Trump escalates old fights this week, starts new ones
Posted August 4, 2018 8:03 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — At the end of a week in which President Donald Trump appeared more ready than ever to pick fights with his adversaries — both real and perceived — it was perhaps fitting to have the UFC's welterweight champion pass through the Oval Office.
Colby Covington's visit to the White House wasn't on the President's public schedule, but the professional mixed martial artist posted photos inside the West Wing on social media showing a grinning Trump holding up the championship belt.
A self-described "counter-puncher," the President this week seemed to escalate his feuds and begin new ones: with the news media, the conservative Koch brothers and his own attorney general, whom he despises.
As he decamps for more than a week to New Jersey horse country, there is little expectation Trump will escape the irritants that have enraged him. If anything, the vacation will provide ample doses of "executive time" spent in front of cable news and on the phone with friends.
Presidential summer vacations, perhaps more than their winter counterparts, are often interrupted by world developments. President Barack Obama rarely made it through a stay on Martha's Vineyard without having to address reporters: about Arab uprisings, unrest in Missouri or an ISIS attack. Last year, Trump leaned into the notion of a working vacation, taking meetings inside his Bedminster clubhouse and inviting reporters to witness them.
It was during one of those sessions the President threatened North Korea with "fire and fury," a phrase that came to epitomize the harsh rhetoric that preceded the current diplomatic thaw. It was also at Bedminster that Trump confronted the racist violence in Charlottesville last year to widespread criticism.
White House officials declined to specify what, precisely, Trump would be doing during this summer's week in New Jersey. Trump was spotted playing golf on Friday morning before a severe storm ripped through the region.
Contemplating Mueller, Manafort and Cohen
Trump is likely to continue discussions with his attorneys about a potential interview with special counsel Robert Mueller, according to people familiar with the matter. That includes possible visits from Rudy Giuliani, the lead attorney whose television appearances over the past week have caused heartburn in the West Wing.
This week the special counsel's office responded to Trump's lawyers offering new parameters for a presidential sit-down. But the two sides have yet to reach an agreement, even as the President remains intent that such an interview could help bring the investigation to a close.
The continued back-and-forth, paired with the probe's encroachment into Trump's inner circle, has caused the President's mood to sour. He has watched with dismay as his former attorney Michael Cohen executes a dramatic public split. And he's boiled as the foibles of Paul Manafort, his onetime campaign chairman, are aired in a federal fraud trial. Each new description of a python- or ostrich-skin jacket has generated a frustrated reaction from the President, people familiar with his response say, even as he's taken to Twitter to question federal prosecutors' treatment of Manafort.
People inside the White House said an angry burst of tweets on Wednesday — capped by a missive saying his attorney general should fire Mueller — reflected the anger Trump has aired privately for months, including about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump has heard from top allies that he should be more outspoken about Sessions, even as Trump remains wary of firing him, people familiar with the conversations say.
On Tuesday night, Trump flew back from a rally in Florida with former aides who have stoked his anger and impulses in the past: current campaign manager Brad Parscale and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Earlier this summer, Parscale tweeted that Trump should fire Sessions in order to bring the Mueller probe to an end. A person on the flight says Trump spent most of his time with them in the air.
Hitting the trail and the media
White House aides are hopeful a heavy upcoming slate of politicking will improve Trump's mood. He has used his rowdy campaign rallies as catharsis, basking in adoring crowds as he unleashes an explosion of grievance, with the occasional plug for whatever Republican candidate he is in town to bolster.
That was the case on Thursday, when Trump traveled to Pennsylvania for a rally in support of Rep. Lou Barletta, currently running for Senate well behind the Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey. Trump brought the Republican candidate out to say hello midway through his lengthy ranting address. But even the President acknowledged that political grandstanding wasn't what his fans were there to hear, declaring Casey a "boring" subject that he would only begrudgingly address.
Instead, he used most of his time laying into the media, a sustained tirade that broke even his normal standards for griping. The crowd largely followed Trump's lead, booing and jeering on cue. There are few signs the broadsides will cease; instead, people who have spoken to Trump say he believes the attacks on the media could form a winning part of his political pitch in the months and years to come.
