Every White House experiences tension and turnover; it's a stressful environment where punishingly long hours are the norm, everyone has his or her own ambitions, and the stakes are extremely high. A certain amount of controlled chaos is inevitable. But there's ordinary White House chaos, and then there's Trump White House chaos.
New reporting paints a picture of the administration descending into a thunderdome of backstabbing and resentment as staffers jockey for position or wonder whether they should get the heck out, all presided over by an erratic, unhappy president. This might sound like a familiar story, but if it isn't already worse than it has been before, it soon will be, especially now that the midterm elections have cast a cloud over the remaining two years of President Donald Trump's term.
Let's run down a few of the highlights:
- Trump's trip to France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I was a disaster, marked by a brooding and petulant president mocked and condemned wherever he went. Angry about his party's midterm losses, Trump has spent his time in the past week insulting reporters in terms that are unusually personal even for him, spinning out desperate conspiracy theories about stolen elections on Twitter and lashing out at Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron.
- After deciding not to attend a ceremony honoring those killed in the war because rain apparently made it inconvenient to get there, Trump grew enraged at his staff "for not counseling him that skipping the cemetery visit would be a public-relations nightmare," reported The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker. Somehow he was not able to figure out for himself that doing so might not go over well.
- Trump "told advisers over the weekend that he had decided to remove Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and that he also was seriously considering replacing White House chief of staff John F. Kelly."
- While Trump is considering replacing Kelly with Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, "aides told Trump that appointing Ayers would lower staff morale and perhaps trigger an exodus."
- First lady Melania Trump's staff issued an extraordinary statement saying a top national security aide, Mira Ricardel, "no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House," making public a bureaucratic feud that stretches between the White House and the Pentagon.
- According to the Los Angeles Times, "With the certainty that the incoming Democratic House majority will go after his tax returns and investigate his actions, and the likelihood of additional indictments by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump has retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment."
- Trump's firing of Jeff Sessions and appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, a move meant to protect him from the Mueller investigation, is turning out to be a mini-scandal in its own right, to the point where the president vacillates between singing Whitaker's praises and claiming he doesn't know him.
The root of all this is the midterm elections, and it's hard to overstate what an impact they'll have on the administration. Nobody likes losing, of course, but nobody hates it more than Trump, particularly after he worked so hard in the weeks leading up to the election, telling his supporters that "I'm not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me." It was indeed, and he was pretty emphatically rejected.
Nothing is more upsetting to Trump than being considered a loser, even temporarily. But I suspect that the prospect of having his tax returns made public has him even more frightened. We don't know what they will reveal, but suffice to say that no sane person believes that all we'll discover when they're opened up is that Trump took advantage of some loopholes and did some creative accounting here and there. Everything we know about Trump's career - not least the recent revelation by the New York Times that he and his family engaged in a years-long conspiracy to commit tax fraud on an absolutely massive scale - suggests that those returns will be a Pandora's box of scandal.
So that would account for the president's dark mood. But if you're one of his staffers, you're probably gripped by an equally strong sense of foreboding, or at a minimum the feeling that the fun times are over. Not only won't there be any more conservative legislation to pass, but also Democrats will be launching one investigation after another, probing everything you've done for the past two years. If you're senior enough, you may get hauled before House committees to be grilled mercilessly. You might even need to get yourself a lawyer, which can be a real burden on a government salary.
So you go to work every day wondering when the hammer is going to fall on you. Is one of your colleagues plotting against you? Are you going to get a congressional subpoena? Is today the day that the president turns his wrath on you in his endless search for others to blame for his problems and his mistakes?
When everyone around you feels that way, too, things get a little uneasy. Describing the White House right now, one former Trump aide told Politico, "It's like an episode of 'Maury,'" referencing the daytime TV show famous for bitter family arguments. "The only thing that's missing is a paternity test."
But there’s no mystery about who the father of this mess is. He’s sitting in the Oval Office, scared and angry that the accountability he has outrun his entire life might actually catch up to him.