When a group of nearly a dozen state GOP chairs walked into the Oval Office last week, they expected to be inside for only a few minutes to say a brief hello and take pictures with President Donald Trump.
Instead, Trump spoke with them for nearly half an hour, inviting them to sit down on the couches. He wanted to know how his policies were playing among voters in their states and peppered them with questions. Among the concerns he brought up, according to several people familiar with the meeting: the Russia probe.
The expanding investigation, now under the control of special counsel Robert Mueller, has hung over Trump’s every move since its announcement a week ago. Chief strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus returned home early from Trump’s tour across the Middle East and Europe in part to help put an apparatus in place to keep the president’s agenda moving ahead.
“They are back trying to get this under control,” said one person familiar with the internal dynamics of the White House. “Trump is not happy about all of this. Everyone knows it. They aren’t sitting around working on the budget all day.”
A White House spokeswoman said Bannon and Priebus returned to work on the president’s legislative agenda. But the pair have held high-level meetings and phone calls with a hope of securing outside lawyers and consultants to handle what they fear will be a months- or years-long slog, according to White House officials.
Top aides have begun asking White House lawyers and outside advisers how long such a probe would take, who should hire lawyers and how to preserve evidence. Trump’s legal team will be headed by his longtime attorney Marc Kasowitz, but whether other lawyers are in — or out — has become something of a parlor game in Washington.
A senior administration official described “paralysis” setting in as more of the White House’s time and resources are consumed by the Russia probe. With so much energy being directed toward the investigation, this person said, it is becoming harder to see how any policy goals get accomplished.
Among legislators, as well as the president’s senior staff, there is a fear that the legislative agenda will be hampered — and that Trump will be unable to focus.
“Investigations are hardly conducive to legislative agendas,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican. “It’s obvious and warranted concern on the degree to which they either impede, stop or foil the legislative agenda has been ironed out with tax policy and health care reform.”
But two senior administration officials said there was a desire to focus June on jobs and the economy, potentially scheduling daily events for Trump “to keep him on one message, and to keep him hammering it.”
Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, has pushed for a daily drumbeat on the president’s agenda, one person familiar with internal planning said. Short didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The White House is also preparing for months of nonstop, damaging news coverage, said one of the administration officials. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and other top officials, were angered earlier this week when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized Trump for hiring Michael Flynn as his national security adviser.
After Mueller’s appointment last week, White House Counsel Don McGahn gave senior aides instructions at their morning meeting: Don’t talk about the investigation. Expect guidelines for dealing with potential evidence. The White House, he told staff, still needed to learn a lot more.
“This issue is red hot and the White House needs to cool it down. The Clinton precedent is the route to take. Create an infrastructure in the counsel’s office to handle it,” said Ari Fleischer, the press secretary to George W. Bush. “Otherwise it will sap the energy, strength and message out of everyone else in the White House, damaging the president’s ability to govern.”
For White House aides, the week has proved somewhat unsettling — but “weirdly peaceful,” in the words of one administration official who stayed in Washington.
Vice President Mike Pence hasn’t hired a lawyer, said one person familiar with the issue, and senior White House aides have not been told to do so. At daily meetings, one administration official said, “Russia doesn’t come up, and people don’t seem worried.”
This person said aides guess about who could be in trouble but don’t know whether to hire a lawyer or not. Some people have begun searching through their old emails, this person said.
“It feels like people should be more worried to me,” this person added. “No one has told me to hire a lawyer or not to hire a lawyer. So I’m not hiring one yet.”
Several officials said Trump had interrupted meetings on other issues in recent weeks to talk about the investigation, and had fumed about Russia and Comey. He has committed a series of self-inflicted errors, like going against his own administration’s talking points on firing Comey, giving classified information to the Russians and then seeming to confirm that he received it from Israel in an off-the-cuff comment during his visit to Jerusalem.
Whether Trump can separate things in his obsessive mind will be the real question.
“The key to getting back on track is compartmentalizing the fights that are obviously defensive, like this Russia issue and the special counsel, with a separate team and then elevating and providing more freedom to your top staff and communicators to be proactive on the issue agenda, advancing the priorities that got you to the White House in the first place,” said Kevin Madden, a former top spokesman to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former House Speaker John Boehner.
“Putting together a comms SWAT team to provide support on the defensive stuff while the other team focuses on the legislative agenda helps everyone sharpen their focus and work more efficiently,” Madden added. “It also separates out what you can control from what you can’t.”
One key desire, said a White House adviser, is to keep Trump calm and away from his prized Twitter account. When Trump obsesses over an issue, one adviser said, “You aren’t going to say, ‘Hey, look at this, and he’s just going to forget about it.’”
The night before his departure for Riyadh, Trump was scheduled to meet with Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, one of his most generous campaign donors. That day, the Justice Department announced Mueller would be taking over the FBI’s Russia probe.
By the time Marcus arrived in the Oval Office that evening, according to a source familiar with the conversation, he found the president so exhausted that he voluntarily suggested rescheduling.