Forget senior White House staffers, outside advisers, friends and others “close” to the president. There’s only one person who truly knows what Donald Trump is thinking at any given moment: Donald Trump.
The president’s surprise Friday morning tweet threatening to veto a $1.3 trillion government funding bill — and subsequent reversal in a matter of hours — capped another week in which Trump’s impulsive decisions undermined his exasperated staff.
Tensions were running high in the White House on Friday, especially on the communications team, as staff scrambled to figure out whether the president really intended to veto the bill or was just blustering. There is growing concern in the West Wing that the president’s unpredictable behavior is undercutting staffers’ credibility, according to two people who have spoken to White House officials in recent days.
"The press and comms team, more than others, are at their wits’ end,” a former White House official told POLITICO. “I don't blame them for being frustrated, because they're on the front lines of this and are directly responsible for dealing with the blowback of the president's un-planned tweets.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Less than 24 hours before Trump threatened to blow up the deal to keep the government open, the White House sent two senior staffers — Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short — to brief reporters about Trump’s support for the spending bill.
“Let's cut right to the chase. Is the president going to sign the bill? Yes. Why? Because it funds his priorities," Mulvaney told reporters.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence touted the legislation during a Thursday speech in New Hampshire, telling Trump’s supporters it includes a crucial down payment toward building a massive wall along the Mexico border. And, despite Trump’s misgivings, the White House itself circulated statements saying the administration supports the bill and casting the legislation as a "win for the American people."
Trump’s Friday tweet unleashed a wave confusion in the White House, with aides and even senior officials such as Defense Secretary James Mattis rushing to convince the president that he should accept the bill.
Ultimately, Trump signed the bill on Friday with Mattis by his side, saying the move was “a matter of national security.”
He also made sure to knock the spending package, calling it a “ridiculous situation” and pledging, “I will never sign another bill like this again.”
But in the run-up to Trump’s announcement, White House aides privately acknowledged it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that the president would double-down on his opposition to the legislation, plunging Washington into chaos.
Asked earlier Friday whether Trump was serious about vetoing the bill, one White House official said simply, “Who knows.”
White House officials had long been aware that the president was unhappy with the legislation, but they believed they had convinced him to support it.
Friday’s tweet again raised questions about whether the president’s senior advisers are capable of following the president’s ever-evolving stances on crucial issues of national importance.
“This is a reminder that if you’re working in this White House, you either need to spend the time with the president on the front end to know exactly what his thinking is or you need to be in constant communication with him,” said Jason Miller, Trump’s former campaign spokesman. “If you’re just responding to what some other staffer sent you on email, then of course you’re going to be disconnected.”
"That falls on the staffer," Miller added. "It doesn’t fall on the president.”
White House aides counter that they’re not misinformed; Trump, they argue, is just prone to changing his mind, leaving a trail of contrary statements in his wake.
After the Washington Post reported last week that Trump had decided to remove H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, Trump insisted on issuing a statement raising doubts about the story — even though many in the White House knew the president wanted to eventually replace McMaster.
“Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster - contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted in response to the story.
White House officials believed that Trump wouldn’t actually pull the trigger on replacing McMaster for several weeks. But Trump apparently had different plans. One week after Sanders’ tweet, Trump decided to replace McMaster with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The same scenario has played out across the administration, with agency officials sometimes delivering policy statements that are later contradicted by the president. Hours before the White House announced plans to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters, “we’re a long ways from negotiations.”
People who regularly speak to Trump say he hates seeing his next moves previewed in the press and he delights in keeping people guessing. When The New York Times reported earlier this month that the president was poised to shake up his legal team, Trump denied it on Twitter, saying he was “VERY happy” with his lawyers. John Dowd, one of Trump’s top lawyers, resigned this week.
Sometimes regular contact with Trump isn’t enough to anticipate his next move. White House officials say they’ve left meetings believing an issue is settled only to see the president publicly re-litigate the issue after speaking to an outside ally on the phone or seeing an alternative take on cable news.
“The biggest challenge is when staff think they’ve talked him out of something he initially supported only for it to resurface, sometimes publicly, at a later date,” another former White House official said.
Trump’s aides often try to account for the possibility that the president’s positions will shift, telling reporters asking about anything from trade to personnel that “nothing is final until it’s announced.” For the press, the phrase has come to symbolize a simple reality in this White House: nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.