Trump may re­tool his staff

COM­MU­NI­CA­TIONS COULD FACE AN OVER­HAUL Plans dis­cussed as ques­tions on pos­si­ble Rus­sia ties grow

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN WAG­NER, ROBERT COSTA AND ASH­LEY PARKER

Pres­i­dent Trump and his ad­vis­ers, seek­ing to con­tain the es­ca­lat­ing Rus­sia cri­sis that threat­ens to con­sume his pres­i­dency, are con­sid­er­ing a re­tool­ing of his se­nior staff and the cre­ation of a “war room” within the White House, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral aides and out­side Trump al­lies.

Fol­low­ing Trump’s re­turn to Wash­ing­ton on Satur­day night from a nine-day for­eign trip that pro­vided a respite from the con­tro­versy back home, the White House plans to far more ag­gres­sively com­bat the cas­cad­ing rev­e­la­tions about con­tacts be­tween Trump as­so­ciates — in­clud­ing Jared Kush­ner, the pres­i­dent’s son-in­law and se­nior ad­viser — and Rus­sia.

White House of­fi­cials also are try­ing to find ways to re­vive Trump’s stalled pol­icy agenda in Congress and to more broadly over­haul the way the White House com­mu­ni­cates with the pub­lic.

That in­cludes pro­pos­als for more travel and cam­paign-style ral­lies na­tion­wide so that Trump can speak di­rectly to his sup­port­ers, as well as changes in the pace and na­ture of news brief­ings, prob­a­bly in­clud­ing a di­min­ished role for em­bat­tled White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer.

much re­mained fluid Satur­day, the beefed-up op­er­a­tion could in­clude the re­turn of some of Trump’s more com­bat­ive cam­paign aides, in­clud­ing Corey Le­wandowski, who was fired as cam­paign man­ager nearly a year ago, and David N. Bossie, who was deputy cam­paign man­ager and made his name in pol­i­tics by in­ves­ti­gat­ing Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton for two decades. Both men have been part of on­go­ing dis­cus­sions about how to build a war room that have been led in part by chief strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non.

Other Trump play­ers who have drifted from his or­bit in re­cent months, such as Sam Nun­berg, are also be­ing courted to play more ac­tive roles, ei­ther of­fi­cially join­ing the White House or in an out­side ca­pac­ity, work­ing through con­fi­dants of the pres­i­dent.

“Go to the mat­tresses,” a line from the film “The God­fa­ther” about turn­ing to tough mer­ce­nar­ies dur­ing trou­bled times, has cir­cu­lated among Trump’s friends, said two peo­ple close to the war room dis­cus­sions.

Kellyanne Conway, coun­selor to the pres­i­dent, has been in­volved in re­lated talks, in­clud­ing with prom­i­nent Trump back­ers out­side Wash­ing­ton and on Capi­tol Hill, and has con­tacted peo­ple from Trump’s cam­paign net­work, ask­ing them to be more in­volved in sup­port­ing the pres­i­dent, said three GOP con­sul­tants work­ing with the White House.

Mean­while, White House coun­sel Don­ald McGahn is con­sid­er­ing ex­pand­ing his of­fice, and an out­side le­gal team led by Marc E. Ka­sowitz is pre­par­ing to meet with Trump and guide him, in­clud­ing on whether he should con­tinue to com­ment on the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions on Twit­ter.

Kush­ner has played an ac­tive role in the ef­fort to re­think and re­ar­range the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team, im­prove the White House’s sur­ro­gate op­er­a­tion, and de­velop an in­ter­nal group to re­spond to the in­flux of neg­a­tive sto­ries and rev­e­la­tions over the FBI’s Rus­sia in­quiry, said a per­son with knowledge of the com­ing changes.

“The bot­tom line is they need fresh legs; they need more legs,” said Barry Ben­nett, who served as a po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to Trump dur- the gen­eral-elec­tion cam­paign. “They’re in full-scale war, and they’re thinly staffed.”

As Trump has par­tic­i­pated in meet­ings with world lead­ers in re­cent days, se­nior aides — in­clud­ing Ban­non, Kush­ner and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — have met in the White House to dis­cuss a po­ten­tial reshuf­fle.

Kush­ner’s role has emerged as a par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive topic of dis­cus­sion within the White House, as his ac­tions have come un­der in­creas­ing scru­tiny in the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian med­dling in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported Fri­day night that Kush­ner and Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting up a se­cret and se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel be­tween Trump’s tran­si­tion team and the Krem­lin, us­ing Rus­sian diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties in an ap­par­ent move to shield their pre-in­au­gu­ra­tion dis­cus­sions from mon­i­tor­ing.

Some White House aides have dis­creetly dis­cussed among them­selves whether Kush­ner should play a lesser role — or even take a leave — at least un­til the Rus­sia-re­lated is­sues calm, but they have been re­luc­tant to dis­cuss that view with Kush­ner, and Kush­ner’s net­work of al­lies within the West Wing has ral­lied be­hind him.

