‘Drama, Action, Emotional Power’: As Exhausted Aides Eye the Exits, Trump Is Re-Energized

Several high-profile aides, including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, are said to be thinking about how much longer they can do their jobs.
Thomas Jefferson wearing a suit and tie: Several high-profile aides, including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, are said to be thinking about how much longer they can do their jobs.

WASHINGTON — President Trump has gone overseas to embark on some of the most consequential diplomatic negotiations of his tenure, threatening an all-out trade war with allies and seizing a chance to make peace with a nuclear-armed menace.

But back home, he left behind a West Wing where burned-out aides are eyeing the exits, as the mood in the White House is one of numbness and resignation that the president is growing only more emboldened to act on instinct alone. Mr. Trump, a former reality television star, may soon be working with a thinned-out cast in the middle of Season 2, well before the midterm elections. Several high-profile aides, including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, and Joe Hagin, a deputy of Mr. Kelly’s, are said to be thinking about how much longer they can stay. Last week, Mr. Kelly told visiting senators that the White House was “a miserable place to work,” according to a person with direct knowledge of the comment. turnover, which is expected to become an exodus after the November elections, does not worry the president, several people close to him said. He has grown comfortable with removing any barriers that might challenge him — including, in some cases, people who have the wrong chemistry or too frequently say no to him. Mr. Trump, who desires a measure of chaos at all times, is reveling in the effects of his own mercurial decision-making, the people said. Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, said in an interview that Mr. Trump’s love of conflict had driven his approach to the presidency. “This is how he won,” Mr. Bannon said. “This is how he governs, and this is his ‘superpower.’ Drama, action, emotional power.” Mr. Trump believes that he is gaining ground by trying to set the terms of news coverage around a number of issues affecting his White House, according to interviews with a dozen White House advisers, former aides and people close to the president. He has repeatedly promoted his performance at the one-year and 500-day milestones of his term, sowed confusion about his knowledge of hush payments to a pornographic film actress, and disparaged the special counsel’s Russia investigation, as well as railed against trade imbalances and scored a once-unthinkable meeting with the North Korean leader, to be held Tuesday in Singapore. His daily torrent of tweets about the Russia inquiry, interpreted by his critics as distress signals, is more often than not a sign that he is less worried about the consequences of using the blunt force of his platform to fight back, according to three advisers. Rather than trusting the people around him, Mr. Trump has taken to working the phones more aggressively to seek counsel from outside voices, particularly two of his longest-serving advisers — Corey Lewandowski, his first campaign manager, and his longtime friend David Bossie. Among the president’s other confidants is Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Trump has dismissed the advice of several aides who have tried to persuade him to fire Mr. Pruitt in light of the growing questions about misuse of his authority. The two speak frequently, and the president enjoys discussing his negative view of Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. Mr. Trump’s reliance on outside advisers, she said, also signals an “emasculation” of the chief of staff in the White House, who is meant to serve as the president’s confidant and gatekeeper. “It seems as though Chief of Staff Kelly is losing power by the day,” Ms. Tenpas said. “It’s almost like a battery that’s draining. I’ve not seen any presidency operate effectively without putting somebody in there that you respect and you can trust.”