Less than three months into Donald Trump’s White House, top advisers are exploring organizational changes to stabilize an administration consumed by crisis and chaos.
Following the failure to advance health-care legislation, senior officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus, senior adviser Jared Kushner, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn gathered this week to hold post-mortems about what went wrong.
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“Everybody,” said one official involved in the talks, “agreed to do it differently next time.”
In interviews over the last week, several senior aides said they were carefully examining how the beleaguered administration functions as they weigh possible fixes. Among the top concerns: The circular firing squad continually playing out in the press pitting top aides against one another — a dynamic that one senior adviser described as increasingly unsustainable.
“It will have to either stop or there will have to be decisions made,” this person said, hinting that more serious changes would be made if the incessant shooting doesn’t end.
The discussions provide a window into an embattled administration that is scrambling to find answers. It’s also an acknowledgment that the White House is not the “fine-tuned machine” that Trump has sought to portray.
Among those frustrated, say friends and aides, is the president himself.
“In my experience the president is focused on the practical. He uses trial and error, things that don’t work are discarded, things that work are used all the time,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend who is chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative website. “This approach made him billions, a TV star and a presidential winner.”
Another close Trump friend was more explicit: “Trump is a guy who likes to put things on the board — and when he doesn’t get it, he looks around the room and says, ‘Why didn’t I get it?’”
White House officials tried to tamp down talk of any internal upheaval. “No,” press secretary Sean Spicer answered curtly when asked Thursday if more staff shakeups were coming following the sudden departure of deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, one of the top-ranking women in the White House.
Some aides said they were waiting to see how April unfolds. Within the highest levels of the administration, the coming month is seen as a critical one, with Trump’s team preparing for a visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping, the expected confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and the possible launch of tax and infrastructure packages.
“We’re going to keep adjusting until we figure out how to get it right and successful and I think that sometimes it comes from things that we do by changing things organizationally,” said one senior administration official, adding, “Where we are today is way more advanced than what we were 60 days ago. And where we’ll be 60 days from now will be way more advanced.”
The first changes are already afoot. Walsh became the West Wing’s first casualty, when it was announced on Thursday that she would be departing to help run a pro-Trump outside group. Within the White House, the departure was seen as a blow to the influence of chief of staff Reince Priebus, who counted Walsh as a longtime lieutenant.
Priebus and Walsh had come under fierce criticism from rival administration factions, with some accusing them of going too far to restrict access to the president. Others faulted the Priebus team for the failure of the health care bill, noting that the chief of staff had been hired in large part because of his Capitol Hill relationships, particularly with Speaker Paul Ryan.
Those who have spoken with Priebus in recent days said he has expressed frustration with his own diminished power in the West Wing and with Walsh’s departure. One person close to the president described Walsh, who was an accomplished Republican fundraiser before becoming Priebus’s top aide, as the chief of staff’s “oxygen tank.”
White House aides strenuously deny that Priebus’s job is in jeopardy. But Trump, who churned through three campaign managers in 18 months, has a history of shuffling through top staff – sometimes abruptly. And one senior adviser said that aides with political and campaign backgrounds would gradually “fall off” and make way for others.
In hopes of promoting conservative policies and, perhaps preserving his standing, Priebus has forged an unexpected alliance with Bannon, a fiery populist who, as the former chairman of Breitbart News, orchestrated attacks on the Republican establishment. The two are looking to combat the rising influence of Cohn and Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy, who they view with suspicion because of their more moderate views.
As Priebus has come under fire, Bannon has rushed to his defense. “Reince [is] here to stay,” he told POLITICO.
In the immediate term, the administration has begun the process of finding a replacement for Walsh, who had played a critical role in overseeing scheduling and logistics. Among the names mentioned by officials: White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, deputy assistant to the president Sean Cairncross, deputy chief of staff for operations Joe Hagin, director of presidential personnel Johnny DeStefano. David Urban, a Washington lobbyist who helped to oversee Trump’s successful Pennsylvania campaign, is also being considered.
In the longer term, it is examining how to improve the systems and processes that govern how the White House runs. There have been discussions about improving the scheduling operation. And within the highest ranks of the administration, there has been an acknowledgment that too many agenda items are often being tackled at once. “We’re doing a lot of good stuff, but it’s too much stuff and a lot of it is getting drowned out in the noise of too much stuff,” said one senior adviser.
Officials are also frustrated with the outside group that was established to support the president’s agenda. Walsh’s departure to America First Policies, the principal pro-Trump political organization, was pitched by the White House as a shoring up of the flagging organization, which was absent from the health care fight. Kushner had hand-picked Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital director, to lead that group, and some laid its failures at his feet. “That’s Jared’s group,” one top White House official said. With Walsh’s arrival, it now has close ties to Priebus.
As America First Policies sat on the sideline, a second group, Making America Great, was formed that is more closely aligned with Bannon and Republican donor Rebekah Mercer. Other organizations, including one co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and one bankrolled by the billionaire Ricketts family, are also looking to invest. All of them are jockeying for donors and political turf.
Increasingly, the dynamic among the outside groups mirrors that of the White House itself, with rival factions competing for donors and political turf.
But as the White House recovered from the health care debacle and dispatched Walsh to repair America First Policies, one top aide used a single word to describe the outside group effort so far: “Aimless.”
Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.