Chapter 1: 'Parallel universes'
One Republican lawmaker called President Donald Trump's first weeks in office "batshit crazy."
Someone else who regularly speaks with the President described him during a particularly low point in March as a "caged animal" in the White House.
"He wanted to win. He didn't want to do this," this person said, referring to the task of governing.
Another person close to Trump portrayed a tight inner circle of top aides gripped by paranoia to the point that “if one of them goes into that office alone, the other one is there within two minutes” to make sure their voice is heard.
The presidency poses profound challenges for the 70-year-old Trump, who owes much of his success in business and last year's campaign to a savvy ability to cultivate a favorable persona. Now that he's in the White House, the problem, many sources said, is that Trump is so concerned about an image he can't control and staffers are so anxious about their standing with him that the administration easily slides into dysfunction.
Trump concludes his first 100 days in office Saturday with the lowest approval rating of any president at this juncture, according to polls dating back to the Eisenhower administration. A CNN/ORC poll released this week found that 44% of respondents approved of Trump's handling of the presidency while 54% disapproved. That vulnerability is underscored by the willingness of even Trump's closest GOP allies – those who desperately want to turn his unlikely administration into a noble cause – to critique his shortcomings.
The First 100 Days
Jan 20Trump takes office and delivers a speech decrying "American carnage."
Jan 21More than a million Americans participate in women's marches across the country. White House press secretary Sean Spicer appears in briefing room to insist that Trump had larger crowds at his inaugural than Obama.
Jan 24Trump signs executive actions to advance approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines.
Jan 25Dow Jones Industrial Average hits 20,000 for the first time.
Feb 1Trump nominates Neil Gorsuch to succeed the late Antonin Scalia at the Supreme Court.
Feb 13Michael Flynn resigns as national security adviser after reports surface that he misled administration officials about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the US and was potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians.
Feb 28Trump delivers first address to joint session of Congress, speaks of an America "empowered by our ambitions, not burdened by our fears."
Mar 2Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself from existing or future investigations related to Trump's 2016 campaign after it emerges that he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearing two pre-election meetings with Russia's ambassador to the US.
Mar 4In a series of tweets, Trump alleges without evidence that Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower.
Mar 6House Republicans unveil their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Mar 20FBI Director James Comey tells a congressional committee the bureau is investigating whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia while Russia was interfering in the election. Comey also tells lawmakers he has no proof that backed up Trump's claim that Trump Tower was wiretapped.
Mar 24House GOP leaders pull their Obamacare legislation after revolt from fellow Republicans.
Apr 6Trump orders military strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians.
Apr 7Senate confirms Gorsuch after Republicans invoke "nuclear option."
This account of the President's tumultuous first 100 days is based on interviews with roughly five dozen White House officials, lawmakers, congressional staff and former campaign officials along with Trump friends and associates, many of whom spoke on background to protect their relationship with Trump. The interviews depict a White House struggling to overcome an onslaught of crises ranging from investigations about Russia's involvement in last year's election to the failed push to repeal and replace Obamacare.
After a rough introduction to Washington, there are signs that Trump and his team are beginning to adapt to the realities and demands of the job. For instance, his approval earlier this month of targeted airstrikes on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for chemical attacks that killed civilians was out of step from the "America First" campaign rhetoric that ushered him into the White House.
"You know, when you're running for president, you say anything. There are no boundaries," South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham told me recently. "But now that he's commander in chief and leader of the free world, it's a different world. Authorizing the strikes, even though they were limited, was Donald Trump accepting the responsibility of being commander in chief and letting campaign rhetoric be washed away by the reality of the job."
"You know, when you're running for president, you say anything. There are no boundaries." -- South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
Graham's relationship with Trump is a sign of potential changes at the White House. One of the Senate's leading hawks, Graham represents the foreign policy establishment that Trump pilloried on the campaign trail last year. But Trump was on the phone with Graham just hours after the Syria strike, the senator said. And the President had dinner with Graham and Sen. John McCain, another Trump skeptic in the GOP, in the White House residence Monday night.
The 100 days threshold – popularized by Franklin D. Roosevelt as he fought the Great Depression – is a legendary Washington barometer for presidential success. By this point in 2009, Barack Obama had won congressional approval of a $787 billion economic stimulus package. George W. Bush was on his way to securing House passage of the No Child Left Behind education overhaul. Bill Clinton stumbled at first but ultimately pushed a budget through Congress.
