White House frustrated by palace intrigue

The White House is increasingly frustrated by the never-ending stream of stories about palace intrigue, warring internal factions and imminent staff shake-ups.

Administration officials say these “false narratives” — which they say are driven by White House outsiders — make it more difficult to govern and dominate the news cycle at the expense of President Trump’s political victories.

“Once again this is a completely false story driven by people who want to distract from the success taking place in this administration,” said spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. “The president’s pick for Supreme Court ... was confirmed today; we hosted multiple foreign leaders this week; and the president took bold and decisive military action against Syria last night.

“The only thing we are shaking up is the way Washington operates as we push the president’s aggressive agenda forward.”

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On Friday morning, hours after a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base garnered bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill, news reports about the attack competed with the latest round of stories about internal divisions and speculation that Trump would shake up the top level of his administration.

White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon suffered a demotion this week, losing his seat on National Security Council’s (NSC) principals committee. And he is reportedly frustrated by the rise of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose ever-expanding portfolio includes Middle East peace and modernizing the government.

A senior administration official dismissed the chatter, telling The Hill that the divisions are merely the result of “creative tension” Trump promotes because he believes it leads to new ideas and allows for a variety of perspectives.

But more reports surfaced on Friday that both Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus, whose standing in the administration has been the focus of intense speculation since he first arrived at the White House, could be on the way out.

Once again, the White House found itself rushing to deny an impending shake-up.

“We are not making any staff changes and our team is focused on the president’s agenda not false palace intrigue stories,” a high-ranking official told The Hill.

Aboard Air Force One Thursday, reporters peppered Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer with questions about Bannon and the potential for a staff change.

Administration officials argue that these stories have circulated for months despite little actual White House turnover. The organizational chart remains largely intact, they say, with the exception of fired former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Priebus deputy Katie Walsh, who was transferred to a pro-Trump outside group.

The administration has “already shaken things up,” Trump said.

Vice President Pence defended Bannon in a separate interview, saying that Trump’s chief strategist would “continue to play important policy roles.” And Spicer tweeted a picture of Trump in a meeting about the Syria strike surrounded by Priebus, Bannon, Kushner and other top advisers.

Reports of instability inside the White House put Trump’s staff on the defensive on a day when it seemed certain that Trump would get a political boost for taking action against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who provoked international outrage after officials said he used chemical weapons against his own people.

The president scored another major victory on Friday with the confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, fulfilling a major campaign promise to conservatives.

Still, much of the chatter inside Washington focused on the fate of Trump’s top advisers. 

Some Trump allies say the White House has only itself to blame. Top officials are known to speak regularly to the press, with details of private interactions — and oftentimes contradictory versions of events — spilling into the pages of Beltway publications.

“Every day, it’s something new,” fumed one Republican with close ties to the White House. “Who would want to work in that environment? It’s toxic. That’s what you have to look forward to everyday? Something is wrong and it has to be corrected and it starts with the president. He has to get that house in order.”

Despite the White House denials, many close to the administration say the reports of division and cutthroat maneuvering are true.

One former transition officials said there are insurmountable differences in views between Kushner’s “globalist Democrats,” Priebus’s loyalists from his time as head of the Republican National Committee and Bannon’s bomb-throwing populists.

“The factions are real, and the tensions are real,” the former official said.

Bannon’s image took a hit in late March, when he told the House Freedom Caucus it had “no choice” but to vote for the GOP’s ObamaCare replacement bill, only for the group of hard-line conservatives to buck him by opposing it anyway. But questions about Bannon — once widely viewed as untouchable — exploded this week after he was removed from the NSC.

An administration official played down Bannon’s removal, saying he was only on the council to “babysit” Flynn. The official also said Bannon was there to “de-operationalize” the NSC, an apparent jab at Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice.

“Job done,” the official said.

But Bannon’s allies are alarmed by what they view as their clearly diminishing power as Kushner takes on new responsibilities.

Kushner was meeting with international coalition forces in Iraq as Bannon was bumped down the NSC ladder. And Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, recently took an official role in the White House as an assistant to the president.

Kushner’s allies — economic director Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell — also appear to be rising in influence.

White House officials talked up Kushner’s expanding role to The Hill this week, casting him as the president’s go-to problem solver. And they sought to diminish Bannon, claiming that his internal policy think tank — the Strategic Initiatives Group — never got off the ground and would have been irrelevant even if it had existed.

Breitbart News, the conservative media outlet Bannon once ran, has rallied to his defense by casting Kushner as a feckless, out-of-touch East Coast elite.

Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone appeared on conspiracy theory outlet InfoWars to allege that Kushner is leaking stories to liberal media outlets.

And influential figures in conservative media, including talk radio hosts Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, expressed concern that Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s values are not aligned with conservatives'.

“There shouldn’t be a liberal wing in the White House, that’s not who we elected,” said a GOP strategist with close ties to the White House. “Trump was not elected because of Jared Kushner. He embraced the views and the ideology of Steve Bannon. If Jared wins out here, we’ll once again have a Democratic White House at odds with a Republican Congress.” 

Some of Bannon’s supporters are worried that he miscalculated by aligning himself with Priebus, who is despised by Trump diehards.

“If Bannon goes down, it’s because he tied himself at the hip with Priebus,” said one Bannon ally.

Priebus himself is feeling the heat in the wake the GOP’s failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

At a high-pressure meeting with GOP leaders this week about moving the Republican healthcare bill forward, Priebus warned that a failure to move quickly on Trump’s agenda would lead to a Republican civil war where “everyone was shooting at everyone,” according to a senior source familiar with the conversation.

“You can’t accomplish the president’s agenda with all of this chaos and conflict,” said a Trump ally who is friends with Bannon. “They have to get out of this mode. It’s a frustrating and unnecessary distraction. They say these stories aren’t true but they’re always putting out fires. The fires are coming from somewhere.”