By Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker / The Washington Post
With President Donald Trump in his fourth full week in office, the upheaval inside the administration that West Wing officials had optimistically dismissed as growing pains is now cementing itself as standard operating procedure.
Trump — distracted by political brushfires often of his own making — has failed to fill such key posts as White House communications director, while sub-Cabinet positions across agencies and scores of ambassadorships around the globe still sit empty.
Upset about damaging leaks of his calls with world leaders and other national security information, Trump has ordered an internal investigation to find the leakers. Staffers, meanwhile, are so fearful about being accused of talking to the media that some have resorted to a secret chat app — Confide — that erases messages as soon as they’re read.
The chaos and competing factions that were a Trump trademark in business and campaigning now are starting to define his presidency, according to interviews with a dozen White House officials as well as other Republicans. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal White House dynamics and deliberations.
Some senior officials are worried about their own standing with the president, who through his casual conversations with friends and associates sometimes seems to hint that a shake-up could come at a moment’s notice. Aides said they strive to avoid appearing “weak” or “low-energy” — two of Trump’s least favorite attributes.
Staffers buzz privately about who is up and who is down, with many eagerly gossiping about which poor colleague gets an unflattering portrayal on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” For the past two weeks straight, it has been White House press secretary Sean Spicer. But aides said Trump himself was especially upset by a sketch that cast White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon as the Grim Reaper manipulating the president — who was ultimately relegated to a miniature desk, playing dolefully with an expandable toy.
On Monday afternoon, as speculation of a staff shake-up was rife on cable news channels, Trump made clear to a small group of reporters what he thought of his chief of staff: “Reince is doing a great job. Not a good job. A great job,” the president said.
“None of this is normal,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and top official in former president George W. Bush’s White House, who has been highly critical of Trump and ticked through controversies that included the false White House statements and the administration’s halted travel ban targeting seven majority-Muslim countries. “The incompetence, the sloppiness and the leaking is unprecedented.”
The ongoing saga of Michael Flynn — which left the White House paralyzed for much of the weekend and into Monday — encapsulates the problems.
As scrutiny of the national security adviser has intensified over the past few days amid reports that he had misled colleagues about his talks of sanctions with a Russian envoy, administration officials found themselves in an uncomfortable holding pattern, unsure about whether to defend him and privately grumbling about the indecisiveness on high.
The problem: Trump had yet to weigh in, and aides and advisers were loathe to take sides without knowing for certain whether their often mercurial and erratic boss wanted to keep Flynn or cut him loose.
On Monday, after Trump made it through a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau without being asked about Flynn, a group of reporters gathered outside Spicer’s office for more than 80 minutes. Spicer twice declined to answer questions about Flynn. When White House chief of staff Reince Priebus walked by, he was asked whether the president still had confidence in Flynn. Priebus gave no answer.
Not long after, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, said the president has “full confidence” in Flynn. Yet a few minutes later Spicer issued an official — and conflicting — statement, saying Trump “is evaluating the situation.”
Late Monday night, the White House announced that Flynn had resigned.
In an administration where proximity to Trump is power, aides, advisers and visitors often mill about in the West Wing, lingering long after their scheduled appointments have ended. “It’s a campaign administration,” said someone who recently paid a visit to the White House. “You walk in and there’s a pastor from Des Moines, Iowa and a couple of small business guys. You’re waiting for the cats and dogs to walk through.”
The White House has also struggled to fill the top West Wing post of communications director, which was left vacant when Trump campaign communications adviser Jason Miller abruptly resigned in the final weeks of the transition.
Spicer, the press secretary, also has been filling the communications director job, which is more of a long-term planning and strategy post — a double-duty assignment has left him beleaguered and battling on several fronts.
Several candidates have turned the job down, including Brian Jones, who said no after a preliminary approach by the White House. Jones, a former communicators director on Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid and a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, declined to comment.
The administration has also reached out to Ann Marie Hauser, the deputy staff director of the Senate Republican Conference and longtime Hill veteran.
Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump who on Sunday publicly criticized Priebus in television and print interviews as being “in way over his head,” received calls from both the chief of staff and Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser and enforcer — and said Monday that he thought the White House was working to remedy its challenges.
“My personal view is they know that they can improve in the area of their messaging, and they’re working quickly to do it,” said Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, a conservative website, and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.
Other supporters of Trump say too much of the senior staff’s attention seems to be taken up by internal conflicts. Only a handful of ambassadorships have been announced so far, for instance, and some major Republican donors in line for such posts are privately complaining that they have felt cut off from Priebus, after having enjoyed regular contact with him when he was Republican National Committee chairman.
Edward Rollins, a former White House adviser to Ronald Reagan, said part of the problem for Trump’s team is that so many top officials are “big, national personalities where everything they do is amplified.”
“The real problem here is you have a bunch of people who were pretty much unknown four months ago, and now they’re all characters on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Rollins said.
Outreach to Capitol Hill has also faced some setbacks. Lawmakers are comfortable with Vice President Pence — a former House member who regularly attends a weekly Tuesday lunch of Senate Republicans — but wonder how much influence he will ultimately wield with the president on big decisions.
Trump’s legislative affairs team — headed by Rick Dearborn and Marc Short, both veterans of the Hill — is also considered well-liked, disciplined and professional. But congressional staffers say they have been given advance notice about some executive orders on topics such as cybersecurity and Guantanamo Bay that have never materialized, a delay they attribute to chaos within the West Wing.
There is also grumbling about Boris Epshteyn, special assistant to the president, who has started attending a Monday afternoon meeting of House communicators as the administration’s liaison. Several aides said Epshteyn simply parrots the White House line — that everything is going great — and seems to resist detailed questions from Hill staffers.
“The meetings are good opportunity to have open lines of communication between the White House and Republicans on the Hill,” said Epshteyn, who is also assistant communications director for surrogate operations. “The response we’ve received from the Hill has been overwhelmingly positive.”
On Monday, according to someone in the room, a staffer asked Epshteyn about conflicting news reports that the White House was considering rewriting its controversial travel ban executive order. Epshteyn said that nothing was off the table but that the group shouldn’t necessarily believe all of the reports.
When the aide asked if, at least, Hill staff could receive 24 hours notice on any changes, the room tittered, and Epshteyn joked that he was sure he would read about the exchange the next day in the media.
“I kind of resent that,” the aide said, quietly.
After the meeting, however, Epshteyn walked over the staffer, introduced himself, and the two had a pleasant conversation.
The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip, Jenna Johnson and Robert Costa contributed to this report.