A person close to Trump told me that the president feels isolated and has complained that he has no one in whom he can confide. “These heavy issues are weighing on him. He has nobody around him. There’s nobody,” this person said.
Trump at one point had adults in the room: confidants and pedigreed generals and accomplished corporate executives. Their numbers have dwindled as his term winds on and he depends more on his own judgment. The dinner getaway was a valiant, if futile, idea hatched by staffers who wanted to introduce more normalcy into his life. But the senior aide who pitched it is gone, as is much of Trump’s original team. Surrounding Trump instead is a mismatched set of advisers whose focus seems to be their own survival and ambition in a West Wing that has resembled a fast-spinning turnstile. They’ve seen that standing up to Trump is often a path to getting fired. All of which points to a predicament of Trump’s own making: He’s lost or chased away many of the advisers best suited to help him at the perilous moment he most needs their guidance.
Read: The unraveling of Donald Trump
Trump’s predecessors leaned on the sorts of candid advisers he has purged. Harry Hopkins moved into a White House bedroom during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, so reliant was FDR on his advice and friendship. During World War II, he tapped Hopkins for sensitive diplomatic missions in the Soviet Union and Britain.
President George H. W. Bush’s alter ego was James Baker, who gave up the prestigious post of secretary of state to accept the workaday role of chief of staff when Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign was foundering. When Bush lay dying last December at his home in Houston, Baker was in the room massaging the ex-president’s feet.
There’s no equivalent to Baker or Hopkins in Trumpworld. Two of Trump’s most influential advisers, Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, are men who have expressed profound doubts about him and who may have ambitions of their own. Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, called Trump “a terrible human being” back in 2016, when he was a representative from South Carolina. As a representative from Kansas, Pompeo, the secretary of state, warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.”
It seems doubtful that either will be massaging Trump’s feet when the end comes: Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas have fueled speculation he’ll return to the state and run for a U.S. Senate seat, his profile sufficiently raised. And the president seems to be tiring of Mulvaney, quizzing advisers on whether he should find someone else for the job. Trump does, of course, have his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, working as senior advisers. But at times he’s even seemed ambivalent about their presence.
Though this White House has always been dysfunctional, earlier generations of West Wing aides seemed to grasp not only what Trump wanted, but what he may have needed at a human level—even if he didn’t know it himself. Hope Hicks, his former communications director who worked out of a closet-size office near the Oval Office, was secure enough in her position that she’d offer unvarnished advice Trump didn’t necessarily want to hear, according to former White House officials. Sarah Sanders, his erstwhile press secretary, had evolved into a confidante.