President Donald Trump and his advisers, seeking to contain the escalating Russia crisis that threatens to consume his presidency, are considering a retooling of his senior staff and the creation of a “war room” within the White House, according to several aides and outside Trump allies.
Following Trump’s return to Washington on Saturday night from a nine-day foreign trip that provided a respite from the controversy back home, the White House plans to far more aggressively combat the cascading revelations about contacts between Trump associates – including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser – and Russia.
White House officials also are trying to find ways to revive Trump’s stalled policy agenda in Congress and to more broadly overhaul the way the White House communicates with the public.
That includes proposals for more travel and campaign-style rallies nationwide so that Trump can speak directly to his supporters, as well as changes in the pace and nature of news briefings, probably including a diminished role for embattled White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
Although much remained fluid Saturday, the beefed-up operation could include the return of some of Trump’s more combative campaign aides, including Corey Lewandowski, who was fired as campaign manager nearly a year ago, and David Bossie, who was deputy campaign manager and made his name in politics by investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton for two decades. Both men have been part of ongoing discussions about how to build a war roomthat have been led in part by chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
Other Trump players who have drifted from his orbit in recent months, such as Sam Nunberg, are also being courted to play more active roles, either officially joining the White House or in an outside capacity, working through confidants of the president.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, has been involved in related talks, including with prominent Trump backers outside Washington and on Capitol Hill, and has contacted people from Trump’s campaign network, asking them to be more involved in supporting the president, said three GOP consultants working with the White House.
Meanwhile, White House counsel Donald McGahn is considering expanding his office, and an outside legal team led by Marc Kasowitz is preparing to meet with Trump and guide him, including on whether he should continue to comment on the Russia investigations on Twitter.
Kushner has played an active role in the effort to rethink and rearrange the communications team, improve the White House’s surrogate operation, and develop an internal group to respond to the influx of negative stories and revelations over the FBI’s Russia inquiry, said a person with knowledge of the coming changes.
“The bottom line is they need fresh legs; they need more legs,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a political adviser to Trump during the general-election campaign. “They’re in full-scale war, and they’re thinly staffed.”
As Trump has participated in meetings with world leaders in recent days, senior aides – including Bannon, Kushner and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus – have met in the White House to discuss a potential reshuffle.
Kushner’s role has emerged as a particularly sensitive topic of discussion within the White House, as his actions have come under increasing scrutiny in the FBI investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential election.
The Washington Post reported Friday night that Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.
Some White House aides have discreetly discussed among themselves whether Kushner should play a lesser role – or even take a leave – at least until the Russia-related issues calm, but they have been reluctant to discuss that view with Kushner, and Kushner’s network of allies within the West Wing has rallied behind him.
Those close to Kushner said he has no plans to take a reduced role, although people who have spoken to him say that he is increasingly weary of the nonstop frenzy.
In recent weeks, the White House brought on Josh Raffel as a spokesman to handle many of the issues in Kushner’s portfolio; Raffel works out of a shared office in the West Wing, although he also has space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
During a lunch Friday, Kushner and Priebus talked about how Trump’s foreign trip had gone and began outlining what is coming up in the weeks ahead. Earlier in the day in Kushner’s office, the two briefly discussed the stories involving Kushner and Russia.
The president’s lawyers have urged Trump not to write adversarial Twitter messages or make off-the-cuff comments about the Russia investigations, explaining that those utterances could further hurt him if it seems as though he’s trying to obstruct the inquiries.
Underscoring the uncertainty of what lies ahead, some Trump associates said there have been conversations about dispatching Priebus to serve as ambassador to Greece – his mother is of Greek descent – as a face-saving way to remove him from the White House. A White House spokeswoman strongly denied that possibility Saturday.
The president has expressed frustration – both publicly and privately – with his communications team, ahead of the expected overhaul.
Although no final decisions have been made, one option being discussed is having Spicer – who has been parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” – take a more behind-the-scenes role and give up his daily on-camera briefings.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, is being considered as a replacement behind the lectern. White House aides also have talked about having a rotating cast of staff brief the media, a group that could include officials such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Having several aides share the briefing responsibilities could help prevent Trump – who has a notoriously short attention span – from growing bored or angry with any one staff member.
The White House already has been testing this strategy, sending Spicer to the lectern along with another top staff member to talk about the news of the day: Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on budget issues, for instance, or McMaster on questions of national security.
On Trump’s foreign tour, Spicer held only one briefing, an informal gaggle with the small, traveling press pool. Otherwise, he served more as an emcee, introducing other senior administration officials at more formal briefings.
