Donald Trump has headed to the woods of Camp David, desperate to push ahead with his legislative priorities, yet seemingly unable to escape the controversy triggered by the publication of explosive allegations from his former top strategist.
Keen to seize on the momentum he and Republicans secured at the end of last year with the passage of a major tax overhaul, Mr Trump and senior party figures including Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, travelled to the presidential retreat in Maryland for a two-day session to draw up priorities for 2018. Among them are said to be a infrastructure bill, the cutting back of welfare programmes and immigration reform.
But while he was able to leave the nation’s capital, he could not avoid the furore sparked by the publication of a new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by veteran New York journalist Michael Wolff. Reports said Mr Trump was said to be furious about its contents and the apparent betrayal contained therein.
In the book, the President’s former campaign chairman and White House strategist, Steve Bannon, is quoted as saying a meeting Mr Trump’s eldest son held with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer was “treasonous” and that his daughter was “dumb as a brick”.
He also portrayed Mr Trump as someone who was out of his depth, who had the instincts of a child and that the team he had assembled at the White House possessed no “brain trust”.
“If [Trump] was not having his 6.30pm dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls – the phone was his true contact point with the world – to a small group of friends, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another,” Wolff writes.
Rather than downplaying or ignoring the allegations, Mr Trump retaliated in kind. He issued a scathing statement claiming his former friend and ally had “lost his mind” after he had been fired. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the book was full of errors and claimed even journalists who had been critical of the White House believed Mr Wolff’s book had damaged the credibility of the media.
“This is a guy who made up a lot of stories to try and sell books,” she told Fox News.
Providing further oxygen for what might otherwise have been a one-day story, a lawyer for Mr Trump wrote a cease and desist letter to the book’s publisher, Henry Holt and Company, demanding it halt release of the book. Lawyers also sent a similar letter to Mr Bannon accusing him of breaking his employment agreement with the Trump organisation and defaming the President.
The publisher responded by bringing forward the publication date by four days to Friday, citing the unprecedented interest in the book.
On Friday morning, as Mr Trump made his way to Maryland, Mr Wolff was in front of television cameras in New York, defending his work and denouncing the President.
“I absolutely spoke to the President. Whether he realised it was an interview or not I don’t know,” he said on NBC. “But it certainly was not off the record.”
He said he spoke with Mr Trump for a total of about three hours over the course of the presidential campaign and after the inauguration. He added that he has recordings and notes and remains “absolutely in every way comfortable with everything I’ve reported in this book”.
“My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than, perhaps, anyone who has ever walked on earth,” he said.
Mr Trump tweeted late on Thursday that Mr Wolff’s book was fiction and reliant on fake sources.
“I authorised Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist,” he said.
“Look at this guys past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve.”
Mr Trump and top Republicans realise that the midterm elections due to take place in November could be very bad for them.
After a succession of strong performances in places ranging from Virginia to Alabama, Democrats believe they have a chance of winning back control of the Senate and even possibly the House. Control of the House would allow Democrats to push ahead with impeachment proceedings if party leaders decided to do so.
Mr Bannon had been planning to back a large number of “insurgent candidates” to challenge mainstream Republicans in the midterms, despite the defeat of Roy Moore, the former judge he backed in Alabama and for which he was blamed for giving the Democrats their first senate victory for more than 25 years.
Yet while Mr Bannon still heads the powerful and influential Breitbart News, his political future now appears less clear. After his public dust-up with Mr Trump, Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire Republican donor and Breitbart co-owner, issued a statement distancing her family from her former friend.
“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” she said.
“My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.”
Mr Trump hailed that move on Twitter on Friday, saying: “The Mercer Family recently dumped the leaker known as Sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart.”
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