Many in the White House say they appreciate the disciplined structure Kelly has implemented, but it has left Trump without the free-flowing conversations with staff and outsiders that he had come to relish. These familiar faces often buoyed Trump’s mood and gave him a safe sounding board, even if they at times interfered with the workings of the government.
Trump is also without his longtime aide-de-camp and former head of security, Keith Schiller, who departed the White House this fall as director of Oval Office operations. Schiller was a constant at Trump’s side for years and was adept at soothing his foul moods. His absence has left Trump with few generational peers with whom he feels comfortable venting about his staff or his rivals, or just talking about sports, according to some of the president’s friends.
Trump, meanwhile, has been seeking regular counsel from friends outside the government, including investor Thomas J. Barrack Jr., who chaired his inauguration.
Among some in Trump’s circle, Barrack has been buzzed about as a possible replacement for Kelly, should tensions between the president and his top aide become unsustainable. But people familiar with Barrack’s thinking said he feels he can best serve Trump as a friend and outside adviser, rather than as a member of the White House staff.
The president has given no indication publicly that he is mulling another change and over the weekend heaped praise on Kelly. “John Kelly is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” Trump told reporters Saturday. “He’s doing an incredible job, and he told me for the last two months he loves it more than anything he’s ever done. . . . He will be here, in my opinion, for the entire seven remaining years.”
Still, Trump is facing political head winds, including from his base. The Alabama Senate primary last month, in which a far-right challenger defeated a more establishment Republican whom the president had endorsed, served as a warning flare for Trump’s team, highlighting the risk he could run if he alienates the core supporters who helped lift him to electoral victory.
The president has groused to numerous White House aides about his concerns over his popularity with “my people” — his base. He blames the Republican establishment and others for failing to enact his agenda and making him look feckless, and is unhappy with losing in Alabama, according to people briefed on White House deliberations.
Trump also made it known to several people that he wished to have a rally in North Carolina over the weekend and not just a fundraiser — but he ultimately flew down for only the fundraiser, spending just two hours on the ground in Greensboro. Trump complained that he wished he had gotten back out in front of the rowdy crowds he loves, these people said.
“Donald Trump got elected with minority support from the American electorate, and most of his efforts thus far are focused on energizing and solidifying the 40 percent of Americans who were with him, primarily by attacking the 60 percent who were not,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “That is great for his supporters, but it makes it very difficult to accomplish anything in a democracy.”
Trump’s political calculus is complicated by Bannon’s return to his previous role at the helm of Breitbart. Now working to forward a nationalist agenda from outside the confines of the administration, Bannon has vowed war against any Republican lawmakers he believes are insufficiently conservative or who fail to help push through the agenda he and Trump outlined during the campaign.
Bannon is recruiting GOP primary challengers in nearly all of the 2018 Senate races, looking for candidates who could defeat Republicans he views as too establishment and highlight the president’s stances on issues such as immigration and trade.
The White House effort to woo back the populist wing of the party after stumbling in the Alabama race has been mixed. When Trump advisers contacted Breitbart writers Sunday to highlight a list of hard-line immigration principles the administration had just released, there was little enthusiasm for the White House’s outreach and skepticism of Trump’s commitment to combating illegal immigration, according to two people familiar with the exchanges.
Even the Trump family has become a flash point. On Monday, the president’s first and third wives — Ivana and Melania, respectively — engaged in a public spat.
In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” to promote her new book, “Raising Trump,” Ivana Trump, the mother of the president’s three eldest children, said: “I’m basically first Trump wife. Okay? I’m first lady.”
The actual first lady, Melania Trump, did not let the slight go unanswered. Her spokeswoman at the White House, Stephanie Grisham, issued a statement dismissing Ivana’s comments as “attention-seeking and self-serving noise.”