WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump on Wednesday became the first president impeached twice, he did so as a leader increasingly isolated, sullen and vengeful.
With less than seven days remaining in his presidency, Trump’s inner circle is shrinking, offices in his White House are emptying, and the president is lashing out at some of those who remain. He is angry that his allies have not mounted a more forceful defense of his incitement of the mob that stormed the Capitol last week, advisers and associates said.
Although Trump has been exceptionally furious with Vice President Mike Pence, his relationship with lawyer Rudy Giuliani, one of his most steadfast defenders, is also fracturing, according to people with knowledge of the dynamics between the men.
Trump has instructed aides not to pay Giuliani’s legal fees, two officials said, and has demanded that he personally approve any reimbursements for the expenses Giuliani incurred while traveling on the president’s behalf to challenge election results in key states. They said Trump has privately expressed concern with some of Giuliani’s moves and did not appreciate a demand from Giuliani for $20,000 a day in fees for his work attempting to overturn the election.
As he watched impeachment quickly gain steam, Trump was upset generally that virtually nobody is defending him – including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, economic adviser Larry Kudlow, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, according to a senior administration official.
“The president is pretty wound up,” said the senior administration official, who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “No one is out there.”
One of Trump’s few confidants these days is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who broke with the president last week over attempts to overturn the election only to be welcomed back in the president’s good graces a couple of days later. Graham traveled to Texas on Tuesday in what was Trump’s last scheduled presidential trip, spending hours with Trump aboard Air Force One, talking about impeachment and planning how Trump should spend his final days in office.
“The president has come to grips with it’s over,” Graham said, referring to the election. “That’s tough. He thinks he was cheated, but nothing’s going to change that.”
Trump asked Graham to lobby fellow senators to acquit him in his eventual impeachment trial, which Graham did from Air Force One as he worked through a list of colleagues to phone. A few senators called Trump aboard the presidential aircraft on Tuesday to notify him of their intent to acquit. During the flight home, Graham said, he tried to calm Trump after Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House GOP leader, announced that she would vote to impeach.
“I just told him, ‘Listen, Mr. President, there are some people out there who were upset before and are upset now, but I assure you, most Republicans believe impeachment is bad for the country and not necessary and it would do damage to the institution of the presidency itself,” Graham recalled. He said he told Trump, “The people who are calling on impeachment are not representative of the [Republican] conferences.”
Trump told reporters Tuesday that the drive toward impeachment was causing “tremendous anger” and posed a “tremendous danger to our country.”
Although he has shown flashes of anger over his impeachment – and is livid with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for leaving open the possibility that he might vote to convict – Trump privately has told advisers that he does not believe he will be removed from office before his term expires Jan. 20, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Many of the president’s advisers and outside associates share that mind-set. As one put it, “Whoop-de-do.”
McConnell effectively guaranteed that outcome Wednesday, releasing a schedule after the House impeachment vote that would push a trial until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Trump has been more concerned with other actions that could have serious consequences for his post-presidential life, according to people familiar with the president’s concerns. The developments include Twitter and other social media companies suspending his accounts, the PGA of America canceling a golf tournament at one of his properties, and Deutsche Bank announcing that it would no longer finance his developments.
Trump carried on with various activities Wednesday. As the House debated his impeachment, Trump issued a statement calling on his supporters to stand down.
“In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind,” the statement said. “That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers. Thank You.”
Minutes after the House voted to impeach him for a second time, Trump held a private ceremony in the Oval Office to award the National Medal of Arts to country singer Toby Keith, a senior administration official said.
The White House released a video Wednesday evening featuring Trump seated behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office pleading with supporters not to engage in further violence. “Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement,” he said.
A senior administration official said Kushner, his wife, Ivanka Trump, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino and Pence persuaded Trump to film the video, telling him that it could boost support among some Republicans. They asked him not to mention impeachment, and he did not.
