Even for this chaotic administration, the last few weeks have taken a toll on President Donald Trump and his staff. A tragic mass shooting, big-name staff departures, and a series of scandals — all in the growing shadow of the investigation into Russia’s involvement in 2016 election — has left the White House under a dark cloud of low morale and constant frustration.
Many mid- and low-level staffers are anxious to leave and are actively looking for jobs elsewhere, sources close to the White House say. Those staffers saw the surprising resignation of Trump loyalist and communications director Hope Hicks on Wednesday as a sort of tipping point.
A former White House official said he's spoken with more aides inside the White House who are trying to leave the administration, but not necessarily getting the kinds of high-paying offers in the corporate world as former aides usually do.
"Things are still pretty bleak inside the White House," the source said. "I've talked to several people in the last week trying to find a way out, but they can't get out because no one is really hiring people with Trump White House experience. Not a fun time to say the least."
Another source close to the administration said he has also talked to those on the inside about potential job offers. The source said he remembers seeing one particularly fitting pun about Hick's departure on Thursday: "The White House has lost Hope." "That about says it all, right?" the source added.
Meanwhile, Trump, with crises swirling around him, has been going rogue, taking positions that aren’t in line with the GOP and surprising his aides — more so than usual — with his comments on issues like trade and gun control.
This level of chaos, unusual even in the relative terms of the Trump presidency, is underlined by a staff exodus. Trump famously values loyalty to a supreme degree. And right now, Trump’s White House is bleeding loyalists, and those who are left are under deepening pressure.
Trump used an open-press meeting on guns with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday to essentially buck long-standing Republican orthodoxy and the National Rifle Association while siding with Democrats about the legitimacy of more stringent gun control proposals. He went as far as to say: “Take the guns first, go through due process second.” And on Thursday, Trump announced he wanted new tariffs on steel and aluminum, again with cameras rolling and without fully informing his staff of the decision.
Members of Trump’s own party on Capitol Hill are still trying to figure out what to make of Trump’s recent comments, especially on guns.
"I don't know," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, when asked about narrowing the conversation after Trump broadened it at Wednesday’s meeting. “You saw it, right? It was wild. I just I think the president's going to have to narrow his list of issues that he would like to see addressed and figure out ... what's realistic."
There are any number of weeks or months from Trump’s first year in office that could reasonably be considered the most crisis-laden, but the last month is taking a real run at the crown.
The spiral began soon after Trump’s first State of the Union address, when Trump’s staff secretary, who helped prepare the president for that speech, was accused of serial domestic abuse by two of his ex-wives. The White House defended Porter, who had become one of the staffers closest to Trump, before he ultimately resigned.
That scandal raised another serious problem for the White House, and undermined chief of staff John Kelly’s authority: Some in the White House apparently knew about the allegations against Porter months before they were revealed in the press, and still allowed Porter access to highly sensitive information.
The ensuing outcry over security clearances, and how dozens of White House staffers were able to operate under interim clearances while their background checks dragged on, quickly came to focus on Jared Kushner, Trump’s top adviser and son-in-law.
Kushner, who came to the White House with complicated business dealings and has reportedly been a subject of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in 2016’s election, had his clearance downgraded under new rules laid out by Kelly, significantly limiting his once infinite purview. Trump’s family is said to be frustrated by Kelly’s role in sidelining Kushner, and the president himself has fumed over Kelly’s handling of the Porter episode.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation hasn’t just recently impacted what information Kushner is able to access. The public results of that investigation — which is examining whether or not anyone from Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia or if the president himself has obstructed justice in the course of the investigation — have intensified in the last month, with indictments against over a dozen Russians and new charges in the cases against Trump’s former campaign chairman and his deputy. Even more troubling for Trump: that deputy, Rick Gates, flipped his plea to guilty, and is now working with investigators.
Mueller’s team is also now reportedly looking into Trump’s treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions last summer, and whether or not it constituted an attempt to remove him from office as a way of interfering with Mueller’s investigation. That report came to light this week just as Trump has renewed his pressure on Sessions. Sessions is now publicly defending himself, in an exceedingly rare and direct rebuttal to the president.
Kushner has had few public defenders in recent weeks, with some blaming Kelly for how the president’s son-in-law is being treated. Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived former communications director, took jabs at Kelly, who fired him, on TV Thursday. The morale inside the White House, Scaramucci said on CNN, is “terrible. And the reason why the morale is terrible is the rule by fear and intimidation does not work in a civilian environment.”
Kelly, for his part, joked at a Department of Homeland Security event Thursday morning that his time in the White House isn’t exactly a delight.
“I miss every one of you, every day,” Kelly, who was previously the department’s secretary, said to laughs and applause, before rolling his eyes. “The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”
Hicks, one of the last two remaining White House staffers who had been with Trump through his business and campaign, announced Wednesday her plan to leave her post as communications director. Her job title partially belies how important she has been to Trump, working closely with him through years of ups and downs. Those downs include Hicks’ reported role in devising a response to Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with with a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties — a response that is now of particular interest to Mueller’s team. Hicks, who was also dating Porter at the time his alleged abuse was revealed, did not give a reason for her exit, but she had met privately with the House Intelligence Committee the day before.
Also leaving is Josh Raffel, a top adviser and communications official to Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The timing is tricky for Trump’s family: Even more than the reduced security clearance, Kushner is under increasing pressure with reports this week that he met, in his official capacity as a White House adviser, with executives who gave loans to his family’s company, and that multiple foreign nations have discussed ways of leveraging Kushner’s business interests for their own advantage.
Despite the increasing staff exodus, many Republicans remain hopeful that Trump will continue to sign their policy priorities and ignore the rest.
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson framed the departures as not out of the ordinary and “Washington as usual.”
"Somebody's always coming, and somebody's always going at the White House,” he said.
Lissandra Villa contributed reporting.