WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was confused about the dollar: Was it a strong one that’s good for the economy? Or a weak one?
So he made a call ― except not to any of the business leaders Trump brought into his administration or even to an old friend from his days in real estate. Instead, he called his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, according to two sources familiar with Flynn’s accounts of the incident.
Flynn has a long record in counterintelligence but not in macroeconomics. And he told Trump he didn’t know, that it wasn’t his area of expertise, that, perhaps, Trump should ask an economist instead.
Trump was not thrilled with that response ― but that may have been a function of the time of day. Trump had placed the call at 3 a.m., according to one of Flynn’s retellings ― although neither the White House nor Flynn’s office responded to requests for confirmation about that detail.
For Americans who based their impression of Trump on the competent and decisive tycoon he portrayed on his “Apprentice” TV reality shows, the portrait from these and many other tidbits emerging from his administration may seem a shock: an impulsive, sometimes petty chief executive more concerned with the adulation of the nation than the details of his own policies ― and quick to assign blame when things do not go his way.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s volatile behavior has created an environment ripe for leaks from his executive agencies and even within his White House. And while leaks typically involve staffers sabotaging each other to improve their own standing or trying to scuttle policy ideas they find genuinely problematic, Trump’s 2-week-old administration has a third category: leaks from White House and agency officials alarmed by the president’s conduct.
“I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this,” said Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush and a member of his National Security Council. “I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.”
I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this. I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.
Eliot Cohen, former State Department official under George W. Bush
There is the matter of Trump’s briefing materials, for example. The commander in chief doesn’t like to read long memos, a White House aide who asked to remain unnamed told The Huffington Post. So preferably they must be no more than a single page. They must have bullet points but not more than nine per page.
Small things can provide him great joy or generate intense irritation. Trump told The New York Times that he’s fascinated with the phone system inside the White House. At the same time, he’s registered a complaint about the hand towels aboard Air Force One, the White House aide said, because they are not soft enough.
He’s been particularly obsessed with the performance of his aides on cable television. Past presidents typically didn’t make time to watch their press secretary’s daily briefings with reporters, but Trump appears to have made it part of his routine. “Saturday Night Live’s” weekly skewering of his administration is similarly on his must-watch list ― with his reaction ranging from unamused to seething.
Information about Trump’s personal interactions and the inner workings of his administration has come to HuffPost from individuals in executive agencies and in the White House itself. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.
While some of the leaks are based on opposition to his policies – the travel ban on all refugees and on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations, for instance – many appear motivated by a belief that Trump’s words, deeds and tweets pose a genuine threat.
When Trump tweeted about North Korea’s missile technology three weeks before he took office, for example, it scrambled then-President Barack Obama’s national security apparatus, which saw a risk in provoking an unstable young dictator who possessed nuclear weapons.
Richard Nephew, a State Department expert on Iran sanctions under Obama, said some of the leaks from the agencies are likely efforts to let the public know that their advice has not been followed, in the event something bad happens down the road. “This, I think, is about making it clear that these folks have tried to do the right thing and there is only so much they can do with a hostile administration,” Nephew said.
Perhaps along those lines, The Associated Press reported the details of a phone call Jan. 27 between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, noting that Trump said Mexico had “bad hombres” and that he might need to send U.S. troops to take care of things. (The White House later said Trump had been joking around.) The Washington Post detailed a Jan. 28 conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which Trump angrily denounced an agreement to resettle refugees held by Australia in the United States.
The New York Times, meanwhile, painted a portrait of a brooding commander in chief, wandering the White House alone in a bathrobe at night, watching too much cable television and venting his frustrations through angry tweets.
“I think it’s a cry for help,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a counterterrorism expert at the Treasury Department under Obama. She said many staffers still working in the national security agencies under Trump see what’s happening and are driven by a simple motive: “Incredulity, and the need to share it.”
There’s always leaks. Every president in history has said the press hates me, and there’s too many leaks.
Ron Kaufman, former White House staffer under George H.W. Bush
The White House has denied many of these accounts, including the idea that Trump owns (let alone wears) a bathrobe. Others dispute the premise that Trump staffers undermining his competence is unusual. Ron Kaufman, who worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House in the late 1980s and early 1990s, argued that the Trump administration’s leaks are par for the course for a young administration. “There’s always leaks,” Kaufman said. “Every president in history has said the press hates me and there’s too many leaks.”
And Republican National Committee member Randy Evans, a veteran of Newt Gingrich’s leak-prone House speaker’s suite in the 1990s, said he doesn’t “get that sense” that Trump’s staffers are questioning his fitness for the job.
“Not yet, anyway,” Evans said. “We’re just too early in the process…. I think you see a lot of political jockeying going on and a lot of self-importance going on.”
The idea that Trump is temperamentally ill-suited for the presidency is nothing new. It was the main argument against him during both the GOP primaries a year ago and the general election last summer and fall. At times, Trump seemed to embrace the characterization, wearing it as a badge of honor for his status as an anti-establishment “outsider.”
But what were only hypothetical concerns on the campaign trail are now life-and-death decisions inside the White House – as evidenced by the death of a Navy commando in a botched raid in Yemen on Jan. 29. Trump approved that raid following a dinner meeting that included his top political adviser, former Breitbart News Chairman Stephen Bannon, whose permanent membership in the National Security Council was itself the basis of widespread leaks and warnings from the national security establishment.
“The intelligence community is desperately looking for a way to get some leverage in altering dangerous policies away from a catastrophic vector,” said Rick Wilson, a former Pentagon official familiar with intelligence issues who has become a vocal Trump critic.
Evans said at some point the White House will have to get serious about harmful leaks if they want to control their message, just as Gingrich’s office had to two decades ago. He described the method of intentionally releasing tidbits to various staffers to see what turned up in print. “If the administration gets serious about leaks, they’ll do the blue-dye test and find them,” Evans said.
But to Cohen, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the problem is not the leakers. It’s the president. Because Trump has shown no true affection or respect for anyone outside his immediate family, Cohen said, he cannot expect that of his staff. “This is what happens when you have a narcissist as president.”