In a stark illustration of Trump’s isolation, the White House did not mount a vigorous defense Wednesday as House members debated his fitness for office and, ultimately, voted to impeach him. The president’s aides did not blast out talking points to allies. His press secretary did not hold a briefing with reporters. His advisers did not do television interviews from the White House’s North Lawn. His lawyers and legislative affairs staffers did not whip votes or seek to persuade lawmakers to vote against impeachment.
This is both because there was no organized campaign to block impeachment and because many of his aides believe Trump’s incitement of the riot was too odious to defend. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who was central to the president’s defense in his first impeachment a year ago, told other staffers to make sure word got out that he was not involved in defending Trump this time, according to one aide.
“I just think this is the logical conclusion of someone who will only accept people in his inner orbit if they are willing to completely set themselves on fire on his behalf, and you’ve just reached a point to where everyone is burned out,” a senior administration official said. “Everyone is thinking, ‘I’ll set myself on fire for the president of the United States for this, for this and for this – but I’m not doing it for that.’ “
A former senior administration official in touch with the White House said in describing the staff mind-set: “People are just over it. The 20th couldn’t come soon enough. Sometimes there’s a bunker mentality or us-versus-them or righteous indignation that the Democrats or the media are being unfair, but there’s none of that right now. People are just exhausted and disappointed and angry and ready for all this to be done.”
One of Trump’s only White House defenses came from Jason Miller, a senior political adviser. He did not defend the president’s conduct but rather argued that those who voted to impeach him would pay a political price. Miller sent reporters a two-page polling memo from Trump campaign pollster John McLaughlin saying that a majority of voters in presidential battleground states were opposed to impeachment and to “Big Tech censorship,” a reference to Twitter and other social media companies suspending Trump’s accounts.
“It’s a massive miscalculation by the Democrats and the Liz Cheneys of the world who are massively disconnected from the grass roots that votes in primaries,” Miller said.
“The grass roots and the base support is strong for him,” Miller added. “That’s really what matters. Washington is a very fickle town, and President Trump has never staked his strength as being in the nation’s capital. It’s always been out with the real people.”
Other than family members, the president is mainly talking to Meadows, Scavino, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and personnel director Johnny McEntee. Hope Hicks, counselor to the president and long one of his closest confidants, has been checked out for some time, according to people familiar with her status.
Other than his trip to Texas, Trump’s public schedule has been empty, and he is said to be doing little these days besides watching television and fulminating with this coterie of loyalists about Republicans not defending him enough.
Several aides laid blame for the situation not only on Trump but also on Meadows because the chief of staff indulged Trump’s delusion that the election was rigged and fed him misinformation about alleged voter fraud.
“He is the one who kept bringing kook after kook after kook in there to talk to him,” one adviser said.
In the days since Twitter barred Trump from its platform, McEntee pushed the president to migrate to other social media sites, such as Parler. But Kushner and Scavino pushed back and stopped the president from joining the fringe platform, according to a person familiar with what happened who confirmed a CNN report.
Some current and former advisers described the impeachment as a sad ending that was unnecessary, propelled by a president who could not simply accept a loss and a vast array of aides willing to prop him up.
Some of Trump’s longtime advisers, including Kellyanne Conway, lament that the president has not been able to use these final weeks to burnish his legacy.
“From the time the electors certified the results to the time the president leaves office should have been spent reviewing and reliving the policy accomplishments of his four years and reminding Americans we are more peaceful or prosperous,” said Conway, a former senior counselor to the president who did not participate in the “stop the steal” activities aimed at overturning the election. “Instead of celebrating the accomplishments of the first term, we all watched in horror while the Capitol was run over.”
Another former senior administration official, who has been briefed on some of the president’s recent private conversations, said Trump has expressed anger not only with Pence and some of his aides but also with longtime media defenders who have deserted him, including Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, and others he believes have not fiercely defended him, including Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham.
“He is feeling increasingly alone and isolated and frustrated,” this official said. “One of the metrics by which he’s often judged any number of things is, ‘Who’s out there saying good things about me or fighting on my behalf?’ And he never seemed to think there were enough people doing it strongly enough.”
Now, in the final days, this official said, “It’s like death by a thousand cuts.”