When President Donald Trump boarded Air Force One on Wednesday morning to travel to Michigan and Tennessee, he didn’t wing it alone: his entire senior West Wing staff traveled with him.
Accompanying the president out of town on his daylong tour were senior adviser Jared Kushner, strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, counselor Kellyanne Conway, senior aide Hope Hicks, press secretary Sean Spicer, and policy adviser Stephen Miller.
It’s a dynamic that’s been in place since Trump took office — wherever the president goes, the gang’s always all there with him.
The White House touts Trump’s close relationship with his aides as evidence of his inclusive governing style. “This administration often takes an all hands-on-deck approach for major initiatives,” a spokeswoman said.
But the constant presence of Trump’s senior aides also reflects a desire to not lose their standing in Trump’s complicated orbit — or to let others in.
At a closed-press meeting in the Oval Office last week with conservative groups airing grievances against Speaker Paul Ryan’s health care bill, many attendees were surprised that Trump and budget director Mick Mulvaney brought an entourage.
Conway, Priebus and Kushner all stood behind a semi-circle of activists and the president at the Resolute Desk, while Bannon paced silently in the back of the room, according to two people who attended the meeting. They all said little.
“I was struck by that,” said one of the attendees. “Normally when you have a meeting at the White House, you’d meet with one guy.”
The large number of senior officials present, at all times, is a major contrast to the past—and it speaks to the defensive crouch that has become necessary for top aides in a White House defined by rival factions and power centers.
“I’m sure there were some meetings where multiple senior staff were in attendance but we didn’t have the kind of competing centers of power there seem to exist in this White House,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “When I was there, the chief-of-staff, Rahm [Emanuel], ran the show and even those of us who had an independent relationship with the president understood that. Rahm would decide who attended meetings based on our functions.”
In Trump’s White House, however, many of his top aides have overlapping interests and roles. And because the president doesn’t like to read policy papers or use the Internet, he is more focused on advice and information delivered to him verbally – putting even greater importance on proximity.
People familiar with Trump’s management style interpreted the regular presence of top aides in all meetings as a self-preservation strategy.
“He likes to ask other aides what they think about each other,” said a former campaign aide. “If you’re not with him, he might be listening to someone else tell him how you’re wrong. You might be the topic of conversation, and it might not be good for you.”
One Republican strategist with close ties to the White House said: “Everybody’s terrified of being undercut.”
Staffers’ habit of staying close to the center of gravity that is Trump started early. On Jan. 24, Trump signed an executive order advancing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline surrounded by top aides squeezed together to fit in the photo-op: Conway standing behind him, next to Hicks, Kushner, Bannon, and Priebus.
Four days later, when Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin, a large group of aides assembled in front of the Resolute Desk: Vice President Mike Pence, then- National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Spicer, Priebus and Bannon.
For Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, the three top lieutenants of the administration–Reince, Bannon and Kushner—were all at the table.
In this West Wing, according to one senior administration official, aides eye the president’s schedule to make sure they attend any public-facing meetings. Aides sometimes attend meetings — or jump on phone calls — where they have little to add or little interest in the issue. Priebus has tried to cut down on the size of meetings and has struggled to control access to the president, as chiefs of staff usually do, advisers and aides say.
When Trump assembled his “early endorsers,” including Rep. Chris Collins and about ten other loyalists, for a reunion at the White House a few weeks back, Pence and Trump stayed through the hour-long meeting, while all the usual suspects floated in and out.
“Jared was there, Kellyanne came and went, Bannon came and went, Priebus came and went,” recalled Collins, who added that the meeting was more of a reunion to “get our old team together, since we hadn’t been together since the campaign,” than a policy confab.
His supporters say it’s healthy for Trump to surround himself with advisers. “You don’t want someone that’s sitting alone, making a decision,” Collins said, describing Trump as the type of decisionmaker who finds his own position in the gray area between the opposing viewpoints of top aides.
But former campaign aides said it wasn’t always like this. During the 2016 campaign, for instance, they remember Conway, who had the title of campaign manager, spending most of her time working in her office on the 17th floor, nine floors below Trump’s office.
Physical proximity, however, was always used as a carrot: Trump would signal his displeasure by pulling aides off his private plane, or telling them they were not invited to attend a meeting.
That’s continued into the White House: Two weeks ago, amid a firestorm surrounding the decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigations into Russian attempts to sway the presidential election in Trump’s favor, Trump left Priebus and Bannon in Washington instead of taking him along to Florida for the weekend with the rest of the senior staff as planned. Aides said it was a mutual decision the two would stay behind and work, though Bannon flew commercial to Florida the next day.
The emergence of competing White House factions has created a greater atmosphere of distrust and need for self-preservation. “You want to make sure you know what the marching orders are,” one former aide said. “You’re not going to rely on the other side to fill you in. There’s now more of a necessity to get directives from the president.”
Priebus has been aware of the dynamic since making the jump to Trump’s staff from the Republican National Committee. He told staffers at the RNC that his play as chief of staff would be to physically attach himself to the president at all times. It was part of his reason for insisting on having his deputy, Katie Walsh, installed at the White House, along with him.
The need to be in Trump’s presence has also frustrated people outside the administration who need a contact inside. “I can book a meeting with Reince, Jared and Bannon,” vented one consultant who has had business in the White House, “and only one of them will show up because everyone is chasing a meeting with the president.”
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