No longer daunted by a president with a Twitter account he uses like a Gatling gun, members of his party made clear they were increasingly willing to stand against him on issues such as health care and Russia.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump enters a new phase of his presidency Monday with a new chief of staff but an old set of challenges as he seeks to get back on course after enduring one of the worst weeks any modern occupant of the Oval Office has experienced in his inaugural year in power.
With his poll numbers at historic lows, his legislative agenda stalled and his advisers busy plotting against one another, Trump hoped to regain momentum by pushing out his top aide, Reince Priebus, and installing a retired four-star Marine general, John F. Kelly, to take command. But it is far from certain the move will be enough to tame a dysfunctional White House.
The shake-up followed a week that saw the bombastic, with-me-or-against-me president defied as never before by Washington and its institutions, including Republicans in Congress, his own attorney general, the uniformed military leadership, police officers and the Boy Scouts. No longer daunted by a president with a Twitter account he uses like a Gatling gun, members of his party made clear they were increasingly willing to stand against him on issues such as health care and Russia.
The setbacks came against the backdrop of a West Wing at war with itself, egged on by a president who thrives on conflict and chaos. Kelly, who had been serving as secretary of Homeland Security, brings a career of decisive leadership to his new assignment as White House chief of staff. But he confronts multiple power centers among presidential aides, all with independent lines to the man in the Oval Office, who resists the discipline and structure favored by generals.
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“Everybody knows what needs to be done to fix it, and I think everybody is coming to accept that they’re not going to happen,” said Sara Fagen, a White House political director under President George W. Bush. “And the reason they’re not going to happen is the person at the top of the food chain is not going to change. This is the new normal. This goes down as one of the worst weeks he’s had politically and PR-wise, but I don’t think anything will change.”
The palace intrigue spilled into public with an obscenity-laced rant by Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, who called Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic” and vowed to take him down. While aides fought with one another, Trump’s signature promise to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health-care program went down in flames.
“Anyone in a position of responsibility in GOP politics is quickly losing patience with President Trump,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “The dysfunction is beyond strange; it’s dangerous.
“If Trump’s poll numbers were above 50 percent,” Conant continued, “health-care reform would have passed. Instead, he’s spent more time responding to cable-TV chatter than rallying support for his agenda.”
Sessions and Russia
The repeated defiance of Trump last week indicated diminishing forbearance. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, publicly derided by Trump as “VERY weak,” refused to resign under pressure. Senate Republicans forced the president to back off his threats by warning that they would block any effort to replace Sessions, either during their recess or through the confirmation process.
The House and Senate intelligence committees, both led by Republicans, summoned Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to Capitol Hill to explain his contacts with Russia during and after last year’s campaign. With near-unanimous, veto-proof bipartisan majorities, Congress passed legislation curtailing Trump’s power to lift sanctions against Russia, a measure the president had to swallow and has agreed to sign.
After Trump abruptly wrote on Twitter that he was barring transgender people from the military, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that the policy would not change unless the president gave a proper order. The Boy Scouts of America condemned Trump’s speech to its national jamboree as overly political and apologized to the Scouts, while some police organizations repudiated his call on Friday for officers to be rougher on suspects.
And a Republican senator, John McCain, repaid Trump’s 2015 insult to his war service by torpedoing the president’s health-care agenda with a dramatic thumbs down vote early Friday on the Senate floor.
“Think about this week. Not once, not twice — any of these things would have been a nail in the coffin,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, a White House chief of staff under Obama and a Democratic member of the House before that. “They told the president to pound dirt. That’s an unbelievable statement on where his presidency is only six months in. And nobody fears the political repercussions.”
Indeed, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, received a call from Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, reportedly warning of repercussions for her state after she voted on the losing side against proceeding with the health-care debate. Undeterred, she voted against the president again on a bill to repeal parts of Obama’s program.
Aides insisted the president would keep fighting.
“People are counting him out after health care,” Kellyanne Conway, a White House counselor, said on Fox News. “I would never bet against Donald Trump. He’s not going to allow one misvote by the Senate to stop him to provide relief for all of these Americans who are suffering. He’s not going to allow personnel changes to get in the way of tax reform or pushing back against these MS-13 gangs.”
Fagen, the former Bush aide, said that tapping a general for the White House staff chief might be successful, but that it depended on whether he would be empowered in a way that Priebus had not been.
Priebus never had full command. Two senior advisers in the White House are immune from the discipline of a chief of staff: Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. When Scaramucci, the brash new communications director, was hired over Priebus’ objections, he boasted that he reported directly to the president, not to the chief of staff.
Conway said Kelly was a “generational peer” with the president but dismissed questions about chain of command.
“That’s just a pecking-order question,” she said. “I think it’s beside the point, and here’s why: We all serve the president and this country. And in doing so, the president and his new chief of staff will decide what the right organizational structure and protocols are.”
Anyone who has studied the White House, however, knows organization can be key to success. Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” about White House chiefs of staff, said that Donald Trump’s White House is broken and that the president needed to enable Kelly to fix it.
“Trump now has a chance at governing, but it may be only a slim chance,” Whipple said. “The fundamental problem is that Donald Trump is an outsider president who has shown he has no idea how to govern — who, more than any of his predecessors, desperately needs to empower a chief of staff as first among equals to execute his agenda and tell him hard truths.
“But does anyone believe that this president wants such a person around?”