WASHINGTON — It has never been calm in the White House of Donald Trump. It was never supposed to be calm. From the start, his old-fashioned administration was governed by a motto borrowed from the whiz kids of Silicon Valley: Move fast and break things. If it sometimes looked messy, the president and his closest advisers figured, that was simply the product of moving at a pace to which official Washington was unaccustomed.
That strategy seemed to work, if perhaps less as a governing philosophy than a perpetual “owning of the libs” ready-made for Fox News. Then the coronavirus came along and threw an unruly White House into the kind of cinematic disarray critics had long feared. Now, with the president and many of his closest aides sick, chances for a new coronavirus relief package seemingly scotched via presidential tweet, then just as suddenly resurrected, and the presidential campaign rife with uncertainty, it looks as if Trump has finally lost control of the narrative.
The coronavirus outbreak at the White House, which seems to expand by the hour, has plunged Trump’s presidency into what leading Washington crisis relations expert Eric Dezenhall calls “the fiasco vortex” in “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal.” Dezenhall, who worked for the Reagan administration and whose clients in recent years have included Enron executives and Michael Jackson’s attorney, explains that the fiasco vortex is a phenomenon in which crisis overtakes a public figure, destroying any attempts to impose a favorable cast on developments. Fiasco becomes the only development people see.
President Trump talks to journalists on the South Lawn of the White House before traveling to Walter Reed hospital on Oct. 2. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
As always, the president’s Twitter feed is a telling indicator, in this case of a president dangerously removed from reality. Full of steroids and vitriol, Trump relitigated the 2016 election, celebrated bar-goers in Washington, D.C., who were openly defying mask orders and warned, baselessly, that Democrats wanted to “permanently” shut down places of worship. There was no concern for White House staffers who, if they were still coming to work, toiled in a viral miasma of the president’s making. Nor for those who had already been sickened and were quarantining, not to mention the legions of White House staffers who simply sought some direction and reassurance from their boss.
“REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” tweeted obscurely the man who relished a comparison to Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain. None but his most devoted supporters could possibly know what he meant, or what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has to do with the pandemic that is currently killing Americans at the rate of around 800 a day. The answer is nothing.
It was almost as if the president wanted to confirm that reports of a “West Wing meltdown,” as news outlet Axios described the situation, were not only true but perhaps too mild in their assessment.
“I think that this is beyond management, because Trump can’t be managed,” Dezenhall concludes. “He has always advanced in chaos. There is no strategy here. You are not going to see a cool, new Kennedy-esque Trump” taking control of the situation in the West Wing.
In addition to the fusillade of grievance-laden tweets, Trump has released relentlessly optimistic videos about his own health. But these appear to have reassured no one, least of all the president’s own aides, many of whom appear to be as bewildered and confused as the American public at large. During the weekend of Oct. 2, a reporter for New York magazine asked a top White House staffer what kind of communications had been sent about the nation’s newest coronavirus hot spot, centered at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Trump speaks outside the White House, where he is being treated for COVID-19, on Thursday. (@realDonaldTrump/via Reuters)
“That’s easy,” the staffer answered. “We don’t get any.”
That bewilderment has been reflected in polls, with Trump dropping in both national and battleground state surveys against his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. That has less to do with what Biden has done than with what he has managed to avoid, namely terrifying an already-addled nation with the sense of a West Wing in utter disarray, unwilling to answer simple questions about when the president first learned that he was sick or what the White House Medical Unit is doing to keep others in the building safe.
“At the moment, Biden is teaching a master class on letting your opponent’s candidacy self-destruct,” tweeted David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races. As the Democrats talk of winning Texas, Republicans fret about how Trump can promise to keep 300 million Americans safe when he has had such evident troubles managing the pandemic at the executive mansion.
Asked to rate the president’s performance in recent days, a Republican Senate aide who had previously worked in the Trump administration was unsparing. “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being perfect, President Trump’s handling of this would be 0.000001,” he told Yahoo News.
For three years, some of the president’s closest advisers have argued that trying to rein in Trump’s shambolic energy was a mistake; that, to the contrary, letting that energy loose on Pennsylvania Avenue was the entire reason he had been elected by the American people. You had to let Trump be Trump, those advisers reasoned. That was the whole point of Trump.
“Burn down and entertain” was the modus operandi, says Dezenhall, the crisis management expert. “Up until last February, he was doing those things perfectly.”
Republicans who had not been part of Trump’s inner circle came around to that view, even if it meant that they were frequently finding out about White House directives from Twitter or Fox News. Such was the price of “winning,” many of them figured.
