White House aides prayed for rain. Inclement weather would mean President Donald Trump would have to take the motorcade to the waiting plane to Florida. That would mean he couldn’t take the helicopter from the South Lawn to Joint Base Andrews, which meant he wouldn’t walk in front of a few dozen waiting reporters who would of course ask him about Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s indictments of 13 Russians for meddling in the 2016 elections.
“If anyone knows a rain dance,” a senior White House official said in the hallway around midday Friday. She didn’t finish the sentence.
The weather didn’t cooperate with the White House’s hopes. But the President did. At least for that moment.
This is the daily reality of White House staff members at this moment. Their best hope of averting a crisis — of the legal, political, foreign policy, public relations and familial varieties — is hoping the weather report scuttles an airlift from the South Lawn. In conversations with more than a dozen White House officials and outside advisers, they describe the mood as being grim. Many inside are looking for a way out. Roughly half of them compared it to what they felt when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May. None would speak for attribution lest they be seen as publicly disloyal to the President.
The weekend began with what many considered a victory of the smallest order. The typically chatty President bypassed the reporters to board his waiting helicopter without saying a word about the Mueller indictments. Trump ignored the shouted questions and climbed into the green-and-white helo. (First Lady Melania Trump traveled separately to Andrews Air Force Base, a development her staff attributed to scheduling convenience but which inevitably raised questions about her reaction to the latest reports of the President’s infidelities, including one published hours earlier.)
The presidential silence was short-lived, however.
As soon as Trump was in the air, aboard a Marine helicopter that reaches speeds of 150 miles per hour and has anti-missile systems at the ready, the President unleashed the first of 22 tweets to come between Friday afternoon and Sunday night. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” the initial tweet read, incorrectly stating what the filings actually said — especially for him. It was merely the prelude to what would be many, many tweets that the President would send in obvious frustration with the chaos surrounding him.
Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018
White House aides braced for what they expected to become a longer-than-normal three-day weekend.
Even by Trumpian standards, the President’s weekend in Florida was a class apart. In angry, sometimes profane and occasionally misspelled outbursts, the President gave the world a glimpse into what was going through his head at a moment certain to draw scrutiny for generations. It also brought to light what it’s like to work for this Leader of the Free World who is increasingly feeling isolated.
Already, the week had been a bad one. There were rumors, then reports, that a top deputy on the Trump campaign was ready to plead guilty in Mueller’s probe. A school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead not far from the President’s private Mar a Lago club. The President scheduled a Friday evening visit to the community, although White House officials worried that it was a fraught situation for what most aides recognize is figure who doesn’t exactly exude compassion in public.
Then, on Friday, there came a one-two punch: another blockbuster report about Trump’s infidelities, and the indictments of 13 Russians and three Russian-based organizations on criminal charges that they meddled in the United States’ 2016 election. The White House, including the President, tried to keep the New Yorker report about affairs out of the spotlight, but they couldn’t do much about the indictments. According to the court filings, the Russians arranged rallies backing Trump, met with the then-candidates’ allies and advisers and spent millions on social media impressions. The Special Counsel also announced an American had pleaded guilty to helping the Russians do this.
The President immediately declared victory as if he were playing a game of “Not It” in the schoolyard. In a rare, all-caps official White House statement, there came the proclamation: “NO COLLUSION.” White House aides tried, half-heartedly, to talk him out of the statement. They did not succeed. It was, after all, the President’s prerogative to say what he wanted.
It’s easy to understand why the President was digging for any good news. So far, his 2018 has been a series of setbacks. A popular and competent senior West Wing staffer, Rob Porter, was forced from his job after news organizations revealed allegations of abuse from two ex-wives. Another, speechwriter David Sorensen, also lost his gig under similar circumstances.
The exits reveled the extent to which White House staffers were working without security clearances, including two of the President’s most valued advisers: daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner. (Changes in vetting were released on Friday to almost no widespread interest.)
The Special Counsel, no matter how many times the President says otherwise, is nowhere near ending the investigation into the 2016 elections. And reports keep emerging about purported infidelities, including payouts to adult actresses and affairs that took place early in his marriage to the First Lady, and irregular spending from his record-breaking inaugural committee, including to a friend of the First Lady who is working as an unpaid adviser in the East Wing.