Trump has followed through on some campaign promises, such as executive orders rolling back regulations and eyeing changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his biggest success so far on Capitol Hill has been the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court – a feat that required a historic change to Senate rules.
The challenge is evident on the walls of Steve Bannon's West Wing office. When he moved into the White House, Trump's chief strategist removed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and sofa from his office and positioned his desk in the corner to make room for giant whiteboards that are lined up in four columns beneath the campaign theme: Make. America. Great. Again. In the final hours of the first 100 days, the promises kept were marked with a red X, including abandoning a massive Pacific trade deal. The column without a single red X: Legislative accomplishments.
Trump has clearly been thinking about the looming milestone for a long time. In October, his campaign issued a "contract with the American voter" that pledged to, among other things, propose a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress and brand China a currency manipulator.
As the deadline approached and many of those promises went unfulfilled, the administration seemed to scramble. A White House official said last week they hoped to circulate new legislative text on health care -- a seemingly last-ditch attempt to score a big legislative accomplishment before the 100 days is up. By Sunday night, officials acknowledged that a vote this week was a long shot.
"When the votes are there, the speaker will bring it to the floor and take the vote, but no sooner than that," White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in his West Wing office Tuesday evening, exhaling as he acknowledged that lessons have been learned by the first health care collapse.
Trump appeared to lower expectations last week by tweeting about the "ridiculous standard" of the first 100 days.
Ask Trump's senior advisers about his initial success and you largely hear the same refrain: They don't believe in the standard barometer of legislative victories. Seated at a long worktable in her office, Kellyanne Conway told me the real metric of how the administration will be judged is economic confidence – how people feel when they open up their 401(k) statement or sell their house.
"To them, this will all be judged by economic prosperity, by economic and national security," the counselor to the President said. "You've seen the polling. People feel more secure already, more confident. Confidence numbers among manufacturers, homebuilders (and) small business owners are also rising."
She said the more Trump's critics pile on, "the more of (a) long-term benefit it is for the President, because it's overkill. Americans expect basic respect shown to the office of the President. They want the country to succeed."
"I'm just telling you: there's a huge disconnect. It's like we live in parallel universes." -- Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President
"I'm just telling you: there's a huge disconnect. It's like we live in parallel universes," she said of Trump's critics, including those in the media. "What gets done here versus what gets covered, it's parallel universes."
"I guarantee you in the end what most people will focus on is progress and results," she added.
Chapter 2: Setting the tone
The tenor of Trump's opening months was set on January 21, his first full day in office.
Trump began the day in a state of awe about stepping into the presidency, according to friends and aides. It was one of the few times, some said, that he seemed genuinely thrilled to be in the trappings of the White House. Fresh off the high of the previous night's inaugural balls and with the power of the office sinking in, the new commander in chief spent part of the day playing tour guide, pulling friends into the Oval Office to tell them the history of the "Resolute Desk" or ushering them through his private dining room.
Trump, a politician with legendary thin skin and little patience for protestors, wasn't angered by the masses descending on Washington to protest his agenda as part of the worldwide women's march. The chants were audible to reporters on the White House grounds but several aides said the President couldn't hear them.
Still, watching the commotion outside his new home on television, he mused with one friend about inviting some of the protesters in for a chat. A White House aide denied the idea was ever seriously considered, but said the staff briefly discussed a "counter-programming event" that would have brought another group of women in to meet with Trump. Ultimately, an aide said the logistics were too complex.
Trump's levity that morning would fizzle as the day went on. While women marched through cities across the world, Trump was more distracted by the other storyline dominating cable news that day: the inference that his inaugural crowds were much smaller than those from Obama's 2009 inauguration. He was particularly livid about the side-by-side photographs comparing the two events.
In Trump's mind, according to aides, the comparison was yet another example of efforts to delegitimize his victory, an assault on his image, his gilded brand. And he wasn't going to let it go.
He blasted the media during an appearance before the CIA Memorial Wall, where fallen operatives are remembered. Against the backdrop of a typically somber venue, he shocked many by delivering a political speech describing his "running war with the media," who he said "are among the most dishonest human beings on earth." Later that day, he dispatched White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to the briefing room to press the specious claim that Trump's crowd had been "the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period."
