Trump’s team tries to re­gain its foot­ing

White House staff aims for an or­derly front as week ends in a scram­ble

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND ASH­LEY PARKER

Soon af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump lifted off from the South Lawn of the White House for a long week­end in Florida, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pol­icy teams con­vened for a staff mixer.

The Fri­day gath­er­ing in the Eisen­hower Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice Build­ing was both so­cial and prac­ti­cal: While the se­nior staff had been work­ing closely to­gether, many oth­ers still did not know each other’s names, port­fo­lios or phone ex­ten­sions at a time when com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­downs threat­ened to ham­per Trump’s young pres­i­dency.

But the brief break soon gave way to an­other cri­sis when on Fri­day evening a fed­eral judge tem­po­rar­ily halted Trump’s weekold ban pre­vent­ing refugee en­tries for 120 days and in­di­vid­u­als from seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries from en­ter­ing the United States for 90 days.

The judge’s rul­ing sent the ad­min­is­tra­tion scram­bling yet again on an is­sue that has be­dev­iled of­fi­cials, sowed con­fu­sion at air­ports world­wide and pushed tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers to the streets. It came at the end of a week when Trump, up­set that early stum­bles had un­der­mined his poli­cies and im­age as a can-do ex­ec­u­tive, had taken steps to try to present a new sense of com­pe­tence.

At a se­nior staff meet­ing last

Mon­day, ac­cord­ing to one ad­viser in at­ten­dance, the pres­i­dent de­liv­ered an un­mis­tak­able de­cree: “Reince [Priebus] is in charge. He’s the chief of staff. Ev­ery­thing has to go through him.”

That di­rec­tive in­cluded set­ting clearer bound­aries among the var­i­ous depart­ments and as­sertively tamp­ing down re­ports of staff in­fight­ing, which aides said per­son­ally an­gered the pres­i­dent.

Over the rest of the week, Priebus sought to as­sert con­trol over the pol­icy process and in­ter­a­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tions, slowed the as­sem­bly line of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to avoid er­rors and tried to or­ga­nize the daily rhythms in the White House.

“This is the chief of staff say­ing, ‘Look, we have a very qual­i­fied team here, and we want to make sure that every­one has time and op­por­tu­nity to make com­ments on these poli­cies,’ ” said Katie Walsh, a deputy chief of staff.

The big thinker re­mains chief White House strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non, who has used chaos as a tool for im­ple­ment­ing trans­for­ma­tive pol­icy but who aides said is now try­ing to adapt to work­ing within Priebus’s struc­ture.

“Some of us are a lit­tle more ag­gres­sive than oth­ers, and oth­ers have a more calm­ing in­flu­ence, and it’s what makes a per­fect part­ner­ship,” Ban­non said. “There’s no day­light be­tween us, and there’s re­ally no day­light with the pres­i­dent.”

One se­nior White House of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to be can­did, said the is­sue isn’t so much about ar­eas of re­spon­si­bil­ity but about whether peo­ple can stay within them.

“These clearly marked lines have al­ways been in place,” the of­fi­cial said. “The ques­tion is: Are peo­ple col­or­ing out­side the lines? Do peo­ple do an end run?”

Ban­non’s ris­ing pro­file — cap­tured on this week’s cover of Time mag­a­zine, which la­beled him “The Great Ma­nip­u­la­tor” — caught the at­ten­tion of se­nior of­fi­cials, as well as Trump, who takes pride in his own cover ap­pear­ances and in­quired about Ban­non’s Time de­but with aides.

News re­ports have depicted Trump’s West Wing as two war­ring fac­tions, pit­ting Ban­non and se­nior pol­icy ad­viser Stephen Miller against Priebus and his co­hort of deputies. But top of­fi­cials re­jected that por­trayal, say­ing they spend much of their time work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tively — whether in Priebus’s spa­cious cor­ner of­fice, where he keeps a fire crack­ling, or in the Oval Of­fice with the pres­i­dent.

“We ba­si­cally live to­gether, and we’re on the same page with ev­ery­thing,” Priebus said, re­fer­ring to Ban­non, Walsh and Miller. “The four of us have be­come su­per tight. I think we’ve fig­ured out where a lot of our strengths are at.”

