Inside the Trump White House: A daily battle for self-preservation
The US president still sees himself as a maligned outsider struggling to be taken seriously
US president Donald Trump. He sees the office much as he did the night of his stunning victory – as a prize he must fight to protect every waking moment, with Twitter as his Excalibur. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times
Around 5.30 each morning, President Donald Trump wakes and tunes into the television in the White House’s master bedroom. He flips to CNN for news, moves to Fox & Friends for comfort and messaging ideas, and sometimes watches MSNBC’s Morning Joe because, friends suspect, it fires him up for the day.
Energised, infuriated – often a gumbo of both – Trump grabs his iPhone. Sometimes he tweets while propped on his pillow, according to aides. Other times he tweets from the den next door, watching another television. Less frequently, he makes his way up the hall to the ornate Treaty Room, sometimes dressed for the day, sometimes still in nightclothes, where he begins his official and unofficial calls.
As he ends his first year in office, Trump is redefining what it means to be president. He sees the highest office in the land much as he did the night of his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton – as a prize he must fight to protect every waking moment, and Twitter is his Excalibur. Despite all his bluster, he views himself less as a titan dominating the world stage than a maligned outsider engaged in a struggle to be taken seriously, according to interviews with 60 advisers, associates, friends and members of Congress.
For other presidents, every day is a test of how to lead a country, not just a faction, balancing competing interests. For Trump, every day is an hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation. He still relitigates last year’s election, convinced that the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, into Russia’s interference is a plot to delegitimise him. Colour-coded maps highlighting the counties he won were hung on the White House walls.
Before taking office, Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals. People close to him estimate that Trump spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television, sometimes with the volume muted, marinating in the no-holds-barred wars of cable news and eager to fire back.
“He feels like there’s an effort to undermine his election and that collusion allegations are unfounded,” said Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who has spent more time with the president than most lawmakers. “He believes passionately that the liberal left and the media are out to destroy him. The way he got here is fighting back and counterpunching.
“The problem he’s going to face,” Graham added, “is there’s a difference between running for the office and being president. You’ve got to find that sweet spot between being a fighter and being president.”
Refreshing or erratic?
Bracing and refreshing to his alienated-from-the-system political base, Trump’s uninhibited approach seems erratic to many veterans of both parties in the capital and beyond. Some politicians and pundits lament the instability and, even without medical degrees, feel no compunction about publicly diagnosing various mental maladies.
In recent weeks, the president made a derogatory reference to Native Americans in front of Navajo guests, insinuated that a television host was involved in the death of an aide and prompted an international incident with Britain by retweeting inflammatory anti-Muslim videos – demonstrating the limits of a staff that has tried hard to steer him away from volatile territory.
His approach got him to the White House, Trump reasons, so it must be the right one. He is more unpopular than any of his modern predecessors at this point in his tenure – just 32 percent approved of his performance in the latest Pew Research Center poll – yet he dominates the landscape like no other.
After months of legislative failures, Trump is on the verge of finally prevailing in his efforts to cut taxes and reverse part of his predecessor’s healthcare programme. While much of what he has promised remains undone, he has made significant progress in his goal of rolling back business and environmental regulations. The growing economy he inherited continues to improve, and stock markets have soared to record heights. His partial travel ban on mainly Muslim countries has finally taken effect after multiple court fights.
Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, has told associates that Trump, deeply set in his ways at 71, will never change. Rather, he predicted, Trump would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will. That has proved half true. Trump, so far, has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.
‘Time to think’
In the jargon of the military, John Kelly, a retired four-star general, served as a “wagon boss” for marines crashing into Iraq in 2003, keeping his column moving forward despite incoming fire. As White House chief of staff, Kelly has adopted much the same approach, labouring 14-hour days to impose discipline on a chaotic operation – with mixed success.
