The power game of Trump's White House

Mark Leibovich takes stock of how Washington has — and hasn’t — changed in the time of Trump

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was running late and “tied up in the Oval”, an assistant said.

It was a Thursday afternoon in June, and I had not seen Spicer since the election in November that would supposedly transform the accustomed reality of Washington and which had unquestionably upended his.

In the political order of the pre-Donald Trump era, Spicer represented a Washington type in good standing: An amiable plodder in his job as spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He was an eager shooter of the breeze, visible at cocktail parties, and serviceable on TV.

After I had waited 45 minutes, Spicer stepped out and apologised. In the same way that a dog can come to resemble its owner, Spicer has acquired a swollen, hopped-up, and persecuted countenance.

I told him that I would come back the next day and that I wanted to interview him.

“No, you’re not,” Spicer said quickly. “Not on the record, you’re not.”

Then, softening, he said he would consider it, but that any spotlight trained on him would not be helpful “to my current status”.

This phrase, “current status”, struck me as a perfectly of-the- moment representation of the city from which Spicer had derived a creditable identity for himself, until he (and it) had become otherwise occupied.

Notwithstanding that Spicer changed his “current status” dramatically yesterday, quitting in protest at Trump’s appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director, his had been a volatile predicament from the start of this volatile presidency.

“Embattled” or “beleaguered” effectively became part of his job title.

And yet the mockery directed at this blandly ubiquitous greenroom denizen propelled him to a golden status with “the base”. At Trump’s post-election rallies across the country, the press secretary was engulfed by squealing, selfie-seeking fans.

Spicer was careful to marvel only privately at how big he had become. To be caught trumpeting your own fame is a cardinal sin in Trump’s White House, where attention is zero-sum.

By early June, Spicer had apparently taken a few turns in the revolving doghouse of this administration. You lose track of who is supposedly on the outs in any given week — Reince Priebus? Kellyanne Conway? Steve Bannon?

Spicer had been seen as a dead man talking for months — and yet he kept showing up and taking it.

“You know, at first, I really didn’t like Spicer,” Republican senator John McCain told me. “Now, I just feel sorry for the guy.”

In early June, I stopped by the White House to see Hope Hicks, the president’s longtime aide. She asked me if I wanted to “say hello.” I wondered to whom. “Reince? Spicer?” No, she said, “Potus”. Huh. It’s usually not this easy to infringe on the president’s schedule.

“Uh, sure,” I said.

She walked me in.

The president was sitting alone, in a small dining room just off the Oval Office. Trump half-stood, said hello, and shook my hand.

I hadn’t seen him since the election, and I congratulated him on his victory. He thanked me and pointed out that “you treated me very badly” during the campaign, and that the “failing New York Times” had been “so unfair” to him, but he was perfectly pleasant about it.

It was 12:30pm, but the president was not eating lunch. He was watching a recording of Fox and Friends (it had aired four hours earlier) on a TV mounted on the wall.

He was tweeting a lot, including criticising the mayor of London, following a terrorist attack on the city. Like most reporters, I found his tweets far more illuminating than anything the White House press office could ever disgorge. I urged him to keep it up.

Trump assured me that he would keep tweeting.

“It’s my voice,” he said. “They want to take away my voice. They’re not going to take away my social media.”

Nearly every White House job has been transformed by this president and his “voice”, none more so than being the spokesman for the man who reminds everyone that no-one speaks for Trump but Trump.

When I stopped back at Spicer’s office a few days later, I mentioned his debut in January, in which he had defended Trump’s risible claim that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe”, and then left without taking questions.

“I’m not here to relitigate every [expletive] number,” Spicer said, and then launched into a lengthy relitigation about how the growth in online viewership, the advent of Twitter, and the explosion of mobile devices made it entirely possible that more people watched “around the globe”.

Spicer’s adviser stepped in to remind him he had a TV interview to do in a few minutes. Spicer walked over to a small desk and started rubbing on foundation. I made a verbal note of this into my tape recorder. “Don’t you dare,” Spicer said, “just so we’re clear.”

