The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of ever-worsening revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer characterized as representing the Russian government, as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle one another with suspicion, according to top White House officials and outside advisers.
President Trump — who has been hidden from public view since returning last weekend from a divisive international summit — is enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency and is exasperated that his eldest son and namesake has become engulfed by it, said people who have spoken with him this week.
The disclosure that Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney, believing he would receive incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to boost his father’s candidacy, has set back the administration’s faltering agenda and rattled the senior leadership team.
On Wednesday, in his first Twitter posts since the email disclosures, Trump defended his son by repeating past claims that his administration is the subject of a “witch hunt” fueled by leakers.
“My son Donald did a good job last night,” Trump wrote, referring to his son’s appearance on Fox News. “He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”
Trump also took aim at anonymous leaks from “sources” — even though Trump Jr. gave a step-by-step email chronology of the plans for the meeting with the Russian lawyer in 2016.
Even supporters of Trump Jr. who believe he faces no legal repercussions privately acknowledged Tuesday that the story is a public relations disaster — for him as well as for the White House. One outside ally called it a “Category 5 hurricane,” while an outside adviser said a CNN graphic charting connections between the Trump team and Russians resembled the plot of the fictional Netflix series “House of Cards.”
Vice President Pence sought to distance himself from the controversy, with his spokesman noting that Trump Jr.’s meeting occurred before Pence joined the ticket.
Inside a White House in which infighting often seems like a core cultural value, three straight days of revelations in the New York Times about Trump Jr. have inspired a new round of accusations and recriminations, with advisers privately speculating about who inside the Trump orbit may be leaking damaging information about the president’s son.
This portrait of the Trump White House under siege is based on interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen West Wing officials, outside advisers, and friends and associates of the president and his family, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
The makeup of Trump’s inner circle is the subject of internal debate, as ever. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Jared Kushner, her husband and another senior adviser; and first lady Melania Trump have been privately pressing the president to shake up his team — most specifically by replacing Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff, according to two senior White House officials and one ally close to the White House.
The three family members are especially concerned about the steady stream of unauthorized leaks to journalists that have plagued the administration over the nearly six months that President Trump has been in office, from sensitive national security information to embarrassing details about the inner workings of the White House, the officials said.
Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, said: “Of course, the first lady is concerned about leaks from her husband’s administration, as all Americans should be. And while she does offer advice and perspectives on many things, Mrs. Trump does not weigh in on West Wing staff.”
Lindsay Walters, a deputy White House press secretary, disputed reports about Priebus’s standing. “These sources have been consistently wrong about Reince, and they’re still wrong today,” she said.
After this story first published, Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman, said in a statement on behalf of Kushner and Ivanka Trump: “Jared and Ivanka are focused on working with Reince and the team to advance the President’s agenda and not on pushing for staff changes.”
Trump recently publicly praised Priebus’s work ethic, and the chief of staff’s allies note that Priebus has done as good a job as can be expected under the unique circumstances of this administration. Defenders of Priebus have long said they expect him to make it to a year in the position, and Trump is said to be hesitant to fire him or any other senior staffer amid the escalating Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The mind-set of Trump Jr. over the past few days has evolved from distress to anger to defiance, according to people close to him. He hired a criminal defense attorney but maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. After his tweets commenting on the matter drew scrutiny, he agreed to his first media interview — with his friend Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity on his show on Tuesday night.