With President Donald Trump’s sweeping agenda hitting the rocks as he edges toward the 100-day mark, top aides, political allies and donors are embroiled in a furious round of finger-pointing over who is at fault.
The recriminations extend far beyond the implosion of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal on Friday. Senior aides are lashing each other over their inability to stem a never-ending tide of negative stories about the president. There is second-guessing of the Republican National Committee’s efforts to mobilize Trump’s electoral coalition on behalf of his legislative priorities. At the Environmental Protection Agency, a top official quit recently amid accusations the department is failing to advance the president’s campaign promises. And one of Trump’s most generous benefactors, Rebekah Mercer, has expressed frustration over the direction of the administration.
This account of White House infighting is based on interviews with more than two dozen Trump aides, confidants and others close to his administration, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. They described a distracting and toxic atmosphere, with warring power centers blaming one another for an ever-growing list of setbacks. The dysfunction has further paralyzed an administration struggling to deliver on its blunt promises of wholesale change.
The environment, many Trump aides are convinced, has been created by the president himself — a larger-than-life figure famously loath to admit error. As Trump’s health care plan ran into problems, he found ways to divert blame — sometimes turning on his own staff.
After Gary Cohn, the chief White House economic adviser, went on Fox News Sunday this month to talk about the reform push, the media-obsessed president complained bitterly about the appearance, venting that Cohn failed to clearly sell the merits of the plan, according to three people familiar with the matter. (A White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied that Trump had expressed unhappiness and said he had been “complimentary of Gary’s appearance.”)
For the new White House, nothing has been more frustrating than health care. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was one of Trump’s signature campaign promises. But the discussions surrounding the rocky weeks leading to its collapse generated an outpouring of ill will in the West Wing. Steve Bannon, Trump’s populist-minded chief strategist, privately singled out the more moderate Cohn for criticism, charging that he was too willing to make concessions to mainstream Republicans that repelled the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.
Others say the fault lies with chief of staff Reince Priebus. The former RNC chairman was elevated to his current role because he was seen as a savvy Washington operator whose Capitol Hill relationships, particularly with House Speaker Paul Ryan, would help the newcomer Trump. The health care talks, these people say, reveal the limits of his reach.
Still others pinned blame on Jared Kushner, Trump’s politically moderate son-in-law and senior adviser. As White House staffers struggled to galvanize support for the flagging health care bill, some became convinced that Kushner was working to defeat the repeal effort. Suspicions increased when Kushner invited Obamacare architect Ezekiel Emanuel to address staffers at a meeting on Monday — a gathering that left some staffers rolling their eyes.
Then, with the legislation teetering, Kushner left town for a two-day ski trip to Aspen.
“It was noticed,” one senior administration official said of the Colorado jaunt.
The recriminations, however, were not limited to the health care fiasco. For weeks, many staffers have expressed profound unhappiness with a communications office that has struggled to accomplish what it had set out to do: To inoculate a president who is preoccupied with his public image.
“We’ve done a disservice because we haven’t handled things well,” one White House aide said of the press team’s performance.
Many Trump loyalists criticize former RNC employees now working in the communications office. Among the complaints: That RNC veterans mobilize with force when reporters are working on critical stories about Priebus, the former party chairman, but sometimes lack the same urgency when responding to articles about Trump.
It has spurred allegations that communications officials, many of whom worked for Priebus at the committee and followed him to the White House, are loyal to the chief of staff above all else.
The ever-present focus on Priebus was on full display during a communications office meeting last month. Press secretary Sean Spicer, a Priebus lieutenant, became so visibly upset over a story about the chief of staff that some were startled by his reaction, according to a person familiar with the matter. (Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, denied that happened, and dismissed the notion that the press office had taken extra steps to protect Priebus.)
There are also growing complaints being directed at the Trump’s political operation, which senior Republicans had hoped would marshal support for the president’s agenda. The efforts, however, have been described as halting and ill-planned.
Among the objections: That the RNC erred when it declined to give jobs to a trio of Trump loyalists, Michael Biundo, Christie-Lee McNally and Stephanie Milligan, all of whom had applied for jobs in the political department. Instead, the positions were awarded to a group of Republican operatives who did not work on Trump’s campaign.
The Trump loyalists’ deep knowledge of the president’s political network could have been an asset, some argue. Adding to the hurt feelings, the three did not receive phone calls informing them that they did not get the positions before the hires were publicly announced.
