As President Donald Trump and his inner circle prepare for former FBI Director James Comey to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, scuttlebutt from White House sources depicts Attorney General Jeff Sessions as having fallen from grace in the president’s eyes.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman reported on Monday that Trump has “grown sour” on Sessions, with “people close to Mr. Trump who insisted on anonymity” describing how months of “intermittent fuming” has given way to “exasperation” ― much of it derived from Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the very investigation that Comey was leading until Trump fired him.
Since then, ABC News has reported that “the relationship between President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has become so tense that Sessions at one point recently even suggested he could resign.”
Considering that Sessions was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Trump, championing his insurgent campaign for president at a time when very few Republican elected officials would even give Trump’s effort a bare acknowledgement, this is an unexpected development.
Asked to speak to the reported tension between the two men on Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had no easy answer at the ready. Of course, it’s hardly the first time Spicer has been unprepared to answer questions about Trump’s tempestuous mood swings. And that’s despite the fact that Spicer has no small amount of experience with them.
Being a part of the Trump White House is hardly easy. The vast number of unfilled government jobs is testament to an administration that few high-caliber prospects find an attractive place to work. And the president is finding it hard to garner the legal support he needs for the same reason. As New York magazine’s Eric Levitz reports, the hoped-for “war room” of top legal eagles that was to be assembled in advance of Comey’s testimony has failed to materialize, mainly because no one wants to come within a country mile of the Trump White House.
Trump, people are recognizing, is a terrible boss. Indeed, over the course of the past half-year, the “Trump Has Soured On (insert name of adviser or aide here)” story has been written and rewritten. Each week seems to bring a fresh account of internecine tension, angry backbiting, freeze-outs, and public shaming. It may be Sessions’ turn in the barrel, but he’s going to find it warmed by a whole host of other bodies.
Let’s take a look at the high-profile advisers and allies who’ve spent at least one news cycle as the focus of Trump’s antagonism.
Jeff Sessions: According to the Times, Trump has been simmering with unfocused disappointment at his attorney general ever since Sessions recused himself from participating in the Russia probe ― a move that Trump felt made him look weak, and which touched off his decision to pen some ill-considered tweets accusing President Barack Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower. In recent days, Trump has grown frustrated with the ongoing legal battles over his Muslim travel ban, and is apparently upset with the process by which the original order was revised in the hopes that it would pass legal muster. (So far, it hasn’t.)
Gen. H.R. McMaster: Back in the beginning of May, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported that Trump was “disillusioned” with his second-choice national security adviser. In a statement, Trump sounded a hopeful note, saying, “I couldn’t be happier with H.R. He’s doing a terrific job.” According to Lake, however, this was not the sentiment behind the scenes. There, Trump has been “livid” with McMaster. At one point, Trump “screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.” It was “not an isolated incident,” according to Lake, who reports that “Trump has complained in front of McMaster in intelligence briefings about ‘the general undermining [his] policy.’”
Steve Bannon: Trump’s relationship with his chief strategist has been off-again, on-again, depending on the winds. The lowest point probably came in the middle of April. According to another New York Times story, an “isolated” Trump, weary of “weeks of bitter battle with other senior aides aligned with Jared Kushner,” went out of his way to “undercut Bannon in an interview,” downplaying his role as the Trump campaign’s chief executive. A main focus of Trump’s frustration was the constant credit Bannon was getting for orchestrating Trump’s rise.
Reince Priebus: And if it’s not Bannon caught in the crossfire, it’s the other Oval Office Bobbsey Twin, White House Chief of Staff Priebus, who’s on the outs. Priebus is usually on the list of the doomed any time word gets out about a pending “staff shake-up.” The nadir, for the former RNC chair, probably came at the beginning of April, as the Washington Examiner reported that Priebus took the most blame for the initial failure of the House health care bill.
Sean Spicer: The press secretary has been a favorite target of Trump, who he has been intermittently disappointed in since the beginning of February, when Melissa McCarthy started portraying him on “Saturday Night Live.” One source told The Hill that Trump “regrets” hiring Spicer “every day and blames Priebus” for convincing him to hire the former RNC flack.
