Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump stunned his staff back on March 29 when he said spontaneously during an infrastructure event in Ohio: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”  That was big (but short-lived) news — within five days, Trump had backed off any insistence on an immediate withdrawal.

What we're hearing: It turns out there’s an incredible backstory to that moment that took place a few hundred miles away in the White House.

We’re told by someone who heard the remarks directly that just before Trump took the podium at 2 p.m. at a union training site in Richfield, Ohio, there was this fascinating exchange back in the West Wing: 

  • White House chief of staff John Kelly was watching walk-up TV coverage in the outer office of his suite.
  • Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin sidled across the hall and stood in the doorway.
  • Indicating the president, Kelly said: “He swore to me that he wouldn’t announce anything on Syria.”
  • Hagin replied: “Well, we’ve heard promises like that before. We really won’t know till he’s done talking.”
  • Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, said: “I think he knows he can’t fuck us on this.”
  • Hagin cocked his head — he'd heard that before. 

Why it matters: The exchange (which Kelly and Hagin denied through a White House aide, but which was recounted for us by an impeccable source) illustrates the challenges for the staff of a president who relishes going off-script.

One source close to the White House explains the dynamic:

  • "The people who thrive in Trumpworld are the ones who commit to following his lead, even if that means turning on a dime."
  • "All any adviser can do is give their recommendation, then let the boss call the play."
  • "Trump recoils from overly structured decision-making on someone else's timeline. He relies heavily on his gut and sometimes makes snap decisions in the moment, when everything suddenly clicks for him. That can even take place while he's giving remarks and feeling the energy of the crowd."
  • "It's part of the reason he's so dialed into [his base's] mood, ... when everyone else seems to miss it until after the fact."

The White House aide, denying such a conversation, said Trump's remarks that day were consistent with his previous statements about defeating ISIS — and that his non-traditional approach is part of his strength.

Go deeper

4 hours ago - Podcasts

Facebook boycott organizers share details on their Zuckerberg meeting

Facebook is in the midst of the largest ad boycott in its history, with nearly 1,000 brands having stopped paid advertising in July because they feel Facebook hasn't done enough to remove hate speech from its namesake app and Instagram.

Axios Re:Cap spoke with the boycott's four main organizers, who met on Tuesday with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives, to learn why they organized the boycott, what they took from the meeting, and what comes next.

Boycott organizers slam Facebook following tense virtual meeting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Civil rights leaders blasted Facebook's top executives shortly after speaking with them on Tuesday, saying that the tech giant's leaders "failed to meet the moment" and were "more interested in having a dialogue than producing outcomes."

Why it matters: The likely fallout from the meeting is that the growing boycott of Facebook's advertising platform, which has reached nearly 1000 companies in less than a month, will extend longer than previously anticipated, deepening Facebook's public relations nightmare.

Steve Scalise PAC invites donors to fundraiser at Disney World

Photo: Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s PAC is inviting lobbyists to attend a four-day “Summer Meeting” at Disney World's Polynesian Village in Florida, all but daring donors to swallow their concern about coronavirus and contribute $10,000 to his leadership PAC.

Why it matters: Scalise appears to be the first House lawmakers to host an in-person destination fundraiser since the severity of pandemic became clear. The invite for the “Summer Meeting” for the Scalise Leadership Fund, obtained by Axios, makes no mention of COVID-19.