Inside Donald Trump’s Tumultuous First 100 Days
The Collection’s “Weekend Cover”
Editor’s Note: Every weekend, The editor’s at The Collection will display an article pertinent to current events and one that specifically delves into the matters within the political, social, economic or other topics of our time. As President Trump’s 100th day is marked this Saturday, we present a long article that dives into the details, success, shortcomings, and rifts that has commanded The President’s administration up to this point.
Chapter 1: ‘Parallel universes’
One Republican lawmaker called President Donald Trump’s first weeks in office “batshit crazy.”
Someone else who regularly speaks with the President described him during a particularly low point in March as a “caged animal” in the White House.
“He wanted to win. He didn’t want to do this,” this person said, referring to the task of governing.
Another person close to Trump portrayed a tight inner circle of top aides gripped by paranoia to the point that “if one of them goes into that office alone, the other one is there within two minutes” to make sure their voice is heard.
The presidency poses profound challenges for the 70-year-old Trump, who owes much of his success in business and last year’s campaign to a savvy ability to cultivate a favorable persona. Now that he’s in the White House, the problem, many sources said, is that Trump is so concerned about an image he can’t control and staffers are so anxious about their standing with him that the administration easily slides into dysfunction.
Trump concludes his first 100 days in office Saturday with the lowest approval rating of any president at this juncture, according to polls dating back to the Eisenhower administration. A CNN/ORC poll released this week found that 44% of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of the presidency while 54% disapproved. That vulnerability is underscored by the willingness of even Trump’s closest GOP allies — those who desperately want to turn his unlikely administration into a noble cause — to critique his shortcomings.
This account of the President’s tumultuous first 100 days is based on interviews with roughly five dozen White House officials, lawmakers, congressional staff and former campaign officials along with Trump friends and associates, many of whom spoke on background to protect their relationship with Trump. The interviews depict a White House struggling to overcome an onslaught of crises ranging from investigations about Russia’s involvement in last year’s election to the failed push to repeal and replace Obamacare.
After a rough introduction to Washington, there are signs that Trump and his team are beginning to adapt to the realities and demands of the job. For instance, his approval earlier this month of targeted airstrikes on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for chemical attacks that killed civilians was out of step from the “America First” campaign rhetoric that ushered him into the White House.
“You know, when you’re running for president, you say anything. There are no boundaries,” South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham told me recently. “But now that he’s commander in chief and leader of the free world, it’s a different world. Authorizing the strikes, even though they were limited, was Donald Trump accepting the responsibility of being commander in chief and letting campaign rhetoric be washed away by the reality of the job.”
Graham’s relationship with Trump is a sign of potential changes at the White House. One of the Senate’s leading hawks, Graham represents the foreign policy establishment that Trump pilloried on the campaign trail last year. But Trump was on the phone with Graham just hours after the Syria strike, the senator said. And the President had dinner with Graham and Sen. John McCain, another Trump skeptic in the GOP, in the White House residence Monday night.
The 100 days threshold — popularized by Franklin D. Roosevelt as he fought the Great Depression — is a legendary Washington barometer for presidential success. By this point in 2009, Barack Obama had won congressional approval of a $787 billion economic stimulus package. George W. Bush was on his way to securing House passage of the No Child Left Behind education overhaul. Bill Clinton stumbled at first but ultimately pushed a budget through Congress.
Trump has followed through on some campaign promises, such as executive orders rolling back regulations and eyeing changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his biggest success so far on Capitol Hill has been the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — a feat that required a historic change to Senate rules.
The challenge is evident on the walls of Steve Bannon’s West Wing office. When he moved into the White House, Trump’s chief strategist removed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and sofa from his office and positioned his desk in the corner to make room for giant whiteboards that are lined up in four columns beneath the campaign theme: Make. America. Great. Again. In the final hours of the first 100 days, the promises kept were marked with a red X, including abandoning a massive Pacific trade deal. The column without a single red X: Legislative accomplishments.
Trump has clearly been thinking about the looming milestone for a long time. In October, his campaign issued a “contract with the American voter” that pledged to, among other things, propose a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress and brand China a currency manipulator.
As the deadline approached and many of those promises went unfulfilled, the administration seemed to scramble. A White House official said last week they hoped to circulate new legislative text on health care — a seemingly last-ditch attempt to score a big legislative accomplishment before the 100 days is up. By Sunday night, officials acknowledged that a vote this week was a long shot.
“When the votes are there, the speaker will bring it to the floor and take the vote, but no sooner than that,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in his West Wing office Tuesday evening, exhaling as he acknowledged that lessons have been learned by the first health care collapse.
Trump appeared to lower expectations last week by tweeting about the “ridiculous standard” of the first 100 days.
