Trump unleashes himself from would-be handlers, lashing out mornings, nights and weekends
When President Trump agreed last month with Democrats to strike a deal granting legal status to so-called Dreamers brought to this country illegally as children, his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, was all for it. Another Trump confidant disagreed: Fox host Sean Hannity made clear in a phone call and on his show that Trump must draw a harder line on broader immigration enforcement as his price.
Trump sided with Hannity, according to a person close to the White House. The result was a list of demands unveiled Sunday night — conditions seemingly guaranteed to thwart a bipartisan deal.
Kelly, the retired Marine general who is Trump’s second chief of staff, has sought to tighten the flow of information and visitors to the president, to bring order to an unruly White House and to the way that Trump makes his decisions. But he is often thwarted by one man: Trump.
The president by many accounts has bristled at the restrictions and continues — usually alone on mornings, nights and weekends — to act on his own gut sense, using his own lines to contact allies outside the White House and, using Twitter, to reach those millions of supporters he calls “my people.”
After a wild weekend of attacks by Twitter and off-the-cuff comments, including against a senior Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Trump kept it up on Tuesday. He tweeted a schoolyard taunt about Corker’s height — “Liddle’ Bob Corker — and said the senator “was made to sound like a fool” in a New York Times interview in which Corker warned that Trump could provoke World War III.
Trump challenged his own secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to an IQ test, even as he dismissed as fake news last week’s reports that Tillerson had called him a moron. ”And I can tell you who is going to win,” Trump added, according to a Forbes interview published Tuesday.
Allies see signs that Trump is frustrated with Kelly and increasingly unwilling to be managed, even just a little. The person close to the White House said the two men had engaged in “shouting matches” in recent days. (Hannity declined to comment about his role in advising the president on immigration policy.)
“The president has started to call people more on the weekends, from the cellphone, which he didn’t used to do,” the person said, noting that Trump often calls Hannity after the Fox News host’s nightly show. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve relations with Trump.
“Every time it says on MSNBC or CNN, which you know he watches, ‘This is the adult.… Thank God they stopped him,’ it all gets to him.”
Lindsay Walters, the deputy White House press secretary, disputed the account of Hannity’s role in advising Trump. She added in an email, “The President has always had a robust list of outside advisers in business and politics because he is open minded and ultimately wants to do the right thing for the country.”
At Tuesday’s daily news briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Corker, the widely respected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of distorting the facts. She added that Trump “has been an incredibly strong leader on foreign policy and national security.”
Those who know and have worked with Trump say he is not averse to taking advice from Kelly or anyone else. But challenges to his authority can only go so far when people offer their critiques.
“My experience is he welcomes it. He just doesn’t like to be publicly criticized and he certainly doesn’t like to be personally criticized,” said Christopher Ruddy, a friend who publishes Newsmax, a conservative website.
Corker’s criticisms, including his suggestion last week that Kelly, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis are the “people that help separate our country from chaos,” were particularly galling to the president — the type of slight “that makes Trump go ballistic,” Ruddy said.
Those are, however, the type of comments Trump sees over and over on cable news outside business hours, when he has nothing official on his schedule to prevent him from calling friends or venting on Twitter. Associates say it is essential to reduce such down time.
“You’ve got to give him suggestions because you’ve got to fill the vacuum,” said Barry Bennett, a former campaign advisor.
Kelly has sought to limit Trump’s free time and to prevent outsiders from bringing him unfiltered and sometimes inaccurate information that can rile him up.
Advisors more aligned with the Republican establishment have prevailed on Trump to avoid some decisions that could have rattled foreign allies. For example, according to a second person close to the White House, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain those ties, early on Trump was talked out of withdrawing from the six-party Iran nuclear deal, an issue he will revisit this week, and dissuaded from moving the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a provocative act that would put Mideast peace talks at risk.
More often, though, Kelly and others on his side are frustrated. One official said the chief of staff was upset when Trump referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” in a speech to the United Nations, risking heightened tensions with an unpredictable nuclear foe.
The president, meanwhile, is said to be discomfited not only by the attempts to control him, but by the recent departure of his longtime lieutenant, Keith Schiller, who had been White House director of operations and, perhaps most important, a key interpreter and soother of Trump’s feelings.
While past administrations have wrestled with matters of presidential temperament, never has a president been so willing — and able, thanks to social media — to share what seems to be his every internal thought and mood.
“I can’t think of a president who behaves like he does; there’s really no immediate comparison,” said John A. Farrell, author of the book “Richard Nixon: The Life,” about the president whom Trump has increasingly been compared with,
Nixon’s first year in office was nothing like Trump’s, Farrell said, but rather a smooth period of accomplishments. Only later, under the intense pressure of domestic protests against the Vietnam War, did Nixon fall deeply into the sort of us-against-them mentality that Trump exhibited from the very beginning of his campaign.
Even as Nixon’s drinking problem worsened, as records have since revealed, his inner thoughts remained secret until tapes of his private conversations were released just before his resignation in 1974, and in the years since. He maintained a controlled public persona.
Not so Trump.
“Trump is a guy whose inner thoughts are on his sleeve, for better or worse,” said Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and a political scientist at the City University of New York.
“That’s the model Donald Trump has had his whole life: If someone blusters at you you’ve got to be able to stand up to them,” Renshon said, adding, “He had a whole adulthood of doing what he thought best and saying what he thought — that’s what you see here.”
The question, as America wakes most mornings to a new flurry of tweets, is whether the turmoil so increasingly on public display is simply venting by a frustrated president or evidence of something more serious.
“It all could be Trump being Trump,” said Farrell. “Or it could be there’s a problem in the White House.”
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