U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable discussion on the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018.
By Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
If Donald Trump was paranoid before Wednesday’s explosive New York Times op-ed, he was surely unnerved by the response. The Times op-ed, in which an anonymous senior administration official described efforts to “preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses,” wasn’t revelatory itself. For more than 18 months, U.S. officials have been leaking to the media on background, painting a picture of Trump as unhinged and out of his depth. Reporters Michael Wolff and, more recently, Bob Woodward, have both written books in which members of Trump’s inner circle eagerly dished about the president’s more discomfiting proclivities. In some ways, the entire Trump presidency has been defined by the efforts of the people closest to him to get the word out via the press: something here isn’t right. “It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week. So it’s really troubling, and yet in a way, not surprising,” Senator Ben Sasse said during an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt. Outgoing senator Bob Corker echoed the sentiment, saying, “This is what all of us have understood to be the situation from day one.”
The somewhat jaded reaction inside Washington underscores a terrifying reality for the president: as remarkable as the Times op-ed was, it could have been written by just about anyone. “The problem for the president is it could be so many people,” one administration official told The Washington Post. “It’s like the horror movies when everyone realizes the call is coming from inside the house,” said one former White House official in close contact with former co-workers. “You can’t rule it down to one person. Everyone is trying, but it’s impossible,” the administration official added. A senior official told Axios that “there are dozens and dozens of us.”
This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Anthony Scaramucci said Wednesday that he warned the president of saboteurs during his short-lived tenure as White House communications director last year. “He can’t trust anybody, everyone’s wearing wires, everyone’s running out of the building and leaking anonymously—this is the thing that I was trying to clean up for him last summer,” he said during an interview with Fox News’s Benson and Harf radio show. “There are these people who are telling him how great he’s doing and then running out to these journalists and snickering, and I know why they’re doing it: because they’re cockroaches that live in the restaurant of Washington, D.C.”
Still, the renewed conversation surrounding the president’s fitness—and the self-proclaimed “resistance” agents trying to restrain him—comes at a critical moment for the White House. With Robert Mueller circling and Democrats smelling blood in the water, Trump has grown increasingly frenzied in recent weeks, barely containing his more autocratic impulses on Twitter and during campaign-style rallies. The fallout could have massive repercussions inside the administration, given Trump’s recent outpouring of venom aimed at members of his Justice Department, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Bruce Ohr, a career civil servant whose wife worked for Fusion GPS, the firm involved in compiling the Steele dossier. “He is definitely now more and more convinced that there is a whole team of people that might include a lot—maybe even the majority—of people in government who are kind of working against him,” one administration official told me.
The perfect storm of the Times op-ed, the subterfuge described by Woodward, and the revelation that former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman secretly recorded hundreds of hours of audio during her time in the White House, can only fuel that paranoia. It may also hasten the expected departures of administration officials including Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis. The result is likely to be a shrinking circle of loyalists that Trump feels he can rely on. Already, the president has lost confidants Hope Hicks and Keith Schiller. Other close allies, including his former lawyer Michael Cohen, National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, and Trump Organization C.F.O. Allen Weisselberg, have cut deals and are talking to federal prosecutors. One Trump friend told the Post that the president is concerned that now, following the Times op-ed, the only people he can trust are his children. If he lashes out in anger, or to prove to the world that he is in charge, the “resistance” inside the West Wing may be more powerless than ever to control him.