“There was no chaos, only method,” said a former high-ranking deputy to Trump in 2018. He said the frenetic pace was meant to keep both the media and the president’s Democratic foes eternally off balance, unsure of where Trump might strike next. He might undo environmental regulations, rework a trade deal, cut taxes or fly off to a summit in North Korea.
President Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2019 at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Neither allies nor detractors ever knew what he was going to do, and that was the point. “We never gave you time,” the former deputy said. “We kept the foot on the gas.”
Then came the virus.
The foot may still be on the gas, but the Trumpmobile is now careering dangerously off a cliff. For months, Trump had tried to bluster his way through the pandemic. Then, late last week, the coronavirus came to the West Wing, and the reality show that is American politics in 2020 took a dark new turn.
Friday saw Trump depart for Walter Reed hospital. By early this week, the White House outbreak had sickened an ever-growing list of advisers and aides. The Joint Chiefs of Staff — decorated military veterans who represent the armed forces that Trump supposedly reveres — had gone into quarantine. The Senate, about to begin a Supreme Court confirmation battle, closed up shop. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted that he was too scared to go to the White House, given Trump’s coronavirus carelessness.
Halloween is still weeks away, but the White House took on the feel of a haunted mansion. Workers in full-body protective suits moved grimly through the West Wing, disinfecting surfaces. Those who could stay away did, leaving the place to essential staff who had no choice and sycophants powerless to abandon the man who had elevated them from obscurity into the highest echelons of power.
A member of the White House cleaning staff sprays the press briefing room the evening of President Trump’s return from Walter Reed. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
“This whole outbreak in the White House does not surprise me,” says Olivia Troye, a former top adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who recently left the Trump administration over its handling of the coronavirus. She describes an inattentive, erratic president whose worst impulses are often stoked by his closest aides.
Foremost among them is Jared Kushner, the president’s influential son-in-law and adviser, whom Troye describes as “negligent” for refusing to wear a mask despite his regular proximity to the president. Kushner had argued early in the pandemic that because the coronavirus seemed to mostly be devastating Democratic states, the Republican president could well leave it alone. The virus has since hit many Republican states, not to mention at least three Republican members of the Senate and, in a brutal disputation of Kushner’s argument, the seat of Republican power in the White House.
Other advisers have stoked the president’s conviction that to show too much attention to the virus was to succumb to the establishment his supporters spurned. Instead, they pushed the president toward a superficial machismo and disregard of science.
From left: White House social media director Dan Scavino, presidential aide Hope Hicks and senior adviser Stephen Miller on the South Lawn on Sept. 21. Both Hicks and Miller later tested positive for COVID-19. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
In this category were loyalists like Dan Scavino, the president’s former golf caddie and current social media director. Back in July, Scavino shared an image on social media mocking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the widely trusted immunologist. His disregard for the advice of Fauci and other experts helped land Trump in Walter Reed last weekend, but Scavino was uncowed, rushing to the president’s side as quickly as he could.
Another longtime Trump loyalist, Johnny McEntee, had also been fueling the president’s disregard for the virus. A former University of Connecticut football player, McEntee had no political experience before joining the Trump campaign in 2016. He followed Trump to the White House, only to be fired in 2018 for financial improprieties.
(Scavino and McEntee did not respond to emails from Yahoo News.)
McEntee rejoined the Trump administration in late 2019, just as the coronavirus was about to hit American shores. Despite lacking any experience that might be requisite for the job, he was appointed to run the White House personnel office, a position he used to ferret out supposedly disloyal appointees across the executive branch. In their stead arrived the likes of Michael Caputo, who became a top Department of Health and Human Services communications official in April. Caputo’s accomplishments included bullying scientists into silence and, in what would prove the capstone of his brief career as a federal employee, ranting in a Facebook Live video about assassination attempts by political rivals.
Caputo has since returned to his native Buffalo, N.Y., where he is receiving cancer treatment. And while his fate played out publicly, there were innumerable instances in which public health experts were either told to keep quiet or find other employment. The result was that as summer turned to fall, the White House was left to its own disastrous devices, isolated not only from the broader community of policymakers and advisers but from experts working directly for the administration.
What has been happening in the West Wing, in other words, is an epic self-own that has been months, if not years, in the making.
