“Nobody in the White House quite knew what to do,”
In late July, the White House had just finished an official policy review on transgender individuals serving in the military and President Trump and his then-chief of staff, Reince Priebus, had agreed to meet in the Oval Office to discuss the four options awaiting the president in a decision memo.
But then Trump unexpectedly preempted the conversation and sent his entire administration scrambling, by tweeting out his own decision — that the government would not allow transgender individuals to serve — just moments later.
“ ’Oh my God, he just tweeted this,’ ” Priebus said, according to a new book by Howard Kurtz, who hosts Fox News’s “Media Buzz.” There was, Kurtz writes, “no longer a need for the meeting.”
The White House — and the politerati diaspora — has just barely stopped reeling from author Michael Wolff’s account of life in Trump’s West Wing, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” and now another life-in-the-White-House book is about to drop, this one from Kurtz.
Like the books that came before it, and almost certainly like the ones still to come, Kurtz’s book, “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press, And The War Over The Truth,” offers a portrait of a White House riven by chaos, with aides scrambling to respond to the president’s impulses and writing policy to fit his tweets, according to excerpts obtained by The Washington Post.
Kurtz, who worked at The Post from 1981 to 2010, writes that Trump’s aides even privately coined a term for Trump’s behavior — “Defiance Disorder.” The phrase refers to Trump’s seeming compulsion to do whatever it is his advisers are most strongly urging against, leaving his team to handle the fallout.
The book officially hits stores Jan. 29.
Early in the administration, Kurtz describes White House aides waking up one Saturday morning in March, confused and “blindsided,” to find that Trump had — without any evidence — accused former president Barack Obama on Twitter of wiretapping him during the campaign.
“Nobody in the White House quite knew what to do,” Kurtz writes.
Priebus watched as his phone exploded with email and text messages, according to the excerpts. “Priebus knew the staff would have to fall into line to prove the tweet correct, the opposite of the usual process of vetting proposed pronouncements,” Kurtz writes. “Once the president had committed to 140 characters, he was not going to back off.”
In another scene, Kurtz paints a largely positive picture of Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but notes — as has been previously reported — that Trump repeatedly worried whether the couple were making the right decision moving to Washington to take jobs in his administration.
Trump had reason for concern. At one point, Kurtz writes that Stephen K. Bannon — Trump’s former chief strategist who was a key on-the-record source for Wolff’s book and seems likely to have talked to Kurtz — dresses down the president’s daughter early in the administration.
“My daughter loves me as a dad,” Bannon told Ivanka, according to Kurtz. “You love your dad. I get that. But you’re just another staffer who doesn’t know what you’re doing.”
Kurtz also recounts an Oval Office meeting in which Bannon blamed Ivanka for a leak — and Trump supported him over his daughter: “ ’Baby, I think Steve’s right here,’ Trump told her.”
A White House official denied the account, and said, “The past three weeks have made very clear who the leakers are.” The White House did not respond to questions about other parts of the excerpts obtained by The Post.
While Kurtz at times seems to offer a more flattering portrayal of the West Wing staff than some other media accounts, he also captures a White House struggling to perform basic tasks and advisers reacting to the whims of a hard-to-control president.
Bannon, Kurtz writes, told Trump when he left the White House in August that he planned to go after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), saying his main goal was “to bring him down.”
“Trump said that was fine, that Bannon should go ahead,” Kurtz writes.
By Kurtz’s telling, Trump’s approach to replacing Priebus as chief of staff with John F. Kelly, who was then homeland security secretary, was also not exactly standard operating procedure. “Typically, Trump announced the decision without telling Priebus and without having made a formal offer to Kelly,” he writes.
In the excerpts, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway emerges as one of the few calming presences on Trump. When, on his first full day as president, Trump wanted to send Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary, out to attack the media for correctly reporting the crowd size, Conway initially tried to talk him out of it.
“She invoked a line that she often employed when Trump was exercised over some slight,” Kurtz writes. “ ’You’re really big,’ she said. ‘That’s really small.’ ”
But ultimately, Spicer did attack the media at Trump’s behest, undermining his own credibility in his first official White House news conference and prompting a crowd-size debate that distracted from Trump’s first days in the White House.
Only then, Kurtz writes, did Trump make “a rare admission” — he had been wrong. “You were right,” he told aides, according to the book’s account. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
The cottage industry of scribblers chronicling life inside Trump’s White House exists, in part, because of well-placed leaks. The West Wing still sometimes executes internal searches for leakers — and yet the disclosures to reporters and authors keep coming.
One reason, perhaps? The president.
“The president himself leaked to reporters as well, his aides believed,” writes Kurtz. “And sometimes it was inadvertent: Trump would talk to so many friends and acquaintances that key information would quickly reach journalists.”