White House aides and congressional Republicans are struggling to find their footing after President Trump's frenetic response to racial violence in Charlottesville, Va. this week plunged his administration into new depths of chaos.
Trump's refusal to back down on Thursday from his assertion that Confederate monuments should remain untouched extended the controversy into a sixth day and raised questions about how the White House could move on from a fight in which the president remains very much engaged.
"We are in uncharted territory on exactly where this goes," said one person close to the White House of the outrage surrounding Trump's comments.
"This is worse than the Billy Bush bus video, clearly, but it's on that level of survivability," the person said, referring to a leaked "Access Hollywood" tape that nearly derailed Trump's presidential campaign last year. "And we have to think about, ‘Ok, in the normal universe where gravity exists, this is not survivable.' But in his world, gravity does not exist, so I think it could be survivable, but he has to stop talking about it."
Several sources inside and outside the White House said Trump's decision to take questions after his infrastructure statement on Tuesday came as an unwelcome surprise to his staff. A White House official distributed talking points and research materials to allies shortly afterward that focused solely on infrastructure and construction permitting, according to copies obtained by the Washington Examiner, underscoring the degree to which aides believed the day would produce media coverage of infrastructure only.
Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic adviser, was particularly upset by the incident, two people familiar with the situation said. The president's remarks undid one of his most visible projects to date, as one source noted Cohn played a major role in creating the business advisory councils that Trump dissolved on Wednesday.
A White House official told reporters traveling with the president on Thursday that "nothing has changed" in Cohn's plans to remain at the helm of Trump's National Economic Council amid speculation that Cohn may resign over the president's remarks.
Trump's new chief of staff, John Kelly, watched the impromptu press conference unfold Tuesday with an expression so pained that it quickly went viral.
The episode has shaken confidence in Kelly both inside the White House and among its Republican allies.
"It's pretty apparent that he's got qualms after this whole thing," one person close to Kelly said of Trump's beleaguered chief of staff. "I don't know what he's going to do, but a lot of people are telling him, ‘Just stay in because as bad as things are, the country needs you and needs stability.'"
The person said Kelly may have erred by allowing ambiguity to surround the White House's messaging strategy.
"I think he made a very strategic error when he came on in that he didn't establish a set of preconditions with the president as to how things would work, especially on the communications side," the person close to Kelly said. "And now that communications aren't consistent, people in the White House don't feel like they're being taken seriously."
Another source close to Kelly said the Charlottesville imbroglio has sowed doubts about the former Homeland Security secretary's ability to stabilize Trump's presidency.
"It really seemed like things were going well until Sunday," the second source close to Kelly said. "Now, I'm sitting here wondering, ‘If a four-star general can't convince President Trump to stick to the script for five minutes, can anyone?'"
While Kelly has streamlined the flow of information to Trump and added a sense of structure to the staff, he has yet to make any major personnel changes beyond the dismissal of a communications director and has so far failed to rein in Trump's destructive impulses.
Cabinet secretaries have to go through Kelly if they want to reach the president, one source familiar with the process said, and Kelly insists on approving the memos and clips that reach Trump's desk.
But the chief of staff has not yet found a way to blunt Trump's sharp edges, particularly when it comes to social media. Trump's antagonism of the business leaders who quit his advisory councils this week exacerbated an already difficult situation when Trump claimed via Twitter that he could replace the defectors with any other executive he wanted.
A source close to the White House said aides don't blame Kelly for the current mess because Trump delivered his provocative remarks on Tuesday unexpectedly and did so "as a reaction from being controlled."
"It's what Gen. Kelly does now that really matters," the source said.
Trump remained confident in his comments overnight and likely hasn't absorbed the gravity of his predicament, the source added, noting Trump "feels like he had the last word" during his press conference on Tuesday.
While the president may not be persuaded by clips of his usual media detractors bashing the Charlottesville response, the source said Trump may take notice if Kelly shows him criticism from "entertainment figures that have never weighed in on this issue," New York personalities Trump respects or even a snippet of Jimmy Fallon's tearful monologue on the issue.
Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who advised Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Kelly still commands respect among Republicans despite the discord that unfolded on his watch this week.
"I don't think people should mistake hope for confidence," Conant told the Washington Examiner. "When Gen. Kelly took over the chief job, everyone hoped he would bring a sense of normalcy and strategic organization to the White House. But most people recognized Kelly's impact would be limited by Trump's unwillingness to change core tendencies."
Amid the chaos over Trump's Charlottesville comments, Hope Hicks, a longtime Trump aide, assumed control of the White House press shop as the interim communications director, ending weeks of uncertainty about who would take the job. Hicks had already been performing many of the duties that typically fall to a communications director, and her new position was viewed internally as a natural next step for the Trump loyalist.
"I think she earned it and will keep it," said one person who has worked with Hicks.