Then there were the repeated political defeats. On immigration, the Senate last week roundly rejected the President’s preferred plan and then left town. Congress is showing lukewarm interest in the President’s grand plan for infrastructure. Courts are slowing down the President’s order to end protections for young people who came to the United States illegally as children. And Republicans’ odds of holding their majorities in the House and Senate are fading with each Trump misstep. House Speaker Paul Ryan, in Florida to meet with the President, didn’t come to speak with reporters after the session.
It’s little wonder the President took out his frustrations, one tweet at a time in the only venue available.
The President is increasingly angered with his personal and political situations and blames those around him: White House chief of staff John Kelly for the Porter drama; the FBI, even though law enforcement officials have been sharing with the White House lawyers their concerns about the hires; leaders in Congress for not being yes-men; the Attorney General for letting the special counsel exist in the first place; his lawyers for not being more careful with hush money. Ivanka Trump and Kushner have, according to reports, started shopping for a replacement for Kelly — a suggestion Vice President Mike Pence was sent out to deny last week.
Trump’s always formidable temper has been shorter-fused than usual, his willingness to listen less than normal. Some White House officials have stopped speaking up in meetings, knowing it won’t make any difference because Trump is counting on a shrinking circle of those he trusts. Nothing anyone on the National Security Council staff, in the counsel’s office or from across government can outweigh what the President hears from conservatives on cable television or from his social media maven and communications adviser.
In fact, White House lawyers tried to mute the President’s reaction to the Mueller indictments. Repeatedly, they tried to tell him that the investigation was not over, and that the risks remained for him or for his team. The President didn’t want to hear it and turned to his favorite informal advisers: the staff of Fox News, which declared Trump exonerated. A little more than a year into this presidency, many White House staffers have learned not to try to fight it.
En route to Florida and then once holed up at his club, the President spent hours watching the coverage of himself. Some of the commentary suggested, perhaps wrongly, that Trump won only because Russians put their thumbs on the scales. With sons Donald Jr. and Eric sitting with him, the President turned angry. He roared about defeated rival Hillary Clinton, his perceived biases in the media, the criticism from the teenaged survivors of the school shooting, and why his tax cuts weren’t getting more attention. (At the White House, officials lamented over the weekend that Trump was crushing those good economic headlines with his outbursts. Polls showed the tax cuts’ popularity rising after being underwater upon passage. Shortly after landing back at the White House, he tweeted about an economy “looking very good, in my opinion, even better than anticipated.”)
The U.S. economy is looking very good, in my opinion, even better than anticipated. Companies are pouring back into our country, reversing the long term trend of leaving. The unemployment numbers are looking great, and Regulations & Taxes have been massively Cut! JOBS, JOBS, JOBS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2018
Trying to mitigate that situation only made things worse. Knowing the President’s fondness for Fox, the White House booked spokesmen to try to direct Trump toward a little less fanciful readings of the indictments.
They didn’t entirely succeed.
On Friday night, spokesman Raj Shah told Tucker Carlson that the indictments said the Russians were trying to “sow confusion” in America without favoring one candidate over another. (The indictment specifically says the Russians sought to hurt Clinton and to promote Trump.)
Trump used a similar line in a tweet Sunday morning.
If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
Then, on Saturday, the White House sent Hogan Gidley on “Fox and Friends,” where he turned on Democrats and the reporters covering this story. “There are two groups that have created chaos more than the Russians, and that’s the Democrats and the mainstream media,” Gidley said in a moment that left many Republicans scratching their heads. (“The more I think about a White House official — not a Fox commentator or an RNC hack — saying this, the more appalled I am. He should be fired,” responded former Dan Quayle chief of Staff Bill Kristol. Said former CIA chief Michael Hayden: “Good God almighty.”)
Quickly, Russian-backed propaganda arms raced to amplify Gidley’s comments. RT blanketed its space with Gidley’s rhetoric. (“You secured a speaking gig at the next RT gala,” snarked former Obama-era National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.) A White House besieged by questions of collusion with Russia seemed to dovetail perfectly with Russian spin.