And there is hardly anyone to stop it now. Of the four men who have served as Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows was the closest to Trump, not infrequently showing up to social events at the Trump International Hotel in pre-pandemic times. Although the former Freedom Caucus member who represented western North Carolina in the House may not have been an original Trump supporter, his obeisance proved convincing enough to win him the job after Trump grew tired of his third chief, Mick Mulvaney.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is interviewed outside the executive mansion on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Famously branded an “idiot” by fellow Republican John Boehner, the former House speaker, Meadows had none of the managerial skills that might help the West Wing through its most serious health crisis in generations. He gave confusing updates about the president’s health while seeming to ignore that the health of hundreds of White House staffers was also on the line.
“If I was a midlevel staffer there, I’d be pretty pissed off at Meadows,” one former administration staffer told Politico. “It is hard to watch,” another former official said of Meadows’s performance.
Others too had boldly predicted that the virus was nothing to fear. Marc Short, a top Pence aide, frequently challenged the models introduced by Dr. Deborah Birx, a prominent member of the White House coronavirus task force. Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s closest counselors, fed the president’s resentments, which could just as easily be applied to the pandemic as they had been to Miller’s primary topic of interest, immigration.
None of these aides seemed to recognize that their laissez-faire approach would almost certainly invite the coronavirus into the West Wing. Instead they insistently discounted this terrifically obvious conclusion.
The lack of preparation was astonishing because the White House had known for months that the coronavirus was trying to sneak in through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During the summer, Katie Miller, a Pence spokeswoman, was sickened by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Several other staffers got sick as well. But instead of tightening restrictions, the White House loosened them, dropping temperature checks in June and ending the mask requirement only one month after mandating that they be worn.
Trump’s bravado was further encouraged by Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford radiologist who became the president’s top coronavirus adviser in August. Atlas, who has no experience in pandemic response, encouraged a more cavalier attitude to the coronavirus than had been advocated by Fauci and Birx, experts who had guided the White House task force throughout much of the spring and early summer.
Atlas, who declined to answer several emails from Yahoo News, was against mask wearing and lockdowns. He advocated for allowing the virus to spread in the population until enough Americans had been infected to achieve herd immunity, an approach that had failed in Sweden. But once the coronavirus came to the White House, Atlas retreated like Napoleon from Moscow. He has not been heard from in days, in what appears to be a tacit acknowledgment that his advice to the president was worthless.
President Trump listens to White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas during a press conference on Sept. 23. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Meanwhile, contact tracing efforts have been so desultory that the government of the District of Columbia issued a letter asking people who may have been infected at the White House in recent days and weeks to contact appropriate health authorities. It was an astonishing and stinging rebuke from the government of a city relentlessly maligned by Republicans as broken and dysfunctional. In fact, the District had done an exemplary job of containing the coronavirus until its efforts were undone by Trump’s irresponsible behavior.
Supporters believe that the American people will celebrate Trump’s return to health. They insist the polls are wrong. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager during the 2016 contest, bristled at the notion that the president needed to be “rescued” from a crisis of his own making.
“He’s winning,” Lewandowski told Yahoo News. “Winners don’t need to be rescued.”
Others believe that if chaos had once worked to Trump’s advantage, it can do so again. Back in 2018, commentator Lance Morrow published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Trump’s Chaos Theory.” Morrow argued that Trump thrived in what a 19th century French anarchist had called “the fecundity of the unexpected.”
Two years later, Morrow believes that Trump can still use chaos to his advantage, even if that chaos now lives inside the White House gates. “Yes, I think it still can be to his advantage, although of course there is more sheer Trump fatigue now and a greater familiarity with his ways,” Morrow told Yahoo News. “I think the fecundity of the unexpected works well for Trump in part because of the reliably flat-footed, humorless moral dudgeon of the MSNBC/CNN brigade of not-very-bright parsons and scolds.” Much as people might be weary of Trump, Morrow said, they are even more weary of media outlets that do nothing but attack him.
The primary problem with that argument is that Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow will not be on November’s ballot. More than is usual in presidential reelection campaigns, this is a referendum on a profoundly polarizing incumbent and, in particular, his handling of the pandemic. The White House outbreak does not help his case.
Only 39 percent of respondents in a new CNN poll said Trump “plans for problems,” and just 43 percent said he was keeping the nation safe. Those were damning numbers for a candidate who, in 2016, depicted himself as a managerial genius who would make national security a priority.
“I certainly see no indication that any group outside Trump’s base is rallying to him,” respected University of Virginia polling expert Larry Sabato tells Yahoo News. “He stepped on his own sympathy wave with his irresponsible behavior on the virus.”
“A massive mobilization of Trump voters” remains the president’s best hope, Sabato says. “They insist that very surprise is coming.” Whether that insistence reflects reality or another bout of self-delusion will soon become clear.
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