President Trump had just returned to the White House on Saturday from his final inauguration event, a tranquil interfaith prayer service, when the flashes of anger began to build.
Trump turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition — massive demonstrations around the globe protesting his day-old presidency and footage of the sparser crowd at his inauguration, with large patches of white empty space on the Mall.
As his press secretary, Sean Spicer, was still unpacking boxes in his spacious new West Wing office, Trump grew increasingly and visibly enraged.
Pundits were dissing his turnout. The National Park Service had retweeted a photo unfavorably comparing the size of his inauguration crowd with the one that attended Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony in 2009. A journalist had misreported that Trump had removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. And celebrities at the protests were denouncing the new commander in chief — Madonna even referenced “blowing up the White House.”
Trump’s advisers suggested that he could push back in a simple tweet. Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a Trump confidant and the chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, offered to deliver a statement addressing the crowd size.
But Trump was adamant, aides said. Over the objections of his aides and advisers — who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency — the new president issued a decree: He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary.
Spicer’s resulting statement — delivered in an extended shout and brimming with falsehoods — underscores the extent to which the turbulence and competing factions that were a hallmark of Trump’s campaign have been transported to the White House.
The broader power struggles within the Trump operation have touched everything from the new administration’s communications shop to the expansive role of the president’s son-in-law to the formation of Trump’s political organization. At the center, as always, is Trump himself, whose ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism.
This account of Trump’s tumultuous first days in office comes from interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and moments.
By most standards, Spicer’s statement Saturday did not go well. He appeared tired and nervous in an ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit. He publicly gave faulty facts and figures — which he said were provided to him by the Presidential Inaugural Committee — that prompted a new round of media scrutiny.
Many critics thought Spicer went too far and compromised his integrity. But in Trump’s mind, Spicer’s attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The president was also bothered that the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.
Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media’s failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements, and he feels demoralized that the public’s perception of his presidency so far does not necessarily align with his own sense of accomplishment.
On Monday, Spicer returned to the lectern, crisply dressed and appearing more comfortable as he parried questions from the press corps.
“There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has,” he told reporters. “And I think that it’s just unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough, you can’t win.”
Unlike other senior aides — Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, counselor Kellyanne Conway and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law — Spicer does not enjoy a close and long-standing personal relationship with Trump.
During the campaign, Trump was suspicious of both Priebus and Spicer, who ran the Republican National Committee and were seen as more loyal to the party than to its nominee. Some privately wonder whether Conway is now trying to undermine Spicer.
As Trump thought about staffing his administration following his surprise victory, he hesitated over selecting Spicer as White House press secretary. He did not see Spicer as particularly telegenic and preferred a woman for the position, asking Conway to do it and also considering conservative commentators Laura Ingraham and Monica Crowley — who ultimately stepped down from an administration job because of charges of plagiarism — before settling on Spicer at the urging of Priebus and others.
Yet if there was any doubt over the weekend about Spicer’s standing with the president, it seemed to have been erased by his performance Monday, at least for the moment. Trump told his senior team that he was pleased with Spicer’s more confident and relaxed turn at the lectern.
“His very first briefing as White House press secretary was a tour de force,” Conway said. “He engaged the media, he was respectful and firm, he talked about accountability on a two-way street, he gave facts, he broke news in terms of what the president was doing.”
But tensions and internal power struggles have plagued other parts of Trump’s fledgling orbit, too.
Efforts to launch an outside group supporting Trump’s agenda have stalled amid fighting between Kushner loyalists, such as the campaign’s data and digital strategist Brad Parscale, and conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, according to people familiar with the tensions. Major disputes include who would control the data the outside group would use, with Mercer advocating for Cambridge Analytica, a firm in which her father is invested, and who would control the lucrative contracts with vendors, these people said.
Two people close to the transition also said a number of Trump’s most loyal campaign aides have been alarmed by Kushner’s efforts to elbow aside anyone he perceives as a possible threat to his role as Trump’s chief consigliere. At one point during the transition, Kushner had argued internally against giving Conway a White House role, these two people said.
Because Conway operates outside of the official communications department, some aides grumble that she can go rogue when she pleases, offering her own message and promoting herself as much as the president. One suggested that Conway’s office on the second floor of the West Wing, as opposed to one closer to the Oval Office, was a sign of her diminished standing. Though Conway took over the workspace previously occupied by Valerie Jarrett, who had been Obama’s closest adviser, the confidant dismissively predicted that Trump would rarely climb a flight of stairs.
Yet that assessment may misunderstand the Trump-Conway relationship. The president admires her dogged and fearless defenses of him and respects her on-camera ability to dodge, diffuse and deflect whatever comes her way, according to numerous Trump advisers. On the eve of his inauguration, Trump called Conway on stage at a black-tie dinner to sing her praises.
Trump watched Sunday as Conway sparred with NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.” Some Trump allies were unsettled by her performance, but not the president, according to one official. He called Vice President Pence to rave about how she handled questions from Todd, whom Trump mocked on Twitter as “Sleepy Eyes,” and called Conway to offer his congratulations. Trump was perturbed that the media focused on two words from Conway’s interview: “alternative facts.”
Conway is arguably Trump’s most recognizable aide, which has caused her to receive threats against her life. She has been assigned a Secret Service detail, according to someone with detailed knowledge of the situation.
In perhaps the clearest sign of where the administration’s power center resides, the “Big Four” — Bannon, Conway, Kushner and Priebus — stood in the front row at Sunday afternoon’s swearing-in ceremony for senior staffers, in the White House’s East Room.
Conway herself said that while the advisers sometimes disagree, rumors of dissension are overblown.
“We’re a cohesive unit,” she said. “The senior team exhibits many of the characteristics President Trump has always valued: cohesion, collaboration, high energy and high impact.”
Some Trump insiders have suggested tension between Conway and Priebus, but she said that could not be further from the truth. “I really respect the job that Reince is doing most of all,” Conway said. “He has a very good way of choosing battles wisely, which is a hallmark of a real leader and manager.”
Conway said she now hopes to limit her television appearances. Instead, she is taking on an expanded portfolio, which will include health care and veterans’ issues, and Pence — for whom she has worked for years as a pollster — is also expected to carve out more substantive responsibilities for her.
Longtime GOP fundraiser and adviser Fred Malek said that a president benefits from having advisers with distinct perspectives, noting the Ed Meese and Jim Baker debates in the Reagan White House.
“You want to have a robust discussion and you want to have competing points of view debated with vigor,” Malek said. “To the extent that results in bruised feelings sometimes, so be it.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.
The Washington Post