President Donald Trump has never shown any reluctance to sacrifice a surrogate to serve a short-term political need, so he apparently did not think twice this week about exposing a series of staff members to ridicule as he repeatedly shifted his explanation for firing James B. Comey, the FBI director.
Trump, obsessed with the FBI's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and increasingly frustrated by the hyper-scrutiny of the Washington press corps, is more in need of effective spokesmen than ever, and aides say he is considering a broad shake-up of his team.
But his career-long habit of viewing his public protectors as somewhat disposable, on vivid display after Comey's sudden ouster, has not exactly been an incentive to step into the firing line on his behalf.
After the "Access Hollywood" scandal, Trump raged at Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, for going on TV to defend him, arguing that he wanted to attack Hillary Clinton, not play defense. Corey Lewandowski, Trump's 2016 campaign manager until he fired him, repeatedly groused to friends that he was forced to absorb all the criticism for the campaign's practice of confining reporters at rallies in small pens. Trump, he told two people close to him, had ordered him to do it -- but placed the blame on Lewandowski when reporters complained about it.
The firestorm touched off by the Comey firing has only reinforced the lesson Trump has usually taken away from past crises, that only one person was truly capable of defending him: the man in the mirror. It would be a "good idea" to end the daily news briefing, he told a Fox News host on Friday, suggesting that he was considering hosting his own news conferences every two weeks or so.
"Trump is putting a lot on the backs of his spokespeople, while simultaneously cutting their legs out from underneath them," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and a former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "There is nothing more discouraging or embarrassing for a spokesman than to have your boss contradict you. In political communications, you're only as good as your credibility."
The view that the communications dysfunction begins at the top of the White House organizational chart is bipartisan.
"The most hazardous duty in Washington these days is that of Trump surrogate because the president constantly undercuts the statements of his own people," said David Axelrod, a communications and messaging adviser to former President Barack Obama.
"You wind up looking like a liar or a fool, neither of which is particularly attractive."
Over the past few days, Trump deployed his two top aides -- his press secretary, Sean Spicer, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a top deputy -- to deliver dubious or false information about his decision-making process.
He asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to draft a letter documenting Comey's shortcomings to leave the impression that it was Rosenstein's judgment and not his own that led to the dismissal -- an idea that was reinforced by Vice President Mike Pence, who was part of the small group of advisers who planned Comey's ouster in near secrecy.
On Thursday, Trump himself vaporized every version of the Comey story his defenders, including Pence, had labored so earnestly to put forward. "I was going to fire Comey -- my decision. There is no good time to do it, by the way," Trump told "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt. "I was going to fire regardless of the recommendation" made by Rosenstein, he said.
Few of Trump's eruptions have had such a destructive effect on his administration or left such deep resentments among his scarred staff, according to Trump aides and surrogates. And the blowback from the Comey decision and the way it was handled have accelerated the discussions about possible changes in the White House.
The problem is, it's not clear what type of changes Trump is prepared to make or who he can draw as a replacement. In the short term, Trump and his team have focused their energies on a familiar fixation -- rooting out leaks in the leaky West Wing.
The president, said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, "resembles a quarterback who doesn't call a huddle and gets ahead of his offensive line so nobody can block him and defend him because nobody knows what the play is."
Gingrich, a friend and frequent surrogate for the president, said the go-it-alone approach worked "brilliantly for him as an entrepreneur, and it worked pretty well" for him as a candidate.
"But it minimizes the ability of the presidency to both protect him from mistakes and to maximize his strengths," said Gingrich, who is working on a biography of Trump. "At some point I hope he's going to learn that taking one extra day, having the entire team lined up. I don't think he always helps himself. I think 10 percent less Trump would be a hundred percent more effective."
For his part, the president's mood, according to people close to him, alternates between grim frustration with Washington and his news coverage, and a belief that his own political capital is regenerative. Trump saw that running against strong headwinds in the campaign worked for him, and he has frequently reverted to that playbook.
On Friday, Trump unleashed a barrage of bellicose Twitter posts on the Comey firing, but the first had a whisper of contrition, a backhanded admission that he had sent his team out to defend him with flawed, inaccurate and easily debunked information.
"As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!" he wrote early Friday.
In private, however, Trump wasn't in a mea culpa mood. He was still raging over what he viewed as Comey's "witch hunt" against him -- and blaming the bipartisan condemnation of his action on the failures of his embattled and overworked communications team.
Trump is growing increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of his chief of staff, Reince Priebus; the communications director, Michael Dubke; and Spicer, a Priebus ally, according to a half-dozen West Wing officials who said the president was considering the most far-reaching shake-up of his already tumultuous term.
He has been especially critical of Spicer, they said, openly musing about replacing him and telling people in his circle that he kept his own press secretary out of the loop in dismissing Comey until the last possible moment because he feared that the communications staff would leak the news.
Spicer's blustery style mimics Trump's, but people close to both men said he hasn't developed an especially close relationship with the president and has failed to use the self-protective tools that savvier Trump aides have adopted.
That seems to be changing. On Friday, Spicer prefaced much of what he said at the daily briefing with "The president's statement. ..." And while Trump has raised the Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle to allies as a possible press secretary, he has spent several hours with Spicer this week, praising his television "ratings" during the briefings.
Those who have managed to stay in Trump's orbit over time have developed unique adaptation skills.
Campaign aides learned not to lean too much on his accounts of events, steering away from unequivocal public pronouncements unless they could point to his words.
Trump's four-decade career in real estate, casinos and entertainment has given him a sense, associates say, that a tacit agreement exists between him and the people who work for him: In exchange for the wealth, fame and power he conveys to them, they agree to absorb incoming fire directed at him.
"With Mr. Trump, it's pretty simple: Once he makes up his mind on something, that's it," said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump political adviser who remains close to the president's team.
"You either work for him" or quit, Nunberg added.
© 2017 New York Times News
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