The problems were only getting started. The President changed his Twitter picture to one of him flashing a smile and thumbs-up — taken while the President was visiting a hospital where victims of the school shooting were recovering. Other social media accounts featured a grinning President standing next to a young woman in a hospital bed and her medical equipment.
White House advisers convinced Trump to shelve his golf plans for Saturday as teenagers fought for their lives a short drive away. The optics were bad from the night before, and he’d make things worse by putting on Saturday. Trump relented, reluctantly, out of respect. But that may have hurt the White House even more. The extra day in the pressure cooker made things worse.
The President was done of listening. He didn’t want to hear that some on his team, including son Donald Trump Jr., had made amateur mistakes that only fed the frenzy. No, the President seemed to say, he was doing this his way. He went mingling with guests at his private club, according to images revelers shared on social media. He started considering his next series of tweets.
In Washington, aides exchanged nervous phone calls about what was unfolding in Florida. As is typical, only a handful of aides made the trip with the President, and none was eager to engage him about his predicament. This was exactly the worst possible outcome facing the Administration: a President who feels boxed in, looking for vindication via re-tweets, without anyone standing between him and the send button. But being there was unlikely to change the outcomes. If anything, things could get worse if the President felt his aides were trying to manage him.
This is the risk of a President who views the world through a lens of zero-sum: anything that helps him hurts his foes, and anything that benefits his enemies costs him. The notion of mutual benefit is foreign to him, one GOP insider lamented. The instinct to fight that helped him win the White House now was consuming all of his energies.
Back in his suite of rooms at Mar a Lago, the President called his outside friends and advisers for their mood-boosting chats. When he got bored with the calls, he wandered down to the public areas of the club and surveyed friendly members — who pay $200,000 a year — their thoughts on guns and the coverage of Mueller and the shooting nearby. Among them was Wayne Allen Root, a conservative commentator who has fed unfounded theories that the Clintons or the Democratic National Committee assassinated a former DNC aide, and Geraldo Rivera.
These were the exact types of conversations that Kelly tried to restrict at the White House, but at Mar a Lago, there was no stopping the onslaught of advice meant to make the President feel better at the expense of administration officials’ blood pressure. No Cabinet-level review of gun regulations can match what is said over iced tea. After all, those sipping the tea were wealthy and thus successful, while the dolts reading think tank reports were just bureaucrats, one Administration official groused.
By the time the weekend had come to its end, the list of those attacked by the President was long. He blamed the FBI and the Mueller investigation for missing signs about the Parkland shooter. He roasted the Democrats for not doing more to curb gun violence and protect immigrants. He attacked his own national security adviser, who was speaking at a major conference in Germany, for not doing more to assert that there was no Russian collusion and that Trump won on his own. He denied his own previous words on Russia and called the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee a “monster.” He even went after Oprah Winfrey for a segment she anchored for CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”
Trump turned to his base with renewed catnip about the United States-led deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, Hillary Clinton and her paid speeches, Clinton backers’ lobbying firm and a Uranium deal — that she was not part of. It always comes back to “Crooked Hillary” in Trump’s lexicon.
The rare praise came for a pollster who used to work for him, a New York Post opinion writer who declared Trump the victor over Mueller, and Ken Starr, a Clinton-era prosecutor who had done a hit on Fox News. As always, Fox outshone the entire machinery of the federal government.
Then, by Monday morning, Trump seemed to have excised the anger. As President’s Day began, Trump seemed to hit reset, only eight hours after calling the world’s first self-made African-American female billionaire a desperate has-been. “Have a great, but very reflective, President’s Day!” he tweeted.
When his motorcade arrived at a Trump golf course, where journalists are not allowed, White House aides let out a cautious sigh. Maybe, just maybe, they could get the President through 18 holes and back to Washington without another cavalcade of insults and missteps. If only, one mused, they could take away his remote control so no one on Fox could rile him up again, or maybe Twitter could crash. Either might buy aides a breath to reset their agenda for the week.
Six hours later, Trump was apparently done with his round and back on Twitter. “Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?” the President tweeted.
Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2018
That’s actually the question many in his own party are now asking of Trump. After all, Trump found time to attack Oprah while staying silent on Putin, and intelligence officials last week told Congress Russia is looking at the 2018 elections for a sequel. As Trump heads back to Washington, the capital awaits his answer, even if it is more silence.