Her promotion came just as Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, quietly ended his tenure this week. Spicer officially resigned last month after Trump named Anthony Scaramucci as his communications director, but remained on board for several weeks to facilitate a transition under Scaramucci that ultimately never occurred.
Hicks did not return a request for comment on her appointment.
Her shift to the press office could allow Trump to exert greater control over the White House's messaging strategy, as Hicks is considered one of the West Wing staffers to whom Trump is closest.
On the day of Hicks' elevation to communications director, one of Trump's top aides seemingly went rogue in a series of rare on-the-record interviews with the American Prospect, the New York Times, and the Daily Mail.
Steve Bannon may have conducted the first interview with a writer for the Prospect, a left-leaning publication, inadvertently, said one person close to Trump's chief strategist. But Bannon clearly intended the two interviews that followed to appear on the record, and in them, he doubled down on Trump's argument that removing Confederate statues erodes American culture.
A person familiar with the situation said Bannon acted as Trump's "political Secret Service" by granting a juicy interview to the Prospect and described the move as an effort by Bannon to "take a bullet" for Trump by drawing attention to something other than Charlottesville.
"Steve did something that almost no one else in the West Wing would consider doing — he had someone fire live ammunition at him to draw attention away from POTUS," the person said. "You have to respect that."
Bannon had already come under scrutiny for his feud with national security adviser H.R. McMaster due to Kelly's suspicion that Bannon had orchestrated a right-wing campaign against McMaster through a series of leaks.
"I think [Kelly] feels like he's alone on an island dealing with Bannon and Trump," one outside adviser told the Washington Examiner. "And I doubt it helps that Bannon thinks Tuesday's press conference was a ‘defining moment' or great success."
Roger Stone, an occasional outside adviser to Trump, suggested the consternation within the West Wing over the president's comments could be attributed to the political backgrounds of many top aides.
"If the president had surrounded himself with Trump loyalists who understand his constituency and the dynamics of the current political situation, instead of establishment types who are of the same mindset as Trump's critics, perhaps he would not have these staff issues," Stone told the Washington Examiner. "When you hire gutless moderate Republicans, you shouldn't be surprised when they act like moderate Republicans."
However, Stone predicted Hicks would find success in the communications director role because "she has a clear understanding of both Trump and the media."
The turmoil that engulfed Washington this week reached all the way to South America, where Vice President Mike Pence was midway through a four-country tour of the region meant to strengthen U.S. relationships and address the collapse of Venezuela when the controversy over Trump's comments erupted.
Pence had been scheduled to hold a press conference in Santiago on Wednesday after delivering joint statements with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, but his staff told reporters aboard Air Force Two that the event would not involve questions at the behest of the Chileans. However, just before Pence and Bachelet took their respective podiums, the vice president's spokesman said Pence had requested that reporters be allowed to ask him questions at the conclusion of the event.
"What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy, and the president has been clear on this tragedy and so have I," Pence said Wednesday in response to a question about Charlottesville. "The strength of the United States of America is always strongest, as the president has said so eloquently, when we are united around our shared values, and so it will always be."
Pence cut short his trip to South America by one day in order to join the president at a national security meeting at Camp David on Friday, a White House official told the Washington Examiner. Pence also canceled two political events in Virginia on Saturday in order to "provide flexibility should the Camp David discussions need more time/attention," the official said.
However, some observers viewed Pence's last-minute scheduling shuffle as a signal that the backlash over Trump's Charlottesville response had grown serious enough to require all hands on deck.
The dust-up has also disrupted a relatively quiet August recess for congressional Republicans, many of whom emerged this week to condemn the president's words.
Republican aides on Capitol Hill expressed frustration with the situation and projected a sense of uncertainty about whether temperatures would still be too high to accomplish anything substantive by the time lawmakers return to Washington at the end of the month.
By Thursday morning, Trump was beginning to return fire to the GOP lawmakers who had criticized him most aggressively.
He excoriated "[p]ublicity seeking" Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a tweet Thursday that ripped Graham for claiming Trump had drawn a "moral equivalency" between white supremacist demonstrators and the left-wing counter-protesters who had come to oppose them.
"Such a disgusting lie," Trump wrote. "He just can't forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!"
Trump also went after Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., for his criticism of the White House's Charlottesville response. Flake has long served as one of Trump's most vocal critics within the GOP.
"Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate," Trump wrote in a tweet praising Flake's Republican primary opponent. "He's toxic!"
A source close to the White House said the tensions created by Trump's response to Charlottesville could complicate lawmakers' efforts to pass major legislation come September, when the month-long recess ends.
"It does make it hard for Trump to get his legislative agenda through, because members are frustrated and they will not want to spend their political capital taking any risk for him whatsoever," the source said. "The legislation that's put forward will have to be so philosophically aligned with Republicans on Capitol Hill, because there will be very little negotiation that members will want to do."