In the closing days of the Trump era, some of the president’s top political lieutenants have embarked on a clear mission: to distract Trump from the parts of the job that they believe could cause more pain to the country if the president pays too much attention to them.
And while Trump is increasingly isolated—and some aides hope, distracted—some of the most important members of his administration are cleaning up loose ends, pursuing their personal agendas, and trying to keep Trump from sparking yet another crisis.
One senior Trump administration official described the activity around the outgoing president as a prolonged act of “babysitting” a “violent toddler” that aides and chief advisers hope to get through in the next week without Trump triggering any more history-making disasters.
Four other senior administration officials familiar with their conversations said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and Vice President Mike Pence have discussed continuity of government in recent days, including potential risks that face the country following the violence last week when a Trumpist mob stormed the Capitol. Those conversations have focused primarily on needing to continue operating as usual—with one important distinction: The idea now is to do it with as little communication with the Oval Office as possible, those officials said.
The idea is to run the ship as it’s always been run,” one of those senior officials said. “Everyone seems to be keeping their heads down and staying in their zone. There’s been no talk of the 25th Amendment or removing [Trump] from office. It’s just, ‘Let’s get through this.’”
Meanwhile, Trump, whose rhetoric helped incite the Jan. 6 rioting, is increasingly cut off from once-loyal senior officials, some of whom have resigned in recent days. Instead, the president is focused on managing the fallout, both legally and reputationally, from the attack and the deaths that resulted from it. Even the president’s personal attorney and close confidant, Rudy Giuliani, has been somewhat absent in the last 24 hours, caught up with his own personal problems, including the New York Bar Association’s move to open an inquiry into his removal from its membership, according to one individual with direct knowledge of the situation.
With the president isolated in the White House, senior officials have moved to ramp up their own political agendas in the last days of the Trump administration.
Pompeo, for instance, has for years underscored the importance of combating Beijing on the world stage and punishing the regime for its egregious human rights violations against the Uighur population—all while pumping up his own future political prospects. So Pompeo is focused on undercutting China and establishing better relations with Taiwan, officials close to the secretary said, while taking not-so-subtle digs at Democrats from his official government Twitter account. Vice President Pence, his aides say, will spend the remaining days in office overseeing the vaccine distribution and speaking with the nation’s governors about what to expect for deliveries over the next few weeks. Pence was, after all, the original head of the coronavirus task force and the spread of COVID-19 is a stain on his legacy.
And O’Brien, whose staff shrunk last week when several senior directors on the National Security Council resigned, is spending a bulk of his time tying up loose ends with Jared Kushner about his recent efforts in the Middle East. (O’Brien has worked closely with Kushner and top Iran envoy Brian Hook on brokering deals like the Abraham Accords, which developed formal diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and set the stage for additional pacts between foes.)
And inside the White House, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller pushed Trump to take a victory lap at the southern border Tuesday to deliver a speech about his “achievements in immigration,” as one person familiar with the planning put it. (Miller, of course, has been one of the architects of the administration’s draconian immigration policies.) Miller has also been involved in conversations with the president about acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, who resigned from his post Monday, and his response to the violence at the Capitol. Following the attack, Wolf in a statement called it “tragic and sickening” and called on Trump to condemn the attack. According to two familiar with the matter, Miller supported the decision to remove Wolf’s nomination to lead DHS. (Miller did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and neither did the White House.)
The Tuesday trip is part of an effort by senior aides to plot a travel itinerary that takes him outside the White House to highlight his “legacy,” according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. They’ve kicked around ideas for high-profile TV interviews, though some close advisers fear what would happen if the interviewers were to ask about the riot and the 2020 election.
Aides have also printed out and rushed to show him the latest articles they have found on Big Tech companies “censoring” him and other extremely online conservatives in recent days. One of the motivations behind doing this, two of the sources said, was to try to focus his energy on his pet cause of railing against the supposed anti-conservative bias at social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook, in the hopes that such distractions keep him from causing further, irreversible, or even violent mayhem.
It’s an effort that may go on for longer than the week-and-a-half Trump has left in his presidency. Sources close to Trump and GOP operatives, even those seemingly horrified by the events last week, privately concede that it is still unclear if Trump will be able to exercise a stranglehold on the conservative movement or retain a spot as a kingmaker in the party. Even as prominent Republican Party leaders, high-dollar donors, and former Trump confidants continue to publicly distance themselves from this president and condemn his recent actions and rhetoric, new polling this week shows that Trump still enjoys vast support among conservatives and GOP voters, even though his numbers have taken a hard hit.
“Trump should be staying up at night seriously considering resigning,” said Dan Eberhart, a major GOP and Trump donor who has openly regretted giving $100,000 this past cycle to the Trump re-elect. “He has lost the moral imperative to lead the country through the next week and a half.”
Unfortunately for Republicans looking for a speedy resignation, Trump has been privately shouting, sequestered in the White House since the weekend, about how, “I’M NOT GOING TO RESIGN.” And on Monday, administration officials began telling reporters that Trump and Pence had a meeting that evening, ostensibly to reconcile after the former callously helped put the latter’s life in danger. Apparently, the two men vowed to keep conducting “their” work together, right up until Joe Biden’s inauguration.