Few left in White House to help Trump, former aides say
Washington — Former senior administration officials say they’re worried the White House lacks senior advisers who are able to help President Trump avoid missteps that could threaten his presidency.
Recently, two sources close to Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign expressed frustration with the current White House response to Democrats’ impeachment inquiry over the absence of a unified Republican message.
Former senior White House sources are unhappy with the lack of a designated spokesperson to handle the impeachment inquiry. They would like to see someone take charge of the messaging, similar to the role played by former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl in the contentious Senate hearing process for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Now, former South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, is one person the president’s outside counsel is considering adding to the team.
When President Bill Clinton was impeached, he had a war room of defenders, and some Trump confidants are concerned that the Trump White House has not created a similar operation. Instead, the president has been serving as his own defender, on Twitter and in impromptu gaggles with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House as he leaves Washington. Some of these confidants believe the campaign is evolving to serve that role, either amplifying or attacking depending on the president’s message — and battle — of the day. The Trump campaign has already spent millions on ads mentioning impeachment.
As one former senior official noted, Mr. Trump’s go-it-alone approach to possible impeachment is very different than Clinton’s, a former senior official said, and the official fears that strategy might hurt Mr. Trump with groups he needs in 2020.
Clinton “very much kept a business as usual feel to his presidency during impeachment,” the source said. “The president’s approach seems likely to stoke up his base further, but it may come at the cost of more centrist voters.”
Another issue that has caused these officials concern is the handling of president’s phone call this summer with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the administration’s decision to release a summary of that call and the lack of a cohesive message from within the White House to counter the impeachment inquiry as recent examples of White House officials failing to intervene.
“There is no one really left who can say, ‘that’s a bad idea,'” a former senior Trump aide said.
Several former senior administration aides said that while the president still has good staff surrounding him, there are no longer enough senior aides who possess either the standing or willingness to talk him out of questionable decisions.
One such decision was the sudden announcement Sunday night that Mr. Trump had approved the pullback of about two dozen troops from northeast Syria, which met with condemnation by some of the president’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill because it is considered to be an outright betrayal of Kurdish allies who have been crucial to defeating ISIS. The move leaves them vulnerable to Turkish forces that may invade Syria, creates an opening for the reemergence of ISIS, and sends a troubling message to other allies about the dependability of the U.S.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that we are no longer with the ‘A-team’ or even the ‘B-team,'” one former senior administration official told CBS News. “The leadership team which is now in place was chosen with the full intent that they would not counter or try to dissuade the president in any way. Their job is simply to implement the president’s wishes, period.”
The decision to release the Ukraine call transcript — which the president praised as “perfect” but was the basis for a whistleblower complaint that is at the heart of House impeachment proceedings — is especially perplexing to not only former senior White House officials, but to some current senior administration officials.
Two current senior administration officials tell CBS News they tried to stop the summary from being released to the public because they feared doing so would be tactically shortsighted and could result in a negative outcome for the White House. There was a collective push against the call summary’s release by many others in the White House who shared similar sentiments with CBS News.
There is not complete agreement on this, however. Some of the former senior White House officials CBS spoke with believe Mr. Trump did the right thing in releasing the log of the call.
“I actually think it was smart,” a former senior White House official said. The official added, “I think it would have gotten out anyway for sure, and I think it shows that they truly believe that they have nothing to hide.”
Another former senior White House official went as far as to call it “brilliant,” arguing that otherwise, “it only would have been the whistleblower’s account. The president cleared the air.” And a third former official agreed, suggesting that it was better for the White House to control the release of the information. Congress, the official said, “would have just made it a slower and more painful trickle-out process otherwise.”
Many have advocated for a more aggressive push against the attacks on the president over his missteps. As a former aide points out, this is easier said than done. He trusts his own instincts over those of even his top advisers.
According to the former aide, that self-assurance has only increased over his time in office.
“He’s been on the job now for a while,” the former aide explained.
A former administration official claimed Mr. Trump solicits advice from lower- to mid-level staffers and taps outside sources including Fox News hosts.
The former senior White House aide imitated the president, saying “‘Look at all this stuff I have done … I can’t talk about this? I have done a great job! This all is B.S. What do you mean I can’t say that?'”
Weijia Jiang and Major Garrett contributed to this report.