Jared Kushner: Even Trump’s loyalty to his own son-in-law ― to whom he’s entrusted a massive portfolio of duties ― isn’t ironclad. Trump was reportedly angry with Kushner back at the end of March, when he and first daughter Ivanka Trump were off skiing in Aspen as the House health care bill hit the skids. Ahead of Trump’s first international trip, the president was reportedly once again “upset” with his aides, including his son-in-law, describing them as “incompetent” as the backlash from the Comey firing continued to mount. (Kushner was reported to be the primary force in advising Trump to send the FBI director packing.)
Mike Pompeo: Back in mid-February, the CIA director was the target of a presidential tongue-lashing, according to CBS News, who reported that Trump “yelled at him for not pushing back hard enough against reports that the intelligence community was withholding information from the commander-in-chief.” The White House denied these accounts, but “insiders” attested, nonetheless, to a “chill” in the “information flow” between the agency over concerns that information “could be compromised.” Those concerns would prove to be well founded, as it turned out.
Gen. James Mattis: While tensions between Trump and his defense secretary have subsided, the two men began their working relationship embroiled in an “acrimonious dispute over who will get top jobs in the Defense Department.”
Rex Tillerson: The inexperienced secretary of state had a rough start to his tenure. Politico’s Nahal Toosi reported that Tillerson was looking for ways “to engage with reporters” in order to counter the growing “perception” that the White House was leaving him “out of the loop on major foreign policy decisions.” Around the same time, The Washington Post reported that the State Department had been “benched” by the White House, with Tillerson “notably absent from White House meetings with foreign leaders.”
The White House Communications Team: Another regular focus of Trump’s outrage. In recent weeks, Trump “lectured press secretary Sean Spicer, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications director Michael Dubke to unify the White House’s communications strategy,” admonishing them to “get on the same page” a day “after the White House struggled to explain the circumstances surrounding [Trump’s] decision to fire” Comey ― a decision on which the communications team was not adequately briefed prior to it being made. Rather than get on the same page, Dubke would resign.
Everybody else: As one source told Axios’ Mike Allen in mid-May, Trump was “frustrated, and angry at everyone,” including his Cabinet. “Trump has two complaints about Cabinet members: Either they’re tooting their own horns too much, or they’re insufficiently effusive in praising him as a brilliant diplomat,” Allen reported. Also in the crosshairs, White House counsel Don McGahn, the man who will end up leading whatever legal strategy the White House devises as Comey renders his testimony.
So, who’s still in Trump’s good graces? There’s been no notable static between Trump and two of his most notable advisers, Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller. Of his Cabinet, Trump seems to be happiest with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and top economic aide Gary Cohn. Mnuchin, in fact, may have established the best method of staying in Trump’s esteem by gushing about the president’s “stamina” and “perfect genes.” (It may be the blueprint for earning Trump’s appreciation: Mike Allen reported in mid-May that effusive praise of Trump on “Meet The Press” allowed Rex Tillerson to return to favored status in the Trump White House.)
Meanwhile, throughout all of the tempests that have visited the White House, the one man who seems to be consciously keeping himself at arm’s length is Vice President Mike Pence, who has contented himself with a background role in all of the ongoing dramas. As the BBC reported two weeks ago: “When it comes to engaging in the bare-knuckle brawling that has played itself out through anonymous sources and well-timed insider leaks, however, the vice-president and his associates have largely stayed out of the fray.”
And of course, the apple of Trump’s eye is the man at the center of his most galling controversy, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who he apparently regrets firing.
Of course, if Flynn had stuck around, maybe he’d have eventually found himself on Trump’s list of the damned himself. After all, there’s no end to the sins you can commit against Trump. You can do your job too poorly. You can do it too well. You can give bad advice, as Kushner did in the run-up to Comey’s firing. You can give good advice, as those who tried to write a more constitutionally amenable travel ban did. You can fail to praise the president. You can showboat too grandly. And if you’re really unlucky, you’ll be caught entirely by surprise by one of Trump’s decisions, and then raked over the coals when the aftermath of the decision goes sideways.
Still, who hired these bums? Maybe that guy is the real problem here.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for HuffPost and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.