ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me around the table are Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, Julie Davis of The New York Times, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, and Jeremy Peters of The New York Times.
The White House has had a record-high number of staff departures during the first 15 months of the Trump presidency. This week White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has been in the spotlight again after reports came out that he called the president an idiot. The president called this fake news and told reporters that John Kelly has his full support.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) General Kelly is doing a fantastic job. There has been such false reporting about our relationship. We have a great relationship. He’s doing a great job as chief of staff. I could not be more happy.
MR. COSTA: Julie, that’s the public statement. What’s the private scene for General Kelly inside of this White House right now?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, the private scene is that, you know, Trump and Kelly are not at each other’s throats all the time. They’re not like yelling and screaming and throwing things. But they have sort of drifted into this sort of dysfunctional, cold truce, where they’re kind of on each other’s nerves. Trump kind of wants to be, as we’ve talked about, his own chief of staff. He’s doing things his own way. He’s going around Kelly in a lot of different ways. He’s talking directly to his NEC chair, Larry Kudlow. He’s talking directly to his national security adviser, John Bolton. He’s calling Steve Bannon. It’s like – it’s sort of like it used to be with Trump. And Kelly is sort of there doing his job and gets very frustrated with Trump because he’s not heeding his advice all the time and he’s not consulting him on a lot of things, but they’re basically indifferent to each other in this very odd way. So you have a chief of staff who’s trying to, you know, make the trains run on time and make the – make some sort of method to the madness of this White House, and a commander in chief who just won’t be managed. So there – you know, and there’s no immediate impetus for Kelly to leave. Trump is very reluctant, actually, despite what we all hear of his sort of bombast, to fire people. And this is a four-star Marine general. I think Trump still feels like he brings some sort of gravitas to the White House, some sort of credibility, and is not really in a rush to get him out the door. Kelly, I think, wants to stay for at least a year. That would be July. So we have this sort of weird dynamic where they’re kind of getting along as much as they can, but not really engaging that much.
MR. COSTA: Are we going to see some more players, like Corey Lewandowski and other campaign associates, become bigger inside of this White House now that Kelly’s a little bit diminished, at least in terms of his influence politically with the president?
JEREMY PETERS: I think they already are pretty big players, more so than people realize actually. I mean, Trump is never one to cast you out of the inner circle for very long. And Corey and Dave Bossie were – have been in advising Trump and in some cases feeding his more self-destructive impulses for quite a while now.
It’s funny, I was thinking about the way that the staff turnover has just been this relentless churn over the last year and a half or so, and you know, the stories that could have been written about – that are being written about John Kelly today were written about Reince Priebus, were written about Rex Tillerson, are written about Jeff Sessions right now. I mean, it’s just like – and these are not under – like, undersecretaries, you know. (Laughs.) These are major Cabinet officials, chiefs of staff who are just being cast aside and minimized. And I mean, just think about how that affects your job performance on a daily basis, knowing that at any moment by the whims of this most whimsical of presidents you could be gone.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: There’s like a shelf life for people, particularly people who aren’t Trump people, you know? Someone not like a Lewandowski or a – or a Bannon, who will still sort of remain in that circle, but all the people that you named – Tillerson, Priebus, Sessions – these weren’t – Sessions sort of, on the campaign, but these were Washington people. These were members of that swamp that he was trying to drain, and even though –
MR. PETERS: People in the constitutional line of secession in some instances. (Laughter.)
MS. ATKINS: Correct. Correct, but there seems to be a shelf life. Even people who earnestly want to do the job that they have, like John Kelly, there is a shelf life where they just can only last so long within this – within this White House.
MR. COSTA: Yet, when you look at General Kelly, he does have some allies inside of the West Wing, including White House Counsel Don McGahn. And McGahn and Kelly in part helped to shepherd in Emmet Flood to come in as Russia lawyer inside, and maybe even Emmet Flood could succeed Don McGahn if McGahn ever left the White House.
CAROL LEONNIG: That certainly looks like the way things are stacking up, Bob. And I also want to emphasize that, you know, Kelly has had some disagreements with Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb’s gone now. But Kelly has a great ally in General Mattis. Again, back to Julie’s good point about generals, the president seems to have a different level of respect if you’ve got some stars. But ultimately, you know, what I found the most interesting in interviewing people at the White House is one person who said to me Trump doesn’t like anyone to disagree with him. He’s not interested in sycophants, but he doesn’t really like people to openly disagree with him. And it’s hard to run a White House without some disagreement.
He’s also extremely compartmentalized. He likes to talk to people in small, one-on-one groups rather than – rather than one big group and, like, let’s talk about how to solve this problem. That creates a lot of mayhem and a lot of trouble.