In the months before Kelly took over during the summer from his embattled predecessor, Reince Priebus, the Oval Office had a rush-hour feel, with a constant stream of aides and visitors stopping by to offer advice. During one April meeting with New York Times reporters, no fewer than 20 people wandered in and out – including Priebus, who walked in with vice-president Mike Pence. The door to the Oval Office is now mostly closed.
Kelly is trying, quietly and respectfully, to reduce the amount of free time the president has for fiery tweets by accelerating the start of his workday. Priebus also tried, with only modest success, to encourage Trump to arrive by 9 or 9.30am.
The pace of meetings has increased. Beyond Kelly and Kushner, they often include Lt Gen HR McMaster, national security adviser; Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Hope Hicks, communications director; Robert Porter, staff secretary; and Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counsellor.
Trump, who enjoyed complete control over his business empire, has made significant concessions after trying to micromanage his first months in office. Despite chafing at the limits, the president actually craves the approval of Kelly, whom he sees as a peer, people close to Trump said.
He calls Kelly up to a dozen times a day, even four or five times during dinner or a golf outing, to ask about his schedule or seek policy advice, according to people who have spoken with the president. The new system gives him “time to think”, he said when it began. White House aides denied that Trump seeks Kelly’s blessing but confirmed that he views him as a crucial confidant and sounding board.
Kelly has also adopted some of Trump’s favourite grievances, telling the president recently that he agrees that some reporters are interested only in taking down the administration.
At times, Trump has been able to circumvent Kelly. Over Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, the president mingled with guests the way he had before the election. Some passed him news clips that would never get around Kelly’s filters. And he dialled old friends, receiving updates about how they see the Russia investigation. He returned to Washington fired up.
Kelly has told people he will try to control only what he can. As he has learned, there is much that he cannot.
‘I don’t watch much’
For most of the year, people inside and outside Washington have been convinced that there is a strategy behind Trump’s actions. But there is seldom a plan apart from pre-emption, self-defence, obsession and impulse. Occasionally, the president solicits affirmation before hitting the “tweet” button. In June, according to a long-time adviser, he excitedly called friends to say he had the perfect tweet to neutralise the Russia investigation. He would call it a “witch hunt”. They were unimpressed.
He has bowed to advice from his lawyers by not attacking Mueller, but at times his instincts prevail. When three former campaign advisers were indicted or pleaded guilty this autumn,Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the investigation, urged the president not to respond. If he did, it would only elevate the story.
Trump, however, could not help himself. He tweeted that the financial charges lodged against his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had nothing to do with the campaign and that investigators should be examining “Crooked Hillary & the Dems” instead. By the next morning, he was belittling George Papadopoulos, the campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying about his outreach to Russians, dismissing him as a “low level volunteer” who has “proven to be a liar.”
Another false story, this time in the Failing @nytimes, that I watch 4-8 hours of television a day - Wrong! Also, I seldom, if ever, watch CNN or MSNBC, both of which I consider Fake News. I never watch Don Lemon, who I once called the “dumbest man on television!” Bad Reporting.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 11, 2017
Trump was calm at first when his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty. The next morning, as he visited Manhattan for Republican fundraisers, he was upbeat. He talked about his election and the “major loser” in the Senate who had said his tax Bill would add to the deficit (presumably meaning Republican senator Bob Corker).
By Sunday morning, with news shows consumed by Flynn’s case, the president grew angry and fired off a series of tweets excoriating Clinton and the FBI, tweets that several advisers told him were problematic and needed to stop, according to a person briefed on the discussion.
Once he posts controversial messages, Trump’s advisers sometimes decide not to raise them with him. One adviser said that aides to the president needed to stay positive and look for silver linings wherever they could find them, and that the West Wing team at times resolved not to let the tweets dominate their day.
The ammunition for his Twitter war is television. No one touches the remote control except Trump and the technical support staff – at least that’s the rule. During meetings, the 60-inch screen mounted in the dining room may be muted, but Trump keeps an eye on scrolling headlines. What he misses he checks out later on what he calls his “Super TiVo”, a state-of-the-art system that records cable news.