Ask Trump’s senior advisers about his initial success and you largely hear the same refrain: They don’t believe in the standard barometer of legislative victories. Seated at a long worktable in her office, Kellyanne Conway told me the real metric of how the administration will be judged is economic confidence — how people feel when they open up their 401(k) statement or sell their house.
“To them, this will all be judged by economic prosperity, by economic and national security,” the counselor to the President said. “You’ve seen the polling. People feel more secure already, more confident. Confidence numbers among manufacturers, homebuilders (and) small business owners are also rising.”
She said the more Trump’s critics pile on, “the more of (a) long-term benefit it is for the President, because it’s overkill. Americans expect basic respect shown to the office of the President. They want the country to succeed.”
“I’m just telling you: there’s a huge disconnect. It’s like we live in parallel universes,” she said of Trump’s critics, including those in the media. “What gets done here versus what gets covered, it’s parallel universes.”
“I guarantee you in the end what most people will focus on is progress and results,” she added.
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 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.
Chapter 3: Managing the boss
It was only a few weeks into his tenure when Trump began calling friends outside the White House to solicit advice about changes to his staff. “How are we doing?” he would ask. Often, he’d press for an assessment of Priebus, according to multiple sources.
The President’s destabilizing habit of making those calls generates constant rumors about looming staff shakeups. Early on, the speculation swirled around Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was ultimately fired by the President for lying to the Vice President about his contacts with Russian officials.
Though some of the drama coming out of the White House has cooled in recent weeks, the administration has constantly battled the notion that one top staffer — whether it’s Priebus, Spicer, Conway or Bannon — is on the ropes. White House aides insist most of the stories about staff infighting aren’t entirely true. One aide noted that Trump is fiercely loyal to his staff, unless he feels betrayed. The President often argues that the press is too hard on his staff, in one case complaining about coverage of Priebus by noting that “he works his ass off.”
Still, Trump felt the need to address the persistent image of a White House team in chaos during his first solo press conference on February 16.
“We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done,” he said during that 77-minute event. After musing (inaccurately) about the historic size of his electoral college victory, he accused the press of attacking his administration “because they know we are following through on pledges that we made.”
“I turn on the TV, open the newspaper, and I see stories of chaos. Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite,” Trump said. “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
The following week, Bannon and Priebus made a rare joint appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference where they were asked to address rumors that the knives were out within the West Wing.
Bannon acknowledged he could “run a little hot on occasion.” He praised Priebus as “indefatigable.” Priebus, in turn, described Bannon as “dogged,” “extremely consistent,” and “very loyal to the agenda.”
Inside the White House, the ever-present ring of advisers around Trump has puzzled some visitors. Several activists and members of Congress described being surprised during their visits to see more than a half-dozen top aides sitting in on their meetings with the President.
One activist who attended two recent meetings with Trump at the White House noted that in any other administration, only the relevant policy staffer might attend. But in this administration, the source said, Trump seems to rely on many of his top advisers not only as a sounding board, but as his audience.
“It’s all about proximity to the big guy… They’re all afraid to miss a meeting,” this source said, noting Priebus’ tendency in the early days to literally run from meeting to meeting in the West Wing.
When Trump would make a point or praise one of the participants during the meeting, his advisers in the room would nod and energetically agree. “It’s like they’re in church,” the activist said, “like courtiers in Versailles.”
A member of Congress who recently met with Trump described the President’s aides as on edge. Some flinched, for example, when a meeting participant made a lighthearted joke about Trump.
Aides and friends close to Trump say he wants advisers in the room with differing perspectives to broaden and sharpen the debate. That has long been a hallmark of his management style, Barrack said.
“He loves conflict, he manages through conflict,” Barrack said. “He surrounds himself with people who have various points of view and he pits them against each other…. The end product is that he relies on his own talents and instincts.”
The most public confrontation between Trump and his staff was captured on camera through the glass windows of the Oval Office during the week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sessions made the move after it emerged that he failed to disclose two pre-election meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Trump was furious about Sessions’ recusal. He was also incensed that the Russia investigation was drowning out the favorable coverage of his well-received first address to Congress several days earlier, according to sources.
He yelled at the staff, particularly White House Counsel Donald McGahn, about the Sessions decision, according to one source. He faulted aides for allowing problems to keep ballooning into unflattering coverage in the press. One source told CNN that nobody had seen him that upset, frustrated that his aides had once again been unable to control the message that week.
When Trump left for Mar-a-Lago that evening, Priebus and Bannon stayed behind, working on the health care bill late into the night.
That was yet another week when Trump was actively calling friends to discuss possible chief of staff replacements, including Barrack, Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic adviser and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, according to multiple sources. (None of those three had any comment about being considered for the potential role).