“You’re putting on makeup,” I said.

“You’re going to say that in the story,” he charged, “that I’m putting on makeup?”

“Well, you are.”

“I’m going on my way to a television hit,” he said, patting his cheeks a few times with a makeup puff.

“That’s fine,” I said.

“So, as long as it’s in context.”

We walked out of the White House, and Spicer, looking perfect, veered off to the front lawn to tape his second on-camera interview of the afternoon, with Fox News.

In 2013, I published a book called This Town, an anthropological snapshot of the gilded, inbred carnival of early-21st-century Washington. It portrayed Washington as a feudal village of bipartisan politicians, former officeholders, lobbyists, journalists, hangers-on, and usual suspects of all stripes.

So-called change elections came and went — Barack Obama in 2008, Tea Partiers in 2010 — but nothing seemed to change, except that the people involved seemed to grow richer.

To outward appearances, ‘this town’ in the time of Trump seems as fat and cozy as ever. The city is thriving with construction projects, abundant lobbying, and bull-market wealth. The swamp feels anything but drained; more like remodelled into a gold-plated hot tub.

Trump got elected in part by portraying and revealing politicians to be feckless weenies — and many of them went out and reinforced this view by displaying their willingness to be rolled by Trump in the campaign and their unwillingness to stand up to him in office.

This gets to one ethic of This Town that has endured: The interests of self-perpetuation drive nearly everything. Much of the Republican base still loves Trump, and few Republicans in Congress can afford to alienate these voters by defying him too forcefully, even though many of them — particularly senators — plainly hold the president in low regard.

On the day that former FBI director James Comey,testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, I was walking around the Senate side of the Capitol. I noticed that whenever Republican members were asked about Trump, they looked as if they were bracing for a chandelier to drop on their heads.

As a general rule, the most foolproof approach for a Trump-weary Republican is to walk through the Capitol as if protected by a selectively permeable bubble filtering out certain unwelcome words (e.g. ‘Trump’).

Mitch McConnell is the master of this, and I caught the Senate Republican leader as he walked off the Senate floor on the day of the Comey hearings.

“What’d you think of Comey?” I asked, as he headed back to his office. He kept walking, remaining impassive. I asked the question twice more, until we passed Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who was walking in the other direction.

Of late, Graham had been a font of backhanded Trump defences.

“He can’t collude with his own government,” Graham said last month on Face the Nation. “Why do you think he’s colluding with the Russians?”

I asked Graham how he would characterise this moment in the capital, given that he has seen many Washington circuses over the years.

He paused and took a breath, as if about to deliver the first line of a sermon.

“I yearn for the good old days of impeachment,” he said, then ducked into a meeting.

When I went to see McCain, Graham’s Senate sidekick, the next week, he seemed to be in a darker place. Now 80, McCain has been travelling the globe, seemingly on a personal mission to reassure allies unnerved by Trump.

It was Trump’s ability to deceive with impunity, while still claiming the mantle of the tough-talking truth-teller, that seemed to gall McCain the most.

“If I were a Democrat right now, I’d be going after Trump for not telling the truth,” McCain said.

“I’d leave the issues, and just say:

‘Look, you can’t trust this guy, you can’t trust him.’ ”

Paul Ryan, who was persuaded by his House colleagues to replace John Boehner as speaker in 2015, has perfected his ‘I don’t need this job’ shtick.

He will frequently express longing for his previous post, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

When I interviewed him in his office at the Capitol, I asked what he liked best about being speaker.

“The impact, the big impact I can have,” he said.

What’s the worst part?

“Everything else,” Ryan said. He laughed and then tried to declare what he’d just said “kinda off the record.”

Ryan told me that he had settled on a method of sharing his opinions and criticisms with Trump, but only privately.

“We have pretty candid conservations,” he assured me. “I find that public fights don’t achieve anything.”

