White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a stern warning at a recent senior staff meeting: Quit trying to secretly slip stuff to President Donald Trump.
Just days earlier, K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, had given Trump a printout of two Time magazine covers. One, supposedly from the 1970s, warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming, according to four White House officials familiar with the matter.
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Trump quickly got lathered up about the media’s hypocrisy. But there was a problem. The 1970s cover was fake, part of an internet hoax that’s circulated for years. Staff chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it.
The episode illustrates the impossible mission of managing a White House led by an impetuous president who has resisted structure and strictures his entire adult life.
While the information stream to past commanders in chief has been tightly monitored, Trump prefers an open Oval Office with a free flow of ideas and inputs from both official and unofficial channels. And he often does not differentiate between the two. Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.
The consequences can be tremendous, according to a half-dozen White House officials and others with direct interactions with the president. A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda. Current and former Trump officials say Trump can react volcanically to negative press clips, especially those with damaging leaks, becoming engrossed in finding out where they originated.
That is what happened in late February when someone mischievously gave the president a printed copy of an article from GotNews.com, the website of internet provocateur Charles C. Johnson, which accused deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh of being “the source behind a bunch of leaks” in the White House.
No matter that Johnson had been permanently banned from Twitter for harassment or that he offered no concrete evidence or that he had lobbed false accusations in the past and recanted them. Trump read the article and began asking staff about Walsh. Johnson told POLITICO that he tracks the IP addresses of visitors to his website and added: “I can tell you unequivocally that the story was shared all around the White House.”
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon defended Walsh, who has since left the administration to advise a pro-Trump group, in a statement to POLITICO: “Katie was a key member of the team and is a trusted friend and ally of the White House. No one in the White House took that article seriously.” Walsh declined to comment.
But the smear of one of Priebus’ closest allies — Walsh was his chief of staff at the Republican National Committee — vaulted from an obscure web posting to a topic of heated conversation in the West Wing, setting off mini internal investigations into who had backstabbed Walsh.
When Trump bellows about this or that story, his aides often scramble in a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out who alerted the president to the piece in the first place given that he rarely browses the internet on his own. Some in the White House describe getting angry calls from the president and then hustling over to Trump’s personal secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, to ferret who exactly had just paid a visit to the Oval Office and possibly set Trump off.
Priebus and White House staff secretary Rob Porter have tried to implement a system to manage and document the paperwork Trump receives. While some see the new structure as a power play by a weakened chief of staff — “He’d like to get a phone log too,” cracked one senior White House adviser — others are more concerned about the unfettered ability of Trump’s family-member advisers, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, to ply the president with whatever paperwork they want in the residence sight unseen.
“They have this system in place to get things on his desk now,” the same White House official said. “I’m not sure anyone follows it.”
Priebus has implored staff to do so in order to abide by presidential record-keeping laws, which require cataloguing what the president sees for the archives.
Lisa Brown, who served as White House staff secretary under President Barack Obama for two years, said it can be “dangerous” when people make end runs around paperwork procedures, leaving the president with incomplete or one-sided information at key junctures.
“It’s even more important with someone like this,” she said of Trump, a president notoriously influenced by the last person he has spoken to, “but the challenge is he has to buy into it.”
“You know that people are going to go around the system. But then it’s up to the principal to decide how to handle it,” Brown added. “You need the president to say, ‘Thanks, I appreciate it’ [when he receives stories] and to hand it off to get it into a process.”
McFarland, who is expected to leave the NSC for the ambassadorship to Singapore, did not respond to requests for comment about bringing the president a fake news magazine cover. But another White House official familiar with the matter tried to defend it as an honest error that was “fake but accurate.”
“While the specific cover is fake, it is true there was a period in the ’70s when people were predicting an ice age,” the official insisted. “The broader point I think was accurate.”
Trump may not be a fan of briefing books, but he does devour the news. Most mornings, current and former aides say, Trump reads through a handful of newspapers in print, including The New York Times, New York Post, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — all while watching cable news shows in the background.
He uses the internet minimally, other than tweeting and tracking his mentions, so what other news stories he sees can be more haphazard. Trump does receive a daily binder of news clippings put together by his communications team, but White House officials disagreed about how much he reads those. White House and former campaign aides have tried to make sure Trump’s media diet includes regular doses of praise and positive stories to keep his mood up — a tactic honed by staff during the campaign to keep him from tweeting angrily.
There is universal agreement among Trump advisers on this: The best way to focus the president’s attention on any story is to tell him about it personally, even if it is in one of the papers he’s already thumbed through. But officials say it’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition because Trump’s frustrations at bad stories can easily boomerang against those delivering him the news.
Still, Trump advisers are unwilling to give up the chance to directly bend the president’s ear and hand him supporting documents because they have seen how he can be swayed.
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted to appoint Elliott Abrams, a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush White Houses, as his No. 2, someone in the president’s orbit made sure Trump was freshly aware of Abrams’ anti-Trump comments from 2016, such as a Weekly Standard op-ed in which Abrams wrote, “The party has nominated someone who cannot win and should not be president.”
Trump personally intervened to block Abrams’ appointment.
More recently, when four economists who advised Trump during the campaign — Steve Forbes, Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore — wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “now is the time to move [tax reform] forward with urgency,” someone in the White House flagged the piece for the president.
Trump summoned staff to talk about it. His message: Make this the tax plan, according to one White House official present.
The op-ed came out on a Wednesday. By Friday, Trump was telling The Associated Press, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but we’re going to be announcing, probably on Wednesday, tax reform,” startling his aides, who had not yet prepared such a plan. Sure enough, the next Wednesday, Trump’s economic team was rolling out a tax plan that echoed the op-ed.
Moore was at the White House that day. “Several of the White House folks came up to us and said, ‘It’s your op-ed that got Trump moving on this,’” Moore said. “I’ve probably written 1,000 op-eds in my life, but that might have been the most impactful.”
So who was his guardian angel in the White House?
“We still don’t know,” he said.