There hasn’t been a single smooth week in the Trump presidency, but last week was, by popular consensus, the worst of them so far. Given the struggles of this president, that’s no small statement. What was remarkable was the breadth of Trump’s troubles. His top legislative priority was, once again, knocked flat. He had to replace Reince Priebus, making Priebus the shortest-tenured chief of staff to serve in the heart of a term. He publicly feuded with Republican senators, saw his new messaging guru call a colleague a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic,” and went to war with his attorney general.
There were so many bleak developments that by Friday it was impossible to keep track of them all. For example, did you remember that during the same week, the National Security Council’s top Middle East official was pushed out in a power struggle, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was pranked by Ukrainian jokesters, and Trump was rebuked by the Boy Scouts of America?
Here’s how it went down:
The week starts with Trump firing off a series of tweets. Having complained about Attorney General Jeff Sessions during an interview with The New York Times the week before, Trump once again attacks “our beleauguered A.G.” Specifically, Trump calls for the prosecution of his vanquished political rival Hillary Clinton, demanding she be investigated for crimes for which she was already investigated, and cleared, by the FBI. Trump also attacks the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, calling him “sleazy Adam Schiff.”
Amid the attacks on Sessions, Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s top campaign surrogates and a rumored replacement for Sessions, tells the press he’s not interested in the job, and says that, pace Trump, Sessions was right to recuse himself from any Russia-related investigations.
Meanwhile on Monday morning, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House senior adviser, is on Capitol Hill testifying behind closed doors about his interactions with Russians during and after the election. That’s part of one of the several probes into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Meanwhile, the attorney Trump has nominated to lead the criminal division of the Justice Department, Brian Benczkowski, tells Congress he represented Alfa Bank, an institution closely tied to Vladimir Putin, in the time between working for the Trump transition team and his nomination.
In the evening, Trump goes to West Virginia to speak to the 2017 Boy Scout Jamboree, where he delivers a jarringly partisan speech to a nonpartisan gathering, attacking President Obama, bragging about his election, and making a weird reference to illicit activities on yachts. By the end of the week, the Boy Scouts of America will apologize for Trump’s speech: “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.”
Trump closes the evening by attacking The Washington Post, incorrectly claiming it is owned by Amazon (they share a controlling owner, but are separate) and implicitly confirming a classified CIA program to arm Syrian rebels. However, he also learns that Senator John McCain will return to Washington for a crucial vote on health care, just days after a brain-cancer diagnosis.
Trump once again kicks the day off with a broadside against Jeff Sessions, demanding to know where his investigations into Clinton are and saying he “has taken a VERY weak position.” Later in the day, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump declines to say whether he will fire Sessions but also won’t say he wants him to stay.
Elsewhere in the Cabinet, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—who has feuded with the White House over personnel, and seen Trump undercut attempts to end a crisis in the Persian Gulf—decides to take some time off for vacation, despite several live crises. The State Department won’t say whether he is happy in his job. Two Ukrainian comedians post a prank call they made to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, in which he speaks to them for more than 20 minutes about a range of issues.
New communications director Anthony Scaramucci tells reporters that he intends to fire a staffer, Michael Short, then gets furious when the reporters report it. “The fact that you guys know about it before he does really upsets me as a human being and as a Roman Catholic,” Scaramucci complains.
Trump welcomes Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and in a press conference in the Rose Garden, praises Hariri for being “on the front lines” of the fight against Hezbollah, which is a member of the Lebanese government.
The president gets his best news of the week with a key vote on health care. Having praised John McCain for returning to Washington—“So great that John McCain is coming back to vote. Brave - American hero! Thank you John.”—Trump watches as McCain casts the crucial vote to open debate on Obamacare. (McCain then delivers a speech harshly criticizing Trump.)
In the evening, Trump travels to a rally in Ohio. “With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office,” he says. His speech is full of doomsaying and racist imagery.
