Inside the White House, paranoia and unrest among top staff

Trump staff on edge amid negative news cycle
Trump staff on edge amid negative news cycle

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Story highlights

  • Reince Priebus is Trump's chief of staff
  • Steve Bannon is his chief political strategist

(CNN)In the West Wing, Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon occupy some of the most coveted real estate. Priebus, the chief of staff, enjoys the only outdoor patio in the White House. Bannon and Kushner are mere steps from the Oval Office.

But instead of a tightly functioning hive of productivity, the close quarters have become a nexus for a larger divide among President Donald Trump's staff. Top West Wing aides have created rival factions, according to several sources with direct knowledge, with discord between the two sides threatening to further derail the young administration's agenda just as Trump himself hopes to get his presidency back on track.
    As Trump skids into the closing stretch of his first 100 days, with controversies far outweighing accomplishments, he's eager to move past a string of disappointments that have left him frustrated, mistrustful of Washington and historically unpopular.
    One person who speaks with the President privately said he has begun asking friends: "What do you think of my team?"
    As the President openly questions the makeup of his senior staff, his top aides have begun taking sides. A schism has emerged, which pits those aides who consider themselves the nationalists -- including the controversial chief strategist Bannon -- against a more global-minded wing, led by Trump's son-in-law, Kushner, and his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
    The ideological battle could determine what direction this White House heads as Trump faces new challenges at home and abroad.
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    In the room

    More than a dozen officials -- all in frequent contact with the White House and Trump himself -- described to CNN a tumultuous moment for Trump and his staff.
    In the Trump White House, top aides obsess over face time with the President, often joining him for meetings rather than working on a parallel track to execute his agenda.
    On a given day, the line outside Trump's Oval Office can stretch to dozens of people, including aides, diplomats and outside visitors -- some scheduled to meet with the President and others brought in on a whim.
    "They take everybody in and (take) every meeting, and it slows down the process," said one source close to the President.
    Kushner's rising prominence is more a symptom of West Wing dysfunction, according to two sources familiar with his thinking, than a sign of his desire to control all aspects of Trump's agenda.
    Even there, however, sources concede that gaining accurate insights into Trump's plans amounts to a game of educated guesswork: While Trump may vent frustrations to some friends in late-night phone calls, he is just as likely to arrive in the Oval Office the next morning without any hints that a shakeup may be afoot.
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    Kushner ascendant

    The rising stature inside the West Wing of Kushner, the influential senior adviser, and Ivanka Trump, the President's daughter, has consolidated power even more among the Trump family, Republicans close the White House say.
    Bannon's ouster from the National Security Council Wednesday was only the latest sign of Kushner's rise, sources said. While H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, has been working for weeks to find a way to rid the White House foreign policy operation of Bannon, it was ultimately Kushner's influence that led to Bannon's departure from the panel, sources said.
    Another official stressed that a new power center has emerged in the West Wing that pointedly does not include Bannon. Instead, a pair of former Goldman Sachs executives -- Gary Cohn and Dina Powell -- appear to be in favor.
    Cohn acts as Trump's chief economic adviser and Powell is a deputy national security adviser. Both are viewed internally as close to Kushner, a dynamic that rankled those in the White House close to Bannon -- who have come to term Cohn as "Globalist Gary," an insult for those aligned with the Bannon's populist views.
    Kushner is "absolutely" taking charge, said one person with direct knowledge of administration proceedings.
    The rise of Trump's son-in-law has only further isolated Priebus, who himself has grown touchy about the constant questions about his competence and stature in the White House. The sensitivity has extended to the Republican aides whom he helped bring along to the administration.
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    Priebus, Bannon hit headwinds

    Priebus, ostensibly Trump's top aide, has weathered storms of speculation about his standing even before stepping into the West Wing on January 20. Yet even as the White House continues to insist that the chief of staff is secure in his post, the swirl of theories about his and other top aides' places within Trump's orbit remains unending. Some even say that the President doesn't even ask Priebus for advice.
    Bannon, meanwhile, is quickly finding his role diminished in the West Wing. Trump's decision Wednesday to remove his chief strategist from the National Security Council reflected a demotion for the polarizing figure, and a signal that staffing decisions made just months ago are being rethought at the highest levels. Two senior Republicans close to the White House pointedly said the decision to remove Bannon from the committee is the first public diminishing of his power inside the West Wing.
    Priebus, these officials said, appears more uncertain in his post than ever as Trump grows impatient with how his presidency is being viewed. Bannon, a former executive at the conservative website Breitbart whose appointment in the West Wing drew widespread consternation, has also found his standing with the President compromised after a string of strategic losses.
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    Health care failure