Those close to Kush­ner said he has no plans to take a re­duced role, although peo­ple who have spo­ken to him say that he is in­creas­ingly weary of the non­stop frenzy.

In re­cent weeks, the White House brought on Josh Raf­fel as a spokesman to han­dle many of the is­sues in Kush­ner’s port­fo­lio; Raf­fel works out of a shared of­fice in the West Wing, although he also has space in the Eisen­hower Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice Build­ing.

Dur­ing a lunch Fri­day, Kush­ner and Priebus talked about how Trump’s for­eign trip had gone and be­gan out­lin­ing what is com­ing up in the weeks ahead. Ear­lier in the day in Kush­ner’s of­fice, the two briefly dis­cussed the sto­ries in­volv­ing Kush­ner and Rus­sia.

The pres­i­dent’s lawyers have urged Trump not to write ad­ver­sar­ial Twit­ter mes­sages or make off-the-cuff com­ments about the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions, ex­plain­ing that those ut­ter­ances could fur­ther hurt him if it seems as though he’s try­ing to ob­struct the in­quiAlthough ries.

Un­der­scor­ing the un­cer­tainty of what lies ahead, some Trump as­so­ciates said there have been con­ver­sa­tions about dis­patch­ing Priebus to serve as am­bas­sador to Greece — his mother is of Greek de­scent — as a face-sav­ing way to re­move him from the White House. A White House spokes­woman strongly de­nied that pos­si­bil­ity Satur­day.

The pres­i­dent has ex­pressed frus­tra­tion — both pub­licly and pri­vately — with his com­mu­ni­ca­tions team, ahead of the ex­pected over­haul.

Although no fi­nal de­ci­sions have been made, one op­tion be­ing dis­cussed is hav­ing Spicer — who has been par­o­died on NBC’s “Satur­day Night Live” — take a more be­hind-the-scenes role and give up his daily on-cam­era brief­ings.

Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, the deputy White House press sec­re­tary, is be­ing con­sid­ered as a re­place­ment be­hind the lectern. White House aides also have talked about hav­ing a ro­tat­ing cast of staff brief the me­dia, a group that could in­clude of­fi­cials such as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster. Hav­ing sev­eral aides share the brief­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties could help prevent Trump — who has a no­to­ri­ously short at­ten­tion span — from grow­ing bored or an­gry with any one staff mem­ber.

The White House al­ready has been test­ing this strat­egy, send­ing Spicer to the lectern along with an­other top staff mem­ber to talk about the news of the day: Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get Di­rec­tor Mick Mul­vaney on bud­get is­sues, for in­stance, or McMaster on ques­tions of na­tional se­cu­rity.

On Trump’s for­eign tour, Spicer held only one brief­ing, an in­for­mal gag­gle with the small, trav­el­ing press pool. Oth­er­wise, he served more as an em­cee, in­tro­duc­ing other se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials at more for­mal brief­ings.

On Satur­day, it was Gary Cohn, the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil di­rec­tor, and McMaster who head­lined the U.S. news con­fer­ence at the con­clu­sion of the Group of Seven sum­mit in Taormina, Italy. Spicer in­tro­duced them and then re­tired to the cor­ner of the room to watch McMaster and Cohn parry ques­tions from jour­nal­ists.

The episode high­lighted how dif­fi­cult it is to drive Trump’s agen­ing da, with Rus­sia so promi­nently in the news. The brief­ing grew testy af­ter sev­eral ques­tions re­lated to Kush­ner’s ac­tiv­i­ties were posed to McMaster, who largely de­flected them.

The ex­pected re­vamp in White House op­er­a­tions comes at a key junc­ture in Trump’s pres­i­dency, as his job-ap­proval rat­ings con­tinue to sag and he presses for progress on sev­eral mar­quee cam­paign prom­ises — in­clud­ing re­vamp­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and re­struc­tur­ing the tax code — be­fore Congress takes its Au­gust re­cess.

A White House aide said Satur­day that Trump also is con­sid­er­ing push­ing more mod­est ini­tia­tives in Congress that would stand a bet­ter chance of quick pas­sage.

The aide, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to talk more freely, said that could in­clude mea­sures on im­mi­gra­tion or in­fras­truc­ture-re­lated ini­tia­tives that most Re­pub­li­cans fa­vor.

“They need ac­com­plish­ments on is­sues that af­fect jobs,” one Trump ad­viser said. “If the White House and Congress have noth­ing in hand to tout by this sum­mer, mem­bers of Congress are go­ing to come back af­ter their Au­gust re­cess freak­ing out.”

Con­ver­sa­tions about a war room have fo­cused on a model sim­i­lar to what emerged dur­ing Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s ten­ure to cope with the Mon­ica S. Lewin­sky scan­dal and other crises. Clin­ton pulled to­gether a team of lawyers and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and po­lit­i­cal aides to deal with those is­sues apart from the reg­u­lar White House struc­ture, with the aim of let­ting other busi­ness pro­ceed as nor­mally as pos­si­ble.

