The final week of April was designed to be a triumphant one for President Trump.
He hosted his closest foreign counterpart, French President Emmanuel Macron, for a state visit, complete with a 21-gun salute. He may be on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea for the rogue state to abandon its nuclear weapons program. And he is set to put an exclamation point on it all where he feels most at home: onstage Saturday night in Michigan, riffing and ripping the elites at a rally of his fervent supporters.
But instead, it became yet another week in which the Trump administration was convulsed by chaos and contradiction.
A darkening cloud hung over Trump’s Cabinet on Thursday, as he had to abruptly withdraw his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ronny L. Jackson, amid explosive allegations of poor conduct and negligence as the president’s personal physician. Jackson said the allegations were false, but still took his name out of consideration for the VA job.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt also struggled Thursday before a Senate committee to answer for his ethical lapses and profligate spending. Two days earlier, Mick Mulvaney, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as directing the Office of Management and Budget, told banking executives that as a South Carolina congressman he prioritized meetings with lobbyists who gave him campaign contributions.
The Cabinet struggles do not end there.
Gina Haspel’s nomination to become CIA director is imperiled because senators are protesting her work overseeing enhanced interrogation on CIA prisoners, including techniques critics liken to torture. To get confirmed, a senior administration official said, she will have to have “a near perfect performance.”
Haspel is in line to succeed Mike Pompeo, whose nomination to become secretary of state was so uncertain that on Monday Trump had to personally lobby Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to table his objections and vote to approve Pompeo.
“There are enough nominees to deal with, just with the president’s executive calendar on the courts, and then on Cabinet and ambassadorships, without churning through Cabinet members like this,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “It’s not helpful.”
Said one Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment: “It’s a joke. The whole thing is a joke.”
There is some concern among Republican strategists that the converging controversies could weigh down GOP candidates in November’s midterm elections.
“We’re living in a season of corruption the likes of which we haven’t seen but in a banana republic,” said Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican Party operative and Trump critic. “. . . Everywhere you look you see incompetence, malfeasance, self-dealing and corruption.”
But others said the sagas gripping Washington are unlikely to affect voters in the rest of the country. In North Dakota, home to one of the biggest Senate battles, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) said the farmers and energy workers he meets with hear about controversy and are inclined to believe the media and political establishments are out to get Trump.
“There’s a sense that if ‘the swamp’ is not busy trying to block the Trump agenda and block Trump appointees, they’re trying to drive down those people on the Cabinet pushing the agenda,” Burgum said.
As former Virginia congressman Tom Davis (R) put it, “Voters don’t care about the emoluments clause and all the background noise. . . . People just push the mute button.”
Inside the White House, the responses to this week’s convulsions were being personally directed by Trump, who has been acting as his own strategist and making decisions unilaterally — sometimes to the surprise of his senior staffers.
“It’s starting to feel like the early days again, with everyone running around red-faced, trying to keep up with this president,” said a Republican strategist close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.
Personnel matters are ordinarily the purview of the chief of staff, but John F. Kelly is a diminished figure these days. His influence a mere shell of what it was in his heyday of near-complete control — a downfall one West Wing staffer characterized as moving from the enforcer to an afterthought.
So it was that Trump’s, and thus the administration’s, support for Jackson zigzagged over a chaotic 36-hour period this week.
White House officials said they were unaware Monday that accusations about Jackson would be coming, but allegations first surfaced later in the day that Jackson had improperly dispensed drugs and became intoxicated on duty. Trump on Tuesday initially guided his nominee toward the exit.
“I said to Dr. Jackson, ‘What do you need it for?’ ” the president told reporters, bemoaning the Senate confirmation process as “too ugly” and “too disgusting.” “If I was him,” he added, “I wouldn’t do it.”
But a couple hours later, after huddling with Jackson, Trump decided to stand by the man he affectionately calls “the Doc” or “Doc Ronny.” He told advisers that although he was fine with Jackson dropping out, one of them said, “the doctor really wants to fight.” In addition, another adviser said, the president was reluctant to dump Jackson because he was afraid it would be interpreted as him giving in to criticism that he had hired a physician with no significant management experience to run one of the government’s most sprawling bureaucracies.
“The president is clearly of two minds about it,” said a third Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “His typical instinct is deny, deny, deny, defend, defend, defend, fight, fight, fight. But what he said out loud at length [on Tuesday] was giving Ronny the opportunity to bow out and in some ways encouraging him to.”
Trump ordered the White House staff to rally to Jackson’s defense, and a full-throated, proactive campaign was launched. Communications aides scrambled late into the evening to craft talking points for the media. Surrogates were deployed on cable news to praise Jackson and knock down the allegations. Military aides, Secret Service agents and others who had worked with Jackson were asked to help push back on damaging stories. And legislative affairs director Marc Short worked senators as what one outside adviser described as “a one-man band trying to keep Ronny L. Jackson afloat.”
Staffers said they readily rushed to Jackson’s defense in part because they were told to by the president and in part because they found the allegations inconsistent with the doctor they had come to know through many days traveling together.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that Jackson’s record as presidential physician was “impeccable.” She said that he underwent four separate background investigations, including one by the FBI, that found no indication of wrongdoing.
“In a normal administration, you might be told you have to cut bait, you’re out,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary. “You get latitude you might not in normal worlds. Trump shares that feeling of people fighting back when they get personally attacked. When you’re right, you fight.”
The fight did not last long, however. On Wednesday afternoon, a two-page summary of allegations, written by Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, included accusations from unnamed colleagues that Jackson had crashed a government vehicle while intoxicated following a Secret Service party, among numerous other offenses. Support for Jackson’s nomination evaporated almost immediately, with White House officials saying Wednesday night he was considering abandoning his bid to be VA secretary.
And just before 8 a.m. Thursday, the White House made it official: Jackson was out.
Whereas the Jackson scandal came and went in the span of three days, the Pruitt saga has been unfolding steadily for more than a month, in a cascade of damaging headlines about the administrator’s ethical blunders, security regimen and reliance on taxpayer money and government perks to support his lifestyle.
Another president might have fired Pruitt by now, but not Trump, who has become convinced that the EPA chief is a singular warrior for his deregulation agenda. While other Cabinet officials caught in ethical peccadilloes have apologized and promised to do better, Pruitt has been defiant and has told the president he did nothing wrong, officials said.
Though Pruitt has maintained the president’s affection, officials said, he has become estranged from most of the senior White House staff. Stories about tension between Pruitt and the West Wing were described by one White House official as “brutal,” and senior aides have grown exasperated by Pruitt and fearful that even more damaging information may come out about his profligate behavior.
Trump and many of his aides said beforehand that they planned to closely monitor Pruitt’s Senate testimony on Thursday, with some White House staffers hopeful the administrator might embarrass himself. “If he screws up the testimony,” one senior White House aide said, “we have a chance at getting him out of here.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.