White House aides lean on delays and distraction to manage Trump
As White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus mused to associates that telling President Donald Trump no was usually not an effective strategy. Telling him “next week” was often the better idea.
Trump would impulsively want to fire someone like Attorney General Jeff Sessions; create a new, wide–ranging policy with far–flung implications, like increasing tariffs on Chinese steel imports; or end a decades–old deal like the North American Free Trade Agreement. Enraged with a TV segment or frustrated after a meandering meeting, the president would order it done immediately.
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Delaying the decision would give Priebus and others a chance to change his mind or bring in advisers to speak with Trump — and in some cases, to ensure Trump would drop the idea altogether and move on.
Publicly, the White House has pushed back against Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s suggestion that Trump must be managed like a toddler — he called the White House an “adult day care center” on Twitter on Sunday. In a separate New York Times interview, Corker said aides are forced to spend their days trying to keep the president from going off the rails.
But interviews with 10 current and former administration officials, advisers, longtime business associates and others close to Trump describe a process in which they try to install guardrails for a president who goes on gut feeling — and many days are spent managing the president, just as Corker said.
“You either had to just convince him something better was his idea or ignore what he said to do and hoped he forgot about it the next day,” said Barbara Res, a former executive in the Trump Organization.
Trump, several advisers and aides said, sometimes comes into the Oval Office worked into a lather from talking to friends or watching TV coverage in the morning. Sometimes, a side conversation with an aide like Stephen Miller on immigration or a TV host like Sean Hannity would set him off.
Then, staffers would step in to avert a rash decision by calming him down. At times, new information would be shared, like charts on how farmers might feel about ending NAFTA — or how his base might react negatively to an idea, like the verbal deal he struck with Democrats on immigration last month.
In the first stretches of the administration, aides would ask outside figures to intervene with Trump.
Among those sometimes engaged: business figures Stephen Schwarzman, Tom Barrack and Richard LeFrak and politicians he respects, like Corker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others. One outside adviser said White House aides had called him on at least five occasions to intervene.
On occasion, at least some of those advisers have plotted about their conversations with Trump to coordinate messages and share notes.
Corker, for example, has been called by White House aides several times to speak with Trump about foreign policy, from Iran to Syria to North Korea to his Afghanistan strategy; sometimes, he’d check in with senior officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis before talking to the president. One senior administration official said Corker had even been put on speakerphone in the Oval Office, where aides sat gathered in chairs.
Corker’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sometimes, advisers and people who know Trump well deliberately engage the media. Corker has told others on Capitol Hill that Trump doesn’t listen unless he hears the criticism on TV or reads it in the paper.
Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said on television in June that he thought Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller on TV, creating a firestorm — a calculated attempt to pre-empt what he feared could be a politically fatal move by the president.
“Donald Trump has spent his entire life a free agent; he has always done things his way,” Ruddy said in an interview on Monday. “This has been a huge adjustment process, but I think he is making adjustments.”
He added: “What the senator said was inappropriate. He has some legitimate concerns about the president’s use of Twitter, but you can make that point without saying the president is a child.”
Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, went on television to say that the comments only furthered an unfair narrative that Trump wasn’t a fairly elected president and skilled in the office, and that Trump is spoken about “in ways no president should be spoken about.”
Res said Trump often had “very good instincts” about people and business decisions. White House officials say Trump asks sharp questions and has a better political sense on many occasions than they do. Unlike some politicians, he welcomes many and disparate opinions. And he sometimes listens to others, particularly if they make a good case bolstered by numbers.
“But he reacts to everything, he is always reacting,” Res said, an observation mirrored by many White House aides, who say they feel every day begins at a deficit.
The Priebus strategy was largely to delay. Instead of ousting Sessions, as Trump wanted, Priebus, Bannon and others had outside advisers close to Trump call him and explain the ramifications. They tried to remind him what a dedicated campaign supporter Sessions had been — and that his firing could set off unpredictable dominoes.
Decisions on Chinese steel tariffs, NAFTA and other issues were simply delayed past major events, like Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort or the G-7 or G-20 conferences. ”You have to just move the conversation along to something else,” one White House official said.
Trump would sometimes lash out at Priebus for not doing what he wanted immediately, though, several officials said. Priebus declined to comment.
There were limits to that strategy — or any tactic deployed to manage Trump.
Some aides tried to delay the Paris climate accord decision, hoping Trump could be talked out of pulling out, to no avail.
Trump wanted to fire FBI Director James Comey for at least a week before it happened. Aides, including Priebus, former chief strategist Steve Bannon and White House chief counsel Don McGahn continually told him what a perilous threat it could be to his presidency. Outside advisers called Trump and warned him against it.
Eventually, Trump went away to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the weekend and decided to fire Comey anyway.
New chief of staff John Kelly has tried to limit bad decisions by blocking information from the president’s desk, keeping certain advisers out of his ear and limiting access to the Oval Office. Kelly has told others he can’t control the president — but he can control much of what gets to the president. Staff say Trump is already chafing at the procedures he has put in place.
Trump has, on several occasions, walked down to the Oval Office in the morning and told aides he knew they didn’t like the tweets he’d sent earlier.
“They’re not presidential, I know,” he said, with a mocking tone on the word “presidential,” according to one person familiar with his comments.
Then, the next day, he’d wake up and send more tweets they didn’t like.
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