9 Days Later, Trump Hasn’t Changed; Neither Has Washington

Donald Trump’s global statesman act lasted all of 12 hours back in the United States.

In this handout provided by U.S. Navy, President Donald J. Trump waves as he exits Marine One at Naval Air Station Sigonella prior to an all-hands call May 27, 2017, in Italy. (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christopher Gordon / U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Hours after getting home from a trip to Europe and the Middle East, the President unleashed a Twitter blast that felt like a pent-up release of fury that had been simmering over the nine days of his debut foreign tour.

Facing a political situation that further deteriorated in his absence, with questions now swirling over his son-in-law and indispensable aide Jared Kushner, Trump is under pressure to stabilize a White House that was spiraling further out of control by the hour when he flew overseas.

With a special counsel probing, Russia questions now reaching into his tightest family inner circle and West Wing staff turmoil deepening, there ware expectations that the administration would change strategy to quell the crisis. Already Trump has hired a lawyer, and a “war room” to help insulate the rest of the presidency from the Russia saga is on its way.

But the President is defiant.

“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump tweeted in an early morning salvo that accused reporters of falsifying the controversy over claims that his campaign aides colluded with Russians’ election hacking effort.

The President also slammed reporters who include the phrase “sources say” in their stories.

The volley of tweets represented Trump at his most authentic and defiant, lashing out when he feels he is under attack, and appeared to reflect a belief that only he, and not his staff, is qualified to speak in his own defense.

It was a side of the President that had not been much in evidence in his swing through Europe and the Middle East.

While the Russia controversy deepened back home, Trump had remained unusually disciplined — even if his performance at NATO in Brussels deeply alarmed European leaders who already doubted his commitment to the alliance.

In some ways, he proved doubters wrong on his swing through Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium and Italy, advancing his goals, delivering on a pre-planned strategy and avoiding self-harming controversies.

A senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One returning from Sicily this weekend that Trump had established an “extraordinary rapport” with his fellow leaders, and that his foreign tour “will shape, I think, history for generations to come.”

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, far left, and Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi at the G7 Summit expanded session, on May 27, 2017 in Taormina, Sicily. (Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)

But it’s one thing to show restraint and self-possession during a locked-in string of meetings, photo ops and summits abroad that limit the off-the-cuff moments that often undermine Trump’s fortunes.

It will be another to drag his White House free of the political controversy whipped up by the multiple strands of the Russia controversy and endless damaging leaks feeding an extraordinary string of news coverage about it — not to mention get moving with Congress on health care, tax reform and budget priorities.

There were other signs that a White House team that enjoyed rare calm on the road had returned to its normal crisis control mode back home.

It emerged on Sunday that Trump’s political aides had canceled a rally that had been scheduled for Iowa next week, an occasion that would have allowed the President to connect with his dedicated supporters.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported that Trump was meeting his legal team and other advisers on Sunday.

Multiple meetings at the Republican National Committee on Thursday involved Trump’s sons: Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, in discussions about the mid-term elections and the President’s 2020 re-election race, according to a GOP source.

But the political activity could not disguise the possibility that the latest escalation of the Russia drama could be its most damaging twist yet.

Kushner discussed creating a backchannel between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin in a meeting last December with Russian ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak, sources with knowledge of the situation told CNN.

While on the road, the administration refused to even talk about the reports, related to reports of intercepts of conversations between Kislyak and Moscow first reported by The Washington Post.

“We’re not gonna comment on Jared. We’re just not gonna comment,” the President’s top economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters in Sicily.

That strategy might have been sustainable abroad, on a trip in which trip ditched the traditional presidential press conference, but it did not fly for long once Trump was home and Democrats went on the attack.

“If these reports are accurate, right after that campaign, after that intervention, to have the president’s son-in-law, a key player within the Trump Organization trying to establish a back channel with the Russians through a Russian diplomatic facility, you have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversations from?” asked Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, on ABC News “This Week” on Sunday.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner take part in a bilateral meeting with Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome on May 24, 2017.
(Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Some Republicans, however, played down the latest reports.

“I don’t trust this story as far as I can throw it,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Kushner was ready to clear up any questions.

“Instead of getting wrapped up into a lot of hyperbole, as these things can sometimes do, I think talking with him directly and getting him to answer any and all questions, as he said he would do, would probably be the prudent course of action,” Corker told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The swirling speculation and conjecture about Russia appeared to quickly squelch any hope the administration may have had of pivoting from a foreign trip the White House viewed as successful to alleviate the political pressures Trump is facing at home.

With the Republican Senate facing a treacherous effort to refashion the House health care bill and little progress made so far on the next-big ticket item, tax reform, the chances of a major legislative triumph for Trump by mid-summer seem slim at best at the moment.

One commodity that Trump’s White House team might do well to import from his overseas trip was discipline. With the foreign policy team to the fore — officials like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, there was a sense that professionals were in control.

That has rarely been the case back home. The President has constantly undermined his own staff with his unexpected interventions. In return, the warring West Wing team, beset by factions and infighting, has rewarded him with a constant stream of unflattering leaks and speculation.

There are signs that the White House hierarchy knows change is needed. Both Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior political guru Stephen Bannon returned home after only one leg of the foreign trip in Saudi Arabia. Sources said that such was the roller-coaster nature of the administration so far that there had been little time for strategic planning. Priebus was able to help the budget rollout and prepare the groundwork for Trump’s return home.

The White House has also recognized the need for a more formal and effective pushback against the apparently endless stream of revelations and damaging reports surrounding the Russia saga — in the form of a “war room” for rapid response and legal advice.

“Everyone realizes we have to bolster our efforts,” a White House official told CNN’s Jim Acosta last week. “There’s got to be a stronger rapid response and communications effort overall.”

Outside Trump loyalists like former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and ex-top campaign official David Bossie have been mentioned as possible recruits for the effort.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, for instance, seems even more beleaguered than he was when he left for the Middle East. His omission from a long-awaited audience with Pope Francis added to the impression that he is on shaky ground with the President.

Yet there’s barely been a week in this administration without a report that Trump is mulling a huge staff shakeup. Finding people to take the job, however, is a challenge.

Some have lucrative consulting practices they might be loath to give up. With a special counsel investigation looming, others might be scared off by the prospect of legal fees they might end up shouldering.

And finally, it may all come down to Trump himself. How prepared is the President to embrace change and change his behavior?

On the evidence of Sunday? Not so much.