WASHINGTON — President Trump, more isolated than at any point in his presidency, is scheduled to leave Washington at the end of this week for a holiday respite, two-plus weeks at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. When he returns in January, he will be girding for what is likely to be the most difficult year of his tumultuous presidency.
His approval ratings aren’t much different than they were when he took office. His hard-core supporters haven’t budged. But his party took a beating in the midterm elections, and the legal process continues to move closer to him. Newly empowered House Democrats are preparing to challenge his authority with hearings and investigations.
Republican elected officials have stuck with him, mindful of his support among the GOP rank and file. But Senate Republicans last week joined with Democrats to deliver a pair of rebukes over the administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia and the president’s unwillingness to condemn Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA concluded sanctioned the murder of journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamel Khashoggi. Was that a one-off or cracks in the wall?
Trump’s on-again, off-again search for a replacement for outgoing White House chief of staff John Kelly is symptomatic of his situation. In any presidency, the role of chief of staff is vital. For Trump, at this moment, it could be crucial. Yet potential contenders walked away from the job until the president tweeted on Friday afternoon that he was naming budget director Mick Mulvaney, but only as his acting chief of staff.
The announcement came hours after former New Jersey governor Chris Christie took himself out of contention for the post. Christie had spent more than an hour with the president on Thursday talking about the job. His decision to withdraw from consideration came at the end of a week that began when Nick Ayers, who serves as chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence and who was in line to succeed Kelly, backed out. A series of names were floated but none came to fruition.
Christie and Trump have been friends for years, long before they became rivals for the GOP nomination in 2016. Christie has maintained a cordial and clear-eyed relationship with the president. Though he carries some political baggage from his time as governor, he had credentials that few of the others considered for the chief of staff position could offer — skills that Trump probably will need in the year ahead. Among them were executive experience, political experience, communications skills, independent political relationships, and, above all, legal experience as a former US attorney.
Christie apparently concluded that this was no time to go inside the Trump administration and to work for a president who rarely takes the advice of his advisers and whose volatility and unpredictability could prove to be even more detrimental in the months ahead.
The decisions by Ayers, Christie, and others underscores the precariousness of Trump’s position. At a time when he will need all the strength, wisdom, firepower, and support directly around him, Trump presides over a White House that is thinning out rather than beefing up.
The White House Counsel’s Office is understaffed heading into a year that could bring multiple requests for documents from congressional committees and the possibility of impeachment proceedings, if what special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately reports rises to that level. Some in the office have moved out to jobs on the Trump 2020 campaign or the private sector. More could follow.
Some loyalists remain, among them the president’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Sanders. But on the issue of fresh recruits, the question is who would want to come to work for a president at this moment, knowing that could result in sizable legal fees as a side benefit?
For Trump, a group of people he once counted as among his most trusted advisers has been turned into a weapon in the hands of prosecutors. Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and lawyer who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, has turned. Last week Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes. He told the court that he had done some of what he did, including lying to Congress, to hide the ‘‘dirty deeds’’ of Trump.
Another who once protected the president and is now on the other side is David Pecker, of American Media Inc. AMI is publisher of the National Enquirer, which shielded Trump through the campaign by buying and killing damaging stories and through a series of phony stories about Hillary Clinton. On the day Cohen was sentenced, Pecker acknowledged in a filing that the Enquirer had paid a model alleging an affair with Trump $150,000 to keep her story from becoming public out of concern that the revelation could influence the outcome of the election.
Equally worrisome for Trump could be the role of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer and the person who must know as much as anyone about the inner financial workings of Trump’s empire. He has been granted immunity from prosecution in return for his cooperation.
Meanwhile, Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and has cooperated with prosecutors.