President Donald Trump has been aggressively working the phones since returning this weekend from his foreign trip, talking to friends and outside lawyers as he obsesses over the deepening investigations into his aides and Russia.
Two White House officials said Trump and some aides including Steve Bannon are becoming increasingly convinced that they are victims of a conspiracy against Trump’s presidency, as evidenced by the number of leaks flowing out of government — that the crusade by the so-called “deep state” is a legitimate threat, not just fodder for right wing defenders.
Still, Trump and his aides are starting to take the probes more seriously, seeking to establish a communications team dedicated to dealing with questions around the probe and beefing up his legal representation. And they’ve become more rattled by the idea that they don’t know where the scandals are headed and who may be ensnared next.
“The more people talk to him about it, the more he obsesses about it,” said one outside adviser who is close to the president. The White House did not respond to requests for comment as to how Trump was spending his day after returning from the nine-day foreign trip the night before.
On his "big foreign trip," as he called it, Trump repeatedly talked about Russia and the ongoing investigation, according to an ally close to the White House. Shortly after he returned, he seemed agitated about negative press about him.
“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names…it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!”
Aside from bringing in additional aides to handle the Russia probe, the president’s senior aides say that his strategy for confronting the crises — or for pushing a stalled legislative agenda — remains unclear.
Senior aides and long-time confidants admitted not knowing who Trump would hire, how safe the jobs of top staff are, what the White House’s agenda is for the coming days, or what — if anything — they can accomplish.
“We are letting others dictate entirely how we are perceived," one White House official said. “The calendar changes every day. There is no rhyme or reason to a lot of it.”
Chief of staff Reince Priebus’s future remains uncertain, as it has been for several months. Shake-ups in Trump’s world can be slow to materialize or never happen, but White House senior aides regularly criticize Priebus in conversations with reporters.
Some allies and aides say Jared Kushner, a top adviser who is under scrutiny for his business ties and communications with Russian officials, is also on shaky ground, even though Trump is unlikely to let his own son-in-law go.
Kushner has been the subject of a flurry of recent news reports, including claims he attempted during the transition to establish a backchannel with Russian officials and that he had previously unknown contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year.
Late Sunday, the New York Times printed a statement of strong support for Kushner from Trump: "Jared is doing a great job for the country. I have total confidence in him."
The Trump administration also downplayed the reports. “I don’t see a big deal,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think any channel of communication back or otherwise with a country like Russia is a good thing.”
Trump and his senior aides have turned in recent days to old campaign hands and friends — including Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie and Chris Ruddy — to potentially help fight back. The bad press has rapidly spread since the firing of FBI director James Comey, which in short order led to the appointment of a special counsel to spearhead the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and allegations of collusion with the Trump campaign.
It remains unclear whether Lewandowski would work inside the White House or outside; during the campaign, he clashed with several top Trump advisers, including Priebus and Kushner. But Trump is known to turn to people with whom he is already comfortable. His longtime attorney Marc Kasowitz will represent him in the ongoing Russia probe. Trump worked the phones with various lawyers and advisers on Sunday, one of the White House officials said.
The new operation could look like that in former President Bill Clinton’s White House, in which a team that spanned communications, legal counsel and legislative affairs handled questions about investigations into alleged wrongdoing.
The idea was to establish a single source of information for investigation-related material so the rest of Clinton’s White House could focus on governing, said Chris Lehane, who helped lead the Clinton team.
Having offered little in the way of policy specifics — and with Congress on recess next week — Trump’s White House could struggle to distract attention from the Russia probes. The White House’s plans for the week remain largely unclear; Trump scrapped a planned trip to Iowa for a rally.
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this story.