White House aides lean on delays and distraction to manage Trump
As White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus mused to associates that telling President Donald Trump no was usually not an effective strategy. Telling him “next week” was often the better idea.
Trump would impulsively want to fire someone like attorney general Jeff Sessions, create a new wide–ranging policy with far–flung implications like increasing tariffs on Chinese steel imports or end a decades–old deal like the North American Free Trade Agreement. Enraged with a TV segment or frustrated after a meandering meeting, the president would order it done immediately.
Story Continued Below
Delaying the decision would give Priebus and others a chance to change his mind or bring in advisers to speak with Trump – and in some cases, to ensure Trump would drop the idea altogether and move on.
Publicly, the White House has pushed back against Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker suggesting Trump must be managed like a toddler – he called the White House an “adult day care center” on Twitter Sunday. In a separate New York Times interview, Corker said aides are forced to spend their days trying to keep the president from going off the rails.
But interviews with ten current and former administration officials, advisers, longtime business associates and others close to Trump describe a process where they try to install guardrails for a president who goes on gut feeling – and many days are spent managing the president, just as Corker said.
“You either had to just convince him something better was his idea or ignore what he said to do and hoped he forgot about it the next day,” said Barbara Res, a former executive in the Trump Organization.
Trump, several advisers and aides said, sometimes comes into the Oval Office worked into a lather from talking to friends or watching TV coverage in the morning. Sometimes, a side conversation with an aide like Stephen Miller on immigration or a TV host like Sean Hannity would set him off.
Then, staffers would step in to avert a rash decision by calming him down. At times, new information would be shared, like charts on how farmers might feel about ending the North American Free Trade Agreement – or how his base might react negatively to an idea, like the verbal deal he struck with Democrats on immigration last month.
In the first stretches of the administration, aides would ask outside figures to intervene with Trump.
Among those sometimes engaged: business figures Stephen Schwarzman, Tom Barrack, Richard LeFrak or politicians he respects like Corker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others. One outside adviser said White House aides had called him on at least five occasions to intervene.
On occasion, at least some of those advisers have plotted about their conversations with Trump to coordinate messages and share notes.
Corker, for example, has been called by White House aides several times to speak with Trump about foreign policy, from Iran to Syria to North Korea to his Afghanistan strategy; sometimes, he’d check in with senior officials like Tillerson and Mattis before talking to the president. One senior administration official said Corker had even been put on speaker phone in the Oval Office, where aides sat gathered in chairs.
Corker’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sometimes, advisers and people who know him well deliberately engage the media. Corker has told others on Capitol Hill that Trump doesn’t listen unless he hears the criticism on TV or reads it in the paper.
Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said on television in June that he thought Trump might fire special counsel Bob Mueller on TV, creating a firestorm – a calculated attempt to pre-empt what he feared could be a politically fatal move by the president.
“Donald Trump has spent his entire life a free agent, he has always done things his way,” Ruddy said in an interview on Monday. “This has been a huge adjustment process, but I think he is making adjustments.”
He added: “What the senator said was inappropriate. He has some legitimate concerns about the president’s use of Twitter, but you can make that point without saying the president is a child.”