A White House lurching from crisis to crisis appeared close to complete meltdown over the weekend, as Donald Trump’s staff struggled to limit damage from two impulsive moves with far-reaching consequences, and officials described an administration mired in “pure madness.”
Trump’s off-the-cuff enticement of a global trade war and calls for limits on the constitutional right to bear arms cleaved a schism between the mercurial president and his Republican backers, sparked a stock market sell-off and prompted threats of retaliatory sanctions from across the globe.
The administration is in its “darkest days in at least half a year,” The Washington Post reported Saturday, based on interviews over the past week with 22 White House officials, friends and Trump advisers.
They described “an air of anxiety and volatility” and “pure madness,” said that the president was “at times angry and increasingly isolated,” and some even expressed concern about his well-being.
“I think the president is starting to wobble in his emotional stability and this is not going to end well,” retired four-star Army general Barry McCaffrey was quoted as saying, adding that Trump’s judgment is “fundamentally flawed” and that the American people — and Congress especially — should be “alarmed.”
Angered by the announced departure of confidant Hope Hicks, scandals surrounding son-in-law Jared Kushner and the ongoing investigation into his campaign, Trump thumbed his nose at advisers’ warnings and announced punitive steel and aluminum tariffs over the weekend.
“When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump tweeted Friday.
Officials made no effort to disguise that the decision — which will bring legal action — had short circuited internal deliberations and preempted the administration’s own determination about whether the step was lawful.
The tariffs are an extension of Trump’s decades-long crusade against America’s terms of trade, but infuriated allies in Canada, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
The internal blow-back was swift, with renewed rumors that top economic adviser Gary Cohn — who had been infuriated by Trump’s unwillingness to condemn neo-Nazis — was ready to walk.
Wall Street insiders — who have embraced Trump’s tax cuts and laissez faire approach to regulation — expressed disbelief at the policy, but also disbelief at a White House that appears to have careened off the rails.
Trump’s tweets came only hours after he blindsided Republicans by advocating raising age limits for gun ownership, tightening background checks and seizing some weapons without due process.
Republicans have shown themselves to be strikingly tolerant of Trump’s rhetorical and even alleged moral transgressions, but the gun heterodoxy was a step too far for most.
“Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them,” snapped Republican Senator Ben Sasse. “We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason.”
Even Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who has marched in lockstep with the White House, accused Trump of betrayal.
“Imagine Obama saying something similar? He’d (have) been denounced as a dictator. Congress would talk impeachment. Some would mutter secession,” Carlson said.
On Thursday Trump himself had to clean up the mess, hosting representatives from the powerful gun lobby in the Oval Office for what he termed a “Good (Great) meeting.”
Sources say he called the Republican author of a pro-gun bill, Senator John Cornyn, to express support, as his staff tried to row back his comments.
“Conceptually, he still supports raising the age to 21,” said Sarah Sanders, pedaling back hard on universal background checks. “Universal means something different to a lot of people,” she said.
The latest wave of crises has rocked an administration that has been in the impact zone for more than 13 months.
“The lack of anything resembling a serious process around both the gun and tariff announcements makes painfully clear we have a White House in disarray at the same time we have a world in disarray,” said Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If you are not worried, you should be. The combination is nothing less than toxic.”
As the White House struggled to keep its head above water, Kushner faced a rash of new allegations about his financial dealings with foreign governments, chief of staff John Kelly was forced to say he would not resign and Congress announced a probe into White House security clearances.
This came after Kelly admitted the administration’s early handling of classified information and gatekeeping of sensitive secrets was not up to snuff and 35-40 staffers had “top secret” clearance they did not need.
“In terms of the handling of classified material,” he said, the White House “wasn’t up to the standards that I’d been used to.”
“Nothing illegal,” he added. “But it wasn’t quite up to the standards.”
Between this barrage of scandal and an angered president willing to go off script, the most common question around Washington and around the White House is “how long can this go on?”