    Last month's health care meltdown proved both eye-opening and humbling for a former chief executive, accustomed to acting unilaterally and getting his way. People who spoke with him afterward said he expressed regret at attempting to push through a health care repeal effort before working on tax reform or an infrastructure package -- both areas in which he's better versed than health care.
    Trump, in both public and private, has avoided laying explicit blame for the health care debacle on House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was the public face of the replacement plan that ultimately failed to gain support among conservatives. But he has lamented his decision to follow the House speaker's lead in attempting to push through a plan that lacked sufficient support from his own party.
    Priebus, in Trump's mind, is inherently linked to Ryan through their tenure atop the Republican establishment -- Ryan as House speaker, Priebus as chairman of the Republican National Committee. On Monday evening, Priebus was on Capitol Hill alongside Vice President Mike Pence to try and resuscitate momentum toward a new repeal-and-replace effort, based this time on a White House plan.
    But according to several people familiar with Trump's thinking, if this latest health care gambit fails, Priebus is likely to catch the blame -- and could be shown the door.
    According to people who have interacted with Priebus in recent days, the chief of staff's unease is palpable as Trump continues to demand that elements of his agenda be handled differently. There remains a sense among aides that Priebus cannot find any way to please his boss, who remains deeply frustrated at the pitfalls his administration has encountered since taking office.
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    Shake-up?

    The low-grade pall of paranoia was heightened last week when Katie Walsh, a colleague of Priebus at the RNC who joined him at the White House as deputy chief of staff, departed the administration for a top posting at a pro-Trump outside political group.
    The White House took pains to cast Walsh's departure as a jointly agreed-upon move meant to bolster Trump at a key moment. Kushner joined Priebus and Bannon in Priebus' West Wing office to tell a small group of reporters that the staffing decision was made in Trump's best interest.
    "I'm very supportive of Katie and the sacrifice she's making," Kushner said.
    But in the days after her departure, people who know Walsh said she fought hard for a White House job after last year's election, and said it was doubtful she left of her own volition. Instead, they suggested her exit from the White House amounted to her getting pushed out, and reflects poorly on Priebus' ability to protect his hires, or himself.
    A Republican close to Priebus, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained Walsh's departure like this to CNN: "It was a shot across the bow to Reince -- to strip him of his protector and top aide."
    Another Republican familiar with the situation said the some of the early Trump loyalists were looking for someone to blame on the heels of the health care failure.
    "I think they got their hide," the source said, providing Priebus a momentary reprieve.
    A critical issue, according to this Republican, is that Priebus isn't sure of his own standing from day-to-day or week-to-week, creating a climate of uncertainty in his corner office of the West Wing.
    Asked squarely whether Priebus was the next to go, a White House official last week said he was not. And pressed during the daily White House briefing whether a larger staff shakeup was looming, press secretary Sean Spicer said simply: "No."
    But those answers stopped neither outside observers nor Trump himself from mulling the makeup of his staff.
    Kellyanne Conway, Trump's counselor who managed his campaign, has largely been sidelined, after serving as a once ubiquitous surrogate on cable television. White House aides say she's still determining where to best focus her attention from her second-floor suite of offices.
    On the foreign policy front, McMaster has moved to hire a more traditional slate of aides for the National Security Council. Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who's been a critic of President Vladimir Putin, began as director for European and Russian affairs this week. And KT McFarland, who joined the staff under fired adviser Michael Flynn, is said to have been offered an ambassadorial posting in Singapore.
    Bannon's accession to the National Security Council in February demonstrated the breadth of his power inside the White House, signaling that the former head of Brietbart News' influence extended beyond politics and domestic policy. His demotion, officials said, is a signal that McMaster is starting to win more influence in a White House rife with internal controversy.
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    Chief of staff staying close

    Through it all, Priebus has remained at or near Trump's side. Two sources described Priebus as intently involved in managing Trump's schedule on a minute-to-minute basis -- a departure from the practices of his predecessors, who used the bulk of the day to convene meetings, acting separately from the President to manage a White House staff of hundreds.
    In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, Priebus described his daily routine, which he said includes early morning conversations with Trump and check-ins throughout the day.
    "I usually talk to the President before my 8 a.m., and then usually meet with him on the calendar before he starts his tick-tock throughout the day," Priebus said. "But generally, you know, if it's something I have to be in, I'm in it. Otherwise, I'm back running the operation."
    "It's sort of a 'care and feeding' of the President," he said, "but it's also sort of the strategic planning for the future and making sure that all those things are being done in a timely way."
    But to some Republicans outside the White House, Priebus is spending an inordinate amount of time managing Trump's whims, and not enough time molding a coherent administration agenda. Increasingly that job appears to have fallen to Kushner.
    Hazarding a guess at the mercurial President's plans is roughly as fruitful as predicting an earthquake, a person in close touch with the White House said: "Equal parts science and art."
    "Who the hell knows?" another senior Republican source in frequent contact with the White House said. "It's Donald Trump."