Watching cable, he shares thoughts with anyone in the room, even the household staff he summons via a button for lunch or one of the dozen Diet Cokes he consumes each day. But he is leery of being seen as tube-glued – a perception that reinforces the criticism that he is not taking the job seriously. On his recent trip to Asia, the president was told of a list of 51 fact-checking questions for this article, including one about his prodigious television watching habits. Instead of responding through an aide, he delivered a broadside on his viewing habits to befuddled reporters from other outlets on Air Force One heading to Vietnam.
“I do not watch much television,” he insisted. “I know they like to say – people that don’t know me – they like to say I watch television. People with fake sources – you know, fake reporters, fake sources. But I don’t get to watch much television, primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents a lot.”
Later, he groused about being forced to watch CNN in the Philippines because nothing else was available.
‘Aren’t you glad I don’t drink?’
To an extent that would stun outsiders, Trump, the most talked-about human on the planet, is still delighted when he sees his name in the headlines. And he is on a perpetual quest to see it there. One former top adviser said Trump grew uncomfortable after two or three days of peace and could not handle watching the news without seeing himself on it.
During the morning, aides monitor Fox & Friends live or through a transcription service in much the way commodities traders might keep tabs on market futures to predict the direction of their day. If someone on the show says something memorable and Trump does not immediately tweet about it, the president’s staff knows he may be saving Fox News for later viewing on his recorder and instead watching MSNBC or CNN live – meaning he is likely to be in a foul mood to start the day.
Yet the image of Trump in a constant rage belies a deeper complexity for a man who runs in bellow-and-banter cycles. Several advisers said the president may curse them for a minor transgression – like bringing an unknown aide into his presence without warning – then make amiable small talk with the same person minutes later.
“He is very aware that he is only the 45th person to hold that job,” Conway said. “The job has changed him a bit, and he has changed the job. His time as president has revealed other, more affable and accessible, parts and pieces of him that may have been hidden from view during a rough and tumble primary.”
Few get to see those other parts and pieces. In private moments with the families of appointees in the Oval Office, the president engages with children in a softer tone than he takes in public, and he specifically asked that the children of the White House press corps be invited in as they visited on Halloween. Yet he does little to promote that side, some long-time friends say, because it cracks the veneer of strength that he relishes.
Only occasionally does Trump let slip his mask of unreflective invincibility. During a meeting with Republican senators, he discussed in emotional terms the opioid crisis and the dangers of addiction, recounting his brother’s struggle with alcohol.
According to a senator and an aide, the president then looked around the room and asked puckishly, “Aren’t you glad I don’t drink?”
‘Don’t interrupt me’
Trump’s difficult adjustment to the presidency, people close to him say, is rooted in an unrealistic expectation of its powers, which he had assumed to be more akin to the popular image of imperial command than the sloppy reality of having to coexist with two other branches of government.
His vision of executive leadership was shaped close to home, by experiences with Democratic clubhouse politicians as a young developer in New York. One figure stands out to Trump: an unnamed party boss – his friends assume he is referring to legendary Brooklyn fixer Meade Esposito – whom he remembered keeping a baseball bat under his desk to enforce his power. To the adviser who recounted it, the story revealed what Trump expected being president would be like – ruling by fiat, exacting tribute and cutting backroom deals.
But while he is unlikely to change who he is on a fundamental level, advisers said they saw a novice who was gradually learning that the presidency does not work that way. And he is coming to realise, they said, the need to woo, not whack, leaders of his own party to get things done.
During his early months in office, he barked commands at senators, which did not go over well. “I don’t work for you, Mr President,” Corker once snapped back, according to a Republican with knowledge of the exchange. Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, likewise bristled when Trump cut in during methodical presentations in the Oval Office. “Don’t interrupt me,” McConnell told the president during a discussion of healthcare.
Trump may have gotten the message. After a bout of public feuding during the summer, he and McConnell reconciled and began speaking most days. And as the president increasingly recognises how much Congress controls his fate, Marc Short, the legislative affairs director, has sought to educate him by appealing to Trump’s tendency to view issues in terms of personality, compiling one-page profiles of legislators for him, the congressional equivalent of baseball cards.
