It's a new year, but this is still a White House that shatters conventions on presidential behavior
Wednesday was a day on which every blockbuster headline was quickly superseded by another
The political bomb cyclone otherwise known as the Trump presidency has brought 2018 in with a roar.
A new tell-all book that lifts the lid on the rancorous West Wing reveals a spectacle of clashing egos, betrayal and revenge, laced with Russia intrigue, sending President Donald Trump into a rage.
The stunning repudiation of Trump by his one-time populist nationalist guru Steve Bannon in the book “Fire and Fury” by journalist Michael Wolff, and Trump’s response (“When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind”) came after Tuesday’s all-day tweetstorm from the President, which included attacks on enemies foreign and domestic.
It’s a new year, but this is still a White House that shatters conventions on presidential behavior and is prone to teeter chaotically toward a cliff at any moment.
When anyone – Bannon or Kim Jong Un, for example – gets between Trump and his starring role in his own story, the President will react furiously and unpredictably to reclaim his narrative, keeping the world on edge in the process.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Dana Bash reported Wednesday that the President is antsy because he feels let down by his lawyers’ promises that the Russia probe would be done by now, a demonstration of how special counsel Robert Mueller darkens each day at the White House and leaves Trump furious at what he sees is an unfair attempt to delegitimize his election win.
Wednesday was a day on which every blockbuster headline was quickly superseded by another that appeared even more improbable and any sense that the White House could build on its late 2017 tax reform victory to forge a new seam of political wins was lost in the cacophony.
Late Tuesday, Trump had taunted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about the size of his nuclear arsenal, a move that prompted renewed worry among staff and allies about whether the President fully comprehends the risks he’s taking in provoking adversaries, Liptak and Bash reported.
“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” the President tweeted.
Trump has pledged more fireworks to come, with the President tweeting a promise to announce “THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR” next Monday.
’Unpatriotic’ and ‘treasonous’
Every administration is rocked by the release of the first behind-the-curtain books exposing its dirty laundry. But given its subject, it was fitting that Wolff’s new lid-lifter would spark an unusually massive conflagration.
Excerpts in the Guardian and New York magazine quoted Bannon as saying a meeting during the campaign between Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a Russian lawyer was “unpatriotic” and “treasonous.”
The quote was radioactive, since it played directly into charges by Democrats, who say the Trump Tower talks in June 2016 were evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and a Russian election meddling operation.
It also came on a day when indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort sued Mueller, challenging his authority but likely extending the shadow the Russia probe casts over the White House.
“Boy oh, boy, … it’s almost surreal, you can’t make this stuff up,” Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.
Bannon vs the Trump family
Bannon’s blast renewed Hatfield-McCoy-style bloodletting between Bannon, Trump’s son and Kushner and the President’s daughter Ivanka, that rocked the White House early last year.
Among other stunning revelations was a claim by Wolff that Trump never actually wanted to be President. He wrote that Trump found the White House “vexing and scary” and painted the picture of a bumbling and lonely chief executive and an administration paralyzed by chaos.
Bannon was also quoted in the book as saying Mueller would eventually reach Trump by probing the financial dealings of Kushner and Donald Jr. – another quote that may infuriate Trump, as he has suggested the special counsel would cross a red line by delving into his finances.
He predicted Mueller would “crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” despite earlier having said allegations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia are a “farce.”
Given Trump’s temperament, his response was sure to scorch.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” Trump said in one of the most unfiltered presidential statements of modern times.
The President claimed the ex-campaign chief executive and West Wing political chief rarely met him one-on-one and gets no credit for his election victory.
The Breitbart supremo became the latest Trump associate, following Manafort and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, both of whom have been charged by Mueller, to be airbrushed by the President out of his own personal history.
Melania Trump’s spokeswoman also blasted the book, which claimed the new first lady cried because she didn’t want her husband to win, as destined for the “bargain fiction” section.
A fight long in the making
It was perhaps inevitable that Trump and Bannon, who left the White House last summer, would eventually become estranged. Both are volcanic, ego-driven characters who practice politics as an uncivilized form of warfare.
And even though Trump often makes up with friends he falls out with, and once called Bannon a “good person,” sources told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that Trump was telling associates Wednesday he was done with him.
Another source told CNN’s Jim Acosta that once Bannon went after Trump’s family, “the gloves were off.”
Fireworks at press briefing
It was left to White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders to try to impose a rationale on a staggering sequence of irrational events during Wednesday’s press briefing.
She said Trump was “furious” and “disgusted” with Bannon, and dismissed the claims about Donald Jr. as “ridiculous”
But she walked into a trap when she said that Trump last spoke to Bannon by phone in December – raising questions about why the President would talk to someone who he believed had “lost his mind.”
And Sanders, trying to defuse Trump’s stunning tweet on Tuesday night – that he had a bigger nuclear button than Kim – said that if anyone was mentally unfit it was the North Korean leader.
That opened a new line of questioning about why the President would goad an unpredictable leader with a nuclear bomb if he was mentally unfit.
Amid the uproar, Sanders largely escaped notice for a eye-catching statement of her own, rebuking reporters, and speaking for a President who The Washington Post said has made nearly 2,000 false or misleading claims since taking office.
“People are entitled to an opinion,” Sanders said, “but they’re not entitled to their own facts.”
CNN’s Dana Bash and Gloria Borger contributed to this report.