President Trump, frustrated and increasingly isolated, is considering a shakeup of his communications staff following the spectacular fallout over his stunning decision to abruptly fire FBI director James Comey on Tuesday. For their part, White House staff members don’t seem very happy, either. Unnamed administration sources, via varied comments to CNN, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Associated Press, have painted an unsurprisingly dour picture of how things have been going at the demoralized White House, where some Trump aides say they are eager for the president’s trip abroad next week. “We need to get the president outside the Beltway,” someone close to the White House explained to CNN.
According to insiders who spoke with the Associated Press, the leak-obsessed president, distrustful of his staff, has shrunk his inner circle to his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as longtime aides like former spokesperson Hope Hicks and Trump’s personal bodyguard Keith Schiller. Three officials told the AP that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been shut out of major decisions following conflicts with Kushner and didn’t even know Comey had been fired until he saw it on television. Reince Priebus, who was consulted regarding Comey’s termination, is nonetheless still on the perpetual bubble with Trump continuing to question his leadership as White House chief of staff. Axios additionally reports that, according to Trump’s “after dark” consultants (the friends Trump calls at night), the president may expand the bloodletting beyond the comms team and Priebus to include Bannon and White House counsel Don McGahn. Trump is reportedly “angry at everyone,” including a few cabinet members who he thinks have been grandstanding, and the advice the president is getting from his informal advisers “is to go big – that he has nothing to lose … The question now is how big and how bold.”
Regarding Trump’s paranoia and micromanagement over leaks, the Washington Post adds that the president has personally “conducted postmortem interviews with aides about the Comey saga, investigating the unending stream of headlines he considers unfairly negative, according to several White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Trump is cracking down on unauthorized leaks.”
Looking back at Tuesday’s PR catastrophe, Trump reportedly gave the White House communications team one hour of notice before firing Comey, and surrogates were then given a false narrative to peddle when they were rushed out to defend the president’s unprecedented decision. Earlier reports indicated that Trump and some advisers hadn’t even imagined that firing Comey, who was in charge of the FBI’s investigation into the possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, could lead to any blowback. When it inevitably did, a furious Trump sent out his surrogates for what ended up being more like ritual sacrifices than a spin campaign. That’s because Trump – upset with his surrogates’ inability to defend him and flip the negative news cycle – soon decided he would be his own spokesperson, and by doing so made everything considerably worse. In tweets and interviews, Trump swiftly invalidated his staff’s comments and gutted their credibility by offering up new, contradictory explanations for his decision to fire Comey. In addition, Trump started brand-new fires for his team to put out as well, like implying in a threat to Comey on Friday that he was making secret recordings of his meetings – which later led to a mind-numbing exchange between reporters and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Not even Vice-President Pence was spared the embarrassment of Trump’s shifting narrative, a White House source told CNN, explaining that Pence was not briefed on the president’s thinking regarding Comey and that the vice-president is “not rattled very often and he was a little rattled” by how everything unfolded. That makes sense, seeing how the last time Pence publicly defended a Trump administration official after receiving incorrect information from said official, that person got fired.
Other staffers complained about how the administration’s legislative agenda was completely halted by the Comey news and fallout. It was supposed to be a quiet week at the White House, staff had thought.
Despite President Trump’s obvious responsibility for most of this week’s disaster, White House sources told The Wall Street Journal that Trump blames his communications team for failing to contain the damage and bipartisan outrage over the Comey news. This is not surprising, considering the president’s almost pathological inability to admit fault, as well as the reputation he earned for using his employees as human shields during his presidential campaign. But the Washington Post reports that White House advisers (and Trump loyalists) like Kushner and other top officials also have their knives out for the communications team – questioning why they didn’t respond more forcefully to defend Trump, or how Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats had better message discipline regarding a story the White House had a big head start on. “They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” an official complained to the Post. But, adopting that metaphor, wasn’t it Trump who cut their heads off in the first place?
As far as who is now at risk (beyond the aforementioned Priebus, Bannon, and McGahn), Sean Spicer’s job is once again on the line, surprising no one. Though Trump has reportedly praised Spicer for the good television ratings his press conferences have been getting, Trump also deliberately kept Spicer in the dark about Comey’s firing out of fear Spicer would leak the news, according to the Times – and Spicer seems to be getting the brunt of the blame over the White House’s ham-fisted response to the Comey blowback. White House Communications Director Michael Dubke may be one of Trump’s targets, too. Also on the table is some kind of larger shakeup, including the possibility of bringing in outside talent from Fox News or Trump’s cable-news surrogate pool where the administration has been putting out feelers. (In a tweet and interview, Trump additionally suggested getting rid of daily White House press conferences altogether so he can conduct them by himself every other week.)
And again, if Axios’s sources are correct and Trump does opt to “go big” with an early-season recast of his White House reality show, the president’s family members are probably the only roles that are truly safe.
He may need to bring in some new blood, too, as the Times reports that people seem downright traumatized since “few of Mr. Trump’s eruptions have had such a destructive effect on his administration or left such deep resentments among his scarred staff, according to Trump aides and surrogates.” Relatedly, one unnamed White House official switched roles when speaking with a CNN reporter, wanting to know, “Do you think we’re liars?”
This post has been updated to incorporate later reporting from the Washington Post and Axios.