The complex power structure Trump has created in the White House has invited conflict. Beyond Priebus and Bannon, who each came into the White House with their own set of loyalists, Trump created a third power center around his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an ascendant senior adviser who holds the broadest portfolio in the White House.
Kushner, who is more moderate than Bannon, heads Trump’s Office of American Innovation, a unit that includes two increasingly influential advisers to the president: Cohn and Dina Powell, the deputy national security advisor.
After the collapse of the health care bill, Bannon and Kushner’s disagreements over how to proceed with Trump’s agenda became increasingly problematic. On the day Trump was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in early April, Trump tersely told his son-in-law and Bannon to “work this out,” according to one White House official.
The next day, Kushner and Bannon were spotted in deep conversation at an out-of-the-way table under the palm trees at Trump’s resort. It was two days after Bannon was unceremoniously ousted from his controversial post on the National Security Council, a move that empowered National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Sources told CNN that Kushner’s influence ultimately made that happen.
Spicer told reporters during his April 10 briefing that most of the reports of infighting between Kushner and Bannon were overblown, but he did not deny the policy quarrels.
Chapter 4: Hard Lessons
Without question, the defining moment of Trump’s young presidency was his gamble on the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. Just as Obama was warned about the peril of tackling health care early in his administration, some Trump advisers, including Cohn, advised against making health care the first legislative priority. They knew the obstinacy of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and the complex fractures of the Republican Party would make a swift victory hard to come by.
But Trump brashly promised during the campaign and after his election to repeal and replace Obamacare in the first 100 days. House Speaker Paul Ryan also made the case that the savings from repealing the health care bill would give Trump more running room on the legislation he was most interested in: tax reform.
The weeks following Ryan’s introduction of the health care bill would test the budding relationship between Trump and the House speaker. Tensions began to simmer almost right away, though aides said the process ultimately strengthened their bond.
The week that Ryan and his top deputies unveiled the long-anticipated bill, Trump and his top officials gathered with leaders of conservative groups at the White House. Determined to have their voices heard, some participants in the meeting made it known directly to Trump that they were unhappy with what they perceived as a lack of outreach from Ryan and other House leaders.
“The President seemed surprised that none of us had been speaking with House leadership,” Jenny Beth Martin, the founder of the Tea Party Patriots, recalled to CNN about that exchange.
In that same meeting, Martin brought up the low-point of Trump’s presidential campaign — the day that the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was released. Perhaps as a reminder of where Trump’s allegiances should lie as he began to formulate legislative priorities, Martin reminded the President that her group rallied behind him when others had fled.
“When the video came out in October, and some people were uninviting you to Wisconsin,” we stuck with you, Martin said, though she said she never mentioned Wisconsin native Ryan by name.
For Trump, it didn’t take long for the exasperating realities of negotiating the health care bill to sink in. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he told a group of governors, a comment that was roundly ridiculed in Washington just one day before his first address to a joint session of Congress.
While lawmakers were making final changes to the bill during the weekend of March 3, Trump left most of the nitty gritty details to his legislative staff. Instead, he was focused on crafting a new targeted travel ban that he hoped would survive court challenges after a federal judge blocked an earlier version. (Significant sections of the second ban were also ultimately blocked.)
But the health care effort would soon hit a major roadblock in the form of the Congressional Budget Office, which released a bombshell report March 13 estimating 24 million more people would be uninsured by 2026 under the GOP healthcare plan.
The White House and Republican leaders were now in the worst position possible: Wrangling with skittish moderates worried about their constituents being thrown off the rolls and conservatives who felt the bill didn’t go far enough. Democrats offered no support to repeal their biggest domestic policy achievement of the past decade.
By now, Trump fully engaged in the process. He made the hard sell during calls to members from his desk while Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Priebus and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney crowded around him. With the negotiator in chief at the helm, many Republicans were still confident they could get a deal.
Trump issued what some viewed as a threat during a March 21 meeting with Republicans on Capitol Hill: “I honestly think many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don’t get this done.”
He also highlighted what he viewed as his electoral mandate to dismantle the legislation. In one meeting with Republicans at the White House, he went around the room, quizzing lawmakers about his margin of victory in their districts, according to multiple sources. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that their voters supported his Obamacare agenda — and underscored his continuing obsession with his election results.
Trump and his staff made an extensive push that final week to get House Freedom Caucus members on board, but several Republican congressional aides said the group kept moving the goalpost by requesting new changes to the bill.
“I don’t blame the White House for not understanding what a black hole the House Freedom Caucus is,” said one GOP congressional aide in an interview shortly after the bill went down. “They say they want to find a way to ‘yes,’ but they never do.”
