The Trump White House has devolved to a new low of chaotic infighting.
The president’s son-in-law just lost his top-secret clearance and, under increasing ethical scrutiny, is said to be “paranoid” about who’s leaking against him. One of the president’s closest aides, Hope Hicks, is leaving and may be facing her own legal woes. His family is clashing with his chief of staff. Rumors are swirling that his national security adviser might soon be pushed out too, and that his top economic adviser could quit. On top of all that, he’s angrily lashing out at his attorney general on Twitter and trying to interfere with an investigation — again.
Many of these are long-simmering grudges and problems in the administration. But they’ve been further destabilized by new developments like the scandal over White House staff secretary Rob Porter and a round of reports that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into what seems to be everything under the sun. And we’re already seeing policy consequences, with Trump circumventing what had been the policy process to declare he’d impose new tariffs.
The Porter scandal tipped the dominoes
After President Trump fired Reince Priebus and replaced him with John Kelly last July, the retired general tried to bring some more rigor to what had been a messy and disorganized White House process. Kelly saw no use for those he saw as bombastic, machiavellian troublemakers — like Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, both of whom he pushed out within weeks. Other outside advisers in Trumpworld, too, saw their access cut off.
But when it came to Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law who had a seemingly limitless portfolio, Kelly took a different tack. He scaled back Kushner’s portfolio but didn’t oust him or first daughter Ivanka Trump, allowing them to continue to hold prominent White House posts. As for Hope Hicks — a favorite of the president and ally of Jared and Ivanka, though viewed by some as underqualified — Kelly ended up agreeing to promote her to communications director on a permanent basis.
At the same time, Kelly enlisted White House staff secretary Rob Porter as a key ally in his quest to get more control over the paper flow to Trump, the workings of the policy process, and who got to go into the Oval Office. Porter, it so happened, was dating Hicks.
So an equilibrium emerged. The old retired general, Kelly, would tolerate the two romantically entwined pairs of younger high-level White House aides (Porter and Hicks, Jared and Ivanka), rather than gunning for them — and vice versa.
But when Porter’s history of alleged spousal abuse came to light, leading to his ouster from the White House, the dominoes began to fall:
- Kelly appeared to be suddenly vulnerable on the Porter matter — he’d handled the thing abysmally and couldn’t keep his story straight to the press — and his enemies both inside and outside the White House unsheathed their knives, hoping Trump would oust him. Rumors that Kelly would soon be fired swept Washington for days.
- But at the same time, Kushner also became more vulnerable than ever. A great deal of attention focused on the fact that Porter was never granted a full top-secret security clearance by the FBI but still stayed in his job. As it happens, Kushner was in the exact same situation.
- Kelly, then, responded by rolling out a new policy in which White House aides with interim clearances could no longer have access to top-secret information — even though this policy would marginalize Kushner. And President Trump stood by and let it happen, in a tremendous blow to his son-in-law’s standing in the White House. (Kushner’s spokesperson Josh Raffel will also be departing soon.)
- Meanwhile, by all accounts, the scandal over Hicks’s romantic partner understandably wore her down. She also spent hours testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on the Russia scandal this week. And Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman reports that Kelly recently told Hicks he wanted to scale back her portfolio — and that she’s facing expensive legal bills related to Mueller’s probe. So now she’s leaving too.
- And a seemingly endless series of damaging leaks about Kushner, his business entanglements, and his foreign contacts have continued all week, calling his future in the White House further into question and even spurring the Washington Post to write about “the fall of the house of Kushner.”
All of this has led to some alarm in Trumpworld, with Scaramucci perhaps speaking for the Jared/Ivanka/Hicks camp when he sounded off Thursday about Kelly (who, we should remember, fired him). “Does the president want to lose everyone because of General Jackass?” Scaramucci asked Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News. “The guy is a bad dude. Fear and intimidation doesn’t work in a civilian organization.”
Porter’s exit also seems to have helped lead to tariffs
Meanwhile, Porter’s exit also seems to have caused, or at least contributed to, tumult on an entirely separate topic: trade policy.
All along, there has been a camp of advisers in the administration who have been pushing for tariffs and other “tougher” trade policies — including White House aide Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. But up to this point, they’ve generally been marginalized by a more establishment-friendly group, including National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — and, it seems, Rob Porter.
But Politico’s Ben White and Andrew Restuccia report that in the days since Porter’s ouster, the trade hawks have gained ascendancy:
Cohn had been working closely with former staff secretary Rob Porter to postpone, kill or narrow the scope of the tariffs. But Porter’s departure last month amid domestic abuse allegations further complicated their efforts.
Porter had been organizing weekly trade meetings in which senior officials and Cabinet secretaries debated the merits of the proposals. Without Porter to organize the administration’s policy debate, Trump’s advisers reverted back to the chaos of the early days of the administration, where aides fell all over each other to influence the president in any way they could.
Meanwhile, the Times’s Ana Swanson recently reported that not only Navarro is a player again, but Trump has promised him a new promotion. “Amid the tumult, Mr. Navarro has been able to leverage a close personal relationship with the president to gain more access,” Swanson wrote, citing a source close to the White House.
This led to a chaotic day of conflicting reports leading up to Trump’s surprise announcement yesterday, with no details, that he’s going to put a tariff of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports. Cohn is now rumored to be considering quitting the White House in response.
But not all the drama is Porter’s fault
Yet it’s too simple to claim that without the Porter scandal, the Trump administration would be in great shape on a personnel front. Two other matters have been problems for months, and returned to the headlines this week.
One is the position of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. It’s been widely reported that Trump doesn’t get along with McMaster, who has been rumored to be headed for the exits for a while. But on Thursday, some sources sent up a trial balloon for ousting him to MSNBC. The new development was that Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis were said to be on board with the plan too.
Still, it’s worth remembering that there was a report like this about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s supposedly imminent ouster last November — and he’s still around three months later. (An NSC spokesperson called the report on McMaster “fake news.”)
Last but most certainly not least, there’s the never-ending drama surrounding Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a drama that could have major consequences for the Russia probe.
Both in private and in public (and on Twitter), Trump has mocked and harshly criticized Sessions since he recused himself from oversight of the Russia probe, in an apparent effort to pressure him into resigning. (Sessions hasn’t taken the bait.) The president’s attention to the issue has waxed and waned, but on Wednesday, he sent another furious tweet Sessions’s way, which set off a new round of chatter that Trump could fire Sessions.
Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2018
Trump’s specific criticism of Sessions here makes no sense, but the bigger picture is that, as he’s said repeatedly, he wants the Justice Department to do more to investigate his political enemies and is annoyed that Sessions won’t take a greater personal role in doing so.
If Trump does pull the trigger and fire Sessions, he’d set off yet another crisis to embroil his administration and throw the future of the Mueller investigation into question. (Sessions is recused from oversight over the probe, but a new attorney general wouldn’t necessarily be — and could rein it in.)
Will he do it? Who knows. But Axios’s Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen had a pithy sentence to describe where things are now: “Trump is in a bad, mad place.”