At first it sounded like hyperbole, the escalation of a Twitter war. But now it’s clear that remarkable New York Timesinterview—in which the Republican senator described the White House as “adult day care” and warned Trump could start World War III—was an inflection point in the Trump presidency. It brought into the open what several people close to the president have recently told me in private: that Trump is “unstable,” “losing a step,” and “unraveling.”
The conversation among some of the president’s longtime confidantes, along with the character of some of the leaks emerging from the White House has shifted. There’s a new level of concern. NBC News published a report that Trump shocked his national security team when he called for a nearly tenfold increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal during a briefing this summer. One Trump adviser confirmed to me it was after this meeting disbanded that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.”
In recent days, I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods. Trump’s ire is being fueled by his stalled legislative agenda and, to a surprising degree, by his decision last month to back the losing candidate Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. “Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,” a person close to Trump said. “He saw the cult of personality was broken.”
According to two sources familiar with the conversation, Trump vented to his longtime security chief, Keith Schiller, “I hate everyone in the White House! There are a few exceptions, but I hate them!” (A White House official denies this.) Two senior Republican officials said Chief of Staff John Kelly is miserable in his job and is remaining out of a sense of duty to keep Trump from making some sort of disastrous decision. Today, speculation about Kelly’s future increased after Politico reported that Kelly’s deputy Kirstjen Nielsen is likely to be named Homeland Security Secretary—the theory among some Republicans is that Kelly wanted to give her a soft landing before his departure.
Video: The Stakes are Too High for the Trump Presidency to be Funny
One former official even speculated that Kelly and Secretary of Defense have discussed what they would do in the event Trump ordered a nuclear first strike. “Would they tackle him?” the person said. Even Trump’s most loyal backers are sowing public doubts. This morning, The Washington Postquoted longtime Trump friend Tom Barrack saying he has been “shocked” and “stunned” by Trump’s behavior.
While Kelly can’t control Trump’s tweets, he is doing his best to physically sequester the president—much to Trump’s frustration. One major G.O.P. donor told me access to Trump has been cut off, and his outside calls to the White House switchboard aren’t put through to the Oval Office. Earlier this week, I reported on Kelly’s plans to prevent Trump from mingling with guests at Mar-a-Lago later this month. And, according to two sources, Keith Schiller quit last month after Kelly told Schiller he needed permission to speak to the president and wanted written reports of their conversations.
The White House denies these accounts. “The President’s mood is good and his outlook on the agenda is very positive,” an official said.
West Wing aides have also worried about Trump’s public appearances, one Trump adviser told me. The adviser said aides were relieved when Trump declined to agree to appear on the season premiere of 60 Minutes last month. “He’s lost a step. They don’t want him doing adversarial TV interviews,” the adviser explained. Instead, Trump has sat down for friendly conversations with Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee, whose daughter is Trump’s press secretary. (The White House official says the 60 Minutes interview is being rescheduled.)
Even before Corker’s remarks, some West Wing advisers were worried that Trump’s behavior could cause the Cabinet to take extraordinary Constitutional measures to remove him from office. Several months ago, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversation, former chief strategist Steve Bannon told Trump that the risk to his presidency wasn’t impeachment, but the 25th Amendment—the provision by which a majority of the Cabinet can vote to remove the president. When Bannon mentioned the 25th Amendment, Trump said, “What’s that?” According to a source, Bannon has told people he thinks Trump has only a 30 percent chance of making it the full term.
This post has been updated to clarify the details of the negotiation with 60 Minutes.
Inauguration Crowd-Size Debacle
It took less than two days after his inauguration for Trump to hit his first speed bump. After photos revealed a drastically smaller crowd at Trump’s inauguration than at Obama’s first, Trump griped about the coverage during a speech at the C.I.A., and claimed that “a million and a half people” showed up. He later backed down from the remarks, but not before two things happened. First, the world was introduced to Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, whose first, apoplectic, rumpled press briefing became a flashpoint of its own. And second, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway introduced “alternative facts” into the lexicon.
Photo: Left, by Lucas Jackson/Pool/Getty Images; right, by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images.
Courts Block Trump Immigration Ban, Part I
In its unanimous ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate Trump’s original controversial executive order on immigration, which would have suspended travel by non-U.S. citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. In a rebuke of the White House, the court argued that the travel ban violated due process and was based on religious discrimination.
Photo: by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.
Comrade Mike Flynn Resigns
Less than one month into Trump’s presidency, his national security adviser, Mike Flynn,resigned in scandal after it was revealed that he had discussed the sanctions against Moscow with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration—contrary to what he told White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn has remained a primary character in the enduring Trump-Russia melodrama—most recently coming under scrutiny for failing to disclose payments from the Russian and Turkish governments before joining the Trump administration.
Photo: by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Jeff Sessions Gets Ensnared
Facing escalating pressure on Capitol Hill after it was reported that he met with Sergey Kislyak—the man at center of Flynn’s downfall—twice last year, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessionsrecused himself from the ongoing F.B.I. probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government. Sessions’s announcement reportedly blindsided and infuriated Trump, prompting him leave Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus behind when he took off for Mar-a-Lago.
Photo: By NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.
Sanctuary Cities E.O. Blocked
A few months after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals shot down his travel ban, Trump lashed out at another judge who blocked the administration from stripping federal funding from cities that did not comply with anti-immigration laws. The judge who ruled in the case was not a circuit judge—William Orrick, in fact, is a district judge—but that didn’t stop Trump from threatening to break up the Ninth Circuit altogether, a pre-emptive strike as an appeal of Orrick’s ruling could end up in the circuit court.
Photo: By NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.
Health-Care Failure, Part II
Once Trump seemingly realized the gravity of his failure to pass a health-care reform bill in the House, the White House quietly tried to resurrect the zombie “Trumpcare” bill as it scrambled to secure a legislative win for Trump before the 100-day mark. The effort failed again—miserably.
Photo: SAUL LOEB
Trump Realizes That The Presidency Is Hard
This was not so much one defining moment, as it was a slow buildup of smaller moments: that time he realized repealing and replacing Obamacare would be difficult (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” That time he realized that China could not curb the nuclear threat of North Korea by itself (“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy”). But what started off as a Politico report about the frustrations of our president, grew and grew over the past three months and culminated in the perfect statement, given to Reuters, on Day 98: “I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
Photo: From Getty Images.