In a span of 24 hours last week, President Trump startled his senior aides by firing the FBI director investigating his campaign’s Russian ties and allegedly disclosing highly classified information to Russian officials in a free-wheeling Oval Office conversation.
Trump, according to people who spoke with him, was taken aback by the backlash to the firing and unfazed by the conversation with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador.
As Trump eyes a reorganization of his senior staff and blames a range of misfires on former President Barack Obama, warring White House aides, an ineffective communications shop, the “failing” news media, members of Congress and others, the latest episodes reveal what senior aides and advisers privately say: The problems often come from the top.
“It never stops,” one White House official said via text message Monday night. “Basically chaos at all times.”
The episode regarding classified information, which allegedly occurred last Wednesday in the Oval Office, was first reported by The Washington Post and sent his White House again in crisis control mode, days ahead of his first foreign trip. Aides had sought a calm week to avoid a widespread staff shake-up, which a displeased Trump has groused about to advisers and associates for the past four days. Earlier Monday, several officials said they were scrambling behind the scenes to appease Trump and avoid any seismic moves ahead of the trip.
The lengthy Washington Post report said Trump shared information about Islamic State operations with Russia that was “highly classified” and obtained through an intelligence-sharing partner that had not given the United States permission to share the information. While his conduct did not likely break the law — presidents can declassify information when they choose — it struck current and former U.S. intelligence officials as highly unusual.
“I get great intel,” Trump bragged to the Russian officials, according to the Washington Post, before sharing it.
White House officials sent out a range of statements disputing the story, including ones from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. “This story is false,” read a statement from Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser who attended the meeting.
She didn’t explain what was false about the story, and McMaster also did not address many aspects of the report as he briefly addressed reporters, without taking questions.
“The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” McMaster said. “At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
Tillerson, in his statement, said, “During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism. During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.
But several advisers and others close to Trump said they wouldn’t be surprised if Trump gave information he shouldn’t have.
One adviser who often speaks to the president said the conversation was likely freewheeling in the Oval Office, and he probably wanted to impress the officials.
“He doesn’t really know any boundaries. He doesn’t think in those terms,” this adviser said. “He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying. I don’t think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn’t want to do that.”
At the White House, reporters crowded outside White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s office, as his door remained closed. Before long, principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepped out from the hallway near the Oval Office to inform the waiting reporters that the White House would be delivering no additional comment Monday night and would not be taking any questions.
“Tonight we are not doing any other question and answering at this moment,” she said. “I’ve said all we’re going to say.”
She asked that reporters clear the hallway outside of Spicer’s office.
The episode involving classified information could further test Republicans’ willingness to defend Trump, who is historically unpopular for a president in his first year. Some senators, including Sen. Bob Corker from Tennessee criticized Trump. Speaker Paul Ryan, who has often blithely defended the administration even asked for an explanation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t offer any immediate statement.
Two senior GOP aides said they didn’t expect the party to break from Trump but that people would begin showing more annoyance “if controversies just continue every single day,” in the words of one.
And it will likely raise further fears from his critics, who warned Trump would be unable to properly handle classified information, even as he skewered Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information and used the words of now-ousted FBI Director James Comey against her. “Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team ‘were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.’ Not fit!” he tweeted in 2016.
A former senior Defense Department official in the George W. Bush administration emailed, simply, “WTF!!!!!!!”
“If it were anybody but the Russians you’d think it’s sort of juvenile, he’s trying to impress them…but because it’s the Russians, you’ve gotta wonder, is this a deliverable? Is he reporting to his case officer?” the same official said in a phone interview.
White House advisers, allies, and one senior administration official noted that Trump often causes the biggest problems — but then blames others. Trump makes comments fueled by emotion or his gut without realizing the ramifications, one of these people said, “and then doesn’t realize what a clean-up job it’s going to be.” This person cited Trump’s tweet last week that there could be “tapes” of his meetings with Comey.
One adviser said they expected Trump to be furious about the news coverage of the Oval Office conversation — and potentially lash out at aides.
Earlier Monday, several White House officials said they hoped for a quiet week — and for Trump’s mood to improve. Trump is weighing a reorganization of his White House, White House officials and advisers say. But top officials — knowing he is often swayed by media coverage — are trying to get through the week without any firings and hope that a 10-day foreign trip goes off without a hitch and changes his often frustrated mood.
His unhappiness with staff members has led to a widespread guessing game in the West Wing — and outside the West Wing — about whether a shake-up is coming. Some White House aides even suspect the president himself of leaking details about potential changes.
Trump has been encouraged by son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with a range of business friends from the private sector, to make changes and he has mused about large and small ones alike, according to senior administration officials. Among the changes has been a reshuffling of his communications shop, along with talk about removing senior aides, like chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon.
“If we could get this trip done well, people would forget about the Comey stuff, and we could probably weather it,” one White House official said.
Another senior administration official said “the trip is going to be a turning point” but added that Trump was considering a variety of reorganizations. “Does it mean he’s going to implement them?” this person said. “I don’t know. But it would be odd if President Trump — or any president for that matter — wasn’t considering changes in a time of crisis.”
Matt Nussbaum contributed to this report.