Trump Aides Agonize Over Their Futures in a Reeling White House

  • Charlottesville controversy brings administration to new low
  • Message at staff meeting: Mnuchin not with Trump on neo-Nazis

Former CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin reacts to President Donald Trump disbanding two advisory groups of American business leaders. He speaks with Bloomberg's David Westin on 'Bloomberg Markets.' (Source: Bloomberg)

Follow @bpolitics for all the latest news, and sign up for our daily Balance of Power newsletter.

As Treasury Department aides filtered in for a routine meeting on Wednesday, there was one main issue to be discussed: Secretary Steven Mnuchin does not stand with Donald Trump on the topic of neo-Nazis.

Mnuchin, like other officials, had no idea the president would inflame the Charlottesville controversy by equating white supremacists to counter-protesters, the staff was told, according to two people familiar with the meeting. He stood beside Trump at the president’s news conference in New York, the one that devolved into a shouting match with reporters over race, but not with the intent of endorsing his remarks on the issue.

And now the message was that it’s time to move on. The team was encouraged to look beyond the chaos of the past several days and instead focus on advancing Trump’s economic agenda, the two people said.

Follow the Trump Administration’s Every Move

It was the morning after a long night for many in the Trump administration, still reeling from his statement that there was “blame on both sides” for violence in Virginia that left a woman dead after a rally by Hitler-saluting neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. 

Even in a White House battered by controversy, it felt to many like a new low. Officials shared their anguish in phone calls and texts, furtive exchanges that boiled down to a single question over and over -- how much more can I take? -- according to more than a half-dozen presidential aides and others familiar with the conversations.

One applicant -- who’s in the late stages of vetting for a senior job in a federal agency -- now says he is reconsidering going to work for the administration in light of Trump’s remarks on race.

Cohn Upset

One senior official who was particularly upset over the president’s comments: his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, according to two people familiar with his thinking.

The anguish was apparent when Cohn, who also stood with the president at the freewheeling session in the lobby of Trump Tower, faced reporters’ questions after Trump had departed. Asked whether he agreed with the president’s statement, Cohn responded by saying he shared Trump’s view “that infrastructure is really important to America.”

Still, Cohn does not have any plans to depart the administration following the flap, according to two individuals. 

In fact, no one in the administration has resigned or publicly criticized Trump’s statement, even though several senior officials who are Jewish -- including Cohn, Mnuchin, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner -- were said to be especially upset.

Vice President Mike Pence went before the cameras Wednesday during a visit to Santiago, Chile, to tell reporters “I stand with the president” in the aftermath. 

Rationale for Remaining

A theme emerged, amid the reasons to stay on: we’re here for the cause, not the man. Many had been drawn to Trump for that rarest of chances: to bring conservative change to Washington, ushering in tax cuts, regulatory rollback and judicial confirmations with full Republican control of the White House and Congress. And they knew it would be harder to shape the president’s and administration’s policies from the outside. 

Cohn, for example, is among a small group of potential nominees to become the next chair of the Federal Reserve. Mnuchin is seeking a legacy-defining overhaul of the tax code.

Some aides also said they can stick it out because they don’t think Trump is a bigot and have concluded that he was lashing out at unfair media treatment and runaway political correctness, rather than sympathizing with white supremacists.

So White House aides gamely tried to stick to the business at hand, with discussions focused on planning upcoming events on the president’s calendar, including a meeting Friday at Camp David, where the president plans to discuss Afghanistan policy, and a trip to the Western U.S. next week that includes a political rally in Arizona. Top aide Stephen Miller held a call with administration allies to discuss efforts to target so-called sanctuary cities.

Councils Disbanded

Separately, the president announced that he was disbanding a pair of business councils that had provided advice to the administration. The move appeared designed to end what had been a steady drumbeat of CEOs announcing that they were severing ties with the White House over Trump’s handling of Charlottesville. Some administration officials reached out to business leaders throughout the day to shore up their support amid the controversy.

Still, the president’s remarks left a beleaguered White House staff particularly demoralized.

Staffers had been buoyed by the recent appointment of John Kelly as chief of staff and were optimistic that the retired Marine Corps general would be able to impose military discipline on a chaotic West Wing. They’d also been excited by what looked to be a mostly quiet two-week vacation for the president while workers renovated the West Wing, hoping a period of relative calm could provide a reset for the administration ahead of a packed autumn schedule.

All that was punctured by the events in Charlottesville and the president’s defiant insistence that there was merit in denouncing “alt-left” protests while defending some attendees of the largely white nationalist rally as “very fine people” who were demonstrating “quietly.”

Stone-Faced Kelly

As the president jousted with reporters at Trump Tower on Tuesday, Kelly stood stone-faced, staring at the ground with his arms crossed. Shortly after, sources told CNN that Kelly was frustrated with how the day played out.

Kushner and Ivanka Trump also made their displeasure known, with two people familiar with their sentiments telling the New York Times that they urged the president to moderate his stance. The couple was vacationing in Vermont as the controversy unfolded.

But the anonymously sourced hand-wringing by White House official met swift ridicule online, with critics of the administration quick to point out that Trump aides want credit for soul-searching without publicly rebuking the president or risking their own priorities and careers.

Despite months of controversial statements and missteps, no White House official has resigned in public protest of the president’s words or actions.

Social Media Scorn

Particular scorn was heaped on Kushner and Ivanka, who appear to frequently attempt to distance themselves from controversy through the press. Blind quotes from anonymous sources surfaced after the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal, ban travel from several Muslim majority countries, and bar transgender service members from the military, all while playing down the pair’s influence on the controversial decisions.

Even as many members of the White House staff expressed dismay over the president’s remarks, others applauded his performance or accused the media of ginning up false controversy.

In talking points circulated to allies on Capitol Hill, the White House argued that Trump was “entirely correct” in his comments blaming both sides for the violence. They paint Trump as “a voice for unity and calm” and say that there “will never be enough” for critics in the media. A person close to Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, said he was proud of the president’s performance Tuesday.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE