The Trump administration continued to leak like a sieve over the weekend, with well-sourced White House reporters unearthing enlightening new information about the president’s reaction to recent events.
The short version? President Trump is not happy. He’s not happy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from election-related investigations, he’s not happy that people aren’t taking his evidence-less accusations that President Obama tapped his phones more seriously, and he may not be happy with his chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
While Trump’s presidency has been plagued by leaks from seemingly every level of the government — including, it seems, security agencies investigating his associates — these leaks are clearly coming from people in close proximity to the president personally. That likely means from his handpicked White House aides, and other people those close aides are themselves dishing to.
The leaks are surely juicy, but they’re also legitimately useful to get a sense of what is behind the latest bizarre Trump-related events. So here are a few of the most interesting things we learned in the past few days.
1) President Trump is really, really angry that Jeff Sessions recused himself
Anonymously sourced reports that President Trump is angry about or unhappy with how things are going are nothing new in this administration.
And yet his reported anger after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from any 2016 election-related investigations on Thursday seems to dwarf what we’ve heard of before. “Nobody has seen him that upset,” a source told CNN.
According to multiple outlets, Trump expressed his fury about the situation in a senior staff meeting in the Oval Office on Friday. Citing “sources familiar with the meeting,” Politico reported that Trump said “that Sessions shouldn’t have recused himself,” and that he told White House counsel Don McGahn that “he was unhappy about the turn of events.”
A dishy piece from the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, and Ashley Parker reports that the president continued to express his ire throughout the weekend, repeatedly complaining to friends and aides up through Sunday.
Out of all the mishaps that have bedeviled Trump’s administration so far, it strikes me as noteworthy that the Sessions recusal seems to have set him off the most.
Perhaps the president is simply upset that his team backed down to criticism rather than “fighting,” or that the good headlines from his speech were spoiled. Or perhaps he’s well aware how dangerous it can be for a president to have an investigation get away from him.
2) Trump has privately indicated to people that he really believes his accusations that Obama wiretapped him
After Trump sent out a series of angry tweets in which he accused Obama of tapping his phones Saturday morning, accompanied by zero evidence and apparently based on a Breitbart article he’d become aware of, many wondered if he was deliberately putting out a false narrative for some strategic purpose, or if he genuinely believed what he was saying (despite, again, the lack of any evidence).
Neither situation would be particularly great, but some evidence has surfaced to indicate that the latter one is more accurate. Christopher Ruddy, the founder of the conservative site NewsMax and a personal friend of Trump, writes that he spoke with the president twice on Saturday about the wiretap story.
“I haven’t seen him this pissed off in a long time,” Ruddy writes. He goes on to claim that Trump told him, “This will be investigated, it will all come out. I will be proven right.”
Rucker heard a similar account. “Trump is angry in Florida,” he tweeted Sunday. “I’m told he fumed to friends at golf course yesterday about Obama, insisting he’s right about wiretap.”
3) Many staffers are not happy with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus
Whenever things go badly for an administration, blame naturally falls on the chief of staff.
So it has gone for Reince Priebus. He was reportedly the target of at least some of Trump’s ire in the now-famous Friday meeting, and there are rumors (disputed by the White House) that Trump told him not to accompany him to Florida afterward. And then, on Sunday, Politico’s Alex Isenstadt and Josh Dawsey published a piece headlined “Knives are out for Reince.”
Sourced to “more than a dozen Trump aides, allies, and others close to the White House,” Isenstadt and Dawsey recap a few common criticisms of Priebus they’ve heard: that he’s a “micromanager” trying to block aides’ “access to Trump,” that he’s installing his own allies rather than Trump loyalists in key jobs, and that he leads “directionless morning staff meetings” with “three flat-screen TVs usually on.”
Though Priebus could well be an ineffective manager — there’s little in his background that suggests he’d be prepared to hold one of the toughest jobs in the US government — these complaints actually strike me as refreshingly ... normal.
For instance, aides have griped that the chief of staff restricts their access to the president since the position first became prominent. That’s because that’s the best way to manage a coherent policymaking process. Former Chief of Staff James Baker explains why in comments reproduced in The Nerve Center, a book on White House management edited by political scientist Terry Sullivan, saying:
Everybody wants to get a decision from the president. I don't care how high ranking they are in the cabinet. They'll buttonhole the president after a cabinet meeting and say, "Mr. President, I'm going to do such and such." The president, of course, has a thousand things coming at him and he says, "Sure, fine." If you don't know about it, that's a recipe for trouble. So you really need to have an arrangement with the boss that no decisions are taken, nothing happens that you don't know about.
Indeed, all this suggests to me that if these criticisms are meant to seriously diagnose what’s gone wrong with the administration — instead of simply being meant to shiv Priebus with whatever tools are at hand — they’re misplaced.
Trump’s biggest wounds have been either self-inflicted (like the inauguration crowd size obsession, baseless voter fraud complaints, and the Obama/wiretapping tweetstorm) or brought on by the Steve Bannon/Stephen Miller wing (the disastrous immigration and travel ban rollout). In comparison, Priebus’s allegedly disorganized staff meetings don’t seem all that consequential.