President Donald Trump spent many of the first 48 hours after he fired his FBI director grumbling to friends and associates about his lousy media coverage—and about the shortcomings of his senior aides.
Then, after he went on television himself to give his own, contradictory version of events, he made it even worse. Speaking to NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump said he’d planned to fire James Comey “regardless” of whether the Department of Justice recommended it, undermining the claims made by his spokesman, vice president and every other senior aide to the contrary.
The president who only a week ago was celebrating the hard-fought passage of health care legislation in the Rose Garden, and who was supposed to spend the week preparing for his first overseas trip—a six-stop tour through the Middle East and Europe—is mired in a crisis that doesn’t seem to be getting better.
Inside the White House, the mood was dour. Several White House officials said aides who didn’t need to see the president stayed away from the Oval Office – and kept their doors closed. The president had little on his public schedule and spent several hours talking about the Comey situation, mostly fuming– and even re-tweeted criticism of Comey posted by his longtime nemesis Rosie O’Donnell in December.
Trump did the lengthy interview with Holt even though some on his staff believed it was a bad idea, and gave his answers off-the-cuff. One person who spoke to him said he’d been “fixated” on his news coverage and believed his press team was failing him and that he needed “to take the situation into his own hands.”
The episode highlights two fundamental issues of the Trump presidency: It is often impossible to work for Trump in the White House – and it is often impossible for Trump to be happy with those who work for him.
“They’re hostages,” said longtime political consultant Mark Corallo, who served as John Ashcroft’s spokesman under President George W. Bush.
In the span of a dizzying few hours, the president contradicted the vice president and his press secretary, who had maintained for two days that Trump only fired Comey because deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein suggested it. Trump instead said the department was in “turmoil” even though he’d previously offered praise for Comey, even blowing him a kiss.
Earlier in the day, the acting FBI director contradicted the president and his spokespeople, testifying in the Senate that the investigation into Russian contacts with Trump’s campaign were “highly significant”—though Trump has called for the probe to end immediately and a taxpayer-funded “charade.” Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in turn, stood at the podium in the White House briefing room and contradicted the acting FBI director, who testified that Comey was well-regarded in the bureau, citing “countless” agents who she said had complained to her about his performance.
Asked what the strategy was to get through the crisis, one senior administration official laughed and asked if the reporter was “joking.” This official said aides weren’t as bothered as some might imagine because they had been through so many challenges – from Trump during the campaign saying he grabbed women by the genitals to the now infamous accusations about President Barack Obama ordered a “wire tapp” on Trump Tower.
Another White House official said there was a “widespread recognition this was handled terribly but not a real sense that we can do much here.” This person said Trump remains convinced he made the right decision by firing Comey and that he handled it properly – “maybe even more than two days ago.”
Sanders gave staff members a stern lecture on leaking to the media during a staff meeting Thursday morning, according to several people familiar with the incident, saying it was damaging the White House. The lecture seemed to take staffers by surprise, said one person present.
“The rules aren’t normal,” said one White House official. “If you can’t work in that universe, then don’t work here.”
The White House press shop, which Trump has privately and publicly criticized, has been at the receiving end of most of the criticism. Trump told aides and outside advisers that the press shop was failing him and he was displeased that “they don’t know how to defend anything,” in the words of one adviser. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is also upset with the press operation, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
On the night of the announcement, White House officials were left to scramble. “It was chaos, there was no direction, no marching orders, no execution, it was like people were having to learn what to do before they could do it, instead of knowing what happens in a crisis PR situation, here’s what we’re doing,” said one White House official. This person noted that Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, had crafted a better message and held a news conference within an hour – while it took White House officials three hours to put surrogates on TV.
Some said the criticism was unfair. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, for example, learned about the firing within an hour of it occurring – in a meeting with Trump, communications director Michael Dubke, White House counsel Don McGahn and chief of staff Reince Priebus, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“Trump goes out there and creates a total mess, and then blames others for not being able to fix it,” one adviser said. ”I don’t pity them.”
Spicer declined to comment on the office’s performance. Trump was pleased in the last two days by Sanders’s performance, two White House officials said.
Sanders, the White House deputy press secretary, was forced to change her planned answers for Thursday’s press briefing just minutes before. She watched as Trump interviewed with Holt, unsure exactly what he’d say. Trump admitted that he asked Comey whether he was under investigation at a dinner where Comey made clear he was seeking to keep his job – and the president changed his entire explanation for why he let Comey go, calling him a “showboat.”
“Nobody was in the dark,” Sanders said Thursday, seconds after saying she gave an incorrect answer the day before because she had been in the dark.
The communications crisis followed a familiar pattern in which the president – frustrated by his press team’s flatfooted response – takes charge of the situation himself and, in doing so, undermines the White House message. One outside adviser said the shifting explanations has made surrogates less willing to go on TV and back the president, for fear of being embarrassed.
White House aides have also been trying to paper over the apparent disorganization of the internal response to Comey’s abrupt firing.
Spicer repeatedly said in a phone call Tuesday night there was no talk of firing Comey before Trump received the Rosenstein letter and said any question to the contrary would impeach the “integrity” of Rosenstein, “who was confirmed 94 to 6.”
“Have you seen the letter?” Spicer asked, raising his voice and decrying “anonymous sources who don’t know anything.” He also said that Priebus didn’t express concerns about the firing, even though several other people close to Trump said that he did.
Spicer missed the briefings Wednesday and Thursday while on naval reserve duty, but engaged in a heated argument with the Washington Post’s national editor after the newspaper reported he hid in bushes Tuesday night outside the White House after doing a TV hit to defend Trump’s firing.
One White House official said Spicer, who is returning to the podium Friday, seemed more upset about that story than much of the terrible coverage Trump received.
Spicer said late Thursday The Washington Post “falsely described the situation” and “grossly misstated the situation around our attempt to brief the press.”
A person familiar with the press secretary’s location late Tuesday night said Spicer was standing between or behind bushes, but not physically in a bush.
More than 12 hours after the story ran, Spicer eventually secured an editor’s note. “Spicer huddled with his staff among bushes near television sets on the White House grounds, not “in the bushes,” as the story originally stated,” the newspaper wrote.
A spokesperson for The Post said their correction speaks for itself and declined to comment further.
Hadas Gold, Eliana Johnson, Matthew Nussbaum and Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.