The freshly hostile attacks on the media come amid a new — and evidently more combative — era for the communications operation inside the White House, now headed by former Fox News executive Bill Shine. There were signs this week of Shine settling into the job, even as John Kelly, the chief of staff, made known he had no intention of departing soon.
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Shortly before the Italian prime minister was set to arrive at the White House on Monday, Shine was spotted outside the entrance to the West Wing with White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway. Documents in hand, Conway was describing to her new colleague what it looks like when foreign leaders arrive at the White House. Their vehicle slowly glides down the driveway before swinging around the portico, she motioned, and then the President walks out to greet his guest, before turning and smiling for the press standing nearby.
"I have never seen anyone shout a question from here," Conway told Shine.
Shine has been in his official capacity as the White House communications chief for a month now, but he entered quietly. Though he is an assistant to the President and deputy chief of staff — senior titles that carry weight in the West Wing — Shine declined a sizable office and instead inhabited a cramped one located next to the press secretary's, which is typically reserved for that person's deputies.
But officials say they have slowly started noticing his presence in the West Wing, whether it be through adjusted lighting for the President's news conference in the East Room, after he complained how it had made his hair glow; neutral-density filters on windows to modify the sunlight ahead of video recordings; or even his increased stature with the President, who often asks aides "What does Bill think?" while making a decision.
Though Trump has made a habit of answering questions off the cuff during his tenure, he didn't answer a single reporter's shouted question in the days since Shine and Sanders barred a CNN correspondent for asking questions during an event in the Oval Office last week. He did take four questions at a news conference with the Italian prime minister.
'Trump is Trump'
Aides say they feel they've made progress in strategizing the President's messaging, but they concede they also can't control what he doesn't say either. Officials insisted a Thursday briefing from the White House on election security was Trump's idea, but he declined to mention the issue a single time during his speech in Pennsylvania Thursday night that spanned more than 60 minutes.
Trump similarly broke from his advisers' guidance when he threatened to shut down the government over funding for his border wall -- a threat that ran counter to what sources said the President promised during a meeting last week with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Trump's repeated pleas this week for a shutdown over his wall stoked some uneasiness on Capitol Hill as congressional leaders sought clarification from the White House that Trump wasn't changing the legislative plans he had made just a week earlier. Kelly, the chief of staff, followed up with Trump after his tweeted threat of a shutdown on Sunday and later tried to assure White House legislative staff and Republican lawmakers that the appropriations plan remained the same despite the President's calls for a spending showdown.
"It's a classic situation where we are on the same page as the White House, but you know, Trump is Trump," a senior GOP congressional aide said. "So it creates a little bit of uncertainty."
RELATED: Donald Trump's shutdown threat is big trouble for Republicans
Trump acknowledged on Thursday during his rally in Pennsylvania that his "preference" would be to shut down the government before voters head to the polls this fall. He noted twice this week that fellow Republicans have counseled him against pursuing such a contentious strategy so close to a moment of reckoning for the party, but said Thursday that the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh had encouraged him to throw down the gauntlet on his border wall before the elections.
A White House aide said despite Trump's repeated threats this week to force a spending battle over the wall in September, "his entire staff and Republicans in Congress are on the same page that shutting down the government before the midterms would doom us keeping the majority in the House."
But even on vacation, the President made clear he was still focusing on his biggest obsession of all: campaign rallies.
He was heading to Ohio on Saturday, rallying support for a Republican facing a tough contest in a special election next week. On Thursday, however, Trump appeared confused about which Republican was on the ballot. He tweeted his support for Rep. Steve Stivers and encouraged his followers to vote for him on August 7 — even though Stivers isn't up for re-election until November.
It likely makes little difference to Trump, who has treated his political rallies more as tributes to his own political successes than those of the candidates for whom he's stumping. Some presidents may crave solitude on their getaways, but for Trump, soaking up adoration from supporters in a state where he can revive his own election victory may be the best relaxation of all.