Instead of celebrating a victory lap after his trip, Trump returns to a raging controversy over Russia, writes Gloria Borger
Borger: Trump appears angry, lonely and unhappy with those around him
It’s not that President Trump was excited about his first foreign trip. He complained to friends beforehand it was going to be too long; he just wasn’t looking forward to it. Besides, he was “in a pretty glum mood” when he left, according to one source who speaks with the President.
His homecoming, it appears, did nothing to cheer him up.
Instead of celebrating a victory lap after touring the Middle East and meeting with the Pope and European leaders, Trump returned to the continuing controversy over Russia. He was preoccupied with legal issues and staff problems as the controversy placed his son-in-law, and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, as part of a counterintelligence investigation. Sessions with lawyers are nothing new for this litigious ex-businessman; but with infinitely higher stakes, this was different.
One source says Trump has complained privately about his White House counsel Don McGahn, well known as a specialist in campaign finance law. But his inside counsel has nothing to do with his personal defense, anyway – and so he was expected to meet with his go-to attorney, Marc Kasowitz. His longtime lawyer, two sources say, is going to become what one called the “supervisor” of Trump’s outside legal team. He’ll be the Trump whisperer, adds another, “not the guy interacting with [special counsel Robert] Mueller.”
“Allowing a special counsel to happen was idiocy,” says one ally, who may be channeling the President’s thinking. “Special counsels never end well.” Never mind that Trump’s own firing of FBI Director James Comey – and his repeated attempts to get administration appointees to end the matter – began the chain of events that led to the Mueller appointment. If anyone wanted to stop the President, it didn’t happen. Maybe they agreed with Trump that the Democrats would support the move?
“These guys don’t play chess,” sighs a friend. “They play checkers.”
After the President moved to fire the FBI director, one outside adviser says he told Trump flat-out that the timing was crazy. “If you had fired him on Day One, it would be a whole different atmosphere,” he told the President. “Doing it five months in made no sense.”
Presidency is not a natural fit
So Trump returns to the White House this week just as he left – lonely, angry and not happy with much of anyone. The presidency, Donald Trump is discovering, is not an easy or natural fit.
“He now lives within himself, which is a dangerous place for Donald Trump to be,” says someone who speaks with the President. “I see him emotionally withdrawing. He’s gained weight. He doesn’t have anybody whom he trusts.”
The question, he adds, is whether Trump will understand the enormity of what he faces or will instead “be back to being arrogant and stubborn.” He will have to realize that “all this trip really did was hit the pause button.”
And only for a moment. Trump comes home not only to an escalating Russian mess and an uphill fight over health care, but also to an important decision about the next FBI director. The President had warmed to the idea of former Sen. Joe Lieberman for the post, but Congress didn’t. So as he was leaving for his first foreign trip he told friends Lieberman was out.
In the wake of the Lieberman debacle, one source with knowledge says that the President even made New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with whom he still chats, an offhand, polite, non-offer for the top FBI job, saying something like so-you-don’t-want-it-right? Christie reportedly demurred, listing the reasons why it wouldn’t work – among them that neither person needed the hassle it would cause. In a way, it was pure Trump – the President flattering the man, whom he once fired but still consults.
There is some hope, says one ally, that the President will now be forced to settle down. “He only really listens when he’s down in the dumps.”
Is he listening to bad advice?
And what do his friends say? Some complain he’s getting bad advice – legal and political. “No one is giving him the landscape – this is how it works, this is what you should do or not do. And no one has enough control – or security – to do that,” says one. But that begs the question, of course, of whether a sitting president should actually need to be told that he ought not try to interfere with a federal counterintelligence investigation.
Trouble is, even if President Trump is listening, he’s getting conflicting advice: The outsiders with whom he speaks after-hours aren’t, by and large, big fans of his staff. No wonder, according to one source, that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus checked in with him after he spoke with the President – no doubt to keep an eye on what Trump is thinking, or saying.
There are those telling the President to move on from the insularity of his original cast of characters. “Step up and forget the Forever Trumpers,” one ally says he told the President. “Now you need the best professionals.”
But that misses one key point: Trumpworld is run by Trump. Mistakes are made by Trump. And all of this is powered by this singular view on the Russia crisis, says one ally: that Trump believes he has no responsibility for any of this political trauma, that it is created by the mainstream media concocting conspiracies where none exist:
“He’s sitting there saying, like he does with everything, ‘You guys work for me. Fix this.’”
Which is exactly what he brazenly asked his ex-FBI director, his director of national intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to do. It’s what he would have done at the Trump Organization. And if they refused, he would have fired them. As he did Jim Comey.
There is this storyline about Donald Trump, one longtime Trump watcher says, that he’s a loyal guy. That he sticks with his old friends and defends them and supports them. “You have it all wrong,” he says. “Trump is not loyal, except to his family. He can be solicitous and ingratiating. But if there’s a moment you are not useful, forget it, you’re done. No matter what you have done for him.” Consider: Rudy Giuliani, Paul Manafort, Chris Christie.
And one more thing to keep in mind about the President, adds an ally. He’s a disciple of Roy Cohn, the take-no-prisoners New York attorney. “When you’re in trouble, you double down, triple down and quadruple down. At the end of the day,” he says of Trump, “it’s the only way to fight he knows.”