Overworked and Undercut
White House Staff React in Real-Time as Trump Tweets: ‘Jesus’
Flacking for a man who can change his mind at any moment is proving to be a tactical minefield for the White House press office.
It was 7:51 a.m. eastern time on a Friday, and the president was angrily tweetstorming again.
“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” @realDonaldTrump posted. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
Senior administration officials have grown accustomed to learning about their boss’s whims in unorthodox ways but it doesn’t mean they like it or are prepared for the sudden swings of emotion. For instance, one official was having a conversation with a Daily Beast reporter on Friday morning when the reporter interrupted the official to inform them that Trump was on Twitter again.
After a brief pause to check Twitter, the senior Trump aide informed of the unfolding rant, responded, “Jesus.”
The morning’s tirade was the latest in a series of migraine-inducing actions endured by the president’s press team this week, who have faced the wrath of the president’s anger over their handling of Trump’s botched and bungled firing of FBI director James Comey.
Multiple White House sources confirmed to The Daily Beast earlier reports that the president was “furious” in the aftermath—causing aides to spend the rest of the week drawing as little attention to themselves as possible.
“People are keeping their heads down,” another official said, describing the White House comms shop as dispirited and fearful of Trump’s ire.
White House sources told The Daily Beast this week that Trump was not accepting excuses from staffers that they were kept in the dark and therefore didn’t have sufficient time on Tuesday to come up with a coherent strategy and messaging.
Officials spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity so as to speak freely. The White House press shop did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At Friday’s White House press briefing, Sean Spicer explained that he and his staff do their best to gather relevant information from the president before briefing the press, but that Trump is occasionally unavailable and some information isn’t readily attainable.
An exasperated White House staffer on Friday described a different dynamic, saying the West Wing often struggles to keep up with Trump’s kinetic and unilateral public messaging operation and tweets and interviews that often diverge from the official White House line on the day’s events.
The resulting tension between Trump’s statements and those of the press office charged with maintaining his public image have some frustrated at their apparent inability to nail down a coherent narrative on issues as weighty as the FBI’s investigation into alleged 2016 election-meddling.
“It’s not that we don’t know what the president wants to say, it’s that the president doesn’t know what the president wants to say,” the staffer said.
When deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Wednesday that the president canned Comey, on the advice of Justice Department leadership, she was dutifully advancing the administration’s initial narrative on the move.
“They had come to him to express their concerns,” she said of the president’s Monday meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“So it’s the White House’s assertion that Rod Rosenstein decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey’s performance?” a reporter asked. Sanders was resolute: “Absolutely.”
Vice President Mike Pence relayed the same timeline seven times on Wednesday as well.
Then on Thursday, Trump publicly contradicted all of them.
“Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview excerpted before Thursday’s White House press briefing.
Sanders was forced to walk back her claims the day before. “I went off of the information that I had when I answered your question,” she admitted. “I’ve since had the conversation with him, right before I walked on today, and he laid it out very clearly. He had already made that decision.”
“It’s tough,” the White House staffer said of Sanders’s Trump-induced walk-back. “You say what you’re supposed to say, and then you have to go out and basically apologize for it.”
By Friday, Sanders was no longer at the briefing room lectern, and Spicer was back at the job. Another White House staffer said Spicer essentially had to return to deliver the briefing as a matter of survival, due to being on thinner ice with the president as a result of Tuesday’s mess.
Trump undercutting—or needlessly complicating life for—his top political surrogates and spokespeople dates back to the 2016 campaign trail, when senior campaign staff were in a constant state of cleaning up after the Republican presidential nominee.
“When POTUS tweetstorms, it is often all-hands [on deck]” for White House staffers, a senior Trump aide said.
One former top Trump campaign surrogate described to The Daily Beast that “the scariest five minutes” of their life was the period of time right before they went on live TV when they weren’t checking their smartphone, since there was always the possibility that they would be asked on-air about something Trump had just tweeted or said that campaign staff hadn’t had time to invent a defense for yet.
“There were times on the trail when the initial comms strategy was just to be, just, flabbergasted at Twitter, then play clean up,” the surrogate recounted.
In the White House, Trump’s press secretary and his communications team have plenty of cleaning up to do—and have to deal with a president who is never shy about reminding senior staff about their job insecurity.
“He made it clear and known that Sean [Spicer] had failed him,” one person who spoke with Trump about this told The Daily Beast. “It was clear.”
Still, Spicer can’t do much more than put on a happy face and continue to try to appease his boss.
“It’s good to be back with you. Apparently I was missed,” Spicer said, smiling, at the top of the White House press briefing on Friday early afternoon.