“If you have people that don’t believe in the president, I don’t think they’re going to be that forceful in protecting the White House,” said one former Trump campaign staffer. “There’s nothing there to push through the agenda, to push through the Supreme Court justice, there’s nothing there to help him with.”
RNC officials insist they’ve taken steps to include Trump veterans. The committee recently hired Brad Parscale, who was Trump’s digital director, as an outside consultant.
The White House office of political affairs is another target of grousing. On March 15, Trump visited Michigan, a traditionally Democratic state that he won, to talk about his efforts to revitalize the automobile industry. Yet the Michigan Republican Party was not made aware that the event would be occurring until it was publicly announced, hampering its ability to organize and rally Trump boosters to the appearance in Ypsilanti.
Then there’s Trump’s official campaign, which on Monday organized a Trump event in Kentucky. The visit was designed to sell the health care bill and to put pressure on GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who had been an outspoken opponent. Some of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s allies had hoped that McConnell, an outsized figure in Kentucky politics who has a large following in the state, would introduce Trump and make a forceful sell for the legislation.
But in the end, after some back-and-forth between the two sides, it was decided that McConnell would speak at the event but not introduce the president, instead taking the stage about 15 minutes before Trump. While some McConnell aides said it was all much ado about nothing, others close to the senator were surprised by the decision and thought it was a mistake.
“What was the purpose of this event?” said one McConnell ally. “If it were me, I would have had him out there.”
“We’re two months into the presidency, and it’s kind of a cluster,” said one state Republican Party official. “It’s not that they’re bad people. It’s just that they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Sniping over Trump’s early troubles is occurring at federal agencies, too.
Revitalizing the beleaguered coal industry and loosening restrictions on emissions was a cornerstone of Trump’s pitch to blue collar voters. Yet, two months into his presidency, Trump loyalists are accusing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt of moving too slowly to push the president’s priorities.
Earlier this month, David Schnare, a Trump appointee who worked on the transition team, abruptly quit. According to two people familiar with the matter, among Schnare’s complaints was that Pruitt had yet to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding, which empowers the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a public health threat.
Schnare’s departure was described as stormy, and those who’ve spoken with him say his anger at Pruitt runs deep.
“The backstory to my resignation is extremely complex,” he told E&E News, an energy industry trade publication. “I will be writing about it myself. It is a story not about me, but about a much more interesting set of events involving misuse of federal funds, failure to honor oaths of office, and a lack of loyalty to the president.”
Other Trump loyalists at EPA complain they’ve been shut out of meetings with higher-ups and are convinced that Pruitt is pursuing his own agenda instead of the president’s. Some suspect that he is trying to position himself for an eventual Senate campaign. (EPA spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment.)
The president’s biggest donors are pointing fingers, too. Mercer, a philanthropist who has bankrolled the “alt-right” movement that formed the underpinnings of Trump’s campaign, had hoped the new White House would adopt an anti-establishment mindset.
Yet in recent weeks, Mercer, who pushed for Bannon to be chief of staff but was overruled, has complained that too many Beltway Republicans were being hired, said one person who has spoken to her. She partly faults Priebus, saying he has used his position to bring a number of establishment allies into the administration.
The White House is also moving to soothe megadonor Sheldon Adelson. The Las Vegas casino mogul has been pleased with many of Trump’s early moves, including his decision to tap David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Yet people close to Adelson say he was alarmed by the administration’s decision to retain State Department official Michael Ratney, an appointee of former President Barack Obama who is viewed with suspicion by those in the pro-Israel community. Kushner, who is overseeing Trump’s push for a Middle East peace accord, has discussed the matter with Adelson.
As the dust cleared over the weekend from the health care failure, Trump aides dismissed talk of a possible staff shakeup. While they described the president as disappointed, they also said he was ready to move on. After all the pushback the bill had gotten, he’d come to realize that it might not be the right piece of legislation after all.
Yet the blame game is taking a toll on an exhausted White House. At the highest levels of the West Wing, the mood has grown so tense that staffers have begun calling up reporters inquiring whether other senior aides are leaking damaging information about them.
“The various warring fiefdoms and camps within the White House are constantly changing and are so vast and complicated in their nature,” said one former Trump campaign aide, “that there is no amount of reporting that could accurately describe the subterfuge, animosity and finger-pointing that is currently happening within the ranks of the senior staff.”
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