During the campaign, when President Trump’s advisers wanted him to stop talking about an issue — such as when he attacked a Gold Star military family — they sometimes presented him with polls demonstrating how the controversy was harming his candidacy.
During the transition, when aides needed Trump to decide on a looming issue or appointment, they often limited him to a shortlist of two or three options and urged him to choose one.
And now in the White House, when advisers hope to prevent Trump from making what they think is an unwise decision, they frequently try to delay his final verdict — hoping he may reconsider after having time to calm down.
When Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described the White House as “an adult day-care center” on Twitter last week, he gave voice to a Trumpian truth: The president is often impulsive, mercurial and difficult to manage, leading those around him to find creative ways to channel his energies.
Some Trump aides spend a significant part of their time devising ways to rein in and control the impetuous president, angling to avoid outbursts that might work against him, according to interviews with 18 aides, confidants and outside advisers, most of whom insisted on anonymity to speak candidly.
“If you visit the White House today, you see aides running around with red faces, shuffling paper and trying to keep up with this president,” said one Republican in frequent contact with the administration. “That’s what the scene is.”
The White House dismissed Corker’s suggestion that administration officials spend their days trying to contain the president. The point was highlighted last week in an unusual briefing by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who sought to tamp down reports that he was focused on attempting to control Trump.
“I was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our president so that he can make the best decisions,” Kelly told reporters. “So, again, I was not sent in to — or brought in to — control him.”
Kelly also praised Trump as “a decisive guy” and “a very thoughtful man” whose sole focus is on advancing American interests. “He takes information in from every avenue he can receive it,” Kelly said. “I restrict no one, by the way, from going in to see him. But when we go in to see him now, rather than onesies and twosies, we go in and help him collectively understand what he needs to understand to make these vital decisions.”
Trump is hardly the first president whose aides have arranged themselves around him and his management style — part of a natural effort, one senior White House official said, to help ensure the president’s success. But Trump’s penchant for Twitter feuds, name-calling and temperamental outbursts presents a unique challenge.
One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments. The White House pushes out news releases overflowing with top officials heaping flattery on Trump; in one memorable Cabinet meeting this year, each member went around the room lavishing the president with accolades.
Senior administration officials call this speaking to an “audience of one.”
One regular practitioner is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who praised Trump’s controversial statements after white supremacists had a violent rally in Charlottesville and also said he agreed with Trump that professional football players should stand during the national anthem. Neither issue has anything to do with the Treasury Department.
Former treasury secretary Larry Summers wrote in a Twitter post, “Mnuchin may be the greatest sycophant in Cabinet history.”
Especially in the early days of his presidency, aides delivered the president daily packages of news stories filled with positive coverage, and Trump began meetings by boasting about his performance, either as president or in winning the White House, according to one person who attended several Oval Office gatherings with him.
Some aides and outside advisers hoping to push their allies and friends for top postings, such as ambassadorships, made sure their candidates appeared speaking favorably about Trump in conservative news outlets — and that those news clippings ended up on the president’s desk.
H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, has frequently resorted to diversionary tactics to manage Trump.
In the Oval Office, he will volunteer to have his staff study Trump’s more unorthodox ideas. When Trump wanted to make South Korea pay for the entire cost of a shared missile defense system, McMaster and top aides huddled to come up with arguments that the money spent defending South Korea and Japan also benefited the U.S. economy in the form of manufacturing jobs, according to two people familiar with the debate.
“He plays rope-a-dope with him,” a senior administration official said. “He thinks Trump is going to forget, but he doesn’t. H.R.’s strategy is to say, ‘Let us study that, boss.’ He tries to deflect.”
Sam Nunberg, who worked for Trump but was fired in 2015, said he found him to be “reasonable” but noted that delaying a decision often helped influence the outcome.
“If [Trump] wanted to do something that I thought could be problematic for him, I would simply, respectfully, ask him if we could possibly wait on it and then reconsider,” Nunberg said. “And the majority of the time he would tell me, ‘Let’s wait and reconsider,’ and I would prepare the cons for him to consider — and he would do what he wanted to do. Sometimes he would still go with the decision I may have disagreed with, and other times he would change his mind.”
Of course, the president chafes at the impression that his aides coddle him or treat him like a wayward teenager. During the campaign, after reading a story in the New York Times that said Trump’s advisers went on television to talk directly to him, the candidate exploded at his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, chastising his top aide for treating him like “a baby,” according to “Devil’s Bargain,” a book that chronicles Trump’s path to the presidency.
Some aides and advisers have found a way to manage Trump without seeming to condescend. Perhaps no Cabinet official has proven more adept at breaking ranks with Trump without drawing his ire than Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has disagreed with his boss on a range of issues, including the effectiveness of torture, the importance of NATO and the wisdom of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
The president appreciates how Mattis, a four-star Marine general, speaks to him candidly but respectfully and often plays down disagreements in public. A senior U.S. official said that Mattis’s focus has been on informing the president when they disagree — before the disagreements go public — and maintaining a quiet influence.
Unlike his fellow Cabinet secretaries, Mattis has also gone out of his way not to suck up to the president — a stance made easier perhaps by his four decades in uniform and his combat record.
At the laudatory Cabinet meeting this summer, he was the lone holdout who did not lavish praise on the president. Instead, Mattis said it was “an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.”
Mattis has also worked to get on Trump’s good side by criticizing the media for putting too much emphasis on his disagreements with Trump. “I do my best to call it like I see it,” he told reporters in late August. “But, right now, if I say six and the president says half a dozen, they are going to say I disagree with him. You know? So, let’s just get over that.”
When he has broken with the president, Mattis has done it as subtly possible. This month he said it was in America’s interest to stick with the Iran nuclear agreement — which Trump called “the worst deal ever” — but voiced the opinion only in answer to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Corker’s quip comparing the White House to a day-care center on Oct. 8 came in the middle of a feud between him and Trump, who attacked Corker by tweeting that the retiring senator “didn’t have the guts” to run for reelection and had begged for his endorsement. Corker fired back on Twitter and in a New York Times interview, warning that Trump was running the White House like “a reality show” and that his reckless threats against other nations could put the country “on the path to World War III.”
“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Corker said, adding later that most GOP lawmakers “understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”
Trump seems to hold many Republican lawmakers, and some members of his own Cabinet, in similarly low regard. Several people who have met with Trump in recent weeks said he mocks other officials in Washington, especially fellow Republicans.
In a meeting at the White House last month with House and Senate leaders from both parties, for instance, Trump upset Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) by cutting a deal with Democrats. In subsequent days behind closed doors, the president mocked the reactions of McConnell and Ryan from the meeting with an exaggerated crossing of his arms and theatrical frowns.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser, scoffed at the suggestion that Trump needs to be managed by his advisers as parents would handle an unruly child.
“He’s the president of the United States. Period. Is he an unusual president? Sure. But so was Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt,” Gingrich said. “You guys in the media would have had a field day with them, too.”
Still, Corker’s comments underscored the uneasy dichotomy within the West Wing, where criticism of the president’s behavior is only whispered.
“They have an on-the-record ‘Dear Leader’ culture, and an on-background ‘This-guy-is-a-joke’ culture,” said Tommy Vietor, who served as a spokesman for President Barack Obama. “I don’t understand how he can countenance both.”
Robert Costa, Damian Paletta and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.