Donald Trump arrived on the Republican primary circuit in 2015 with a promise to get by with a little help from his friends – “the best and most serious people” on the market.
But after eight months in office, that pledge has become a favorite punchline on the web. Rather than a home to efficient, skilled operators, the Trump White House has been marked by an eccentric swirl of office politics run amok and off-hours fits of pique.
Set aside, if only for a moment, the very real issues animating the President’s response to Puerto Rico, his views on white supremacist marchers, and the ongoing Russia scandaI. If you pitched what remained as satire, an editor would toss it right back as overdone. (Someone find Thad Cochran!)
Here’s a quick skip through the profound – and very real – weirdness that has colored much of the current administration.
When Trump officials go missing
No one hides from the press (or the President) better than Trump’s people.
First there was former FBI director James Comey. Trump initially decided to keep Comey on in his job and, during a post-inaugural reception at the White House, singled him out for a handshake and slap on the back. But as Comey confidante Ben Wittes told it on the Lawfare blog, the lanky lawman tried to avoid the awkward interaction by blending in with the drapes, which matched his blazer.
“So he stood in the back, right in front of the drapes,” Wittes wrote, “hoping Trump wouldn’t notice him camouflaged against the wall.”
Alas, the President caught a glimpse. “Oh, and there’s Jim,” Trump said. “He’s become more famous than me!”
That relationship would sour a bit, and on the occasion of Comey’s firing, in early May, Trump communications staffers tried to steer clear of the media. Most notable was Sean Spicer, the dissembling former press secretary, who hid in – correction: among – some bushes on the White House grounds rather than confront a hungry pack of reporters.
Former chief of staff Reince Priebus’s departure from his job, ditched on the tarmac after a ride on Air Force One, was an uncomfortable affair. Perhaps it would have been less so if there was a large trash can there to obscure reporters’ view.
And then there is the curious case of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and their vacation schedule. The couple and their children often seem to be away when the President starts lighting fires. Is it a coincidence? Are they keeping a lid on Oval Office shenanigans – only to see it pop off when they leave?
Or is it – as the critics have increasingly suggested – that they are actively trying to stay out of the less flattering headlines?
Trump has repeatedly found himself in odd situations with the biggest star of all: the sun.
He most recently took on a solar eclipse – training the presidential retinas directly on it.
According to the press pool on hand that afternoon, “White House aides standing beneath the Blue Room Balcony shouted ‘don’t look’” as Trump, well, looked.
Before that, there was the famous “orb.” During his first visit to the Gulf as President, Trump gathered with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to paw an odd-looking, glowing sphere.
As it turns out, this was less a star than some kind of incandescent globe, meant to signify, as noted in the Saudi embassy tweet, some kind of new joint effort to combat terrorism.
But Trump’s most studied grappling with solar power came during a pair of visits to Europe earlier this year, when he repeatedly engaged in prolonged handshakes with French President Emmanuel Macron. The young leader has an appreciation for both clean energy and the power exercised by the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Does it please the President?
If we know one thing about Trump, it’s that he prizes loyalty – to Trump. He tells us constantly. His subordinates know it and have, on occasion, gone to outsize lengths to prove their own.
One memorable example: Before his own wings were clipped, The Washington Post reported, Priebus was called on to ground a fly that infiltrated an Oval Office meeting. It had been buzzing, and annoying Trump, who duly “summoned his chief of staff and tasked him with killing the insect.”
Doing Trump’s bidding, however ridiculous, is a core competency in this White House. Spicer’s thirst for the job was tested on his first weekend, when he declared the audience for the previous day’s festivities the largest “to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
Spicer’s rant was a signal of things to come. The next day. Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway went on NBC to defend her colleague’s assertions, up to a point.
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood,” she told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. “And they’re giving – Sean Spicer, our press secretary – gave alternative facts.”
But there was no alternative, only love, when Trump formally introduced his Cabinet in June. As the group went up and down a long conference table, they hand-bathed the President in praise.
Here’s a taste:
- Vice President Mike Pence: “Greatest privilege of my life to serve as your vice president.”
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “We are receiving, as you know – I’m not sure the rest of you fully understand – the support of law enforcement all over America.”
- Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta: “I want to thank you for keeping your commitment to the American workers.”
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry: My hat’s off to you for taking that stand (on the Paris climate deal), for sending a clear message around the world that America is gonna continue to lead in the area of energy.
- UN envoy Nikki Haley: “It’s a new day at the United Nations. We now have a very strong voice. People know what the US is for, they know what we’re against, and they see us leading across the board.
- White House budget director Mick Mulvaney: “With your direction we were able to also focus on the forgotten man and woman who are the folks who are paying those taxes, so I appreciate your support and your direction in pulling that budget together.”
- Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price: “I can’t thank you enough for the privilege that you’ve given me and the leadership that you’ve shown.”
- Transportation secretary Elaine Chao: “I want to thank you for getting this country moving again and also working again.”
- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue: “I want to congratulate you on the men and women you’ve placed around this table. The holistic team of working for America is making results in each and every area.”
And then came Priebus for the topper:
“On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”
Do a deal. Have a meal.
Trump has brought with him to the presidency some of the vestiges of the New York City real estate life. Among them, a desire to combine food with business.
Earlier this month, that meant dinner with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi included Chinese food, but no Republicans. They walked out of the meeting with some conflicting reviews, though not of the cuisine. The questions centered on whether Trump had agreed to a deal that would protect DACA recipients in exchange for a bump in border security (but no money for the wall).
That last bit is still a mystery. What’s not is the President’s preference for a chocolate dessert. At the Pelosi-Schumer get-together, it was pie. But back in April, there was a different order. Two of them, actually. First for cake, then for airstrikes on Syria.
How do we know – and why do we care – what Trump had for dessert before making the decision? Because he told us. In an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, the President turned his recollection of the strikes into an advertisement for his Mar-a-Lago resort.
“We had finished dinner,” he said of himself and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We’re now having dessert – and we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it – and I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded.”
“We made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way.”
It wasn’t the first time the President put on a show for the paying customers at Mar-a-Lago. In February, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were tucking into iceberg wedge salads when word came down that North Koreans had launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile.
The leaders got down to business in full view of gawking guests. Some aides even illuminated potentially sensitive briefing papers with the flashlights on their phones, which might or might not have been secure. (Spicer later told reporters the leaders had been “reviewing the logistics for the press conference,” not scouring classified documents.)
Waiters stayed on the scene too, swapping out the salads for a main course. But Trump and Abe soon moved to another room. It’s unclear if they ever made it to dessert.
Loose lips sink…
The Trump administration is still short of the quarter pole and it’s already staked a claim to being the leakiest in American history.
How bad is it? Well, when national security adviser H.R. McMaster authored a memo warning against the “unauthorized disclosure of classified information or controlled unclassified United States Government information,” it was promptly shared with Buzzfeed.
And while it’s not usually considered a leak when it comes from the President’s mouth, The Washington Post in May reported that Trump shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office meeting.
The list goes on. Short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci sealed his own fate when, in his zest for pursuing leakers, he called up the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza to chat – on the record – about his colleagues. Warning, this link contains lots of graphic language.
And then there is new Trump lawyer Ty Cobb. He recently gave The New York Times a look at the inner workings of a White House increasingly at odds with itself over how to manage special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
How so? By conducting the conversation, with a colleague, over lunch at a popular Washington steakhouse in the immediate vicinity of both the White House and the Times’ DC bureau.
How did the reporter spot him? Well, here’s a picture of Cobb.
And here’s what he looked like on that afternoon, dining and prattling on about all manner of internal intrigue.