While Trump is no policy wonk – “nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated,” he famously said at one point – he has shown more comfort with the details of his tax-cutting legislation. And aides said he had become more attentive during daily intelligence briefings thanks to pithy presentations by Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, and a deeper concern about the North Korea situation than his blithe, confrontational tweets suggest.
“At first, there was a thread of being an impostor that may have been in his mind,” said Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, who has tried to forge a working relationship with the president. “He’s overcome that by now,” she said. “The bigger problem, the thing people need to understand, is that he was utterly unprepared for this. It would be like you or me going into a room and being asked to perform brain surgery. When you have a lack of knowledge as great as his, it can be bewildering.”
Graham, once a fierce critic and now increasingly an ally, said Trump was adjusting. “You can expect every president to change because the job requires you to change,” he said. “He’s learning the rhythm of the town.” But Graham added that Trump’s presidency was still “a work in progress”. At this point, he said, “everything’s possible, from complete disaster to a home run”.
‘He wears you down’
In almost all the interviews, Trump’s associates raised questions about his capacity and willingness to differentiate bad information from something that is true. Monitoring his information consumption – and countering what Kelly calls “garbage” peddled to him by outsiders – remains a priority for the chief of staff and the team he has made his own. Even after a year of official briefings and access to the best minds of the federal government, Trump is sceptical of anything that does not come from inside his bubble.
Some advisers, like treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, consider this a fundamentally good thing. “I see a lot of similarities between the way he was running the campaign and the way he is as president,” Mnuchin said. “He really loves verbal briefings. He is not one to consume volumes of books or briefings.”
Other aides bemoan his tenuous grasp of facts, jack-rabbit attention span and propensity for conspiracy theories. Kelly has told people he pushed out advisers like Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who he believed advanced information to rile up Trump or create internal conflict. But Trump still controls his own guest list. Jeanine Pirro, whose Fox News show is a presidential favourite, recently asked to meet about a deal approved while Clinton was secretary of state that gave Russia control over some US uranium, which lately has become a favourite focus of conservatives.
Trump, Kelly and Donald McGahn II, the White House counsel, met for more than an hour on November 1st as Pirro whipped up the president against Mueller and accused James Comey, the former FBI director, of employing tactics typically reserved for Mafia cases, according to a person briefed on the meeting.
The president became visibly agitated as she spoke. “Roy Cohn was my lawyer!” he exclaimed, referring to the legendary McCarthy-era fixer who mentored Trump in the 1980s, suggesting that was the type of defender he needed now. At another point, Kelly interrupted. She was not “helping things”, he said, according to the person briefed. Even Trump eventually tired of Pirro’s screed and walked out of the room, according to the person.
Trump is an avid newspaper reader who still marks up a half-dozen papers with comments in black Sharpie pen, but Bannon has told allies that Trump only “reads to reinforce”. Trump’s insistence on defining his own reality – his repeated claims, for example, that he actually won the popular vote – is immutable and has had a “numbing effect” on people who work with him, said Tony Schwartz, his ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal.
“He wears you down,” Schwartz said.
‘Where the hell have you been?’
Some of the changes resulting from Kelly’s arrival have been subtle. For the past decade, for example, Trump’s most trusted aide was his long-time security chief, Keith Schiller, a bald, brawny former New York police officer who played an ambiguous role as protector, gatekeeper and younger brother to the president. An early warning system, Schiller tipped callers when the boss was in a bad mood and sometimes reached out to the president’s friends to urge them to buck him up.
In August, Trump asked Schiller for a newspaper article he had heard about. After Trump mentioned the article to Kelly, the chief of staff dispatched two aides to investigate how it had gotten to the president without being cleared. Schiller acknowledged providing the contraband newsprint. Kelly thanked him tersely for coming forward, according to two people Schiller later told.
