An increasingly closed off White House continued to reel from multiple crises Wednesday, leaving staffers exhausted and frustrated as foreign policy experts wondered whether President Donald Trump should cancel his first foreign trip, fearing it could end in disaster.
The mood was particularly dour among staffers preparing for that trip, writing press releases, readying talking points or crafting the speech Trump is to give to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia. They continued to speak to and brief reporters about the trip but didn’t have much to say about the swirling controversies involving Russia. At least one staffer looked visibly weary.
“It’s a grim environment,” said a former Trump adviser who is in regular contact with White House officials but did not want to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The administration said Wednesday they no plans to change the foreign trip, and some supporters thought getting out of Washington could help Trump escape the chaos. The president slipped away to Connecticut to give a commencement speech at the United States Coast Guard Academy. He told graduates they needed to learn how “to respond and to act under great pressure” in his first comments since reports Tuesday night that he asked FBI Director James Comey, who has since been fired, to drop an investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser.
“Never, ever, ever give up,” Trump told graduates. “Things will work out just fine. Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
But Trump couldn’t completely escape the chaos that’s enveloped the White House as protesters lined up outside ceremony. One held up a sign reading, “Grab Trump by the Putin.”
I actually think they should have canceled the trip.
Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution
The White House’s planned agenda to reassert “America’s role in the world” with three visits with foreign leaders this week leading up to the ambitious nine-day, five-stop trip was overtaken by a cascade of multiplying scandals that have staffers screaming at each other and wondering about next moves.
“It’s quite extraordinary the circumstances in which this is taking place,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “…I actually think they should have canceled the trip or shortened the trip in some way. I think it’s a mistake.”
The lack of a united front by the administration Wednesday morning was notable. The usual cadre of White House officials and aids typically dispatched after a controversy to defend the administration on the cable news outlets was nowhere to be seen.
CBS News said that it had asked 20 Republican senators and representatives and anyone from the White House to appear during the two-hour broadcast of “CBS This Morning.”
“All declined our invitation,” said co-anchor Norah O’Donnell.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump, after returning from Connecticut, was spending the remainder of the day interviewing FBI director candidates and preparing for the visit of the Colombian president and the foreign trip.
Vice President Mike Pence spent a quiet day, meeting with staff and working on a series of speeches. Pence is scheduled to give seven speeches in the next four days, including to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Friday and the commencement at Notre Dame on Sunday, his office said.
His one public event was attending and delivering remarks at an Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month reception, where he was joined by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Staff did not answer questions about whether he and the president had spoken during the day.
The former adviser said that the White House remains divided into two camps – former campaign aides, who are accustomed to the onslaught of negative media coverage and knows it will eventually dissipate, and those who are new to working directly for Trump, who are “shocked” and “disturbed.”
For former aides who have been with Trump for close to two years “experience has taught us that things are never permanent. I’m numb to it.”
Trump is still considering a White House staff shakeup, particularly within the communications shop, but no decisions have been made – and won’t likely be made until after the foreign trip, the adviser said.
“They’re waiting for the news cycle to end,” the adviser said. “In 36 hours, they’ll be in the Middle East and create their own news there.”
It was a supposed to be a week to reset after the bungled firing of FBI Director James Comey. The president was ready to start “reasserting America’s role in the world,” Spicer had announced Monday, noting preparations being made for a meeting with the new president of France, multilateral gatherings in Europe, NATO and the G7.
In the days leading up to the trip, Trump would conduct high-profile meetings with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, and the presidents of Turkey and Colombia.
Within hours of Spicer’s announcement, however, chaos ensued when news broke that Trump may have revealed classified information to the Russian ambassador and Russian foreign minister during a closed-door meeting. It hasn’t stopped since.
On Monday, reporters could overhear yelling between Spicer, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House Communications Director Michael Dubke, prompting staffers to turn up TV’s to drown out the back-and-forth.
On Tuesday, a briefing with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster that was supposed to be about promoting the foreign trip turned into a debate with media about the latest controversy. That evening, the administration was hit with another blockbuster story when The New York Times reported that Trump allegedly tried to get Comey to drop his investigation of the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Wright said there was simply too much going on for a president in the midst of a domestic crisis to take on such an ambitious trip. Wright said Trump is known to have a short attention span and he’s likely to be tired and frustrated going into several multilateral meetings that can test even the most experienced diplomats.
“So I’m pretty worried about it,” Wright said.
A second former adviser downplayed the controversy. Yes, the person said, there are a lot of unhappy feelings. Tensions are high and tempers are short, but staffers aren’t really angry with each other.
The adviser who is in close contact with the White House acknowledged there are also plenty of things that could go wrong on the trip, but that it actually comes at a good time.
The president gets out Washington. He gets to be a leader on the world stage. It’s a chance to shake this off and come back refocused, said the adviser who could not speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“It’s better than sitting here in the pressure cooker of the White House.”