President Donald Trump left the White House Saturday for a last-minute trip to Camp David – escaping Washington at a moment when sources say he appears increasingly disenchanted by advice from his inner circle and out of sorts with some of the mainstays in his Cabinet.
“I am at Camp David working on many things, including Iran!” he tweeted Saturday.
But instead of bringing along the first family, the vice president or any of his senior policy aides – as he has previously when traveling to Camp David – Trump climbed aboard Marine One with only a slew of junior staffers in tow. The most senior among them was Dan Scavino, the President’s social media director who acts more as a friend than policy voice.
No members of the President’s Cabinet came along, nor did his chief of staff. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, joined the group later Saturday evening and flew back on Marine One Sunday after visiting the President’s nearby golf club. And though Trump said multiple Iran meetings were on the agenda, his national security adviser was in Jerusalem and his secretary of state was preparing for a trip to Brussels. The outgoing acting defense secretary was slated to transfer power to the incoming acting defense secretary at midnight Sunday.
Several aides said there was no clear purpose to the trip beyond a needed break from the White House. The only indication of the President’s activities was a morning tweet hailing that day’s church service – not a regular Sunday activity for Trump.
Asked for a readout of the President’s calls and activities, the White House declined to provide one. No communications staffer joined the President for the outing either.
For days, Trump’s national security team had pushed an aggressive retaliation after Iran downed a US military drone. His immigration hawks promoted a roundup of undocumented families with deportation orders. And his chief of staff, who recently coughed during the middle of a network interview, was irritating him.
But Trump was pleased with the credit he received following his decision to buck his advisers and not to strike Iran, multiple people who spoke with him said, telling a few he was getting great reviews. And he had just fielded a phone call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who urged him to stop the deportation raids.
Trump, who has prided himself on dealing with Democrats often against the advice of his aides, later announced he was delaying the immigration operation.
Pleased with going his own way, Trump literally went his own way out of town. Largely alone, the President left Washington and headed for the rustic presidential cabins in the Maryland woods.
“We’re going to have meetings and a lot of work,” he told reporters on the South Lawn Saturday, adding later: “We have a series of meetings, and, more importantly, a series of very well connected phone calls. We have a great phone system up there.”
Indeed, the President is able to rely on state-of-the-art communications systems nearly everywhere he travels, including Camp David. The White House declined to provide an accounting of calls he made this weekend.
The last-minute trip came after days of wrangling over how to respond to Iran’s downing of a US drone. Trump came to the decision not to strike on his own after expressing skepticism of the advice he was given by his own advisers while heeding the counsel of outside voices, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Over the course of the past three days, Trump has voiced public confidence in Bolton, who ardently advocated for military strikes on Iran after the downing of the drone. But in the same breath, Trump has bemoaned the Iraq War, which Bolton helped architect. He’s continued telling advisers in private conversations that Bolton is overeager to wade into military conflict.
More than Bolton’s hawkish tendencies, Trump detests the impression that he’s being controlled by his aides – particularly when it comes to foreign policy matters, which he views as the most presidential of his duties, according to people who speak with him.
“John Bolton is doing a very good job, but he takes a – generally, a tough posture,” Trump said Saturday. “But I have other people that don’t take that posture. But the only one that matters is me.”
Still, the hawks whose advice Trump discarded this week have hardly given up their fight. Speaking in Israel on Sunday, Bolton said, “Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness.”
He concluded his remarks by saying: “Stay tuned.”
But Bolton wasn’t the only adviser he disagreed with. Trump also discarded the advice coming from one of his favorite Cabinet secretaries, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had urged a hard line on Iran but later said he was open to all options once the President backed off. According to one person familiar with his thinking, Pompeo has long been wary of appearing aligned with Bolton when it comes to divisions in the West Wing.
At the same time, Trump has begun second-guessing the recommendations of the immigration hardliners who have worked to orchestrate a harsh stance toward immigrant families, which this week came under new scrutiny for heartrending depictions of children being held without basic necessities such as soap.
His acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan left the West Wing frustrated Friday after a long meeting that did not end well, and later backed out of a scheduled weekend appearance on Fox News. People familiar with the West Wing dynamic do not expect McAleenan to stay in the job much longer.
Trump has also kept his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney at a distance, speaking to him far less than he did his two previous chiefs of staff and openly expressing his disgust at behavior he deemed unseemly during a national television interview.
People close to Trump and Mulvaney said the unusual moment in the interview with ABC News – in which an irritated Trump asked to repeat an answer after Mulvaney coughed – illustrated the two men’s relationship. While Mulvaney is trusted by key members of Trump’s inner circle, the two men have little chemistry and interact less frequently than during other chiefs of staff’s tenures. After more than six months on the job, Mulvaney retains the “acting” title, which he downplays as a mere formality in interviews.
Still, Mulvaney is not among those closest to the President, a distinction increasingly reserved for those who have been with him the longest.
Scavino – who joined Trump at Camp David this weekend, posting a photo of a presidential pool table on Instagram from the Catoctin mountainside – is among a dwindling number of West Wing staffers with long relationships with the President, forged either on the campaign trail or the early days of his presidency.
There will be one fewer longtime trusted adviser when press secretary Sarah Sanders steps aside at the end of the week. She is not expected to travel with the president to Japan or South Korea, where he will be surrounded by aides whose foreign policy advice he often disregards in favor of his own.
CLARIFICATION – This story has been updated to clarify that while Mulvaney did not travel to Camp David with Trump on Marine One, he did join him later and returned to Washington with the President.