Members of President Trump’s Cabinet and top White House aides tried to soften his travel ban by calling it a “temporary pause.” They said his firing of former FBI director James B. Comey was not about the Russia investigation. And this week they used their public comments to attempt to keep the United States out of a messy regional conflict in the Middle East.
But every time, Trump weighed in with a different message that effectively undercut what his aides and Cabinet secretaries appeared to be trying to achieve.
Trump’s aides are quickly learning they speak for the president at their own peril.
The president seems to shrug off these incidents, several of which have occurred since he took office, and he has made clear that ultimately only he speaks for his administration, all while rejecting efforts to curtail his use of Twitter.
“The president has always said that Twitter is like owning his own newspaper, except he can’t lose money,” said former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg. “He’ll listen to your advice. He’ll listen to suggestions. But the president is not going to be handled.”
The challenge for Trump’s aides reached an international scale this week. After Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar, over its alleged support for terrorists in the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders all said on Monday that the United States hoped to help mediate and de-escalate the crisis.
But on Tuesday, in early morning tweets, Trump leaned into the dispute. He lambasted Qatar and voiced support for the Saudi-led coalition of nations, all the while seemingly ignoring that the United States has long had strategic military ties to Qatar.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump wrote. “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
He later tweeted: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
The tweets sent the administration into a familiar cycle. Officials de-emphasized their significance, arguing they do not signify a shift in policy and claiming that they simply reinforce the statements made by other officials in the government.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Defense Department voiced support and appreciation to Qatar for allowing U.S. troops to remain on a base in their country.
“It’s not just undercutting Secretary Tillerson, it’s putting at potential risk the relationship between the Defense Department and Qatar, something that is extremely important to the Department of Defense,” said John B. Bellinger, a former legal adviser to the State Department under President George W. Bush. “He has repeatedly necessitated having both secretaries Mattis and Tillerson to quietly reassure allies that the president doesn’t really mean these things.”
The White House insists that Trump’s social-media reach — which tallies more than 31 million on his personal Twitter account alone — is one of the reasons he was elected president.
“The president is the most effective messenger on his agenda,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday when asked if the president’s tweets were obstructing his own agenda. “The same people who are critiquing his use of it now critiqued it during the election, and it turned out pretty well for him then.”
Moments later, faced with a question about Trump’s comments on Qatar, Spicer read carefully from a piece of paper to clarify the president’s remarks.
“The U.S. still wants to see this issue de-escalated and resolved immediately,” he said.
While the White House seeks to play down the contradictory statements from Trump and his aides, the president’s critics charge they can have dangerous consequences, particularly in foreign affairs.
“He has said himself he values unpredictability, but what he is is impetuous,” said P.J. Crowley, who was assistant secretary of state for public affairs during President Barack Obama’s first term. “He gets something in his mind and immediately communicates it without thinking through the broader implications. It’s that lack of discipline which has had an enormous and negative impact on perceptions of American leadership.”
All of this has put Trump’s Cabinet officials on the defense. Mattis has tried to limit his engagement with the media in recent days, declining customary interviews during a trip where he finds himself responding separately to concerns raised by allies about Trump’s perspectives and apparent lack of regard for long-standing relationships.
Trump’s aides tried to reverse some of the damage done by his tweets this week by accusing the media of obsessing over them. But even that message was overshadowed by a Trump tweet Tuesday.
“The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media,” he said, using an acronym for the mainstream media. “They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.”
The administration’s split personality on talking points has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where there is growing frustration with the lack of coherence from the White House and Trump’s penchant for upending the news cycle with his tweets.
“I don’t believe Trump colluded with the Russians, because I don’t believe he colludes with his own staff,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) quipped, referring to the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump campaign associates.
In some cases, Trump’s tweets have only heightened the legal risk facing his administration.
When it comes to the travel ban directed at six Muslim-majority countries that is being held up by federal courts, the president has repeatedly undermined his staff — and his own legal case.
Spicer and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly repeatedly corrected reporters, chiding them for calling it a “ban” — a word that is causing legal headaches for the administration in the courts. But the president continues to use the term.
“People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” Trump tweeted early Monday morning after the terrorist attack in London over the weekend.
As the Russia investigation continues to expand, Trump has not moved with caution there, either.
After he made the decision to fire Comey last month, the White House attempted to present an agreed-upon narrative for how the president reached his decision, with aides leaning heavily on a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, which criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
But then two days later, Trump said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he had long been planning to fire Comey and was frustrated that the FBI director was so focused on the Russia investigation.
He acknowledged on Twitter that his aides were left in the dark.
“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!,” he said.
There are signs, however, that some aides are learning to avoid falling into a trap when they can.
On Tuesday, when Spicer was asked whether the president still has confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions after a report about tensions between the two, he declined to say.
“I have not had a discussion with him on that question,” Spicer said. “If I haven’t had a discussion with him on the subject, I tend not to speak about it.”
Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.