To the surprise of aides, the president did not try to make clear Schiller’s unique place in the Trump orbit. After some additional encounters with Kelly, Schiller announced his departure, a decision fuelled primarily by a dislike for Washington and a desire to once again earn private-sector pay before retiring.
Since then, Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration at Schiller’s absence, telling a visiting lawmaker that his Oval Office suite now seems “empty”. The departure of other familiar faces has been equally unsettling. Once this autumn, Trump lashed out at an aide he had not seen for weeks, asking, “Where the hell have you been?” When the aide told him that Kelly had limited the meetings he could attend, the president cooled off and said, “Oh, okay,” according to an aide told of the exchange.
If Kelly knows he cannot always control access, he is intent on at least knowing who is peddling what to his boss. He reserves the right to listen to calls coming to the president through the White House switchboard. To some callers, Kelly politely promises to forward messages. On calls he cannot monitor personally, Kelly or a deputy will usually double-back to debrief the caller on any promises the president may have made in unguarded moments.
‘I can invite anyone’
Trump seeks release on the golf course on weekends. But on weekdays, his principal mode of blowing off steam is his nightly dinner in the White House residence, which begins at 6.30 or 7pm with a guest list organised by the ever-vigilant Kelly.
“I can invite anyone for dinner, and they will come!” Trump marvelled to an old friend when he took office.
Trump has always relished gossiping over plates of well-done steak, salad slathered with Roquefort dressing and bacon crumbles, tureens of gravy and massive slices of dessert with extra ice cream. He needs support, a sounding board and, as a lifelong hotelier, guests.
Trump is naturally garrulous, and loves to give White House tours. He has an odd affinity for showing off bathrooms, including one he renovated near the Oval Office, and enjoys pulling dinner companions into the Lincoln Bedroom or onto the Truman Balcony for the postcard view of the city he has disrupted.
Over the summer, he invited four Democratic lawmakers and immediately peppered them with questions as they strolled through the Diplomatic Reception Room. “Who is going to run against me in 2020?” he asked, according to a person in attendance. “Crooked Hillary? Pocahontas?” – his caustic nickname for senator Elizabeth Warren, who once claimed Native American heritage on an employment form.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the president opined, would definitely run – “even if he’s in a wheelchair”, Trump added, making a scrunched-up body of a man in a wheelchair.
Trump still takes shots at Mark Cuban, a fellow rich-guy reality star, and expresses disappointment that Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback, has distanced himself. But he spends much of his time puzzling over political options and wrestling with the terrifying responsibilities of the presidency.
Even when Trump is in a lighthearted mood, hints of anxiety waft over the table like steam over a teacup. In September, he met with evangelical leaders to reassure them that he would still pursue their agenda despite a flirtation with Democrats.
“The Christians know all the things I’m doing for them, right?” he asked, according to three attendees, who reported praising his positions on issues like abortion and Planned Parenthood.
When the guests depart, the remote control comes back out. He is less likely to tweet at this hour, when the news he would react to is mostly recycled from hours earlier. But he watches Pirro and her fellow Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and sometimes “hate-watches” CNN to get worked up, especially Don Lemon.
In between, it is time for phone calls, to people he has fired like Corey Lewandowski and Bannon, old friends like Thomas J Barrack Jr and Richard LeFrak, and more recently Republican lawmakers, especially Republican Mark Meadows of North Carolina, head of the conservative Freedom Caucus. This is when his fixations are unfettered: Russia, Clinton, Barack Obama, the “fake news” media, his bitter disappointment with attorney general Jeff Sessions.
In recent weeks, Trump’s friends have noticed a different pitch, acknowledging that many aides and even his own relatives could be hurt by Mueller’s investigation. As for himself, he has adopted a surprisingly fatalistic attitude, according to several people he speaks with regularly.
“It’s life,” he said of the investigation. From there it is off to bed for what usually amounts to five or six hours of sleep. Then the television will be blaring again, he will reach for his iPhone and the battle will begin anew. – New York Times