President Donald Trump publicly derided reports Tuesday that chaos is engulfing the West Wing, but in private, the man who thrives on discord seems to be sowing some of it himself.
The President has emboldened Anthony Scaramucci, the boisterous former communications director who was fired after just 10 days, to continue attacking White House chief of staff John Kelly during his cable news appearances, a source familiar with the situation told CNN.
In multiple television segments, Scaramucci has faulted Kelly for the “terrible morale” in the West Wing, at times referring to him as “General Jackass” and suggesting he apologize for his handling of the Rob Porter resignation. According to this source, the President is aware of Scaramucci’s criticisms and has not discouraged him from making them. Sources familiar with his thinking say Scaramucci is frustrated with Kelly because he has limited the former communications director’s White House access.
“I like conflict. I like having two people with two points of view,” Trump said Tuesday when asked about internal strife during a news conference. “I like watching it, I like seeing it.”
The outside attacks come amid days of discord inside the White House, underscored Tuesday evening by the departure of Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser. The President heralded Cohn as “a rare talent” in a statement announcing his departure, but his ouster comes in the midst of a fractious debate inside the White House over imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Trump opted to go with tariffs over opposition from Cohn.
The departure follows a grueling week inside the West Wing where Trump fumed at coverage of his White House that focused on his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner’s stuggle to earn a full security clearance and the fact that Hope Hicks, his longtime communications adviser and close confidante, is leaving the White House.
According to conversations with a dozen Trump advisers inside and outside the White House, little has happened to change the feeling of malaise that has settled into the West Wing. Morale, many of these advisers said, remains low, with few signs of turning around.
The White House did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
Trump insisted on Tuesday that Chis White House has “great energy” and was not in a state of chaos.
“The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision.”
At the same time, though, Trump also signaled there may be more resignations to come.
“I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection),” he said. “There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”
But the sentiment the President expressed on Twitter differs from how his own staff describes the state of the West Wing. According to several sources inside and outside of the White House, the atmosphere is more disruptive than it has been in months and the morale is so low it mirrors the early days of the administration.
Beyond Cohn, in the last week, Hicks, one of his longest-serving aides, announced she was also leaving. Trump, meanwhile, had to deny reports that national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster was on his way out.
Trump even joked about future departures in his upbeat and self-deprecating remarks on Saturday at the Gridiron Dinner, a tony event that brings journalists and politicians together for bipartisan ribbing.
“So many people have been leaving the White House,” Trump said. “It’s actually been really exciting and invigorating because you want new thought. So, I like turnover. I like chaos. It really is good. Now the question everyone keeps asking is, ‘Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?’ “
Trump’s admission on Tuesday that he is still looking to ouster administration officials has caused mild heartburn inside the White House, according to sources inside the West Wing, who speculate that the constant talk of ousters contributes to the overriding feel of unease that permeates the building.
Trump, during a bilateral news conference with the prime minister of Sweden, admitted that he enjoys watching his aides clash. Standing before a group of people that did not include Cohn, who was not present, Trump cast his White House as a place where his advisers fight about ideas and then he decides who to back.
“I certainly have that,” Trump said of a White House full of conflict. “And then I make a decision. But I like watching it.”
The President later claimed that there is a long list of people eager to step into the administration after people leave, a claim that is not backed up by the sizable group of Republican operatives who have declined to join the White House staff.
One recent flashpoint in that chaos was evidenced by the President’s decision to announce sizable tariffs on steel and aluminum at the end of a meeting with executives at the White House. The announcement came before Trump’s lawyers had finished writing the new tariffs, setting off days of backroom jockeying between the pro-tariff and anti-tariff factions of the White House.
It also rankled Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom have come out against the decision as bad for business and American consumers.
At the center of that debate is Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, an outspoken proponent of tariffs, and Cohn, an adamant free trade supporter.
Navarro, who has told Trump that the impacts of the tariffs would be minimal, currently has the upper hand with the President and has convinced him that making good on his 2016 campaign promises on trade would win his praise from the people who helped vault him to the White House.
Trump’s decision left Cohn marginalized, sources told CNN. The economic adviser tried to turn the tables on Navarro by organizing meetings and calls between Trump and business leaders who oppose the new trade actions. Cohn had hoped Trump would meet with representatives from the auto and bottling industries to fully explain the effect of steel and aluminum tariffs, according to a person familiar with the plan.
Trump was surprised to learn that Cohn was working to arrange a meeting with representatives from the auto and bottling industries in an effort to demonstrate the effects the steel and aluminum tariffs would have, a person familiar with the situation said.
The President has said he’s not interested in such a meeting and has grown angry at what he sees as attempts to deter him from the plan.
Even before he departed it was clear his standing in the White House was waning.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said Tuesday that Cohn, while right, doesn’t seem to have much sway on Trump.
“It doesn’t seem as if his opinions are holding sway,” Flake said. “This is one that the President just keeps coming back to.”
And Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing and a former member of Trump’s manufacturing council, said Tuesday that Cohn clearly tried to be the last person in Trump’s ear before he makes a decision on tariffs.
The problem with that strategy, Paul said, is that Trump is scheduled to headline a campaign rally for Rick Saccone, the Republican House candidate running to represent the Pittsburgh suburbs, on Saturday. Saccone, who running in a special election against Democrat Conor Lamb, has backed Trump’s decision to impose steel tariffs.
“The last meeting he is going to have is the with voters in Western Pennsylvania,” Paul said. “And I know how they feel about this issue.”
CNN’s Lauren Fox and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.