CIA Director Mike Pompeo carves out three hours almost every weekday to drive from Langley, Va., to the White House with his team to give President Donald Trump his national security briefing in person.
The CIA director’s treks to the West Wing reflect Trump’s insistence on frequent meetings with favored members of his team. Every president has regular contact with key Cabinet members, but Trump, who remains deeply mistrustful of career agency officials, has turned the White House into a hangout for his chosen department heads.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has met with the president at least 34 times since he was confirmed in February, according to a POLITICO analysis of Trump’s interactions since taking office. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are also frequent guests at the White House — so much so that one White House staffer quipped, “Wilbur practically lives here.” Defense secretary James Mattis has enjoyed private meetings with the president, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has taken to eating at the White House mess several times a week.
Senior aides say Trump demands facetime with his appointees in part because he doesn’t trust bureaucrats who do the day-to-day work of the federal government. The president shuns them as tools of what he often refers to as the “deep state,” and blames them for the frequent, unflattering news stories coming from his White House, according to two White House aides.
But for Trump’s Cabinet members, proximity is a plus. Being physically present at the White House ensures that they have a say in policymaking — and serves as an indication of status with the president. While Pompeo, Tillerson, and others like Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are frequent White House visitors, some Cabinet secretaries have had little interaction with Trump, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, according to POLITICO’s analysis.
“Who gets to sit in meetings is highly competitive,” said one Trump adviser. “People want to be in those meetings, because information is power.”
But the constant visits to the White House are beginning to worry some inside and outside the administration.
Two administration officials said the parade of Cabinet officials going into the White House on a daily basis has prompted worries that their focus is being diverted from the day-to-day operations of their departments and agencies.
“We’ll see how long it lasts,” one of the officials said, noting that many secretaries don’t yet have a full cast of undersecretaries to brief top White House officials. “They don’t have their politicals yet, so some of it is a necessity.”
Indeed, many agencies still lack top political leaders that could play a more regular role in briefing the White House. There are only four confirmed deputy secretaries at Cabinet agencies. Five have been nominated and six have no nominees, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which advised Trump’s presidential transition team on hiring.
“The challenge here is the leadership structure isn’t in place in these agencies,” said Partnership for Public Service president Max Stier. “The idea that President Trump is going to look to Secretary Mattis or Secretary Kelly for advice and to lean on them heavily is all good and important. It’s something to be encouraged. But what you don’t want to occur is that the conversation is only through that small pipe.”
Past presidents have met frequently with Cabinet secretaries, especially when key issues arise. But former White House officials said the frequency of contact seen so far under Trump is unusual.
“Obama was very clear in directing us to make sure that he stayed in touch with all of his Cabinet on a regular basis,” said Broderick Johnson, who served as Obama’s Cabinet secretary in the last years of his second term.
“We were very prudent about using their time,” Johnson added. “President Obama’s view was certainly that time they spent away from the agencies or with the president would be time that could conceivably distract from what they were trying to get accomplished.”
Pompeo’s daily presence in the White House for the national security briefing breaks with the practice of past presidents.
Traditionally, CIA analysts skilled in briefing would handle this part of the president’s daily routine, but Trump insists on one-on-on time with the principal. Obama received his briefing in a memo and then would follow up with a lower level briefer, while Bush had a briefer present the findings, though his CIA director George Tenet would occasionally attend.
Because Pompeo spends so much of his day with Trump, the White House set up a temporary workspace for him in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the 4th floor next door to the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
While sources familiar with the issue said Pompeo has griped privately about the inconvenience of his trips to the White House, a CIA spokesperson referred to his public comments that their daily meetings are “important,” and that he often “needs a great deal more of the president’s time.”
“It’s not unprecedented that Trump is doing it, but it is not the norm,” said David Priess, Author of the “President’s Book of Secrets” on the history of these briefings and a former CIA officer and intelligence briefer.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Trump often refers to certain Cabinet secretaries as his “killers” – the highest form of praise from the commander-in-chief, according to aides.
“I’ve only got killers, only killers,” Trump often says when introducing his Cabinet secretaries, taking pride in the team of high-net worth individuals who have excelled in military or the private sector.
“My Wilbur, on Wall Street, all you have to say is Wilbur and everyone knows who it is,” Trump has said of Ross, the aides said.
And for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has said, “Rex ran the world’s biggest company, now he runs the State Department.” Pruitt bonded with the president during discussions over how the United States should withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, other administration officials said.
Some of the cabinet officials are just his friends, and are beckoned to the President for political advice, even if it’s outside of the purview of their agency.
Ross is the Cabinet official most often photographed with the president, regardless of the event. He often sits in on the President’s morning intelligence briefing. Trump and Ross have known each other for more than two decades, and Ross has been a frequent guest of the president at Mar-a-Lago.
One senior administration official said White House staff understand the president’s desire to rely on agency heads to learn about complex issues, but they wish that the meetings would be coordinated in advance. Instead, Cabinet secretaries like Mnuchin and Ross just stroll in with little notice.
Others in the administration remain concerned that Cabinet officials are spending too much time schmoozing with the president and attending events, and not enough at their agencies.
“Everyone is in events all day long,” said one senior agency official. “Everything about this White House. It’s a dog and pony show.”