Feb 23, 2018

In Trumpworld, every day is yesterday

Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

When it comes to President Trump — and his trickle-down moods that drive the West Wing, his party, the nation — February 2018 is no different than February 2017: he’s still stuck on the exact same internal fights about trade, the same complaints about top staff, the same obsessive gripes about media coverage.

The big picture: The episodic drama is almost impossible to cover accurately, because the views reflected in the press often depend partly on which characters in the drama are most aggrieved at the moment, and which faction they belong to. Remember that President Trump thinks of each day as a new episode in a reality show, with him as the star, writer, producer and critic.

Here's a perfect example: West Wing aides privately admit they have no earthly idea what Trump will do about anything — whether it be guns, immigration, their own careers, or the fate of Chief of Staff John Kelly.

  • Some of his staff are convinced the general is on thin ice. A source close to the president told us: “The president is displeased — with a capital D — with how the White House is functioning right now."
  • But here's a scoop: First Lady Melania Trump genuinely supports Kelly and likes him a lot. Thinks he's a pro. And Kelly has been wise to cultivate her and to make sure he includes her, and factors her schedule into events.

So will Kelly go? Sure — sometime. But the apparent imminence of his departure depends completely on which part of the cast you're consulting, and what the president's whim was in his most recent conversations.

  • Is Trump asking people's opinions about Kelly, and about possible successors — exactly the way he did in the weeks before his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, left the building? He is.
  • Trump is privately asking friends and staff about Kelly: “What’s up with this guy? He can’t get along with anybody?”
  • Trump was walking around Mar-a-Lago last weekend, informally polling people on Kelly. He’d got it in his head that nobody on his staff liked him. But he’s heard some more positive opinions about Kelly in the past few days, including from Melania. 
  • One thing is certain: The mystique that initially surrounded Kelly has worn off.
  • Trump would love nothing more than if prospects for chief like Gary Cohn, Kevin McCarthy and Mick Mulvaney would beg for the job. That would make it easier to transition — he could say “make it happen,” hire them on his terms and outsource the removal of Kelly. But they won’t beg. So it’s a standoff with no obvious end in sight.

What is true is that the West Wing got more chaotic beginning with the botched departure of Staff Secretary Robert Porter two weeks ago:

  • The episode revived West Wing leaking and backbiting that had waned since the Reince/Bannon era. That’s been very dispiriting for those on staff who want to hold things together and accomplish policy goals.
  • They look around in senior staff meetings and know that some of their colleagues are presenting one face to them in the room, and quite another behind their backs. It has devastated morale, which is currently about as low as it could go.

If a few people leave — like economic adviser Gary Cohn or national security adviser H.R. McMaster — many others might follow:

  • We have no idea who’d replace them. And from what we can tell, Kelly hasn’t done a ton of succession planning. 
  • Some aides feel the place is unraveling, that they can't trust their colleagues, that they don't know what's going on, that there's no path upward.
  • But you know what? That sentence was as true in February 2017, in the frenzied weeks after the inauguration, as it is today.
  • In Trumpw0rld, every day is yesterday.

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