As Donald Trump has grown increasingly angry and frustrated with his White House staff, the beleaguered targets of his ire have a quietly roiling gripe of their own — their boss, the president himself.
Since he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Trump has lurched through crises of his own making — from the explosive report Monday that he had revealed highly classified intelligence to Russian officials to the bombshell Tuesday that he had urged Comey to end the federal investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser.
In his wake remain his exhausted aides and deputies, the frequent targets of Trump’s wrath as they struggle to control an uncontrollable chief executive and labor to explain away his stumbles.
Wednesday evening brought yet another challenging development for the White House, as the Justice Department announced a special counsel to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
Some White House staffers have turned to impeachment gallows humor. Other mid-level aides have started contacting consultants, shopping their résumés. And at least one senior staffer has begun privately talking to friends about what a post-White House job would look like, according to two people close to the staffer.
Trump largely thinks that his recent mishaps are not substantive but simply errors of branding and public relations, according to people close to him and the White House. As he faced a wave of criticism after the disclosure that he had leaked “code word” intelligence material to Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week, the president took to Twitter to say that he had “the absolute right” to do so.
White House officials are particularly worried about the news this week that Comey wrote meticulous memos about conversations he had with Trump — including one in which Comey says Trump requested that he end his investigation of Flynn, according to two people in close contact with administration officials. Aides realize that the White House has squandered its credibility and will have difficulty pushing back against the latest allegations, one of the people said.
The president’s siege mentality was on display Wednesday when he delivered commencement remarks at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., offering graduates a warning that life is “not always fair.”
“You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted,” Trump said. “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
The president implored the crowd to “fight, fight, fight,” and added: “You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.”
But his team is growing increasingly weary. Privately they say that the problem is not an incompetent communications shop, as the president sometimes gripes, or an ineffectual chief of staff, as friends and outside operatives repeatedly warn, but the man in the Oval Office, whose preferred management style is one of competing factions and organized chaos.
One West Wing official recently stopped defending Trump or trying to explain away his more controversial behavior. Another characterized the operation as “trudging along,” with aides trying to focus their attention on Trump’s upcoming foreign trip and the budget landing next week.
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said the president has created a situation in which his team is increasingly unlikely to succeed.
“It’s torture — torture because of everything that is happening externally, but it’s also torture because of how divided the White House is internally,” Fleischer said of the challenges that Trump’s staff members face. “It makes it very hard to keep your head up and do your job.”
He added, “If you don’t give people something substantive to talk about in Washington, they will be plenty happy to talk about things that are personal, political and scandal-related.”
For many White House staffers, impromptu support groups of friends, confidants and acquaintances have materialized, calling and texting to check in, inquiring about their mental state and urging them to take care of themselves.
One Republican operative in frequent contact with White House officials described them as “going through the stages of grief.” Another said some aides have “moved to angry,” frustrated with a president who demands absolute loyalty but in recent days has publicly tarnished the credibility of his team by sending them out with one message — only to personally undercut it later with a contradictory tweet or public comment.
And a third said that others are sticking around purely for self-interest, hoping to juice their future earning potential. This Republican added that any savvy White House staffer should be keeping a diary. “The real question is, how long do you put up with it?” this person said. “Every one of those people could get a better-paying job and work less hours.”
The Trump White House has always been full of leaks to the news media. But the latest waves of anonymous griping have subtly shifted from warring aides bickering among themselves to staffers training their frustrations on the president, as well. Those who remain fully loyal to Trump report a growing sense of isolation.
The president has grown increasingly willing to shake up his staff, although aides say any major changes are likely to come after a nine-day foreign trip starting Friday that many hope will provide a stabilizing reboot. If and when Trump does overhaul his team, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, is expected to play a key role in rethinking the structure and personnel within the West Wing.
The president has groused about his communications operation, most notably its director, Mike Dubke, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer. But Spicer has also received assurances that his job is secure and was asked to accompany Trump on his trip to the Coast Guard Academy, largely to help manage the tornado of news.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has been a particular target of mockery, both inside and outside the administration.
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” said the most important duty of a chief of staff is to prevent “end runs” — including the situation in which Trump allegedly asked to meet privately with the head of the FBI, which is investigating his campaign.
“The White House staff system is completely broken, maybe beyond repair. It is inconceivable that something like that could have happened on James Baker or Leon Panetta’s watch,” Whipple said, referring to chiefs of staff under previous presidents. “The problem with this White House is that there is no one, including Priebus, who is able to tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear and until there is, this White House will be broken, will be dysfunctional and so will Trump’s presidency.”
The president has not signaled whether Priebus will suffer in a staff change. But a handful of familiar names are circulating as potential replacements, including Tom Barrack, a real estate investor and longtime Trump confidant; Republican lobbyist Wayne Berman; former Trump adviser and Republican strategist David Urban; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; and perhaps implausibly, businessman and casino magnate Phil Ruffin.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, some of Trump’s top advisers worked Wednesday to stabilize his policy agenda, which has been sidetracked by two weeks of snowballing controversies.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn met behind closed doors with Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, trying to solicit input on the White House’s recent one-page proposal to overhaul the tax code. The White House wouldn’t commit to new details of the tax plan, however, and said it wanted more time to negotiate and talk.
As Democrats streamed out of the meeting, they expressed skepticism that the White House would be able to focus on something as policy-intensive as an overhaul of the tax code when it seems to be engulfed in constant crisis.
“How are they going to do any of this — tax policy, infrastructure, health care — when all this is distraction?” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Damian Paletta contributed to this report.