Allies of Trump still cite that day as an example of the fact that he has no equivalent on his staff to a James Baker, who was chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. A senior aide in the Baker model has the freedom to tell the President "no" and convince him that his comments or actions could be perceived as petty and self-indulgent. The closest thing Trump has to such a confidante, according to aides, is his daughter, Ivanka, who recently stepped up her role in the White House. But, by her own admission, even she doesn't always win the argument.
"Where I disagree with my father, he knows it, and I express myself with total candor," she told CBS News earlier this month. "Where I agree, I fully lean in and support the agenda."
Trump's preoccupation with the competing photos of inaugural crowds underscored what multiple sources who have met with him in recent months, including supporters, come away identifying as his greatest weakness: An obsessive focus on image, being admired and, most importantly, being perceived as a winner. That takeaway is also demonstrated by the tweets he has published since taking office, which often focus on the size of his victory in November and the triumphs that he feels are often overlooked.
That mentality has shaped his antipathy toward the media, a relationship that will come into greater focus this weekend when Trump becomes the first president since Reagan to skip the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Reagan sat out the annual event in 1981 as he recovered from an assassination attempt, though he delivered remarks by phone.
Tom Barrack, Trump's longtime friend, said the President's criticisms of the media are a genuine reflection of his feeling that he is treated unfairly by the institutional press in Washington. For much of Trump's career in the private sector and as a reality TV star, his parry and thrust with reporters has been a huge part of how he judges his power and his performance. Now, the intense scrutiny of everything that happens in the White House, which Trump wasn't accustomed to in the business world, has deepened the President's sense of injustice.
"I said if you want to have the best first year ever, throw every TV in the White House away. You set your own agenda" -- Tom Barrack, longtime Trump friend
"I begged him," Barrack said. "I said if you want to have the best first year ever, throw every TV in the White House away. You set your own agenda."
But the President hasn’t taken that advice. In fact, he’s added televisions to the White House residence so he can watch multiple channels at once.
That unique blend of paranoia and distrust has made Trump, and his team, slow to hire. Every president is sensitive to staffers publicly criticizing the administration. But in the early weeks of the Trump White House, there was an especially low tolerance for job candidates who hadn't supported the President — even for junior positions.
One example of that insistence on loyalty was the removal in February of Craig Deare from his role as a senior adviser on the National Security Council's Western Hemisphere division after he criticized Trump's Latin American policies. He was reassigned to his old job at the National Defense University, according to a White House spokesperson.
"If you don't support the President's agenda then you shouldn't have a job in the White House," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at the time.
In mid-February, a top aide appointed by Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Shermichael Singleton, was fired for writing an October op-ed for The Hill that was critical of Trump. In that pre-election op-ed, Singleton argued that Trump was dragging the Republican Party to a "new moral low."
The administration's loyalty criteria has eased over time, numerous Republican officials said, as the need to fill jobs has created new pressures. But the glacial pace of hiring has left their so-called beachhead teams and temporary staff in place at agencies for much longer than originally planned, slowing the implementation of Trump's agenda.
Chapter 3: Managing the boss
It was only a few weeks into his tenure when Trump began calling friends outside the White House to solicit advice about changes to his staff. "How are we doing?" he would ask. Often, he'd press for an assessment of Priebus, according to multiple sources.
The President's destabilizing habit of making those calls generates constant rumors about looming staff shakeups. Early on, the speculation swirled around Trump's first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was ultimately fired by the President for lying to the Vice President about his contacts with Russian officials.
Though some of the drama coming out of the White House has cooled in recent weeks, the administration has constantly battled the notion that one top staffer — whether it's Priebus, Spicer, Conway or Bannon — is on the ropes. White House aides insist most of the stories about staff infighting aren’t entirely true. One aide noted that Trump is fiercely loyal to his staff, unless he feels betrayed. The President often argues that the press is too hard on his staff, in one case complaining about coverage of Priebus by noting that "he works his ass off."
Still, Trump felt the need to address the persistent image of a White House team in chaos during his first solo press conference on February 16.
"We have made incredible progress. I don't think there's ever been a president elected in this short period of time who has done what we've done." -- President Donald Trump
"We have made incredible progress. I don't think there's ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we've done," he said during that 77-minute event. After musing (inaccurately) about the historic size of his electoral college victory, he accused the press of attacking his administration "because they know we are following through on pledges that we made."
"I turn on the TV, open the newspaper, and I see stories of chaos. Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite," Trump said. "This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine."