Comey ouster em­bod­ies the dys­func­tion Trump leads

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - ANAL­Y­SIS BY PHILIP RUCKER

In de­cid­ing to abruptly fire FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey, Pres­i­dent Trump char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally let him­self be guided by his own in­stincts — fu­eled by his creep­ing anger and sense of vic­tim­hood about a probe into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion that he con­sid­ers a “witch hunt.”

The af­ter­math is a pres­i­dency rocked by its most se­ri­ous self-in­flicted cri­sis yet, ex­pos­ing dys­func­tion and dis­trust within his West Wing and im­per­il­ing his agenda. The mo­men­tum for the health-care bill that passed the House is gone, and a week sched­uled to be de­voted to Trump’s prepa­ra­tions for a high-stakes for­eign trip was over­taken by dis­trac­tions and fury.

Across Wash­ing­ton, Trump’s al­lies have been buzzing about the staff’s com­pe­tence as well as the pres­i­dent’s state of mind. One

GOP fig­ure close to the White House mused pri­vately about whether Trump was “in the grip of some kind of para­noid delu­sion.”

Trump has been stew­ing all week, ag­grieved by sharp me­dia scru­tiny of his de­ci­sion to fire Comey and of his and his aides’ ever-shift­ing ex­pla­na­tions, and has been quick to blame his staff, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral peo­ple who have spo­ken with him.

Pri­vately, Trump has lashed out at the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice — led by press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer and com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor Michael Dubke — and has spo­ken can­didly with ad­vis­ers about a broad shake-up that could in­clude de­mo­tions or dis­missals. The pres­i­dent per­son­ally has con­ducted post­mortem in­ter­views with aides about the Comey saga, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the un­end­ing stream of head­lines he con­sid­ers un­fairly neg­a­tive, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral White House of­fi­cials who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause Trump is crack­ing down on unau­tho­rized leaks.

“This was the first ma­jor cri­sis or test they’ve had, and it looks like a lot of sys­tems failed,” said Chris Ruddy, a Trump con­fi­dant and chief ex­ec­u­tive of News­max. “My ex­pe­ri­ence with the pres­i­dent is when he sees fail­ure, he quickly adapts and tries new things. He’s not a guy that keeps the same ol’.”

The sys­tem may be fail­ing, but it is Trump who is pick­ing which but­tons to press. The pres­i­dent takes pride in be­ing the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion-maker, for mat­ters large and small. And chaos has been a hall­mark of Trump’s en­ter­prises, from his fam­ily real es­tate em­pire to his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, a 16-month ven­ture dur­ing which he cy­cled through three leadership teams.

In­side the White House, there was wide­spread agree­ment that Comey had to go. But how and when Trump would fire him — and how it would be ra­tio­nal­ized to the pub­lic — was the sub­ject of con­sid­er­able de­bate.

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, se­nior ad­viser Jared Kush­ner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Coun­sel Don­ald McGahn were the clos­est to the pres­i­dent as he weighed his op­tions, ac­cord­ing to White House of­fi­cials.

Would Trump first visit with Comey in per­son and ask for his res­ig­na­tion or fire him abruptly?

The pres­i­dent de­cided the lat­ter.

Would Trump slow down the process so that a com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy could be crafted, with cred­i­ble sur­ro­gates lined up to de­fend his de­ci­sion, or ter­mi­nate Comey about 24 hours af­ter first telling top aides he wanted it done? He chose the lat­ter. Would Trump stick to the agreed-upon ex­pla­na­tion for Comey’s ouster or in­voke the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, both in his Tues­day ter­mi­na­tion let­ter to Comey and two days later in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view? And would he be re­strained on Twit­ter, as his ad­vis­ers have urged, or peck out a provoca­tive salvo at Comey warn­ing of pos­si­ble “tapes” of their pri­vate conversations?

In both cases, Trump again chose the less pru­dent path.

White House aides have felt be­wil­dered and alarmed by how Trump ar­rives at his de­ci­sions — of­ten on im­pulse and emo­tion and some­times by re­ject­ing the coun­sel of those around him — and how he then com­mu­ni­cates those de­ci­sions to his per­son­nel and the pub­lic. Trump is in some ways like a pi­lot opt­ing to fly a plane through heavy tur­bu­lence then blam­ing the flight at­ten­dants when the pas­sen­gers get jit­tery.

The re­sult is a hard­en­ing por­trait of sheer dis­ar­ray.

“The Comey fir­ing is just the most dra­matic ex­am­ple of a White House that is com­pletely dys­func­tional, the most chaotic in mod­ern his­tory,” said Chris Whip­ple, au­thor “The Gate­keep­ers,” a newly pub­lished his­tory of White House chiefs of staff.

“Reince Priebus has made rookie mis­take af­ter rookie mis­take,” Whip­ple said. “But, ul­ti­mately, it’s fun­da­men­tally on Don­ald Trump. A chief of staff can do very lit­tle to make the White House func­tion if he’s not em­pow­ered by his pres­i­dent. That sim­ply has not hap­pened.”

Robert M. Gates, a for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary who in­for­mally Trump dur­ing the tran­si­tion, crit­i­cized his han­dling of Comey’s ouster.

“Not ter­ri­bly well done,” Gates told John Dick­er­son in a CBS News in­ter­view sched­uled to air Sun­day on “Face the Na­tion.”

“I fired a lot of se­nior peo­ple my­self, and I think the key, when you feel com­pelled to re­move a se­nior of­fi­cial, is essen­tially to have all your ducks in a row at the be­gin­ning,” Gates con­tin­ued. “To have the ra­tio­nale, have ev­ery­body un­der­stand what the ra­tio­nale was. If pos­si­ble, to be in a po­si­tion to an­nounce who is go­ing to step in as the in­terim im­me­di­ately. And, if pos­si­ble, to an­nounce who you’re go­ing to nom­i­nate to re­place that per­son.”

As Trump’s anger with the Comey fall­out boiled over, his aides have been point­ing fin­gers at one other.

Much of the in­ter­nal blame has fallen to the com­mu­ni­ca­tions op­er­a­tion, with Kush­ner and other top of­fi­cials ques­tion­ing why the small army of press staffers led by Spicer and Dubke took so long to force­fully de­fend the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion and agree to a set of talk­ing points that could with­stand scru­tiny, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral White House of­fi­cials.

In­side the West Wing, it be­came a run­ning joke among some staffers that the an­swer to ev­ery ques­tion would be “Rosen­stein,” re­fer­ring to the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral, Rod J. Rosen­stein, who wrote a memo out­lin­ing a case for Comey’s ouster.

Trump loy­al­ists were par­tic­u­larly up­set that Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) or­ga­nized a news con­fer­ence Tues­day night and got other Democrats to par­rot the same mes­sage be­fore a full ex­pla­na­tion came out of the White House — de­spite the fact that the White House con­trolled ev­ery vari­able of the story.

“They were run­ning around like chick­ens with their heads cut off,” said one White House of­fi­cial. “There was no leadership, no ‘get your troops in a room, and is­sue or­ders and ex­e­cute.’ ”

Yet Trump did not in­form Spicer and Dubke of his de­ci­sion un­til about an hour be­fore it was an­nounced, keep­ing them and other se­nior aides out of the loop be­cause he feared the news might leak pre­ma­turely, of­fi­cials said.

There is con­fu­sion about whether Stephen K. Ban­non, the chief strate­gist who had been some­what marginal­ized af­ter feud­ing last month with Kush­ner, was among those the presi-ad­vised dent con­sulted about his de­ci­sion. Two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said Ban­non in­ten­tion­ally was kept out of the process. But a third per­son de­nied that Ban­non first learned Comey had been fired from tele­vi­sion news re­ports and said that he had ac­tu­ally coun­seled Trump to de­lay his de­ci­sion to lessen the po­lit­i­cal back­lash.

Spicer and Dubke did not re­spond to a re­quest for an in­ter­view. Their de­fend­ers said they were as­signed an im­pos­si­ble task of or­ches­trat­ing on short no­tice a com­plete roll­out plan — from craft­ing and dis­tribut­ing talk­ing points to lin­ing up law­mak­ers, le­gal ex­perts and other Trump sup­port­ers to give in­ter­views.

The ex­pla­na­tion de­liv­ered Tues­day night by Spicer, coun­selor to the pres­i­dent Kellyanne Con­way and deputy press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders — that Trump acted de­ci­sively at the rec­om­men­da­tion of Rosen­stein and Ses­sions — was dis­cussed with and agreed to by the pres­i­dent him­self, of­fi­cials said.

Trump then changed his story, telling NBC News on Thurs­day that he made the de­ci­sion to fire Comey on his own and would have done so “re­gard­less” of Rosen­stein’s rec­om­men­da­tion.

“We were ab­so­lutely given the in­for­ma­tion that we could have at that time,” San­ders told re­porters Thurs­day. “It was a quick­mov­ing process. We took the in­for­ma­tion we had, as best we had it, and got it out to the Amer­i­can peo­ple as quickly as we could.”

Trump de­fended his spokes­men, tweet­ing Fri­day that they should not be ex­pected to speak with “per­fect ac­cu­racy” and later com­plain­ing to Fox News per­son­al­ity Jea­nine Pirro about the “level of hos­til­ity” against them. But Trump went on to tell Pirro that he was con­sid­er­ing can­cel­ing reg­u­lar press brief­ings — ex­cept for when he does them him­self.

Some of Trump’s al­lies said they are wor­ried that the pres­i­dent views the Comey episode en­tirely as a pub­lic-re­la­tions cri­sis — a brand­ing prob­lem — and has not been ju­di­cious about pro­tect­ing him­self from le­gal ex­po­sure as the FBI con­tin­ues to in­ves­ti­gate pos­si­ble links be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia.

When Trump sat down for the in­ter­view with NBC an­chor Lester Holt, his aides were not cer­tain what he might say. The pres­i­dent im­pro­vised, essen­tially — and, in one stream-of-con­scious­ness an­swer, in­vited po­ten­tial le­gal peril by con­nect­ing his fir­ing of Comey to the Rus­sia mat­ter.

“In fact, when I de­cided to just do it, I said to my­self, I said, ‘You know, this Rus­sia thing with Trump and Rus­sia is a made-up story, it’s an ex­cuse by the Democrats for hav­ing lost an elec­tion that they should have won,’ ” Trump told Holt.

Trump also re­vealed that he had asked Comey on three sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions — once over din­ner and twice in phone calls — whether he was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the FBI and said that Comey had told him he was not.

It is Jus­tice Depart­ment pol­icy that on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions gen­er­ally are not to be dis­cussed with White House of­fi­cials.

“Trump is so un­so­phis­ti­cated about gov­ern­ment, and he lacks even ba­sic knowl­edge about how the gov­ern­ment func­tions, of what the un­writ­ten but very im­por­tant rules and tra­di­tions are. His at­ti­tude to­ward all those things is they don’t mat­ter: ‘I’m go­ing to drain the swamp!’ ” said a vet­eran of past Republican ad­min­is­tra­tions who is close to the Trump White House and spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to can­didly cri­tique the pres­i­dent.

Poll­ster Pa­trick H. Cad­dell, a long­time con­fi­dant of Ban­non who served in Jimmy Carter’s White House, said he was pained to watch the Trump White House strug­gle.

“It’s like re­liv­ing the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion on steroids,” Cad­dell said. “This is an out­sider ad­min­is­tra­tion be­ing sur­rounded by Apache knives. Ev­ery inch of the po­lit­i­cal class and both par­ties are go­ing af­ter him. The pres­i­dent can’t af­ford in this type of en­vi­ron­ment to not ex­e­cute these kinds of an­nounce­ments bet­ter.”

“The Comey fir­ing is just the most dra­matic ex­am­ple of a White House that is com­pletely dys­func­tional.” Chris Whip­ple, au­thor

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Kellyanne Con­way, coun­selor to the pres­i­dent, speaks to re­porters af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump fired FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey. She and other spokes­men said the pres­i­dent acted at the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Jus­tice Depart­ment. Trump later said he made the de­ci­sion on his own.

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