For some in the White House, Sunday seemed like the first day of the rest of Donald Trump’s presidency. By Friday, it was clear that while the cloud of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation had lifted, the pervasive disarray that marked most of Trump’s time in office was not going anywhere.
A sudden health care decision made after heated Oval Office disagreements – along with a reversal on education funding, a confusing sanctions mystery and still-unfilled Cabinet posts – revealed the chaotic practices and decision-making that have colored Trump’s term until this point are still ever-present.
Instead of clearing the decks, the end of the Mueller probe has only thrown a fractious West Wing policy and messaging operation into sharper relief. That’s left some White House aides expressing regret the investigation’s end wasn’t matched with a more effective strategy to harness the momentum into advancing Trump’s agenda. And GOP lawmakers are scratching their heads at a health care push few believe makes political sense.
That’s not exactly what Republicans and administration policy aides had in mind when it was announced last weekend the Mueller probe was over. Many hoped the investigation’s end might lead to an era of newly effective governing, a turning point for a President no longer preoccupied with an encroaching investigator.
Exuberant officials and a buoyant President spent the week cheering the initial results of Mueller’s investigation, as laid out in a letter from Attorney General William Barr. In a late-afternoon gathering last Sunday, aides convened in press secretary Sarah Sanders’ office for a champagne toast after the attorney general’s chief of staff phoned Emmet Flood, in Palm Beach with the President, to brief him on the report.
The intimate gathering of White House staffers was a sign of the relief that flooded through the West Wing after the stress of an investigation that loomed for years was lifted.
But the days that followed Sunday’s champagne-clinking in Sanders’ office came as a surprise to multiple people in the West Wing, according to interviews with half a dozen officials and Trump associates. There was no Rose Garden celebration ceremony. Trump gave no speech declaring vindication in the East Room. Instead, he made brief remarks before he climbed the steps of Air Force One and was whisked away to Washington.
Victory laps and vengeance
Even as the victory laps and vows for vengeance continued apace, there were signs of confusion in Trump’s policy objectives.
Tuesday’s surprising announcement the administration would ask a court to invalidate the entire health law known as Obamacare came before anyone in the White House had put in place a strategy for passing a replacement. It came over the objections of senior Cabinet officials, who questioned the political and legal wisdom of scrapping popular components of the measure without a clear plan to restore them during a heated Oval Office meeting on Monday.
Ultimately, Trump followed the advice not of Cabinet members most closely aligned with the issue, but of his West Wing advisers – principally the acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman – who regard the move as a way to force Congress into acting on health care after repeal and replace efforts failed in 2017.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Barr both disagreed with the decision, according to people familiar with the matter, albeit for different reasons. Barr contended the underlying legal argument being made by Republican state attorneys general was flawed and wouldn’t be upheld in the courts.
“In many ways, it’s a dangerous and I believe reckless gamble on his part. He may pull it off. He’s surprised us before, so we have to give him that,” said David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst and adviser to four presidents. “It’s very similar to when presidents win a second term. They can get very arrogant. They can over-read their power and they make mistakes.”
The President’s own legislative affairs team had not been tasked with developing a replacement plan for Obamacare, according to a White House aide, despite that office’s eventual role in shepherding any plan through Congress. Aides were told trade – not health care – was the administration’s top legislative priority heading into the summer.
But even trade seems to have faltered on the priority list. Though officials once believed Trump’s new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico would be the administration’s most significant economic policy victory since tax reform, it is now in jeopardy, too. The plan, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, is facing bipartisan hurdles on Capitol Hill and one White House official said there has been no strategy to mitigate lawmakers’ concerns. Trump has claimed the deal would pay for his border wall, but an administration official who spoke candidly in recent days said it had little chance of passing.
Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, said Wednesday on CNN that “the President will be putting plans forward this year” on a health care replacement plan. But a White House official said Thursday that Short “spoke too soon” because aides are still debating whether the administration will take the lead in crafting a proposal or ask Congress to step in. Short, who was Trump’s chief legislative liaison before stepping down last year, rejoined the administration two weeks ago.
’Waiting with bated breath’
One Republican congressman told CNN on Thursday that after Trump received a political boost from the end of the special counsel probe, he spiked the football in the end zone and the “damn ball came up and hit us in the nose.”
Other lawmakers, speaking more circumspectly on-the-record, made clear it would be a White House mess to clean up.
“All I’m going to say about that for a while is that I’m eager to see what the administration proposes,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri.
“We are waiting with bated breath,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Republican leadership.
The decision came amid a week of abrupt about-faces, all with Trump at the center, that did little to lessen the impression of an administration at odds with itself.
A three-day controversy over funding for the Special Olympics ended when Trump himself deemed the levels spelled out in his own administration budget insufficient.
“The Special Olympics will be funded,” Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn. “I have overridden my people.”
His Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had just spent hours painfully defending the cuts, only to later declare she’d never been for them in the first place. Officials at the Education Department described a sense of whiplash after a disastrous week.
That all followed a puzzling episode on North Korea sanctions that the administration has still refused to clarify. On Friday, Trump abruptly tweeted that sanctions were being reversed, a message that sparked widespread confusion at the National Security Council, the US Treasury and the State Department.
Later, administration officials insisted he was referring to a set of unannounced future sanctions and not measures slapped on shipping companies a day earlier. But even that explanation has come under scrutiny; officials told CNN there was not a package of sanctions in the pipeline, and that Trump’s directive remains a mystery to many.
Whatever he meant, the move undercut his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who a day earlier announced the set of sanctions on companies accused of facilitating trade with North Korea. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, had also highlighted the new sanctions, warning other companies they could be next.
“They are suffering greatly in North Korea. They are having a hard time in North Korea. And I just didn’t think additional sanctions at this time were necessary,” Trump explained a week later perched atop sofa at his Mar-a-Lago club.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t put them on later,” he said. “But I didn’t think additional sanctions at this time were necessary.”
In the week-ending news availability from the club, Trump tied the education decision to the sanctions move on Friday.
“It’s a little bit of a similar situation with different parties, to put it mildly,” he said, casting himself as the administration’s ultimate overseer.
But he appeared no less consumed with the now-finished Mueller probe than he was at the start. Cast in odd late-afternoon lighting, Trump responded to news Barr would provide Congress a redacted version of Mueller’s full report.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “This was a hoax. This was a witch hunt. I have absolutely nothing to hide, and I think a lot of things are coming out with respect to the other side. But I have a lot of confidence in the attorney general.”