By GLENN THRUSH and MAGGIE HABERMAN
WASHINGTON – The disclosure that President Donald Trump divulged classified intelligence to two high-ranking Russian officials was a new blow to an already dispirited and besieged White House staff still recovering from the uproar and recriminations from the president’s firing of James B. Comey, the FBI director.
Trump’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, have left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, turning against most of his aides – even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – and describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.
Even before the latest bombshell dropped, reports swirled in the White House that the president was about to embark on a major shake-up, probably starting with the dismissal or reassignment of Sean Spicer, the press secretary.
Trump’s rattled staff kept close tabs on a meeting early Monday in which the president summoned Spicer; the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and the communications director, Michael Dubke, to lecture them on the need “to get on the same page,” according to a person briefed on the meeting. Even as Trump reassured advisers like Spicer that their jobs were safe at the morning meeting, he told other advisers he knew he needed to make big changes but did not know which direction to go in, or who to select.
Later, reporters could hear senior aides shouting from behind closed doors as they discussed a defense after Washington Post reporters informed them of an article they were writing that first reported the news about the president’s divulging of intelligence.
As they struggled to limit the fallout on Monday, Spicer and other Trump aides decided to send Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to serve as a surrogate.
They realized that selecting such a high official would in some ways validate the story, but they wanted to establish a credible witness account exonerating the president from wrongdoing – before the barrage of Twitter posts they knew would be coming from Trump on Tuesday morning.
The White House counsel’s office worked with the Army general on framing language, producing a clipped sound bite: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
As he was working on his statement, McMaster – a former combat commander who appeared uncomfortable in a civilian suit and black-framed glasses – nearly ran into reporters staking out Spicer’s office.
“This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,” he said, perhaps in jest.
As the general approached microphones on the blacktop in front of the West Wing, one of his deputies responsible for coping with the fallout, Dina Powell, could be seen peering behind the reporter pack to see how her boss’ statement was being received.
On Capitol Hill, there were signs that Republicans, who mostly held the line after Comey’s ouster, were growing alarmed by and impatient with Trump’s White House operation.
“There need to be serious changes at the White House, immediately,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who wants Trump to appoint a Democrat to head the FBI. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called on Trump to operate with “less drama” on Tuesday.
In his comments to reporters on Monday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., close to some in the White House, was explicit about the situation.
“Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now,” he said, “and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.”
A dozen of Trump’s aides and associates, while echoing Trump’s defiance, privately agreed with Corker’s view. They spoke candidly, in a way they were unwilling to do just weeks ago, about the damage that was being done to the administration’s standing and the fatigue that was setting in after months of having to defend the president’s missteps, Twitter posts and unpredictable actions.
The latest crisis comes at the worst possible time for Trump’s team. His national security and foreign policy staffs have been spending much of their time planning for his coming eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe – his first major overseas trip as president, and an opportunity, they thought, to reset the narrative of his presidency after the lingering controversy of Comey’s sudden dismissal last week.
There is a growing sense that Trump seems unwilling or unable to do the things necessary to keep himself out of trouble, and that the presidency has done little to tame a shoot-from-the-hip-into-his-own-foot style that characterized his campaign.
There is a fear among some of Trump’s senior advisers about leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground.
This has, at times, chafed the president, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation. Trump, who still openly laments having to dismiss his first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, has groused that McMaster talks too much in meetings, and the president has referred to him as “a pain,” according to one of the officials.
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling – and honest – defense of the president: that Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to U.S. allies.