Home Politics Trump insists all’s calm at White House after bombshell op-ed

President Donald Trump insisted on Thursday that he wasn’t rattled by an explosive op-ed that shook his administration to the core this week, using a rally nearly 2,000 miles from Washington to try to quell mounting concerns that his presidency is spiraling out of control.

“The so-called resistance is angry because their horrible ideas have been rejected by the American people and it’s driving them crazy. Crazy. They’re the ones, honestly, that have been driven crazy,” Trump said during his hour-plus remarks in Billings, Montana, turning the tables on those who have questioned his temperament.

In the president’s telling, it’s the media and the Democrats who have been sent into a frenzy over the back-to-back publication of damaging excerpts from Bob Woodward’s forthcoming insider account of Trump’s White House and an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times detailing an internal “resistance” among top administration officials. The president, Trump was happy to tell the cheering crowd, wasn’t bothered at all.

“They had me stomping around screaming with anger up in my area in the White House,” Trump said, mocking the news media’s coverage of his reaction to the op-ed. “They had me screaming, shouting like a lunatic.”

In contrast, the president said his staffers marveled at his composure in the face of the onslaught of negative news. “They said, ‘Sir, you’re not up there screaming and raving. You’re here talking.’”

But Trump’s attempts to paint a picture of a White House in harmony belied the simmering tension in the West Wing and across much of the administration, which was grappling with the reality that senior officials not only opposed some of the president’s decisions, but also actively worked to undermine them.

A month of increasingly dire and often embarrassing revelations, along with the ever-present threat posed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, is increasingly weighing on Trump, who continues to seethe over what he perceives as efforts to undermine his legitimacy, according to one Republican close to the White House.

During his Thursday speech, the president took direct aim at the anonymous senior administration official who wrote the Times op-ed, suggesting that the person committed “treason.”

“Unelected deep-state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself,” Trump said. The president again called on Times reporters to unmask the identity of the official, adding, “That would actually be a good scoop.”

Trump, citing no evidence, also argued that the op-ed “backfired,” rallying his base and even bringing in new supporters. “We’ve picked up a lot of support,” he said.

The president, who aides say is often re-energized by rollicking rallies in front of adoring supporters, jumped from topic to topic throughout his remarks, touching on everything from the biggest news of the day (Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings) to his long list of grievances and enemies (The New York Times, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and his treatment on the world stage).

In the latest signal that the possibility of impeachment is on his mind, Trump argued it would be illogical to try to remove him from office since he’s “doing a great job.”

“How do you impeach somebody that’s doing a great job that hasn’t done anything wrong? Our economy is good,” he said.

Notably, he also warned that his impeachment would set a dangerous precedent, opening the possibility that the opposing party would seek to oust any president it disagreed with.

“You’re going to have a country that’s going to turn into a third world country, because if the opposite party becomes president, every time, before it even starts, before you’ve even found out whether he or she has done a great job, they’ll say, ‘We want to impeach them,’” he said.

Trump repeatedly used the speech to underscore his stable frame of mind, at one point saying he has an “intellect far greater” than his critics. “I stand up here giving speeches for an hour and a half, many times without notes, and then they say, ‘He’s lost it,’” he said.

The president reserved some of his most biting criticism for Sen. Jon Tester, the incumbent Montana Democrat who is facing a reelection challenge from Republican Matt Rosendale, whom Trump was there to support. Trump blamed Tester for subjecting the former White House physician, Adm. Ronny Jackson, former White House physician, Adm. Ronny Jackson, to “horrible lies and smears.” Jackson was accused of misconduct earlier this year.

As he embarked an unusual two-day Western swing that put physical distance between himself and the mutiny he faces in Washington, the president left behind a White House seized with paranoia, as staffers worried that anything they say to colleagues or in meetings will become fodder for the next tell-all or leak, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen White House officials and Republicans close to the administration.

Trump aides feel burned not just by leaks to Woodward but also by last month’s release of secret tapes that their former colleague Omarosa Manigault Newman made during the 2016 campaign and in the West Wing. And they’re worried that the nascent search for the author of the Times op-ed will become an excuse for aides to exact revenge on one another — “or target those they dislike,” as one staffer put it.

The overwhelming atmosphere of distrust and suspicion among Trump’s closest aides echoes earlier ugly periods in the White House, including last spring’s crackdown on leaks following the publication of remarks made by a press aide in an internal meeting dismissing Arizona Sen. John McCain’s health.

Staffers have largely reacted in anger, instead of shock, to the publication of the op-ed, arguing that if the author feels so incensed by the president’s behavior or agenda, then he or she should resign.

“The notion that someone is claiming to be the guardian of sane policy while being utterly disloyal to the president has a lot of people angry and put off by the arrogance and sanctimony,” said a second Republican close to the White House.

White House officials say they increasingly believe that the anonymous author works for a federal agency, outside of the West Wing proper, but that’s speculation based on little evidence. If the writer works as senior official for the White House, that narrows the circle to roughly 20 people, said one White House aide, but if it’s a senior official throughout the administration, those ranks run into the hundreds.

To Trump loyalists, the op-ed was the latest evidence that the president is surrounded by staffers who ultimately do not believe in his agenda and took jobs inside the administration only to bolster their own résumés.

“The real story is that you have an administration staffed with people who don’t actually like Trump or agree with him on the issues. This is a predictable consequence of that,” one former administration official said. “It all comes back to the fact that they allowed Reince Priebus and company to staff the administration with people who were not true believers.” Priebus, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was Trump’s first chief of staff.

A cascade of de facto loyalty pledges emanated from the Trump administration on Thursday, as more than 20 top officials and Cabinet members rushed to publicly deny writing the explosive op-ed. The goal was to provide assurances, directly to the president, that specific individuals from the vice president’s office, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, intelligence agencies and even the White House’s own counsel’s office were not engaged in sabotaging him.

Part of the White House’s strategy involved turning The Times into a foil for Trump, a playbook that served the president well during the 2016 campaign and at various rallies where he draws energy from trashing his enemies.

“If you want to know who this gutless loser is, call the opinion desk of the failing NYT at 212-556-1234 and ask them,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a mid-afternoon tweet. “They are the only ones complicit in this deceitful act. We stand united together and fully support our President Donald J. Trump.”

One former campaign official pointed out that the op-ed took the spotlight thankfully away from the Woodward book, which the White House has long anticipated.

Veterans of Trump’s 2016 campaign — who survived the “Access Hollywood” tape and a host of other scandals — displayed a palpable calm on Thursday. While administration aides were still steeped in speculation about who wrote the op-ed, some of the president’s outside political advisers were piggybacking on his focus on the rising economy, arguing it’s the only thing that matters right now for Trump and his party’s electoral prospects — a talking point that establishment Republicans and congressional leaders have long hoped Trump will talk up.

“It’s just another day in Donald Trump’s America,” said a third Republican close to the president.

“This narrative that Donald Trump is incapable has been forwarded by the media and the left during the campaign, the early days of the administration, and it persists to this day,” the Republican added. “But as long as Americans are doing better … who cares?”

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