Tuesday 16 January 2018

Size matters to Trump, as turmoil and tumult rock his first days

Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon applaud before being sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence in Washington REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon applaud before being sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence in Washington REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker and Matea Gold

President Donald Trump had just returned to the White House on Saturday from his final inauguration event, a tranquil interfaith prayer service, when the flashes of anger began to build.

Mr Trump turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition - massive demonstrations around the globe protesting his day-old presidency and footage of the relatively sparser crowd at his inauguration, with large patches of white empty space on the Mall.

As his press secretary, Sean Spicer, was still unpacking boxes in his spacious new West Wing office, Mr Trump grew increasingly and visibly enraged.

Pundits were dissing his crowd size. The National Park Service had retweeted a photo unfavourably comparing the size of his inauguration crowd with the one that attended Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony in 2009. A journalist had misreported that Mr Trump had removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr from the Oval Office. Celebrities at the protests were denouncing the new commander in chief - Madonna even called for "blowing up the White House".

Mr Trump's advisers suggested he could push back in a simple tweet. Thomas J Barrack Jr, a Trump confidant and the chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, offered to deliver a statement addressing the crowd size.

But Mr Trump was adamant, aides said. Over the objections of his aides and advisers - who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency - the new president issued a decree. He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary.

Mr Spicer's resulting statement - delivered in an extended shout and brimming with falsehoods - underscores the extent to which the turbulence and competing factions that were a hallmark of Mr Trump's campaign have been transported to the White House.

The broader power struggles within the Trump operation have touched everything from the new administration's communications shop to the expansive role of the president's son-in-law to the formation of Mr Trump's political organisation. At the centre, as always, is Mr Trump himself, whose ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism.

This account of Mr Trump's tumultuous first days in office comes from interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and moments.

By most standards, Mr Spicer's statement on Saturday did not go well. He appeared tired and nervous in an ill-fitting grey pinstripe suit. He publicly gave faulty facts and figures - which he said were provided to him by the Presidential Inaugural Committee - that prompted a new round of media scrutiny.

Many critics thought Mr Spicer went too far and compromised his integrity. But in Mr Trump's mind, Mr Spicer's attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The president was also bothered the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.

Mr Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media's failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements, and he feels demoralised that the public's perception of his presidency so far does not necessarily align with his own sense of accomplishment.

On Monday, Mr Spicer returned to the lectern, crisply dressed and appearing more comfortable as he parried questions from the press corps.

"There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has," he told reporters. "I think that it's just unbelievably frustrating when you're continually told it's not big enough, it's not good enough, you can't win."

Unlike other senior aides - chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K Bannon, counsellor Kellyanne Conway and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law - Mr Spicer does not enjoy a close and long-standing personal relationship with Mr Trump.

During the campaign, Mr Trump was suspicious of both Mr Priebus and Mr Spicer, who ran the Republican National Committee and were seen as more loyal to the party than to its nominee. Some privately wonder whether Ms Conway is now trying to undermine Spicer.

As Mr Trump thought about staffing his administration following his surprise victory, he hesitated over selecting Mr Spicer as White House press secretary. He did not see him as particularly telegenic and preferred a woman for the position, asking Ms Conway to do it and also considering conservative commentators Laura Ingraham and Monica Crowley - who ultimately stepped down from an administration job because of charges of plagiarism - before settling on Mr Spicer at the urging of Mr Priebus and others.

Yet if there was any doubt over the weekend about Mr Spicer's standing with the president, it seemed to have been erased by his performance on Monday, at least for the moment. Mr Trump told his senior team that he was pleased with Mr Spicer's more confident and relaxed turn at the lectern.

"His very first briefing as White House press secretary was a tour de force," Ms Conway said. "He engaged the media, he was respectful and firm, he talked about accountability on a two-way street, he gave facts, he broke news in terms of what the president was doing."

But tensions and internal power struggles have plagued other parts of Mr Trump's fledgling orbit, too.

Efforts to launch an outside group supporting his agenda have stalled amid fighting between Kushner loyalists, such as the campaign's data and digital strategist Brad Parscale, and conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, according to people familiar with the tensions. The central dispute is over who controls the data the outside group would use, with Ms Mercer advocating for Cambridge Analytica, a firm in which her father is invested, and who controls the lucrative contracts with vendors, these people said.

Two people close to the transition also said a number of Mr Trump's most loyal campaign aides have been alarmed by Mr Kushner's efforts to elbow aside anyone he perceives as a possible threat to his role as Mr Trump's chief consigliere.

At one point during the transition, Mr Kushner had argued internally against giving Ms Conway a White House role, these two people said. Because Ms Conway operates outside of the official communications department, some aides grumble that she can go rogue when she pleases, offering her own message and promoting herself as much as the president.

One suggested that Ms Conway's office on the second floor of the West Wing, as opposed to one closer to the Oval Office, was a sign of her diminished standing. Though Ms Conway took over the workspace previously occupied by Valerie Jarrett, who had been Mr Obama's closest adviser, the confidant dismissively predicted that Mr Trump would rarely climb a flight of stairs.

Yet that assessment may misunderstand the Trump-Conway relationship.

The president admires her brassy and fearless defences of him and respects her on-camera ability to dodge, diffuse and deflect whatever comes her way, according to numerous Trump advisers.

On the eve of his inauguration, he called Ms Conway on stage at a black-tie dinner to sing her praises.

In perhaps the clearest sign of where the administration's power centre resides, the 'Big Four' - Bannon, Conway, Kushner and Priebus - stood in the front row at Sunday afternoon's swearing-in ceremony for senior staffers, in the White House's East Room.

Longtime GOP fundraiser and adviser Fred Malek said that a president benefits from having advisers with distinct perspectives, noting the Ed Meese and Jim Baker rivalry in the Reagan White House.

"You want to have a robust discussion and you want to have competing points of view debated with vigour," Mr Malek said.

"To the extent that results in bruised feelings sometimes, so be it."

Irish Independent

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