Miller sim­i­larly de­scribed his re­la­tion­ship with Priebus as “one of my clos­est in the whole ad­min­is­tra­tion — hands down.” He added, “The idea that he and I are in a sep­a­rate ‘wing’ is ut­terly false, to­tally lu­di­crous and spec­tac­u­larly, phe­nom­e­nally ig­no­rant.”

Coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way has been tak­ing on a big-pic­ture, be­hind-the-scenes role shap­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy. She said she is in pol­icy plan­ning meet­ings, fo­cus­ing on ev­ery­thing from the vi­su­als of the pres­i­dent’s events to the mes­sag­ing and plan­ning for his ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions, with an eye to­ward what she calls “RPI: real peo­ple im­pact.”

Trump’s team com­plains that the me­dia fo­cus too much on the mis­takes of a new White House that hasn’t been given a chance to set­tle in. (Only two aides, deputy chief of staff Joe Ha­gin and ad­vance di­rec­tor Ge­orge Gigi­cos, have held se­nior jobs in pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions.) They ar­gue that out­side crit­ics are un­fairly ridi­cul­ing Trump and his team for be­ing in over their heads, just as they did dur­ing the cam­paign — even though the early prob­lems have re­sulted from their own ac­tions.

“The real story of the first cou­ple weeks is the un­prece­dented suc­cess of the ad­min­is­tra­tion in chang­ing gov­ern­ment and de­liv­er­ing on the pres­i­dent’s core cam­paign prom­ises — one af­ter an­other af­ter an­other,” Miller said.

There have been suc­cesses. Last week’s roll­out of Neil Gor­such’s Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion and of Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der scal­ing back fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tions, for in­stance, were both mis­take-free — in part be­cause White House aides took pains to brief both Capi­tol Hill staff and jour­nal­ists about their plans.

Nev­er­the­less, the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­mains dogged by slip-ups, half-truths and bomb­shells, some of them set off by the pres­i­dent him­self.

Re­spond­ing to the Wash­ing­ton state judge’s or­der on the en­try ban, the White House is­sued a state­ment late Fri­day say­ing the De­part­ment of Jus­tice planned to file an emer­gency stay against the “out­ra­geous or­der,” only to send out an up­dated state­ment 12 min­utes later delet­ing the word “out­ra­geous.”

The cor­rec­tion, which was aimed at strik­ing a more mod­er­ate tone, was un­done Satur­day morn­ing when the pres­i­dent went on Twit­ter. From his Mar-a-Lago es­tate in Palm Beach, Trump pecked out a trio of fiery bul­letins dis­miss­ing the “ridicu­lous” rul­ing of a man he ma­ligned as a “so­called judge” and warn­ing that “if cer­tain peo­ple are al­lowed in it’s death & de­struc­tion!”

Trump’s mis­sives frus­trated some of his aides and un­der­scored the ten­sion in­side the West Wing be­tween a staff striv­ing to ap­pear more pro­fes­sional and a pres­i­dent ac­cus­tomed to in­dis­crim­i­nate com­men­tary.

In ad­di­tion, the White House’s state­ment mark­ing the Holo­caust that did not men­tion Jews, break­ing with the bi­par­ti­san prac­tice of pres­i­dents, sparked con­tro­versy. And Trump’s con­tentious phone call with Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull, the de­tails of which were first re­ported by The Wash­ing­ton Post, ig­nited a diplo­matic flare-up with one of Amer­ica’s most stead­fast al­lies.

“If you stum­ble and don’t look like you know what you’re do­ing, then peo­ple who voted for Trump who thought he was a com­pe­tent busi­ness leader, that gets di­min­ished,” said Ed Rollins, a Repub­li­can strate­gist who ran a proTrump su­per PAC. “That’s the risk at this point.”

Trump him­self has been di­rect­ing the minu­tiae of his White House, sug­gest­ing that na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn de­liver an in-per­son state­ment at Wed­nes­day’s news brief­ing put­ting Iran “on no­tice” for its bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests. Trump watched Flynn on tele­vi­sion and was pleased, one aide said, per­son­ally con­grat­u­lat­ing him later.

