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Trump White House shaken by downgrades, departure and dispute

Turmoil at the White House has intensified again in recent days amid a swirl of damaging developments involving his son-in-law Jared Kushner, tension with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the departure of his closest aide Hope Hicks. Lisa Desjardins reports and Judy Woodruff learns more from Philip Rucker, White House Bureau Chief at The Washington Post.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump White House finds itself searching for stability again tonight, in a swirl of damaging developments. The president's right-hand man acknowledged as much today.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It was supposed to be a celebration, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaking at an anniversary event for the Department of Homeland Security, which he used to run. But he gave a nod to tensions at his new job.

  • John Kelly:

    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.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Late last week, Kelly stripped top-secret security clearances from more than 30 White House aides, who had temporary status. First among them, the president's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

    It's not yet clear how that affects his many roles, including work on Middle East issues. Kushner also faces new questions out his family's real estate business. Yesterday, The New York Times reported the Kushner family firm received more than half a billion dollars in loans from Wall Street companies, after Jared Kushner met with them at the White House. Kushner has denied any wrongdoing.

    At today's White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders came to his defense.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    Jared is still a valued member of the administration. And he's going to continue to focus on the work that he's been doing.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In addition, a report in The Washington Post suggests officials from China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates saw Kushner as exploitable and at one point hoped to manipulate him.

    To this swirl, add the impending loss of president's longest-serving aide, Hope Hicks, who yesterday announced she will soon leave her job as White House communications director.

  • Man:

    Are you going to be answering all of the committee's questions today?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hicks' announcement came one day after she told the House Intelligence Committee that she's occasionally told white lies for the president, but not about anything related to the Russia probe the committee is investigating.

    One more fracture. President Trump has reignited his public feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Over Twitter, he called Sessions disgraceful for deciding not to launch a special prosecutor probe of how the FBI has conducted its Russia investigation.

    In a rare move, Sessions pushed back with a statement that as long as he is attorney general, he will carry out his duties with integrity and honor.

    That may turn out to be more than an internal feud. Today, the Washington Post also reported special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the president's attempts to pressure or oust Sessions to determine whether he was obstructing justice.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins in Washington.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And look closer at the power dynamics inside the White House right now with Phil Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.

    Phil, welcome back to the program.

    So we thought there was instability at this White House before, but I think this week, with the departure of — announced departure of Hope Hicks, this back and forth with the attorney general and the president, the Jared Kushner concerns, and even speculation about the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, where are we?

  • Philip Rucker:

    Judy, it is a truly chaotic moment for this White House, and it reminds me of those early days of the presidency back at the beginning of 2016, when, every day, there was a new brushfire to put out.

    And that's what we're going through right now. Jared Kushner has been diminished by this downgrade in his security clearance, and the knives are out for him. Other administration officials are trying to harm him internally. There's a bit of a power struggle here with the chief of staff, John Kelly, who, remember, only a few weeks ago, was under intense scrutiny for his handling of the situation involving Staff Secretary Rob Porter and the domestic abuse allegations from his two ex-wives.

    Kelly now seems newly empowered with this move against Kushner, but it really is unsettling, and the president's closest aide, Hope Hikes, is departing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you say, Hope Hicks leaving, the president lashing out at his own attorney general, the speculation about H.R. McMaster. Where is the steadying hand in this White House?

  • Philip Rucker:

    There doesn't seem to be one. And I don't know that there ever has been one, in part because of who the president is.

    He sets the culture and the tone for this government himself at the top, and he likes chaos. He feels like he thrives in this sort of environment. He likes spontaneity. He likes to make decisions impulsively, without a lot of process. And that's what we see, for example, today with the news of tariffs in trade.

    That came as a huge surprise to some of the staff in the White House, a very instantaneous, spontaneous announcement, if you will, in that meeting with executives.

    So, this is what the president likes to have. It is not anything that brings solace, I think, to veterans of Washington or elsewhere in the government, certainly at the military or on Capitol Hill. But it's Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, essentially, what you're saying is the president seems satisfied with things at this — operating at this level, which, from the outside, looks like — chaotic.

  • Philip Rucker:

    Well, he likes the chaos.

    That doesn't mean he's satisfied. He's clearly dissatisfied with his attorney general. He's been lashing out at him this week. And, privately, the president has been very upset about what he sees as negative media coverage of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the security clearance issue and has been bubbling with frustration for weeks now about the Russia probe, which intensifies.

    Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is getting closer and closer to the Oval Office with these indictments and these interviews.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's almost more than we can keep up with.

    But, thank you, Phil Rucker, for doing that for us. Thank you very much.

  • Philip Rucker:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will return to some of the particulars involving Jared Kushner a little later in the program.

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