Trump Turns to Outsiders, Not White House Staff, for Key Advice

Trump Turns to Outsiders, Not White House Staff, for Key Advice

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump is increasingly relying on longtime outside advisers rather than White House staff as he deals with several major issues simultaneously, from a North Korean summit to the Russia investigation. But the perils of that approach were on display this week following a television interview he orchestrated with his new counsel, Rudy Giuliani.

It was Mr. Trump himself, shortly before boarding Marine One for a trip to Dallas, who told reporters Friday morning that Mr. Giuliani would “get his facts straight” and issue a statement, which Mr. Giuliani did a few hours later. The White House press office and his legal team had been caught unaware by Wednesday’s Fox interview, and appeared similarly in the dark when Mr. Trump told reporters about the prospect of a clarification.

Mr. Trump’s surprises have grabbed attention, but they demoralized several members of his team—chief spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was furious after Mr. Giuliani’s Fox appearance, according to officials—and they undercut the protocols put in place by chief of staff John Kelly.

“The president’s conduct disempowers Kelly and those in the White House who would be helpful in protecting him,” a White House official said Friday. That’s worrisome, this person said, because Mr. Kelly “has the ability to actually help the president and prevent chaos and ineffective messaging.”

There appears to be little prospect of a return to Mr. Kelly’s strict procedures: Mr. Trump has recently turned for advice to several people with whom he was once close, then was distant, and now is back in touch, though not on the White House staff, or operating on White House protocol.

For instance, Mr. Trump has been in contact of late with his former campaign manager and senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, a White House official said. Mr. Bannon was ostracized a few months ago over comments attributed to him in Michael Wolff’s critical Trump book, “Fire and Fury.”

And Mr. Trump invited former campaign staffer Corey Lewandowski, whom Mr. Trump ousted from the campaign and never hired in the White House, to travel with him on Air Force One to a recent rally in Michigan.

Mr. Lewandowski bypasses the White House switchboard to directly dial Mr. Trump’s cellphone, say people familiar with the matter. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, an outspoken critic of the Russia investigation, has been meeting with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Giuliani, who was a prominent Trump supporter during the campaign but has never held a role in the administration, recently joined Mr. Trump’s outside legal team to deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, which Mr. Trump denies. Mr. Trump said Friday that Mr. Giuliani was “working hard, learning the subject matter.”

In his Fox appearance on Wednesday, Mr. Giuliani said for the first time that Mr. Trump had reimbursed his personal lawyer, Mr. Cohen, for the payoff to Stephanie Clifford, a former adult-film actress known professionally as Stormy Daniels. Mr. Giuliani subsequently told The Wall Street Journal that Mr. Trump had first learned that he had reimbursed Mr. Cohen in recent weeks, through a talk with Mr. Giuliani.

“My references to timing were not describing my understanding of the President’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters,” Mr. Giuliani’s statement on Friday said.

Mr. Trump has chafed against the formal strictures typically imposed on presidents since he took office, preferring a freewheeling style honed by his experience as a chief executive and decadelong host of the NBC reality show, “The Apprentice.”

But since the arrival of Mr. Kelly, Mr. Trump had largely abided by the former Marine general’s imposed protocols and structure, with some exceptions when he sought advice and acted as his own chief spokesman. Today, several aides say, the exceptions are becoming the norm, with White House staff on the fringes of major decisions.

Mr. Kelly, for instance, never met Larry Kudlow until the president’s new economic adviser showed up for work in April, according to Mr. Kudlow. Mr. Kelly was overruled in other recent personnel changes, including the hiring of John Bolton as national security adviser, and Mr. Trump needed to intervene to prevent Mr. Kelly from quitting, White House officials said.

Mr. Kelly on Friday made rare on-the-record remarks to reporters, at Mr. Trump’s urging, intended to affirm their relationship. “I would just say it’s an absolute privilege to work for a president that has gotten the economy going,” said Mr. Kelly, standing next to Mr. Trump outside Air Force One.

Citing the prospect of the summit between Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the latest jobs report showing low unemployment, Mr. Kelly added: “I mean, everything is going phenomenally well.”

By many accounts, Mr. Trump is reveling in his new approach. He was in “great spirits and a great mood,” according to one adviser who spoke to Mr. Trump this week, especially as the North Korean summit approaches. This person said Mr. Trump believes that if he can find a deal with North Korea, then little else matters.

“This is his reality-show strategy,” this person said, referencing Mr. Trump’s previous work on “The Apprentice.” “He’s vying for public opinion instead of worrying about the details.”

On Thursday, Mr. Giuliani told Fox News in another interview that three U.S. citizens being detained in North Korea were set to be released. The Wall Street Journal had previously reported that their release was part of the negotiations between the two countries before the expected summit. But White House officials said later Thursday that no deal on the release had been reached.

Mr. Trump on Friday told reporters that he has agreed to a time and a place for the historic summit with Mr. Kim but declined to give details. “We’ll be announcing it soon,” he added.

Craig Fuller, who was chief of staff to George H.W. Bush when he was vice president in the 1980s, said that while most presidents tend to narrow the circle of people they confide in, Mr. Trump seems to be widening it.

“The president seems to be constantly shopping for people who agree with him and who will go on the attack” on TV, Mr. Fuller said. “He wants to see people out on his behalf, and he goes and seeks people who will do that.”

A danger, Mr. Fuller said, is that outside advisers speaking on his behalf often don’t have the detailed factual information that the White House staff possesses. Others said that was especially true when the president is facing a number of very sensitive negotiations in coming weeks, from whether to sit for an interview with Mr. Mueller to the summit with Mr. Kim.

“There’s such a thing as a process. What you shouldn’t do is make decisions that are disruptive or chaotic and blindside the senior staff,” said Peter Wehner, a senior White House official under President George W. Bush. “Trump is doing that all the time and seems to delight in doing it.”

Write to Michael C. Bender at [email protected] and Peter Nicholas at [email protected]

Appeared in the May 5, 2018, print edition as 'Trump Bypasses Staff, Returns to Freewheeling.'


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Publish date : 2018-05-04 23:34:44
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