Chapter 2: Setting the tone
The tenor of Trump’s opening months was set on January 21, his first full day in office.
Trump began the day in a state of awe about stepping into the presidency, according to friends and aides. It was one of the few times, some said, that he seemed genuinely thrilled to be in the trappings of the White House. Fresh off the high of the previous night’s inaugural balls and with the power of the office sinking in, the new commander in chief spent part of the day playing tour guide, pulling friends into the Oval Office to tell them the history of the “Resolute Desk” or ushering them through his private dining room.
Trump, a politician with legendary thin skin and little patience for protestors, wasn’t angered by the masses descending on Washington to protest his agenda as part of the worldwide women’s march. The chants were audible to reporters on the White House grounds but several aides said the President couldn’t hear them.
Still, watching the commotion outside his new home on television, he mused with one friend about inviting some of the protesters in for a chat. A White House aide denied the idea was ever seriously considered, but said the staff briefly discussed a “counter-programming event” that would have brought another group of women in to meet with Trump. Ultimately, an aide said the logistics were too complex.
Trump’s levity that morning would fizzle as the day went on. While women marched through cities across the world, Trump was more distracted by the other storyline dominating cable news that day: the inference that his inaugural crowds were much smaller than those from Obama’s 2009 inauguration. He was particularly livid about the side-by-side photographs comparing the two events.
In Trump’s mind, according to aides, the comparison was yet another example of efforts to delegitimize his victory, an assault on his image, his gilded brand. And he wasn’t going to let it go.
He blasted the media during an appearance before the CIA Memorial Wall, where fallen operatives are remembered. Against the backdrop of a typically somber venue, he shocked many by delivering a political speech describing his “running war with the media,” who he said “are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” Later that day, he dispatched White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to the briefing room to press the specious claim that Trump’s crowd had been “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.”
Allies of Trump still cite that day as an example of the fact that he has no equivalent on his staff to a James Baker, who was chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. A senior aide in the Baker model has the freedom to tell the President “no” and convince him that his comments or actions could be perceived as petty and self-indulgent. The closest thing Trump has to such a confidante, according to aides, is his daughter, Ivanka, who recently stepped up her role in the White House. But, by her own admission, even she doesn’t always win the argument.
“Where I disagree with my father, he knows it, and I express myself with total candor,” she told CBS News earlier this month. “Where I agree, I fully lean in and support the agenda.”
Trump’s preoccupation with the competing photos of inaugural crowds underscored what multiple sources who have met with him in recent months, including supporters, come away identifying as his greatest weakness: An obsessive focus on image, being admired and, most importantly, being perceived as a winner. That takeaway is also demonstrated by the tweets he has published since taking office, which often focus on the size of his victory in November and the triumphs that he feels are often overlooked.
That mentality has shaped his antipathy toward the media, a relationship that will come into greater focus this weekend when Trump becomes the first president since Reagan to skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Reagan sat out the annual event in 1981 as he recovered from an assassination attempt, though he delivered remarks by phone.
Tom Barrack, Trump’s longtime friend, said the President’s criticisms of the media are a genuine reflection of his feeling that he is treated unfairly by the institutional press in Washington. For much of Trump’s career in the private sector and as a reality TV star, his parry and thrust with reporters has been a huge part of how he judges his power and his performance. Now, the intense scrutiny of everything that happens in the White House, which Trump wasn’t accustomed to in the business world, has deepened the President’s sense of injustice.
“I said if you want to have the best first year ever, throw every TV in the White House away. You set your own agenda” — Tom Barrack, longtime Trump friend
“I begged him,” Barrack said. “I said if you want to have the best first year ever, throw every TV in the White House away. You set your own agenda.”
But the President hasn’t taken that advice. In fact, he’s added televisions to the White House residence so he can watch multiple channels at once.
That unique blend of paranoia and distrust has made Trump, and his team, slow to hire. Every president is sensitive to staffers publicly criticizing the administration. But in the early weeks of the Trump White House, there was an especially low tolerance for job candidates who hadn’t supported the President — even for junior positions.
One example of that insistence on loyalty was the removal in February of Craig Deare from his role as a senior adviser on the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere division after he criticized Trump’s Latin American policies. He was reassigned to his old job at the National Defense University, according to a White House spokesperson.
“If you don’t support the President’s agenda then you shouldn’t have a job in the White House,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at the time.
In mid-February, a top aide appointed by Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Shermichael Singleton, was fired for writing an October op-ed for The Hill that was critical of Trump. In that pre-election op-ed, Singleton argued that Trump was dragging the Republican Party to a “new moral low.”
The administration’s loyalty criteria has eased over time, numerous Republican officials said, as the need to fill jobs has created new pressures. But the glacial pace of hiring has left their so-called beachhead teams and temporary staff in place at agencies for much longer than originally planned, slowing the implementation of Trump’s agenda.