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White House meltdown on full display

The tumult of the past week has fueled a deep and seething anger within ...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 2:35 AM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 2:35 AM

The tumult of the past week has fueled a deep and seething anger within President Donald Trump -- not an uncommon emotion for the insolent commander in chief -- but one that allies and aides say has escalated as he faces a new gauntlet of problems, including the encroaching Russia investigation.

His soothing communications guru is leaving. His obstinate attorney general has turned openly defiant. His son-in-law and senior adviser was stripped of his security clearance at the behest of his chief of staff. His Cabinet secretaries keep spending an inordinate amount of taxpayer dollars on luxuries. His most loyal allies in Congress describe his meetings as "surreal."

Allies of Trump's on Capitol Hill and elsewhere describe a sense of "meltdown" at the White House as the series of unfortunate events unfold. The President, they say, wants to take action to turn the page.

Morale in the West Wing, already diminished following the domestic abuse scandal involving Trump's former staff secretary, has taken a downward turn, people inside and outside the building say. Staff departures are being announced on a near-daily basis as aides become fed up with the constant swirl of tension.

And policy announcements that would fulfill Trump's campaign promises -- including a long-awaited decision on steel and aluminum tariffs, gun control measures and an elusive immigration fix -- have been caught up in the swirl of uncertainty, leading to questions on how Trump will be able to govern amid the chaos.

On Capitol Hill Thursday, chief of staff John Kelly was taciturn but upbeat when asked about the mood inside the White House.

"I think pretty good," he said. "Too much work, too hard. We're all doing the Lord's work though."

Others are less glowing.

"The morale is terrible," said Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived former communications director, said on Thursday morning on CNN. "The reason why the morale is terrible is that the rule by fear and intimidation does not work in a civilian environment."

"People are afraid to talk to each other," he said.

Inside the White House

Inside the White House, aides identify the scandal involving Rob Porter, the staff secretary who departed after being accused of domestic abuse allegations, as the impetus for the latest devolvement in esteem. At the time of his departure, Porter was dating Hope Hicks, the communications director who announced her resignation on Wednesday.

Hicks' departure was weeks in the making, people familiar with the decision said. But it was nevertheless a shock announcement from the aide perhaps closest to the President.

"Trump can't function without her. She is that important," a source close to the White House said.

Advisers wonder now who will step into the role of presidential whisperer -- a job ever more important as stumbling blocks continue to arise, including the mounting stack of indictments in Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Trump continues to describe the probe as a "witch hunt," and steams over the issue regularly. His anger is bolstered by the deep sense of uncertainty surrounding who will be caught up next. Mueller's team has operated largely leak-free, and much of the news from his office has caught the White House off-guard.

The Porter episode also led to scrutiny over the system of security clearances and questions over accountability at top staff levels. It launched John Kelly's crackdown on interim security clearances, which last week ensnared Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, along with dozens of other White House officials.

The move only heightened the existing friction between Kelly and Trump's children, who have seen their access to the President restricted under a new system of rigor. Kushner has continued in his role, focusing on domestic issues like prison reform and planning for upcoming political races. Trump has told aides he wants Kushner to remain focused on the Middle East.

But the President has grown upset at the perception his son-in-law is somehow in trouble, and has complained to people around him how Kelly can't seem to stop making enemies.

Trump-Sessions feud

Kelly isn't the only underling in Trump's sights. The President was fuming Wednesday after Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly pushed back against him in a rare but pointed statement defending the Justice Department. Sessions' pushback came after Trump called him "DISGRACEFUL" in a Twitter post.

A source familiar with his demeanor described Trump as indignant. Trump didn't respond to shouted questions about Sessions at the White House on Thursday. Later, when she was asked whether Trump wanted to dismiss his attorney general, press secretary Sarah Sanders only said: "Not that I know of."

The sense of an administration at odds was fueled by another Cabinet secretary coming under public scrutiny -- this time Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Senior White House aides are furious about a series of negative stories about frivolous spending at Carson's agency and have taken a more hands-on role in trying to stem the tide of negative news, sources with knowledge of the situation tell CNN.

The decision to assert more control came a day after reports that the former chief administrative officer at HUD filed a complaint saying she was demoted after refusing to spend more than was legally allowed to redecorate Carson's new office. HUD also spent $31,000 last year to replace a dining room set in Carson's office, according to federal records and a whistleblower. Carson has now said he wants to cancel the order.

It was the latest example of a spending indiscretion by one of Trump's Cabinet officials -- incidents that have enraged the President. He fired Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price for excessive use of private and government air travel over the summer. But since then, the travel habits of a number of Cabinet-level officials have come into question.

Trump has vented to aides that there's nothing he detests more than displays of wasteful spending. But firing top-level officials, he's speculated, would only deepen the impression his administration is in chaos.

Instead, Trump is encouraging his team to develop policy announcements that could help distract from the ongoing ruckus. On Thursday he was eager to announce protectionist measures to buffer the US steel and aluminum industries from foreign imports -- fulfilling a key campaign promise on which he's fixated over the past year.

The only problem: the policy he wanted to roll out isn't ready yet, two White House officials said. Aides were sent scrambling late Wednesday to determine what exactly Trump could announce during a meeting with industry executives that was hastily assembled for Thursday morning.

Initially the meeting was closed to the press. But Trump called in reporters at the last minute to announce he was imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum "probably" next week.

"It's being written now," Trump said.

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