Morale has sunk to a new low; the president is isolated and angry after key aides have left his side.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump whiplashed Washington, D.C., through 24 hours of chaos and confusion, culminating Thursday with a surprise announcement that he will unilaterally impose steep tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports.
His own aides were stunned. The stock market plunged. It was the moment many of his advisers had long feared would occur when he grew tired of talking points and economic theory and decided to do things his way.
The comments came in the Cabinet Room, where one day earlier, he had left Republicans slack-jawed by appearing to embrace liberal ideas on gun control, even proposing to seize firearms from people without a court order, a change from earlier in the week when he praised the National Rifle Association and called for arming teachers in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
For 13 months in the Oval Office, and in an unorthodox business career before that, Trump has thrived on chaos, using it as an organizing principle and even a management tool. Now the costs of that chaos are becoming starkly clear in the demoralized staff and policy disarray of a wayward White House.
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The trade decision signaled the marginalization of White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who had argued against tariffs for months and warned the chief of staff, John Kelly, that he might resign if the president went ahead with the plan.
A number of senior administration officials believe one catalyst for the problems was the sudden departure of staff secretary Rob Porter, who left the White House last month amid allegations of abuse by his two ex-wives.
Porter was part of an exodus of advisers who had prevented Trump from ripping apart trade agreements and imposing major tariffs on other countries.
Porter tried to streamline decisions and corral divergent views into joint meetings. There was a weekly meeting on trade that included top advisers and was held to ensure there would not be surprises or rash decisions. Porter, these officials said, often presented the consensus views of the group or gave Trump recommendations.
When Porter left, this process largely broke down, the officials said. Complicating matters, Porter had been dating White House communications director Hope Hicks, who announced Wednesday that she would also be leaving her job.
Porter’s departure weakened Kelly, whom Trump has repeatedly complained about to friends. Kelly, a retired Marine general, had sought to instill order and process in a president who preferred to have neither.
Kelly summed up the prevailing mood in the West Wing. “God punished me,” he joked of his move from the Department of the Homeland Security to the White House during a discussion to mark the department’s 15th anniversary.
When White House aides arrived at work Thursday, they had no clear idea of what Trump would say about trade. He had summoned steel and aluminum executives to a meeting, but when the White House said only that he would listen to their concerns, it seemed to signal Cohn had held off the tariffs.
Yet at the end of a photo session, when a reporter asked Trump about the measures, he confirmed that the United States would announce next week that it is imposing long-term tariffs. The White House has not even completed a legal review of the measures.
“I always said that it was going to take a while for Donald Trump to adjust as president,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president’s. In business, he said, Trump relied on a small circle of colleagues and a management style that amounted to “trial and error — the strongest survived, the weak died.”
Ruddy insisted that Trump was finding his groove in the Oval Office. But his subordinates are faring less well. With an erratic boss and little in the way of a coherent legislative agenda, they are consumed by infighting, fears of their legal exposure and an ambient sense that the White House is spinning out of control.
Trump is isolated and angry, as well, according to other friends and aides, as he carries on a bitter feud with his attorney general and watches members of his family clash with a chief of staff he recruited to restore a semblance of order — all against the darkening shadow of an investigation of his ties to Russia.
The combined effect is taking a toll.
Morale in the West Wing has sunk to a new low, several aides told The New York Times. In private conversations, Trump lashes out regularly at Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a vitriol that stuns members of his staff. Some longtime advisers said that Trump regards Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation as the “original sin,” which the president thinks has left him exposed.
Trump’s children, meanwhile, have grown exasperated with Kelly, seeing him as a hurdle to their father’s success and as antagonistic to their continued presence, according to several people familiar with their thinking. Anthony Scaramucci, an ally of some in the Trump family, whom Kelly fired as communications director after only 11 days, intensified his criticism of the chief of staff in a series of news interviews on Wednesday and Thursday.
Yet Trump is also frustrated with son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom he now views as a liability because of his legal entanglements, the investigations of the Kushner family’s real-estate company and the publicity over having his security clearance downgraded, two people familiar with his views told The Times. In private conversations, the president vacillates between sounding regretful that Kushner is taking arrows and annoyed that he is another problem to deal with.
Privately, some aides have expressed frustration that Kushner and his wife, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, have remained at the White House, despite the president’s having told Kelly and other aides that he believes they should leave. Yet aides also noted that Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Kelly for his help in moving them out.
Compiled from reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post.