MS. DAVIS: He’s also, you know, an executive in the most kind of grandiose sense of the word. He likes to dip into everything. I mean, one of the things when I wrote the story about their relationship earlier this week, apparently Kelly told a group of Republicans at a breakfast last week that Trump spent a lot of time on the phone with Bill Belichick the day before that event talking about Tom Brady. That’s normally something a president wouldn’t bother with, wouldn’t have time to bother with. This president like to just kind of bounce around from thing to thing. And a chief of staff’s main function is, in large part, to sort of keep the boss focused on what needs his attention, and kind of cancel out all that other stuff and keep out the noise. Most presidents need and want that. This president really resists that.
MR. COSTA: Staying with the administration, another official was in the news this week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who’s come under fire for questions about ethical infractions and excessive spending. This week, new questions have been raised about some of his international travel. Pruitt traveled to Morocco last December. And it turns out, a lobbyist helped schedule much of the trip. And then, that lobbyist was hired by the government of Morocco. A trip to Israel was planned with the help of lobbyists and Republican donors, like Sheldon Adelson. This trip was cancelled days before departure. There are currently nearly a dozen investigations involving Pruitt, but he remains, Jeremy. Pruitt remains.
MR. PETERS: He does. For now. I think at a certain point it will, as in all of these other instances in which President Trump has gotten tired of the bad press and the bad news and hearing about it on TV all the time, he’ll pull the trigger. But he likes to let things fester because he’s passive aggressive, ultimately, when it comes down to face-to-face confrontation.
The Scott Pruitt story, though, is really interesting, because this is the first time I can ever remember a scandal in which the – somebody comes to Washington, occupies a Cabinet-level position, and so obviously and almost purposefully flouts tradition, convention, and ethics. This isn’t just audacious. This isn’t just kind of a new sheriff in town style. This is: I am disdainful of your system. I am disdainful of this department I have been selected and confirmed by the Senate to run. So I’m just going to basically do whatever the hell I want, and I don’t care what anyone else says. And you know what? It doesn’t look like it’s going to work for him.
MR. COSTA: What stands out to you, Kim, as an attorney and as a reporter about all these cascading scandals around Pruitt?
MS. ATKINS: I mean, it’s just – it’s incredible. But I think it’s also a part of what Pruitt – Scott Pruitt has already – always done. He did it in Oklahoma. It seems to be that he surrounds himself with people who can help him. And he repays that favor and he benefits from it. He brought that to New York, again, bringing part of the Oklahoma swamp to – I mean, brought it to Washington, bringing that here. So it’s that. He has the president’s favor right now because he’s doing the EPA policy that people on that side want, really undoing everything that the Obama administration did. I think that’s giving him some cover.
And he has that I’m not going to back down attitude, which means that he’s going to have to be thrown out. He’s not someone who is going to resign like others have. So I think ultimately it will end up in some showdown. It’ll maybe have to force the president’s hand, or some sort of ethical – you know, some sort of ethical investigation and report will come down and take him down.
MR. COSTA: Are we waiting for an IG report on Pruitt?
MS. DAVIS: I mean, it’s hard to imagine that more could come out that we don’t already know that would change the president’s mind. But, yes, I mean, that’s certainly a possibility. I mean, President Trump really likes Scott Pruitt. That matters a lot here. There is a lot of – I mean, this is a president who promised to drain the swamp. A lot of what we’ve already learned about what Scott Pruitt has done is completely in conflict with that.
And the president seems to have almost limitless patience for this particular Cabinet secretary’s misconduct. That’s not the case with a lot of people inside the White House. There is a lot of discontent with Scott Pruitt. People are, you know, fed up with all the bad stories. And I think some of his staff is trying to prod the president to get to the place where he’s ready to fire him. But that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Maybe it’ll take an IG report. I don’t know.
MR. COSTA: It’s just interesting. Tom Price, the former health secretary, flies on private planes, scandal, leaves. Pruitt, excessive spending reporting, stays.
MS. LEONNIG: Well, or Steve Mnuchin, if you all remember, who flew for the solar eclipse with his wife. I don’t remember the price tag, but it was more than some houses in that state. It’s really stunning. I’m thinking actually, Julie, listening to you describe this sort of limitless tolerance for abuse of taxpayer dollars in this administration, and how quaint it is to think back to when George H.W. Bush, in basically two hours’ time, accepted graciously the resignation of his very, very good friend, who he loved very much, the governor of New Hampshire, who had been caught flying on a helicopter. And part of his helicopter trip was personal in nature. And it was so embarrassing and so dispiriting for the administration that he would use a few hours of helicopter time to stop for a personal trip. And he was gone.
MR. PETERS: It’s quaint, isn’t it? Remember when franking was a scandal? (Laughs.)
MS. DAVIS: Those were the days. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Know who was that governor? John Sununu. And I believe I’m right on this, you can check, that the person who gave Sununu the news that he was out of being chief of staff, George W. Bush.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, take the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.