Trump starts the morning off by attacking Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of two senators to vote against the motion to proceed on Tuesday. He also reportedly threatens to cut off federal funds to Alaska. Murkowski cancels hearings for administration nominees. She is not the only senator to brush the administration back. Several Republicans caution Trump against firing Sessions, with Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley saying there’s no time on the agenda to confirm a new attorney general.
In the morning, Trump abruptly announces that he has decided not to allow transgender members of the armed services. The announcement takes the Pentagon by surprise. Defense Secretary James Mattis is traveling (and reportedly disagrees with the decision), and top generals, confused by the vague announcement and without clear direction from the White House, say they don’t know how to implement the change or when they will do so. The move also draws immediate legal challenges.
In Trump’s best news of the day, a publisher reveals the cover and title (What Happened) of Hillary Clinton’s memoir.
In the evening, Politico publishes Scaramucci’s financial disclosure, obtained through a routine records request. Scaramucci for some reason decides that it was leaked, and tweets an accusation that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (who had opposed his appointment) has leaked it.
It’s Scaramucci, not Trump, who sets things in motion Thursday morning. The spokesman calls CNN, where he participates in a bizarre half-hour interview with Chris Cuomo. He once again accuses Priebus of being a leaker, compares their relationship to the murderous Biblical brothers Cain and Abel, and implies that some leakers should be executed.
Derek Harvey, a top National Security Council official on Middle East issues, is reassigned. Harvey, who was appointed by Michael Flynn, the fired national-security adviser, is apparently pushed out as part of a power struggle in which new National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is trying to reorient the body.
The Senate approves new sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea by a 98-2 margin, going against the wishes of the White House, which wants to improve ties with Russia and says it needs more flexibility. The margin is veto-proof, meaning Trump has little real choice on the matter. Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham warns Trump not to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The biggest news comes at the end of the day, as The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza posts an interview with Scaramucci from Wednesday evening. It turns out that Scaramucci’s tweet about Priebus wasn’t the end of it. “Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” he tells Lizza. Of the president’s chief strategist, he says, “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” He threatens to fire the entire White House communication staff. Scaramucci also claims to have contacted the Justice Department and agents in the FBI, which, if true, would be a serious violation of protocols. Scaramucci tells Lizza that Priebus will soon be fired.
That’s the mood music as senators settle in for a late night of voting on health care at the Capitol.
Early in the morning, after 1 a.m., John McCain strides onto the Senate floor and indicates he will vote against the latest last-ditch Obamacare repeal bill, sinking it. That means that after six months of trying to pass Trump’s top legislative priority, and despite Republican control of both the House and Senate, Congress has failed to approve either any repeal measure or any other major legislation. Trump says his preference is to simply let Obamacare collapse and then institute a new system, falsely claiming that has been his position all along.
In the afternoon, Trump travels to Long Island, where he encourages police to deal more harshly with suspects, including giving them “rough rides.” He also complains that laws restrain law-enforcement officials. Many police leaders from across the country condemn Trump’s remarks. The rest of the speech is imbued with the same racially charged imagery as his rally in Ohio.
As Trump returns to Washington, he announces that Priebus is being replaced as chief of staff by John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security and a retired four-star Marine general. Priebus’s departure marks the latest in a highly unusual string of departures from the White House, including a national-security adviser, a chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, a press secretary, and a communications director.
It’s an astonishing volume of important stories. Even more surprising is the fact that the Russia investigation, which has been at the heart of many of this administration’s worst moments, barely played a role. (Trump’s fury at Sessions is rooted in his recusal from Russia issues.) Kushner’s testimony was behind closed doors, and the flurry of other stories seemed to crowd out the space for any new Russia stories. That dog is unlikely to stay quiet indefinitely.
The good news for Trump is that one imagines it will be hard to outdo last week’s chaos and destruction, at least in the immediate future. Kelly’s arrival might, at least for a time, help to calm matters in the West Wing. They won’t have Reince Priebus to leak about anymore. The bad news is that the common factor in each of these stories last week was not the chief of staff but the president. Trump is said to enjoy chaos and tension around him. If so, he must have had more fun last week than anyone else.