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Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Jared Kushner, center, and President Trump, right.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
The Trump White House is in crisis — and the people there have no idea what to do about it.
Or to be more precise, they have plenty of ideas, but they’re all wrong. They seem to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what their problem is. As they rack their brains to figure out how they can handle the deepening Russia scandal and improve the president’s political standing, they’re coming up with solutions that are destined to fail.
Let’s take a quick tour around some of the most recent reports from inside the White House. Here’s the Associated Press:
President Donald Trump is assailing internal leaks as he considers an overhaul of his White House staff and grapples with a burgeoning crisis involving alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Frustrated with what he views as his team’s inability to push back against the drumbeat of new revelations, Trump is seeking expanded teams of lawyers and experienced public relations hands.
President Donald Trump has been aggressively working the phones since returning this weekend from his foreign trip, talking to friends and outside lawyers as he obsesses over the deepening investigations into his aides and Russia.
Two White House officials said Trump and some aides including Steve Bannon are becoming increasingly convinced that they are victims of a conspiracy against Trump’s presidency, as evidenced by the number of leaks flowing out of government — that the crusade by the so-called “deep state” is a legitimate threat, not just fodder for right wing defenders.
And here’s a report in The Post from over the weekend:
President Trump and his advisers, seeking to contain the escalating Russia crisis that threatens to consume his presidency, are considering a retooling of his senior staff and the creation of a “war room” within the White House, according to several aides and outside Trump allies.
Following Trump’s return to Washington on Saturday night from a nine-day foreign trip that provided a respite from the controversy back home, the White House plans to far more aggressively combat the cascading revelations about contacts between Trump associates — including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser — and Russia.
Taken together, these reports paint a picture of a White House that is convinced that what it has is in large part a media problem. So creating a “war room” to craft and push out better spin seems to be the first item on the agenda. After that, they’re considering some kind of staff shakeup that would involve replacing some personnel with different people who would presumably do a better job.
But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what is ailing this administration. It certainly has a media problem, but it isn’t because the administration hasn’t had the opportunity to get its side of the story out. Its side of the story is out — it’s just that it keeps being contradicted by the facts. If the White House is upset that journalists greet its latest spin with skepticism, that’s only because its lies have been so copious that no reporter can take what administration officials say at face value, and in every new controversy, there’s a strong chance they’re pushing out new lies, which will then inevitably be exposed.
A staff “shakeup” isn’t going to solve their problem either. There is no team of top-notch Republican staffers just waiting to take over for the current White House staff — the smart ones don’t want to sully their reputations by working for this White House, and the problem is more often the jobs staffers are being asked to do than the people doing the job. For instance, you could replace Sean Spicer with some other spokesperson, but then that person would be told to go in front of the cameras and repeat things everyone knows is untrue, and then contradict themselves 24 hours later. Their reputation would quickly follow Spicer’s down the toilet.
The real staff problem the White House has is those closest to the president, none more than Jared Kushner. Kushner is not only at the center of the Russia scandal; he’s also the most powerful staffer in the White House — and as is becoming clearer all the time, there may never have been a person less capable in that position. Kushner came to the job with zero political or government experience; you might recall that he was under the impression that the Obama White House staff would be staying on to serve President Trump. Yet with an apparently bottomless faith in his son-in-law’s abilities, Trump has assigned Kushner to reinvent government, solve the opioid crisis, and achieve Middle East peace, among other things. Kushner’s impeccable political instincts led him to encourage the president to fire FBI Director James B. Comey and assure him “that it would be a political ‘win’ that would neutralize protesting Democrats because they had called for Mr. Comey’s ouster over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to six West Wing aides.”
And now we learn that this ignorant neophyte — who seems, like many rich white guys, to have a confidence utterly unwarranted by his actual abilities — thought he was a character in a Tom Clancy novel, when he’s actually a character right out of “Veep.” His suggestion to the Russians that they set up a secret communications channel in a Russian facility was so ludicrous that even the Russians were shocked.
And alone among White House staffers, Kushner can’t be fired. But even he is not the real problem, and the problem the White House has no way to solve. That problem is, of course, the president himself.
As much as Trump complains internally about his communications staff, they can’t have any credibility when they’re told to defend Trump’s spectacular bumbling and endless waterfall of lies. The people who work on policy are hampered by the ever-shifting messages emanating from the Oval Office on what Trump wants. Just last night he tweeted, “I suggest that we add more dollars to Healthcare and make it the best anywhere,” at a moment when Republicans are proposing to slash hundreds of billions of dollars from health-care spending.
All the crises, all the chaos, all the scandals begin with Donald Trump. He’s the one who fired Comey, then admitted on camera that he did it because of the Russia investigation. He’s the one who blurts out secrets to other governments, out of either a deep need to impress people or sheer stupidity (“You can’t say what not to say,” one person close to the White House told CNN, “because that will then be one of the first things he’ll say”). He’s the one who rages internally against leaks, then sends out
a series of tweets alleging that leaks are not leaks at all, but are in fact fabricated by news organizations, which keeps his core supporters in a state of denial and antagonizes honest journalists.
So the White House can shake itself up all it wants. How much damage the Russia scandal does will be determined not by whether the Trump administration has a good “war room,” but by how deep it goes and whether crimes were committed — in other words, by the facts. Passing some meaningful legislation might help, but not if it’s as stunningly unpopular as what has been proposed so far. And as long as Donald Trump keeps being Donald Trump, its problems will never be over.