When I talked to Ryan again, 16 days later, he had, the day before, visited Steve Scalise, the House majority whip and one of his closest friends, who had been critically wounded after a gunman opened fire at an early-morning baseball practice in Virginia last month.

Scalise’s condition was improving, Ryan said, but the speaker sounded shaken. The news cycle might have moved on from the shooting, Ryan told me, “but it hasn’t moved on in people’s minds, I’ll tell you that”.

The perpetually breaking news cycle of the Trump era has become its own suffocating force. It has never been more difficult to consume and process what has just happened, because the next thing quickly explodes.

A few This Town veterans told me that this scary new normal has instilled in them a greater appreciation for old-normal rituals. The congressional baseball game, which obviously took on greater significance this year, is one of these.

Scalise was supposed to be playing second base for the Republican team. On June 14, the morning he was shot, he had been standing just down the baseline from Tom Rooney, of Florida, who played first base.

As it happened, I had met Rooney two months before, though I didn’t realise he was in Congress. We were in Pittsburgh, at the funeral of his uncle, Dan Rooney, the Hall of Fame member and owner of the Steelers.

Tom introduced himself to me as “someone who works in politics in DC”.

But it was only after Rooney and I became reacquainted, via a colleague in Washington, that he told me he had been a member of Congress since 2009.

He said he had done much soul-searching over the years about whether his coveted position was worth the sacrifice.

“You’re putting yourself at risk,” Rooney said. “Is that what we’re signing up for?”

We were sitting in a Starbucks on Capitol Hill, on a June morning. A week earlier, Rooney, 46, was at baseball practice with his colleagues, but he left just after 7am to take his children to school.

He texted his wife at 7:05am to tell her he was on his way. The gunman began firing shortly before 7:09am, according to police reports.

Rooney says he has been going through many emotions since the shooting, including guilt over having left practice early.

He consulted his Republican colleague, Adam Kinzinger, who, in 2006, disarmed a knife-wielding attacker in Milwaukee.

“I definitely had some PTS on the stabbing thing,” Kinzinger said. “It changes you, definitely.”

As with most of their colleagues, Rooney and Kinzinger are largely unknown outside their districts. The most important thing many people will judge them on is what team they play for — the Rs or Ds.

Rooney has observed that the increasingly pitched tone of our political dialogues can become mutually reinforcing.

“There’s a sense that people out in the country can see the far left and the far right on social media, and they think it’s OK to act out any way they want,” Rooney said.

Suddenly, as he spoke, Rooney’s tone acquired an edge. There was something he wanted to say, something that made him mad. The newly sworn-in representative, Greg Gianforte, had just given his first House speech.

Gianforte, a Montana Republican, will be forever known as the guy who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of Gianforte’s May 25 special election. He won anyway.

And Gianforte used his maiden remarks on the floor to call for mandatory term limits, a ban on lobbying for any former member, and a suspension of congressional salary if the House does not pass a balanced budget.

“And that was his speech,” Rooney said. “That was it. He’s like: ‘I’m coming here, you all suck, and this institution sucks.’ ”

I mentioned to Rooney that Gianforte, who pleaded guilty on a charge of misdemeanor assault, had become a partisan cause célèbre over his willingness to fight back against the enemy of the people.

“He might be a real man,” Rooney said. “But he’s got a criminal record now that’s going to follow him forever.”

Rooney told me he did not know if he would run for re-election next year, but said he was reluctant to be too critical of Trump in case he did. The shooting, and the feeling of vulnerability it engendered, would be something he considered in his ‘Is it worth it?’ calculus.

But as I was finishing this article, a few days after Trump was tweeting an old wrestling clip of himself ‘going Gianforte’ on a CNN logo, Rooney decided that it was, in fact, worth it, and that he would run again.

I asked in a text message what had gotten into him.

“I guess I’m a hopeless romantic that politics will actually work someday,” he wrote back.

“And I want to be a part of it.”

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine.


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