The Pathetic Unraveling of a President
Donald Trump Is All Alone
Presidents have long relied on attentive aides to help them cope with the stresses of office. Not Trump.
NOVEMBER 7, 2019
Early in President Donald Trump’s term, White House aides worried that he was spending too much time cocooned in the building. So they went to a senior official and pitched an intervention of sorts: Take him to dinner one night at the Peking Gourmet Inn, a Chinese restaurant in the Virginia suburbs where both Bushes dined as president. The aides recognized that Trump was doing himself no favors by marinating in the personal feuds and Twitter spats that make up so much of his daily life, and thought a low-key dinner might be a therapeutic diversion.
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“You’ve got to get him out of the White House!” they said to their colleague, a person close to the White House told me. Don’t announce it or make a big deal of it. Just go.
It didn’t work. A homebody by nature, Trump said no.
The fate of a presidency can hinge on just such interventions from staff. Any president can lose sight of what he needs to weather a crisis or stay mentally and physically fit for the most demanding job imaginable; that’s when he needs a staff attentive to his larger interests. Past presidents relied on aides to ease pressures and tell them hard truths—all of which help deter poor decisions. Trump doesn’t seem to have any of that, and as the stressors of impeachment grow, so does the prospect of more erratic behavior and self-sabotage.
A person close to Trump told me that the president feels isolated and has complained that he has no one in whom he can confide. “These heavy issues are weighing on him. He has nobody around him. There’s nobody,” this person said.
Trump at one point had adults in the room: confidants and pedigreed generals and accomplished corporate executives. Their numbers have dwindled as his term winds on and he depends more on his own judgment. The dinner getaway was a valiant, if futile, idea hatched by staffers who wanted to introduce more normalcy into his life. But the senior aide who pitched it is gone, as is much of Trump’s original team. Surrounding Trump instead is a mismatched set of advisers whose focus seems to be their own survival and ambition in a West Wing that has resembled a fast-spinning turnstile. They’ve seen that standing up to Trump is often a path to getting fired. All of which points to a predicament of Trump’s own making: He’s lost or chased away many of the advisers best suited to help him at the perilous moment he most needs their guidance.
Trump’s predecessors leaned on the sorts of candid advisers he has purged. Harry Hopkins moved into a White House bedroom during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, so reliant was FDR on his advice and friendship. During World War II, he tapped Hopkins for sensitive diplomatic missions in the Soviet Union and Britain.
President George H. W. Bush’s alter ego was James Baker, who gave up the prestigious post of secretary of state to accept the workaday role of chief of staff when Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign was foundering. When Bush lay dying last December at his home in Houston, Baker was in the room massaging the ex-president’s feet.
There’s no equivalent to Baker or Hopkins in Trumpworld. Two of Trump’s most influential advisers, Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, are men who have expressed profound doubts about him and who may have ambitions of their own. Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, called Trump “a terrible human being” back in 2016, when he was a representative from South Carolina. As a representative from Kansas, Pompeo, the secretary of state, warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.”
It seems doubtful that either will be massaging Trump’s feet when the end comes: Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas have fueled speculation he’ll return to the state and run for a U.S. Senate seat, his profile sufficiently raised. And the president seems to be tiring of Mulvaney, quizzing advisers on whether he should find someone else for the job. Trump does, of course, have his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, working as senior advisers. But at times he’s even seemed ambivalent about their presence.
Though this White House has always been dysfunctional, earlier generations of West Wing aides seemed to grasp not only what Trump wanted, but what he may have needed at a human level—even if he didn’t know it himself. Hope Hicks, his former communications director who worked out of a closet-size office near the Oval Office, was secure enough in her position that she’d offer unvarnished advice Trump didn’t necessarily want to hear, according to former White House officials. Sarah Sanders, his erstwhile press secretary, had evolved into a confidante.
Albeit with limited success, former aides tried to give Trump’s day some structure. They’d wait for him to come down from the residence, at around 11 a.m. eastern time. He’d have a meeting or two, then eat lunch and, often, retreat to his private study to read newspapers and watch TV-news coverage. He might then have another meeting before returning to the residence. “That was his day,” the person close to the White House told me.
A former White House official who is still in touch with his colleagues in the building described Trump’s routine these days as follows: “He comes down to the residence whenever he wants and leaves whenever he wants. He has a meeting if he wants—or he doesn’t have a meeting. He’s totally in control, and if he wants or needs something, he does it.” (That’s a much lighter schedule than other presidents in the modern era have kept. One November day at a comparable point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., taking part in a nonstop series of nearly 20 meetings, briefings, news interviews, photo ops, and phone calls.)
One role that Trump’s initial team played was to act as a kind of pressure-release valve for him to air grievances in private. When they gave him his briefing book at the end of the day, they sometimes tucked in printouts of cable-news chyrons in hopes of raising his spirits, the former White House official told me.