On Saturday, it was Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director, and McMaster who headlined the U.S. news conference at the conclusion of the Group of Seven summit in Taormina, Italy. Spicer introduced them and then retired to the corner of the room to watch McMaster and Cohn parry questions from journalists.
The episode highlighted how difficult it is to drive Trump’s agenda, with Russia so prominently in the news. The briefing grew testy after several questions related to Kushner’s activities were posed to McMaster, who largely deflected them.
The expected revamp in White House operations comes at a key juncture in Trump’s presidency, as his job-approval ratings continue to sag and he presses for progress on several marquee campaign promises – including revamping the Affordable Care Act and restructuring the tax code – before Congress takes its August recess.
A White House aide said Saturday that Trump also is considering pushing more modest initiatives in Congress that would stand a better chance of quick passage.
The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said that could include measures on immigration or infrastructure-related initiatives that most Republicans favor.
“They need accomplishments on issues that affect jobs,” one Trump adviser said. “If the White House and Congress have nothing in hand to tout by this summer, members of Congress are going to come back after their August recess freaking out.”
Conversations about a war room have focused on a model similar to what emerged during President Bill Clinton’s tenure to cope with the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and other crises. Clinton pulled together a team of lawyers and communication and political aides to deal with those issues apart from the regular White House structure, with the aim of letting other business proceed as normally as possible.
Aides and allies of Trump say they now realize that unflattering stories about Russia will be part of the daily conversation for now and acknowledge that the White House has been ill-equipped to handle them.
Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said the White House has been caught flat-footed on many of the Russia stories.
“Because they did not believe there’s anything to it, they’re playing catch-up to get their side of the story out,” he said.
“At first, I thought the president was fretting too much about this,” said Ruddy, who is chief executive of Newsmax Media and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. “But it keeps growing like a bad fungus, even though there’s nothing there.”
“The deep state and the swamp and many in the media are never going to let up,” added Jason Miller, who served as Trump’s senior communications adviser during the campaign and remains close to the White House. He is not expected to come back in a formal role.
The White House also has been pushing the Republican National Committee to defend the president more actively.
Members of the Trump family outside the White House have been ramping up their engagement in the president’s political operation, eager to contribute and guide the party.
On Thursday, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Eric’s wife, Lara Trump, participated in a two-hour meeting at the RNC headquarters in Washington, according to three people familiar with the session who were not authorized to speak publicly.
RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney declined to address the specifics of the meeting but said the RNC is increasing its efforts to bolster Trump.
“The RNC’s role is to support the president,” Mahoney said. “We’re focused on creating as much content as possible to ensure we’re messaging effectively and doing so quickly in order to promote and defend this administration. It’s our top priority.”
Aides say they think Trump’s agenda will be boosted by making more targeted appearances around the country to tout it.
And several advisers are pushing Trump to do more of the campaign-style rallies like the one he had planned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday night. It has been postponed but will be rescheduled soon, Trump’s campaign committee said.
Being outside of Washington among his supporters, particularly in a state he won last year, energizes Trump and provides a way for him to communicate without the filter of the media, his advisers say.
“The conventional ways of communicating are not working for them,” one adviser said, adding that Trump should consider Facebook Live sessions and get out on the road “as frequently as possible.”
“They have to get the campaign brand back,” the adviser said.
Several Trump advisers cited the president’s recent interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, in which Trump made clear it was his idea to fire FBI Director James Comey, as the kind of thing to avoid going forward.
“I hope he’ll travel more and do these rallies once a week,” Bennett said. “You get to say whatever you want to say, and you don’t have to take questions.”
As the White House tried to strengthen its operations, some staff members who once fell out of favor with Trump have been brought back into conversations.
Lewandowski, who was fired from the campaign amid serious clashes with Kushner and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, has been suggested as an effective messenger – either from inside the administration or from his current perch outside – to push back against the Russia controversy.
Nunberg, who was fired by the Trump campaign in 2015 and has been hostile to Lewandowski since, is now working with Ruddy. At a recent breakfast in Washington with Ruddy, Lewandowski and Alexandra Preate, a close ally of Bannon, the trio discussed whether Lewandowski and Nunberg could put aside their differences to again rally behind Trump, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
Aides to Trump say that they are pleased with the substance and the optics of his nine-day foreign trip, the first time he has traveled abroad as president, and that they hope that it willgenerate momentum for his agenda back home. Others aren’t so sure.
“He was given the chance to look presidential and change the pictures on our television screens,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “But it will be harder for him to manage news back at home than abroad. . . . The worries he had when he left have not gone away. They’ve only gotten worse.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · John Wagner, Robert Costa, Ashley Parker