Is Donald Trump About to Blow Up the West Wing? – Vanity Fair
Frustrated with his staff’s failure to contain the fallout from his seemingly abrupt decision to fire the director of the F.B.I., Donald Trump is reportedly weighing a “huge reboot” of his West Wing team. According to various reports Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer, among others, could be axed. “This was the first major crisis or test they’ve had, and it looks like a lot of systems failed,” Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and longtime Trump ally, told The Washington Post. “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’.”
What was supposed to be a quiet week in the West Wing ahead of Trump’s first foreign trip quickly devolved into chaos when news of James Comey’s ouster broke on Tuesday night. Trump, who has reportedly grown increasingly distrustful of his staff amid an endless stream of White House leaks, kept a number of key staffers in the dark about his decision to fire the F.B.I. director, leaving only a close-knit circle of his top advisors privy to his thinking. But in his paranoia, the president hamstrung his own press shop. Given an hour to prepare for the media frenzy that would ensue, the White House communications team led by Spicer and communications director Michael Dubke crafted a narrative—that Comey was fired at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for mishandling the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server—that was quickly dismissed by the media as farcical pretext. Faced with a deluge of contradictory reports and a torrent of White House leaks, the Trump administration’s story of Comey’s firing shifted dramatically over the course of 48-hours, fueling speculation that the F.B.I. director’s exit was related to the ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
It was Trump—acting on his belief that he is his own best spokesperson—who delivered the final blow to the White House’s Comey story. “Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC News’s Lester Holt during an interview that aired on Thursday. “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,” effectively confirming that his team’s initial talking points were a lie. A series of tweets the president fired off on Friday—wherein he attacked the media and made a vague threat about “tapes” of his conversations with Comey—only created new headaches for the administration’s embattled press team. “Trump is putting a lot on the backs of his spokespeople, while simultaneously cutting their legs out from underneath them,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and a former adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, told the New York Times. “There is nothing more discouraging or embarrassing for a spokesman than to have your boss contradict you. In political communications, you’re only as good as your credibility.”
Despite the self-inflicted nature of the crisis swirling around Trump, the president is blaming his staff—and a major White House shakeup could be imminent. Mike Allen of Axios reported on Sunday that Trump is mulling a “huge reboot.” A close confidant of Trump’s told Allen, “He’s frustrated, and angry at everyone” and “The advice he’s getting is to go big—that he has nothing to lose.” The potential White House purge could take out high-ranking aides, too. Priebus, who has struggled to find his footing in the West Wing; chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who has a reportedly contentious relationship with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; and White House counsel Donald McGahn might be on the chopping block. But one trusted adviser told Allen that top aides who have fallen out of favor with the president might only find themselves cut out of key discussions and decision making rather than out of jobs. Most reports indicate that a staffing overhaul is more likely to originate within the White House press shop.
On Friday, Trump seemingly provided cover for his press team when he tweeted, “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Longtime Trump ally and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, echoed the sentiment, telling the Times that the president “resembles a quarterback who doesn’t call a huddle and gets ahead of his offensive line so nobody can block him and defend him because nobody knows what the play is.” Despite having been caught largely flat-footed by Trump’s decision to fire Comey, the White House communications team has bore the brunt of the blame for the sharp criticism the president has faced over the past week, according to multiple media reports. And during an interview with Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, Trump reiterated a suggestion he made earlier on Twitter that he might cancel the daily White House press briefings—undercutting the work of Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who took up the podium this week while Spicer was out for two days on Naval reserve duty.
Any shakeup of the White House communications team would likely begin with Spicer. According to the Times, Trump might already have a candidate in mind to go head-to-head with the White House press corps everyday: Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle. And for his part, Spicer is reportedly aware that his days in the Trump administration might be numbered. An ally of the press secretary told The Wall Street Journal, that he “recognizes this hasn’t been a good week for him.”
But overhauling his communications team might prove to be a difficult task for Trump. The fallout from the Comey debacle laid bare the dysfunction within the West Wing, but most notably exposed that the incoherence in its messaging lies with Trump. “The most hazardous duty in Washington these days is that of Trump surrogate because the president constantly undercuts the statements of his own people,” former Obama advisor David Axelrod noted to the Times. “You wind up looking like a liar or a fool, neither of which is particularly attractive.” This dynamic, that Trump surrogates are always at risk of being contradicted by the president, is unlikely to cease and likely to ward off competent potential candidates.
Of course, as Allen notes, this wouldn’t be the first time—nor is it likely to be the last—that Trump has played the part of Hamlet in the West Wing, engaging in an endless “should-I-or-shouldn’t-I” routine with his staff. As has proven to be the case on many occasions with Trump, his talk of an overhaul could be nothing more than bluster.