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How The White House's Internal Dynamics Is Taking The Focus Off Policy


Beyond tariffs, many of the political headlines this week were about the White House, and they were more about internal dynamics than policy. Here's a sampling.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Breaking news - White House communications director Hope Hicks is resigning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Next, breaking news - Jared Kushner's security clearance downgraded as...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...Lashing out as his own attorney general.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...Get rid of his attorney general?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Not that I know of.

SHAPIRO: We're going to talk about this in our Friday week in politics segment. Joining us now - David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: And Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post - good to have you in the studio.

KAREN TUMULTY: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that surprise announcement the president made on tariffs. What do you make of the fact that many of his closest advisers were caught off-guard and learned about the decision when they read it on the website of your newspaper, The Washington Post, Karen?

TUMULTY: I think this is - explains why when we write so many stories about the intrigue and the chaos in the White House, this is not just kind of Beltway inside baseball. The chaos actually this week we saw manifest itself in policy. I think a lot of people looked at the fact that Rob Porter's departure - Rob Porter, who the White House - the recent...

SHAPIRO: He was the staff secretary who left...

TUMULTY: Staff secretary who...

SHAPIRO: ...After being accused of abusing two former wives.

TUMULTY: Which sounds - you know, sounds like - you would say, well, how would this affect trade? Well, the fact is that he was handling the process. He was sort of keeping the protectionist forces in the White House at bay. I think the other thing that is going on here is that the president is looking at the fact that there is going to be a special election in about 10 days in southwest Pennsylvania. And this is a Republican seat, a congressional seat.

SHAPIRO: Just outside Pittsburgh.

TUMULTY: Right, and it's a Republican seat. Normally it's one the president won quite handily. But there are a lot of mine workers and steel workers in that district who voted for the president and who don't - are going to be very happy with this decision.

SHAPIRO: David, what do you make of the fact that many of the president's closest advisers did not want him to do this and he went ahead with it anyway?

BROOKS: Yeah, I sort of think the scaffolding is falling away. I mean, there was a structure of semi-sanity built around him with Hope Hicks and Kelly doing his best and Sessions doing his best and Gary Cohn doing his best. But it's falling away. The mania is escaping.

And so now we have government by resentment, by anger, by bitterness, by distraction. It's truly horrifying to have no process and horrifying doubled when that tweet that trade wars are good and easily won is - Trump has written a lot of ignorant tweets in his life. I can't imagine him ever topping that one. It's like saying nuclear wars are good and easily won. They're not good, and they're not easily won.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting to me that you tie this to the departure of Hope Hicks, his communications director who said this week that she was going to resign. She's one of the closest people to President Trump. She's been with him since the earliest days of his campaign - not a very public figure. But what does it mean that she's leaving his side?

BROOKS: Well, it's a - presidents rely on processes. The White House runs - it's an organization with the president making the ultimate decisions, but there's too much for any one man, even the wisest and most well-informed man. And so you have to have a process where people filter in different factors, and then the whole community comes to a decision, the president ultimately. And that process - always fragile in the Trump administration. She was a big part of actually making sure there was some coherent - where one thought led to the next thought, led to the next thought. And with her gone, there's much less mental coherence.


TUMULTY: I think that her real value - Hope Hicks was - came to this job not with a political background. She was not a political strategist, but she was with the president from the very beginning of his presidential campaign. Her real skill was sort of reading his mood. And I think that any of us who had ever been in an interview with him when Hope Hicks was in the room, she would interject. She would remind him of things. She would sort of pull him back a little bit if he was making a claim that was completely off point or sort of outrageous. Her real skill was managing the president's personality.

SHAPIRO: And personality is so connected to policy with this president. He earlier lost his former bodyguard, Keith Schiller, who had worked at the White House. Now, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is under attack. His - Kushner's security clearance was downgraded from top secret to secret. There was a report in The New York Times about questionable loans from companies that met with Kushner at the White House. What does this mean for the president, Karen?

TUMULTY: This goes back to the reservations that a lot of people had about, number one, staffing your White House with family members and, number two, not really disentangling people from all of their business interests. And that includes, by the way, the president of the United States. These conflicts are going to happen. You could - you know, somebody with maybe a little more experience and judgment would have known what Jared Kushner didn't, which is you do not take meetings with people who have had and do have relationships with your family's business interests.

SHAPIRO: David, as bad a week as this has been for the president, it has been a worse week for Jared Kushner. What do you think this means?

BROOKS: Well, I mean, he's lost his security clearance. He's sort of lost his stature. The president is allegedly saying they never should have - he and his wife never should have come into the White House in the first place.

SHAPIRO: His wife, Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter.

BROOKS: The president's daughter. You know, the times I've spoken to him, which is not many, but he's always struck me with a smart enough guy with no experience who just - you know, if somebody asks you to do neurosurgery, you couldn't do it off the bat. And he was handling the Middle East peace process and reinventing government.


BROOKS: And so he was just set floundering. And, frankly, I always thought he was sort of the Webster Hubbell here. When people...

SHAPIRO: Explain the reference.

BROOKS: When people get - Webster Hubbell was a Clinton friend and somebody who came into the White House. And when he - when the legal investigations started going, they always go to somebody close to the president and indict that person and, if necessary, send them away in order to get to the president. And Jared Kushner struck me as the Webster Hubbell in this story. And so if he gets out of this without getting in some legal trouble, I'll - he'll be - should be considering himself lucky.

SHAPIRO: An ominous note. I'd like to end on the bipartisan meeting that the president held on guns at the White House on Wednesday. It was surprising to many people that he embraced positions typically held by Democrats. I spoke yesterday on this program with Republican Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky who said the president's comments were a doozy.


THOMAS MASSIE: Well, I don't think he's going to come back to a rally of 30,000 people in Kentucky with Dianne Feinstein next to his side and John Cornyn on the other side proposing gun control.

SHAPIRO: And then Trump met with the NRA and apparently changed his mind. So, Karen, where do things stand?

TUMULTY: No one knows. This is a replay of what we saw on immigration as well when it looked like the president was preparing to make deals with his new, good friends Chuck and Nancy, the leader - the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. I think what we saw - and this was a kind of meeting, too, this bipartisan meeting on guns, where the president wanted the cameras in the room. But I think that nobody on the White House staff wanted the cameras in there because it was - it just put on display how manipulable (ph) the - is that a word - the president is when whoever - he's trying to please whoever is speaking to him.

SHAPIRO: Final thought, David.

BROOKS: It's just emotional instability with attention span problem. And so it's horrifying that our country is actually (unintelligible) I'm more alarmed this week than most weeks.

SHAPIRO: David Brooks of The New York Times and Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, good to have you both here. Thanks.

BROOKS: Thank you.

TUMULTY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK'S "DETOUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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