The Memo: White House reels after week of upheaval

The Trump administration is scrambling to keep its footing after being hit by several gut punches over the past week.

In rapid succession, communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration President says Trump Jr. doing 'very well' after COVID-19 diagnosis Donald Trump Jr. tests positive for COVID-19 MORE announced her imminent departure; several damaging stories about senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerPompeo becomes first top US diplomat to visit Israeli settlement, labels boycotts anti-Semitic NYT's Bruni suggests Ivanka Trump, Kushner move to North Korea or Saudi Arabia With Biden, a Saudi reboot MORE emerged; new tariffs on steel and aluminum were announced by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE to the consternation of key aides; and the commander in chief’s tone vacillated on gun control.

Amid all this, Trump once again took aim at Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 Next attorney general must embrace marijuana law reforms MORE on Twitter, and the White House had to deny that the departure of two major figures — national security adviser H.R. McMaster and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn — was in the works.

The administration’s capacity for chaos is unlike any in recent memory. Many Washington Republicans express horror at the never-ending controversies.

Even people loyal to the president say morale at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has taken a serious hit. 


One source close to the White House characterized the reason for Hicks’s departure as “getting tired of beating her head off a wall” trying to keep some modicum of order.  

She was not alone in feeling that way, the source suggested. 

Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciSunday shows preview: Joe Biden wins the 2020 election Scaramucci says Trump has united country: 'It just happens to be against him' Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE, Hicks’s predecessor as communications director — though he held the post for less than two weeks — has gone public on the problems.  

Scaramucci told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday that White House morale was “terrible,” something he appeared to lay at the feet of Trump’s chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE.

Appearing at a forum in California earlier in the week, Scaramucci said that, on a 1-10 scale, morale in the White House was “minus 15.”

The White House pushes back against reports of chaos and disillusionment, insisting that such stories are sensationalized, and the product of sources with axes to grind and a biased media. 

“Another day, another hit piece. We’re used to it by now. We plow ahead and move forward while this president racks up success after success,” said one senior White House official, referring to negative stories in general. 

Others in the president’s orbit expressed concern that Hicks’s resignation would leave the president more isolated and more prone to volatility.

After she leaves, there will be just one member of the president’s original campaign staff left in the White House: director of social media Dan Scavino Jr. 

“The biggest impact on the president will be personal,” one longtime Trump ally said. “He trusts Hope, probably turned to her for advice many times a day, and I think that is going to have a measurable personal impact.” 

Hicks’s departure also strips Kushner of another ally.

The president’s son-in-law has seen a number of people close to him depart or announce their intention to do so recently. His security clearance was downgraded and several stories have raised new questions about connections between his family’s business interests and his role in the White House.

An NBC News report on Friday afternoon asserted that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE was investigating whether any White House policies were driven by a desire to reward or punish foreigners with whom Kushner had discussed his family’s real estate business.

A spokesman for Kushner’s attorney described that story to NBC as the product of “unnamed sources seeking only mischief.”

As The Hill reported on Friday, Kushner is said to be insistent that he will stay on at the White House, even as his rivals in Trump World are adamant that he has been seriously weakened.

One key question now is whether the reports of internal division resonate with voters beyond the Beltway. 

If the impression of a dysfunctional White House spreads, it could hurt Trump’s already low approval ratings. But it is equally possible that voters’ focus is on more tangible issues, especially pertaining to the economy. 

One Republican strategist with ties to the White House cast Trump’s frustration as a legitimate reaction to business-as-usual behavior in Washington. 

“The president is frustrated and rightfully so,” this source said. “He can’t understand why it’s always 10 ways things can’t get done.” 

A different GOP strategist, Whit Ayres, said that “from the perspective of Americans who voted for, and continue to support, President Trump, it means little or nothing as long as he continues to achieve the goals for which they supported him.” 

But, Ayres added, “the real test is whether or not he can continue to put points on the board with the continuing upheavals among his staff.”

The White House official noted there are a number of issues on the administration’s immediate agenda, citing infrastructure, immigration and guns. 

Among Trump supporters there is also a fervent belief that Trump has not been given sufficient credit for the conservative agenda items that he has accomplished. 

In addition to last December’s tax cut, the items most frequently cited include the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, sweeping advances against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the green-lighting of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The president himself has repeatedly argued that the media do not give sufficient coverage to the nation’s strong economic performance.

But even Trump backers acknowledge that he can sometimes get in his own way. 

Early on Friday morning, he followed one tweet defending his tariff proposal with another complaining about Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him on NBC’s "Saturday Night Live." 

"Bring back Darrell Hammond, funnier and a far greater talent!" the president urged.

As has always been the case with Trump — for good and for ill — normal rules do not apply. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.