Now, though, Trump is less willing to unburden himself to aides he doesn’t know or trust as well, wary as he is of leaks, multiple former White House officials have told me. That’s a combustible dynamic. The ex-officials have told me that if Trump can’t grouse in private, he’s more apt to do it publicly. “A lot of times when he’s venting—a tweetstorm—it’s often because he feels, No one is helping me on this, so I have to pound my chest and do it,” said the former White House official.
Trump’s behavior in office was never all that even-keeled. But under the pressure of an impeachment inquiry, he appears more aggrieved, as I wrote last month. “He was never completely hinged,” another former White House official told me. “The trip from where he was to unhinged, as he is now—that was not a long trip.” (The president, for his part, has called himself a “very stable genius.”) Now, he’s tweeting more than ever and spiking his public appearances with profanity and name-calling.
There’s a certain frenzy to the performances. In one six-minute span at a rally last week in Mississippi, Trump abandoned the teleprompter and darted from topic to topic with all the forethought of a pinball banging off the bumpers: “Spying” on his 2016 campaign. Biden-family “corruption.” Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. The Green Party’s Jill Stein. The Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. The Russia “hoax.” The “dishonest” news media. The 2016 election. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting skills. “Barack Hussein Obama.” A Trump-Biden TV debate and the lackluster ratings it would get. That “poor bastard” Beto O’Rourke. Truth as an unstoppable force.
A diversion might help. Obama made a point of getting daily exercise, an antidote to stress, and he’d also golf regularly with a trio of old friends and trusted aides. Covering Obama at the time, I used to think that was a mistake. It looked to me like a missed opportunity to befriend a few Republican senators and, in the process, try to ease the gridlock that dogged his two terms. Watching Trump these past three years, I now think Obama had it right: A reprieve from politics might have been important to maintaining an even temperament.
Read: Why firing Mick Mulvaney is riskier than keeping him
Trump has no off switch. He golfs with a procession of Republican senators and senior aides, turning the fairways into an extension of the West Wing. He devours cable-news commentary. According to one of his biographers, Michael D’Antonio, he doesn’t read books. His White House doctor said he sleeps only about four or five hours a night. “It’s all politics, all the time,” the first former Trump White House official told me. “And that can be warping to anybody.”
“He just has no life,” the person close to Trump recently told me.
Staff has also helped other presidents lighten the mood. One of Obama’s rituals was a 6:30 p.m. dinner with his wife and two young daughters in the White House, and aides would make sure he didn’t miss the appointment. During Obama’s second term, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough once invited reporters into his office in the West Wing. After a while, Obama walked in to say hello. He spoke with us for a bit, and then McDonough broke in and reminded him that it was time to head upstairs for dinner. Obama kept talking. “Mr. President,” McDonough said, more insistently. “Supper time!” Obama left soon after. McDonough told me this week that “Michelle Obama was very committed to protecting family supper time, and all of us in the White House knew to make it a priority for the family.”
In an interview, Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of Obama’s who was one of his top aides, recalled a trip to Camp David, where Obama took some friends and staff after a series of tense budget negotiations that had left her upset. Playing pool in Hickory Lodge, where some of his friends were singing karaoke, Obama walked over and urged her to savor the moment. “I was in tears and he said, ‘Don’t cry. Look where we are. We’re at Camp David! What do you have to complain about?’” Jarrett told me. (As for Trump, “There is a very unhealthy pattern of behavior that is certainly abnormal,” she said.)
As with Obama, exercise was important to President George W. Bush, and staff made sure he had time to work out each day, Karl Rove, Bush’s former political adviser, told me. Aides were also mindful of how a sense of loneliness could affect Bush’s performance: Believing that he was a better campaigner when he was with his wife, they would encourage Laura Bush to join him on the road. “We knew it would have a huge impact on him, that he was always better when she was around,” Rove told me.
Presidents themselves have long grasped that their own well-being mattered. Harry Truman would escape the building he called “the great white jail” and spent a total of six months of his eight-year presidency in Key West, Florida. He’d arrive at his home, on a U.S. naval base, clutching a briefcase with his favorite Chopin albums. At night he’d play poker with friends and aides at a specially made table with cigar holders built from machine-gun shells.
“Presidents, in order to deal with these enormous responsibilities, have to have cultivated in their lives the small habits that allow them to relax, that allow the pressure to be diminished, and to clear their minds and come back to the task with energy and focus,” said Rove, who wouldn’t comment on Trump directly. “It’s the small habits of life that allow them to do that.”
Having cycled through so many aides, Trump faces this denouement with a patchwork staff beneath him and with little to take his mind off the ongoing fight. He has his own ideas on how to get through impeachment—some of them dangerous or absurd. Lately he seems determined to out the whistle-blower who first called attention to his Ukraine gambit, despite legal protections designed to shield government whistle-blowers from retaliation. He’s even said he wants to do a dramatic reading of his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, borrowing from Roosevelt’s notion of a “fireside chat.” (That’s an ill-fated use of FDR’s innovation. Finding a Harry Hopkins might be a bigger help.)
At this point, there doesn’t seem to be anyone capable of talking him out of it. There’s no James Baker in sight, no multistar generals, no adults in the room. There’s just Trump, alone.