Trump's fast start is now a memory
"As far as national security is concerned, this White House is in disarray," McCain said
President Donald Trump thrived on drama during his campaign – but signs of disarray in a White House beset by controversy and internal tensions are exposing the downside of his signature style.
Trump’s fast start is now a memory as intractable controversies bear down on his administration from inside and out, consuming political capital just at the moment when he seeks to enact his agenda at home and abroad.
“As far as national security is concerned, this White House is in disarray,” Republican Sen. John McCain told CNN Wednesday.
McCain is not alone in raising alarm bells about how the White House’s scattershot focus could eventually make Americans less safe.
In stunning comments for a sitting member of the top military brass, Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas warned at a symposium in Maryland Tuesday that “our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
The warnings come as the West Wing becomes inexorably more entwined in political dramas and internal staff intrigues that threaten to detract from Trump’s crucial first 100 days.
Mushrooming drama over the Trump campaign’s alleged connections to Russia, which claimed the scalp of his national security adviser Michael Flynn, is working its way relentlessly closer to the President himself.
Trump is refusing to answer questions about a CNN report that some of his advisers were in constant communication with Russian operatives at a time when Moscow was trying to tip the US election his way. But his silence means the furor grows by the day, and he can’t put the distracting saga to rest.
“This is a major distraction, even if you are not the President or the vice president – it affects the entire building. It affects the entire national security apparatus,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA assistant director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production.
“It is very hard to focus on your work, to focus on the things you should be working on when you have all of this swirl going on around you,” Lowenthal told CNN International.
Fresh questions were raised in another area Wednesday – over the administration’s congressional and vetting operation – after the White House lost its first Cabinet nominee, Labor Secretary pick Andrew Puzder, over ethics issues.
Each day brings a gusher of controversy and conflicting messages that drown out the successes Trump has managed to rack up so far, including his well-choreographed Supreme Court pick and visits by leaders of Britain, Japan, Canada and Israel that sent reassuring signals abroad.
In Trump’s three-and-a-half weeks in power, internal tensions have generated a year’s worth of unflattering headlines that some critics feel detract from the work of the presidency.
On Wednesday, for instance, there were new questions about the influence of Vice President Mike Pence, who only learned that Flynn had misled him about his calls to the Russian ambassador from published reports – a full two weeks after the President was informed by the Justice Department.
Pence had put his reputation on the line to defend Flynn on television after he was explicitly told the former national security adviser had not discussed sanctions on Russia with Moscow’s ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
An administration source said that though the relationship between Trump and Pence has not been soured by the issue, Pence wanted to know which adviser informed Trump but decided “maybe we shouldn’t tell the guy who went on the record as the face of the administration.”
But a separate administration official denied Pence is focused on this, saying he has moved past it.
“The vice president is in close coordination with the President and senior staff. The vice president has moved beyond this topic and is focused on the future. Any claims to the contrary are false,” this administration official said.
Another White House official said: “The White House is denying CNN reporting the Vice President Pence is searching for answers about Flynn.”
The incident is sparking concerns among Republicans who see Pence as a crucial steadying influence in an inexperienced West Wing team.
“I don’t know who’s exercising the most influence, but I know the White House would be very well-served to listen to Mike Pence a lot, and I hope they do,” Republican Sen. John Thune said.
Another major destabilizing influence is Trump himself, who looms over the administration as a mercurial figure supercharging controversies with Twitter rockets and still appears obsessed with his own political fortunes.
On Wednesday, for instance, he answered a question from an Israeli journalist about anti-Semitism in the US by boasting about the size of his Electoral College win.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a striking warning to the President in an interview with the Weekly Standard, saying that Trump’s approval rating would be 10 to 15 points higher if he stayed on message.
The Senate Majority leader told the magazine that the President’s tweets and comments make it “harder to achieve what you want to achieve.”
The competing power centers and crossed lines inside Trump’s inexperienced inner circle are also contributing to a growing sense that the new administration has lost control over its own story.
The maneuverings of Trump aides like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump’s influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are sowing instability throughout the White House and doubts outside.
“Who’s making the decisions? No one knows who is making the decisions. Obviously it is not the national security adviser. Is it Mr. Bannon? Is it the 31-year-old?” McCain said, in an apparent reference to Miller.
In recent days there have been signs that the White House is trying to quell the almost daily drip, drip, of palace intrigue stories in the press.
While Priebus has been the target of attacks in conservative media, senior administration officials and sources close to the White House insist his job is safe. They admit the White House has suffered some missteps and, as chief of staff, some of the blame may lie with Priebus.
But they point out the challenges of operating in the current environment: A demanding (and vocal) boss, an administration largely staffed with newbies and colleagues all vying for more power.
Another source, who knows Trump well from the campaign, reinforced that message, pointing out that the President demands a relentless diet of excellent performance according to his own standards, making him a grueling boss to work for.
If the President is at all irked with this chief of staff, he’s not showing it. Earlier this week, Trump declared to reporters, “Reince is doing a great job.”
“Not a good job – a great job,” Trump added.
Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, is also making an attempt to put to rest stories that he and Priebus are at loggerheads.
He told CNN’s Dana Bash Wednesday that he was “livid” with a report on Breitbart News, where he used to be the executive chairman, that suggested Priebus might soon lose his job.
“The story is totally untrue. Reince is doing a great job. I couldn’t ask any more from a partner,” Bannon said.
Still, a source who has talked to both Priebus and Bannon in the last week said that while Bannon had nothing negative to say about Priebus, the White House chief of staff “badmouthed” Bannon to this source over the phone.
This source chalked it up to Priebus’ relative insecurity, whereas Bannon is comfortable in his post and knows where he stands with Trump.
Bannon is perhaps the closest Trump has to an equal in the White House. And it is clear that he is behind some of the disruption – critics would say disarray – that is emanating from the administration.
The President and Bannon have compatible world views, and a mutual desire to shatter norms and face off with institutions. Trump also respects Bannon, in part because of his successful business background, a source familiar with their relationship said.
The source also noted that Bannon might be the one person in the West Wing who could stand up to Trump.
“Sometimes he needs to hear, ‘Hey, step away from that,’ and I think Bannon is the guy that can do that better than anybody in there,” one source said. “He’s the most grown up guy in the room.”
In that respect, Bannon is a useful counterweight to Kushner, the source said, adding, “Ultimately your son-in-law is not going to tell you things you don’t want to hear all the time.”
Still, the husband of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is also emerging as a force in his own right in the White House. Multiple sources said that Kushner was a key conduit between Trump and foreign leaders, and has been playing an important role in his diplomacy in recent weeks.
He is also a fixture at Trump’s almost nightly working dinners in the White House residence that draw Cabinet members, military brass and lawmakers.
But while Kushner has been a steadying force on foreign policy, sometimes the President’s advisers are responsible for the fomenting the kind of disarray that worries McCain and Thomas.
Miller, for instance, went on Sunday talk shows and renewed Trump’s claims that millions of illegal voters backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s election.
His claims dumfounded the Beltway media and Trump’s opponents and sowed another of the controversies that some Washington observers worry drag the White House’s focus away from crucial issues.
But the person who mattered most thought his performance was outstanding.
“Congratulations Stephen Miller - on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!” Trump tweeted.
So while Trump’s critics are pained at the impact his disruptive governing strategy is having outside his White House, the President is sending a clear signal that he has no interest in changing his style.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Dana Bash, Lauren Fox and Manu Raju contributed to this report.