By Dan Balz,
Anyone searching for signs of normalcy in President Trump’s administration would have come up empty this week. Instead, the president used his days to demonstrate disdain for the structures of constitutional government, a misunderstanding of the proper powers of the presidency and a continued willingness to disrupt his own operation.
Friday’s dramatic staff shake-up was only the culmination of a turbulent week in the Trump presidency, one that also included a remarkable presidential scolding of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an apparent warning to special counsel Robert Mueller, and the dramatic collapse of the Senate health-care bill that produced an exhortation by Trump for the senators to get back to work — without offering constructive ideas of his own.
These were new and ominous signs of an administration that remains adrift and of a president frustrated with almost everything and everyone around him. Together, they portray a president who appears to believe that if he can only put the most loyal people in the most critical jobs, his troubles will somehow disappear. That, too, is a misunderstanding of the situation in which he now finds himself.
Take them one at a time, starting with the White House staff changes. Out the door went Sean Spicer, the embattled press secretary who always had a tenuous relationship with the president and who was cast into one of the most difficult positions in the White House. Trump has long been unhappy about critical news coverage, and the blame often fell on Spicer’s shoulders and his press operation, to his undoing.
In as communications director came Anthony Scaramucci, the financier and hedge fund operator who has been one of the president’s most combative public defenders. Scaramucci was one of the few big-time fundraisers who went all in for Trump almost immediately after Trump clinched the GOP presidential nomination.
Scaramucci is a loyalist to be sure with the same kind of New York-inspired confidence often projected by the president. He has no formal background for the responsibilities that traditionally come with the post he now holds, but Trump will serve as the communicator-in-chief regardless.
The arrival of Scaramucci appeared to undercut White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who was closely allied with Spicer from their days at the Republican National Committee and who, like Spicer, has been in an embattled position for months. Scaramucci expressed his friendship with Priebus on Friday when addressing reporters in the White House briefing room and dismissed reports that the two were at odds.
Still, Spicer is the second key ally Priebus has lost from the White House staff he helped assemble. Earlier, he lost Katie Walsh, who was a deputy White House chief of staff. She will soon be returning to the RNC, where she previously served as Priebus’s chief of staff.
Yet Friday was only one of the shocks of the week. Earlier, in a remarkable interview with three New York Times reporters, the president attacked Sessions and Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation. Privately, according to separate reports in The Post and the Times, Trump also has been rearranging his legal team due to his personal dissatisfaction and asking about his powers to pardon those now under investigation while some advisers plot a strategy apparently designed to discredit the special counsel and members of his unit.
The president’s concerns about the Russia investigation are real and perhaps justifiable. His comments about Sessions and Mueller are only the latest data points highlighting the degree to which he is obsessed with the investigation and would like to find a way to contain it, control it, shut it down or otherwise make it disappear.
So far as president he has fired an acting attorney general (Sally Yates), fired an FBI director (James B. Comey) and belittled one of his earliest allies for doing the proper thing in recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions was forced to do that because he had compromised himself by not giving full and accurate testimony to the Senate during his confirmation hearings. Trump does not seem to understand why Sessions had to recuse himself.
He also seems to believe that had Sessions not taken that step, Mueller would not be where he is today. It’s true that by recusing himself, Sessions left Rod J. Rosenstein, the former career prosecutor who is now deputy attorney general, with oversight over the FBI’s Russia investigation, and it was Rosenstein who appointed Muller. But it was Comey’s firing, a decision in which Sessions participated, that brought Mueller into the picture.
Interestingly, Trump also now blames Rosenstein for the decision to fire Comey. That is a 180-degree reversal on an earlier 180-degree reversal by the president and his White House about the circumstances that led to that controversial and consequential decision.
Rosenstein and Sessions initially were cited as the reason Comey was dismissed, with the White House pointing to Rosenstein’s memo that outlined a bill of particulars against Comey for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and later testimony before Congress. Trump undercut that claim days after Comey was fired, saying he had already decided to get rid of the FBI director before receiving the recommendation from Sessions and Rosenstein. Now he tells the Times that Rosenstein made him do it.
All of this angst that Trump displays over the Russia probe portends an inevitable and potentially explosive collision between the presidency and the Mueller investigation, unless there is some pulling back on the part of the president, which is not in his character. Mueller, by all indications, continues to plow ahead and is digging into areas that increasingly could come close to the president or his family.
Meanwhile, after the collapse of the Republican health-care bill in the Senate, the president issued a series of conflicting statements about what he thought should happen next. He summoned GOP senators to lunch at the White House and made comments that once again showed limited patience with the legislative process and limited knowledge of details of the bill that have tied up the senators.
Throughout the Senate process, Trump has been a mostly minor player. The powers of the presidency had little impact on the various senators who have problems with the bill. To the extent he has been an influence on the legislative battle, it often has been negative — sending signals contrary to what congressional leaders wanted or needed from the White House. He conveys impatience with the inevitable ups and downs of drafting and passing complex legislation. As in other areas, he tries to use cheerleading, generalities and sometimes outright misstatements as a substitute for real leadership.
The president has now crossed the six-month mark of his presidency. He is the same now as he was on Inauguration Day, the same as he was 53 weeks ago when he accepted the Republican nomination. But the successes he imagined coming his way largely have not, even as the Russia investigation has clouded his presidency in ways he never imagined. The past few days have demonstrated his unhappiness, and that’s not likely to be eased by shuffling the personnel ranks of his administration. Bigger things are at work.
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