Aides and al­lies of Trump say they now re­al­ize that un­flat­ter­ing sto­ries about Rus­sia will be part of the daily con­ver­sa­tion for now and ac­knowl­edge that the White House has been ill-equipped to han­dle them.

Christo­pher Ruddy, a long­time Trump friend, said the White House has been caught flat-footed on many of the Rus­sia sto­ries.

“Be­cause they did not be­lieve there’s any­thing to it, they’re play­ing catch-up to get their side of the story out,” he said.

“At first, I thought the pres­i­dent was fret­ting too much about this,” said Ruddy, who is chief ex­ec­u­tive of News­max Me­dia and a mem­ber of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. “But it keeps grow­ing like a bad fun­gus, even though there’s noth­ing there.”

“The deep state and the swamp and many in the me­dia are never go­ing to let up,” added Ja­son Miller, who served as Trump’s se­nior com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­viser dur­ing the cam­paign and re­mains close to the White House. He is not ex­pected to come back in a for­mal role.

The White House also has been push­ing the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee to de­fend the pres­i­dent more ac­tively.

Mem­bers of the Trump fam­ily out­side the White House have been ramp­ing up their en­gage­ment in the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tion, ea­ger to con­trib­ute and guide the party.

On Thurs­day, Don­ald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Eric’s wife, Lara Trump, par­tic­i­pated in a twohour meet­ing at the RNC head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton, ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the ses­sion who were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

RNC spokesman Ryan Ma­honey de­clined to ad­dress the specifics of the meet­ing but said the RNC is in­creas­ing its ef­forts to bol­ster Trump.

“The RNC’s role is to sup­port the pres­i­dent,” Ma­honey said. “We’re fo­cused on cre­at­ing as much con­tent as pos­si­ble to en­sure we’re mes­sag­ing ef­fec­tively and do­ing so quickly in or­der to pro­mote and de­fend this ad­min­is­tra­tion. It’s our top pri­or­ity.”

Aides say they think Trump’s agenda will be boosted by mak­ing more tar­geted ap­pear­ances around the coun­try to tout it.

And sev­eral ad­vis­ers are push­ing Trump to do more of the cam­paign-style ral­lies like the one he had planned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thurs­day night. It has been post­poned but will be rescheduled soon, Trump’s cam­paign com­mit­tee said.

Be­ing out­side of Wash­ing­ton among his sup­port­ers, par­tic­u­larly in a state he won last year, en­er­gizes Trump and pro­vides a way for him to com­mu­ni­cate with­out the fil­ter of the me­dia, his ad­vis­ers say.

“The con­ven­tional ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing are not work­ing for them,” one ad­viser said, adding that Trump should con­sider Face­book Live ses­sions and get out on the road “as fre­quently as pos­si­ble.”

“They have to get the cam­paign brand back,” the ad­viser said.

Sev­eral Trump ad­vis­ers cited the pres­i­dent’s re­cent in­ter­view with NBC’s Lester Holt, in which Trump made clear it was his idea to fire FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey, as the kind of thing to avoid go­ing for­ward.

“I hope he’ll travel more and do these ral­lies once a week,” Ben­nett said. “You get to say what­ever you want to say, and you don’t have to take ques­tions.”

As the White House tried to strengthen its op­er­a­tions, some staff mem­bers who once fell out of fa­vor with Trump have been brought back into con­ver­sa­tions.

Le­wandowski, who was fired from the cam­paign amid se­ri­ous clashes with Kush­ner and the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter Ivanka Trump, has been sug­gested as an ef­fec­tive mes­sen­ger — ei­ther from in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion or from his cur­rent perch out­side — to push back against the Rus­sia con­tro­versy.

Nun­berg, who was fired by the Trump cam­paign in 2015 and has been hos­tile to Le­wandowski since, is now work­ing with Ruddy. At a re­cent break­fast in Wash­ing­ton with Ruddy, Le­wandowski and Alexan­dra Preate, a close ally of Ban­non, the trio dis­cussed whether Le­wandowski and Nun­berg could put aside their dif­fer­ences to again rally be­hind Trump, ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the con­ver­sa­tion.

Aides to Trump say that they are pleased with the sub­stance and the op­tics of his nine-day for­eign trip, the first time he has trav­eled abroad as pres­i­dent, and that they hope that it will­gen­er­ate mo­men­tum for his agenda back home. Oth­ers aren’t so sure.

“He was given the chance to look pres­i­den­tial and change the pic­tures on our tele­vi­sion screens,” said Ti­mothy Naf­tali, a pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian at New York Uni­ver­sity. “But it will be harder for him to man­age news back at home than abroad . . . . The wor­ries he had when he left have not gone away. They’ve only got­ten worse.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.