In one of the final meetings in Ryan’s suite of offices a day before the vote was pulled, the speaker told Freedom Caucus members that it was time. The leadership needed to know where they stood. Ryan wanted to go around the room to find out whether each member was a “yes” or a “no.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Congressman Raúl Labrador answered, “because (Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows) speaks for all of us.”
“I speak for the group…. We’re a ‘no,’” Meadows replied, according to multiple congressional aides familiar with the details of the meeting.
The next morning, White House aides gathered at 8 a.m. to plot strategy for the day of the vote. The view from Trump’s legislative affairs team was that Freedom Caucus members believed Republican leaders were bluffing and would not move forward when they were 12 to 15 votes short. Conservatives were back-channeling with the White House, urging them to keep negotiating.
Trump’s view, one person involved in the negotiations said, was “I’ve had enough of this shit. Tell them we’re going to call the vote.”
Ryan made an impromptu visit to the White House in the early afternoon to tell the President they didn’t have the votes. Vice President Mike Pence did his own whip count at a final meeting with Freedom Caucus members at the Capitol Hill Club. Some, including Pence, wanted to call the vote, believing members would flip. But ultimately the calculation in the White House was that if it looked like the bill was going down, skittish moderates would flee and they would be handed an even bigger defeat.
Several White House aides said Trump believed he could have kept negotiating and reached a deal. But he was not willing to go as far as it would have taken, the aides said. The candidate, who once said he wanted everyone to have health insurance, believed he would have to give up too much to get there.
The White House still contends that there’s a way forward on health care and House leaders were actively counting votes Thursday. Trump has made frequent calls to Democratic lawmakers, seeking their advice on that bill and other matters.
Elijah Cummings, a veteran Democratic congressman from Maryland, has met with Trump at least twice at the White House, where they discussed their shared interest in lowering the cost of prescription drugs. But the congressman said Trump has a long way to go before he can convince Democrats to team up with him.
“He has to do something major, something to show that he’s president of all the people,” Cummings told me, noting that Trump has checked in with him several times by phone since their meetings.
“He’s going to be president for the next four years. I want him to be successful,” Cummings said. “But I have my own definition of successful and that is lifting up the lives of all the American people. In other words, making their lives better. It ain’t that complicated.”
Chapter 5: The reset?
Trump’s job won’t get any easier in the next 100 days — or in the 1,363 days left in his first term.
Just this week, the administration had to back down from Trump’s initial insistence that a bill to keep the government open include more than $1 billion for his long-promised border wall. Looking forward, provocations from North Korea loom large. There are no simple solutions for that or the turmoil in Syria. At some point, Trump will have to deal with the debt ceiling as well as a full-year funding bill that must be worked out by the end of September.
But even some of Trump’s toughest critics in Congress say they think the President and his team are beginning to find their footing. Pence is becoming an increasingly important emissary for the White House on Capitol Hill, continuing his efforts recently to broker a health care deal even as he traveled abroad. Conservative activists and members say the White House legislative team has been more solicitous of their ideas on health care than in the first round.
Similarly on tax reform, many members were surprised when Trump suddenly announced he would outline his plan this week. But his aides were open to discussion when they huddled with leadership on Capitol Hill Tuesday night. Emerging from the meeting, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the tax writing Finance Committee, pointedly noted the plan the White House outlined included mere “suggestions,” an indication that the process would be collaborative.
Following his dinner with Trump and Graham at the White House on Monday, McCain said it seemed clear the President had absorbed a great deal in his first 100 days. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee said he felt increasingly confident in Trump’s leadership on national security issues.
“He has surrounded himself with the brightest people that I’ve ever encountered … in (Defense Secretary James) Mattis, McMaster, (Director of National Intelligence) Dan Coats and (John) Kelly at Homeland Security, and I think that has had an effect on him,” McCain told me as we walked to his office from the Capitol this week. “It’s given him a broader picture of national security. And he’s now listening to some of the most experienced and talented people that we have in America, and acting in accordance with their advice and counsel.”
When asked whether issues beyond national security were being handled more smoothly at the White House in recent weeks, McCain was circumspect: “I think they’re in a learning curve. The mechanics have improved.”
And that, he said, is important.
Chart Design & Art by Joshua Rosen. Illustrations by Lucie Birant. Produced by CNN Digital Labs.
About the author…
Maeve Reston is a national political reporter contributing to CNN’s television and digital coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.
With contributions from CNN’s Jim Acosta, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger, Dylan Byers, Jeremy Diamond, Lauren Fox, Athena Jones, Ashley Killough, Betsy Klein, Elizabeth Landers, MJ Lee, Kevin Liptak, Tom LoBianco, Rene Marsh, Phil Mattingly, Dan Merica, Sara Murray, Manu Raju, Jake Tapper, Deirdre Walsh and Jeff Zeleny
Originally Featured in CNN’s online publication, State. See the full article here.