seldom resulted in punished, even when the offenders were easily identified. And Trump’s open-door policy left aides vying to be the last voice in his ear, undermining the finality of his decisions. His aides have since pledged to no longer try to outmaneuver the policymaking process by stealing private moments with the President to make their case. “We’ve all been burned,” explains one West Wing staffer. “You can win today, but you pay for it tomorrow.”
Trump’s self-assurance made things worse. He entered the Oval Office as confident in his abilities as he was unprepared for the task of managing the government. In marked contrast to other Administrations, just one senior staffer, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, had prior White House experience in a senior role, and his new job was primarily logistical. A reluctant delegator, Trump initially believed the White House was just a larger-scale version of Trump Tower, with him seeking counsel from a wide circle. As ever, he expected aides to jockey for his favor.
Some things have changed. In late April, Priebus and Porter imposed a strict flow chart for every decision heading the President’s way, requiring the buy-in–and, most important, the participation–of all appropriate senior aides, Cabinet secretaries and Capitol Hill liaisons. Dissenting voices are channeled in brief memos and organized meetings for the President, who likes to take in the differing views as if he’s watching a judges’ table on a reality show. Aides often don’t agree, but there is a growing recognition that they’re heard regularly. “Increasingly, everyone has more ownership of it,” said Porter. “There’s a lot more discipline now.”
The White House has also fallen into a set rhythm of weekly meetings, despite regular disruptions from the President, who still surprises top aides with inflammatory tweets, impromptu gatherings and unscheduled announcements. The goal is modest: one out-of-town trip and one agency visit a week, bolstered by a handful of White House roundtables and meetings with stakeholders and Capitol Hill lawmakers. The team had already set aside the last two weeks of June for the themes of “technology” and “energy.” July is set to have a “Made in America” theme, playing the nationalist strings that helped Trump win the White House in the first place.
What no one controls is Trump himself, who has encouraged the new structure but also takes the opportunity to regularly disrupt it or work outside the process. Trump continues to be critical of many of his senior staff, creating internal tensions and fraying levels of trust. The President punctuates meetings and visits with allies with questions about the performance of everyone, from Vice President Mike Pence to Spicer. The result is a West Wing staff that functions with an unspoken motto akin to the Serenity Prayer, the meditation common among 12-step program participants: aides focus on changing what they can, seeking to accept what they cannot and trying to keep a level-enough head to know the difference between the two.
Trump advisers now talk about the self-inflicted wounds of the first five months as largely out of their hands–forced upon them by an instinctual, impulsive President. They believe their advice will best position the President for success–if he chooses that path. “He has his own opinions as far as reading the tea leaves and watching the news and trusting his gut on how things need to be done,” the senior official says.
Maybe so, but Trump has yet to empower any single person to speak authoritatively in his stead, and there is little sign that he trusts his team to steer him in the right direction. Trump has prevented Priebus from assuming the traditional chief-of-staff role as first among equals. If an aide’s profile grows too big, the President has a tendency to publicly shoot that person down, or privately raise the specter of a staff change. (Even son-in-law Jared Kushner drew the President’s ire over his elevated public profile and contributions to the internal discord.)
As a result, the careful planning in the White House is often upended from within. On June 7, when Trump tweeted that he would pick Christopher Wray to be his new FBI director, his communications operation was left in the dark, rushing to craft a response without forewarning. The same was true when he announced the firing of Comey, or the dozens of times he has redirected the news cycle with an early-morning tweet.
Several senior Republicans expect that a breaking point will come, which will force the President to cede more of his control. “When his numbers go down to 30%, he has got to listen,” said one Republican with prior White House experience. “And they are starting to decline.” On June 12, Trump hit 60% disapproval in the Gallup daily poll.
Those declining numbers may explain why, inside the West Wing, an alternative mood is sometimes the order of the day. Trump’s entire Cabinet gathered steps from the Oval Office for its inaugural meeting in a classic Trump style, with effusive public praise of the President himself. “It is just the greatest privilege of my life to serve as Vice President,” Pence began, after which each officer followed. Priebus called the chance to serve Trump’s agenda a “blessing.” The televised performance offered a rare public glimpse to the sort of praise aides often give Trump in private as they seek to win his favor. But such tactics won’t solve the many headaches that still shadow the President. Dozens of key positions throughout the federal government–like deputy Cabinet secretaries, independent agency heads and U.S. Attorneys–have still not been appointed, in part because of disagreement at the White House. Congress is still waiting to be briefed on strategic plans for the wars against Islamic extremism, and there is little hope of passing any of Trump’s big-ticket legislative priorities before the end of the summer.
Hours after the Cabinet meeting, White House aides returned to the second floor to focus on the task at hand: cobbling together a message to incorporate disparate agenda items like the budget, health care reform and infrastructure investment. Then, as the group was heading out, the careful planning was thrown off again as a friend of Trump’s said in a television interview that the President was considering firing the Russia investigation’s special counsel, Robert Mueller. The White House team quickly rushed out denials, but for many top aides–even those central to the planning process–the news had struck a nerve. No matter how much they prepare, they just can’t be sure what the President will do next.
–With reporting by MICHAEL SCHERER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the June 26, 2017 issue of TIME.