When White House press secretary Sean Spicer took the podium on Monday, it was with a demeanor that can only be described as grim determination. I’m not going to like this and neither are you, Spicer was saying to the assembled press corps, so let’s just get through it.
You can understand why he’d feel that way. And why any – and every – member of President Trump’s White House staff might feel that way.
Time and again over the last week – whether it’s the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey or allegedly disclosing classified information to Russians, according to a Washington Post report confirmed by sources to CNN – Trump has acted and then forced his staff to react. In both of those instances, he appeared to catch his staff totally flat-footed – caught unawares that he was going to do what he did, say what he said or tweet what he tweeted.
But, it’s worse than just that. Trump not only forces his staff to adjust on the fly to his seat-of-the-pants decision-making but then he also publicly contradicts the version of events they come up with as the best possible spin for what he’s said.
And then – yes, it gets worse! – he grouses about how poor a job the communications staff is doing, complaints that inevitably leak to the press and undermine further attempts by people like Spicer to retain credibility.
Spicer, in an off-camera briefing on Tuesday afternoon, was decidedly low energy – even as reports that Kimberly Guilfoyle, the Fox News anchor, was interviewing to replace him.
“I hate to say it but @PressSec looks and sounds the most exhausted he has since he started. No humor or banter today,” tweeted Newsmax White House reporter John Gizzi, who was in the briefing.
Spicer is far from alone in facing a credibility and moral crisis. Because truth and fact are such elusive comments for Trump, his staff is continually struggling to serve their mercurial boss while also maintaining credibility with the reporters who cover them every day. That latter relationship is always strained but never more so than right now.
Take the Comey firing. The spin produced out of the White House was that Trump had acted after serious consideration of a memo from deputy Attorney general Rod Rosenstein outlining Comey’s shortcomings in the Hillary Clinton private email server investigation.
Sure, that explanation strained credulity somewhat – Trump had been effusive in his praise for Comey’s decision to re-open the Clinton investigation in late October – but it was defensible on the merits.
Enter Trump. In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president threw his entire staff directly under the bus by insisting that the decision to fire Comey was his, and that he would have done so regardless of what the Rosenstein memo said.
Fast forward to last night. National security adviser H.R. McMaster comes out of the White House to insist the Washington Post story detailing the alleged leak by Trump of highly classified information to the Russians during an Oval Office meeting last week was untrue.
Then, this morning, Trump hops on Twitter to essentially confirm the Post’s – and CNN’s – reporting. “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining…….to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism,” Trump tweeted.
Trump is someone who has never worked with a terribly large inner circle. And that inner circle has not only always been small but it’s almost always been filled with family members as opposed to people who work for him. In the White House, he’s been forced to go away from that model somewhat; while his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, are formal advisers, his adult sons are removed from him – both geographically and due to conflict of interest concerns regarding his business.
He is, by nature, a lone wolf – and a provocateur. Trump often says and does things for the reaction they elicit. Which is his right. He won, as he likes to remind you.
But his actions also have consequences. And on the staff front, we’ve already seen what those consequences are. Trump struggled to find a willing communications director at the White House before eventually naming respected GOP operative Mike Dubke. For a variety of other senior staff positions, the field is smaller than it should be because people don’t really want to subject themselves to the environment Trump has created in the White House.
The result? A more and more isolated Trump, increasingly surrounded by people afraid to tell him when he’s wrong.