Many in­ter­nal de­bates split more over ide­o­log­i­cal lines than per­sonal ones, with coali­tions shift­ing de­pend­ing on the is­sue. Trump ran as a prag­matic busi­ness­man rather than a tra­di­tional Repub­li­can and has stocked his White House ac­cord­ingly, with the pres­i­dent con­sult­ing both so­cial con­ser­va­tives, such as Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, and a con­tin­gent of ad­vis­ers who hail from the more lib­eral en­vi­rons of Man­hat­tan.

In some ways, the dom­i­nant ethos of what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes to be is one of effi- ciency and ac­com­plish­ment, not ide­ol­ogy. Jared Kush­ner, a se­nior White House ad­viser and the pres­i­dent’s son-in-law, is work­ing to build an in-house con­sult­ing firm, cur­rently called the Strate­gic De­vel­op­ment Group, which would likely be led by busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives Chris Lid­dell and Reed Cordish and reimag­ine the work­ings of the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy.

Trump’s de­ci­sion not to move for­ward with an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that would have un­done many of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pro­tec­tions for les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der in­di­vid­u­als came only af­ter he was lob­bied by Trump’s daugh­ter Ivanka and her hus­band, Kush­ner, and was first re­ported by Politico.

Trump’s adult sons are both avid hunters and have of­fered a more mod­er­at­ing voice on pro­tec­tions of fed­eral lands.

Gary Cohn, a Demo­crat and for­mer pres­i­dent of Gold­man Sachs who is chair­man of Trump’s Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil, has helped bring a more pro­gres­sive Wall Street sen­si­bil­ity to the ad­min­is­tra­tion. He worked to pre­vent CNBC com­men­ta­tor Larry Kud­low, a long­time Trump eco­nomic ad­viser, from join­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion and has tried to side­line Peter Navarro, a vo­cal China critic and hard-liner on trade in­side the White House, ac­cord­ing to some­one with knowl­edge of his moves.

Wall Street fig­ures and pro­gres­sive ac­tivists also see a pos­si­ble ally in Dina Pow­ell, a for­mer Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­u­tive who joined the ad­min­is­tra­tion and is close to Ivanka Trump and Kush­ner.

Ken Black­well, a prin­ci­pal do­mes­tic pol­icy ad­viser to the Trump tran­si­tion team and a se­nior fel­low at the con­ser­va­tive Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, said that Trump sees his base “as a move­ment that tran­scends the Repub­li­can Party,” with the best ideas ris­ing out of the dis­or­der.

“His ap­proach is a tad bit Dar­winian,” Black­well said. “He lets folks sort of duke it out.”

On Capi­tol Hill, where law­mak­ers con­trol the fate of Trump’s agenda on such big-ticket items as health care and taxes, Trump’s team has la­bored to re­pair re­la­tions frayed by the travel ban.

Pence ac­knowl­edged early mis­steps at a pri­vate lun­cheon Tues­day at the Capi­tol, telling Repub­li­can se­na­tors, “We’ll do bet­ter,” sev­eral at­ten­dees said. The role is a fa­mil­iar one for Pence, whom one Hill Repub­li­can de­scribed as “the Catcher in the Rye” — per­pet­u­ally de­fend­ing the pres­i­dent and his ac­tions.

Two se­nior White House aides — deputy chief of staff Rick Dear­born and leg­isla­tive af­fairs di­rec­tor Marc Short — also reached out in­di­vid­u­ally to scores of law­mak­ers with a sim­i­lar mes­sage.

Af­ter Sen. Rob Port­man (ROhio) dis­tanced him­self from the travel ban last Sun­day — “You have an ex­treme vet­ting pro­posal that didn’t get the vet­ting it should have had,” he said on CNN — he said he heard im­me­di­ately from White House of­fi­cials.

They were con­cil­ia­tory and at­ten­tive, Port­man said, of­fer­ing him a mes­sage that has be­come the White House mantra in re­cent days: “We’re go­ing to do bet­ter.”

PHO­TOS BY JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bound for Dover Air Force Base, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his daugh­ter Ivanka head to­ward Ma­rine One. Jared Kush­ner, who is mar­ried to Ivanka, is a se­nior White House ad­viser build­ing an in-house con­sult­ing firm.

White House se­nior ad­vis­ers Stephen K. Ban­non, left, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus lis­ten at a meet­ing with House and Sen­ate law­mak­ers at the White House last week.

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