President Donald Trump returns to the White House on Tuesday, January 12. Picture: Washington Post
President Donald Trump returns to the White House on Tuesday, January 12. Picture: Washington Post

Death by a thousand cuts

By The Washington Post Time of article published Jan 16, 2021

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By Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker

WHEN Donald Trump on Wednesday became the first president to be impeached twice, he did so as a leader increasingly isolated, sullen and vengeful.

With less than seven days remaining in his presidency, Trump's inner circle is shrinking, offices in his White House are emptying, and the president is lashing out at some of those who remain. He is angry that his allies have not mounted a more forceful defence of his incitement of the mob that stormed the Capitol last week, advisers and associates said.

Although Trump has been exceptionally furious with Vice-President Mike Pence, his relationship with lawyer Rudy Giuliani, one of his most steadfast defenders, is also fracturing, according to people with knowledge of the dynamics between the men.

Trump has instructed aides not to pay Giuliani's legal fees, two officials said, and has demanded that he personally approve any reimbursements for the expenses Giuliani incurred while travelling on the president's behalf to challenge election results in key states. They said Trump has privately expressed concern with some of Giuliani's moves and did not appreciate a demand from Giuliani for $20 000 (about R300 000) a day in fees for his work attempting to overturn the election.

As he watched impeachment quickly gain steam, Trump was upset generally that virtually nobody was defending him – including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, economic adviser Larry Kudlow, national security adviser Robert O'Brien and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, according to a senior administration official.

“The president is pretty wound up,” said the senior administration official, who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “No one is out there.”

One of Trump’s few confidants these days is Senator Lindsey Graham, who broke with the president last week over attempts to overturn the election only to be welcomed back in the president’s good graces a couple of days later. Graham travelled to Texas on Tuesday in what was Trump’s last scheduled presidential trip, spending hours with Trump aboard Air Force One, talking about impeachment and planning how Trump should spend his final days in office.

“The president has come to grips with it’s over,” Graham said, referring to the election. “That's tough. He thinks he was cheated, but nothing’s going to change that.”

Trump asked Graham to lobby fellow senators to acquit him in his eventual impeachment trial, which Graham did from Air Force One as he worked through a list of colleagues to phone. A few senators called Trump aboard the presidential aircraft on Tuesday to notify him of their intent to acquit. During the flight home, Graham said, he tried to calm Trump after Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No 3 House GOP leader, announced that she would vote to impeach.

“I just told him, ’Listen, Mr President, there are some people out there who were upset before and are upset now, but I assure you, most Republicans believe impeachment is bad for the country and not necessary and it would do damage to the institution of the presidency itself,” Graham recalled. He said he told Trump: “The people who are calling on impeachment are not representative of the (Republican) conferences.”

Trump told reporters on Tuesday that the drive toward impeachment was causing “tremendous anger” and posed a “tremendous danger to our country”.

Although he has shown flashes of anger over his impeachment – and is livid with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for leaving open the possibility that he might vote to convict – Trump privately has told advisers that he does not believe he will be removed from office before his term expires on January 20, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Many of the president’s advisers and outside associates share that mind-set. As one put it: “Whoop-de-do.”

McConnell effectively guaranteed that outcome on Wednesday, releasing a schedule after the House impeachment vote that would push a trial until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Trump has been more concerned with other actions that could have serious consequences for his post-presidential life, according to people familiar with the president’s concerns. The developments include Twitter and other social media companies suspending his accounts, the PGA of America cancelling a golf tournament at one of his properties, and Deutsche Bank announcing that it would no longer finance his developments.

Trump carried on with various activities on Wednesday. As the House debated his impeachment, Trump issued a statement calling on his supporters to stand down.

“In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be no violence, no lawbreaking and no vandalism of any kind,” the statement said. “That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on all Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers. Thank you.”

The White House released a video on Wednesday evening featuring Trump seated behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office pleading with supporters not to engage in further violence. “Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement,” he said.

A senior administration official said Kushner, his wife, Ivanka Trump, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino and Pence persuaded Trump to film the video, telling him that it could boost support among some Republicans. They asked him not to mention impeachment, and he did not.

In a stark illustration of Trump's isolation, the White House did not mount a vigorous defence on Wednesday as House members debated his fitness for office and, ultimately, voted to impeach him. The president’s aides did not blast out talking points to allies. His press secretary did not hold a briefing with reporters. His advisers did not do television interviews from the White House’s North Lawn. His lawyers and legislative affairs staffers did not whip votes or seek to persuade lawmakers to vote against impeachment.

This is both because there was no organised campaign to block impeachment and because many of his aides believe Trump’s incitement of the riot was too odious to defend. White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who was central to the president’s defence in his first impeachment a year ago, told other staffers to make sure word got out that he was not involved in defending Trump this time, according to one aide.

“I just think this is the logical conclusion of someone who will only accept people in his inner orbit if they are willing to completely set themselves on fire on his behalf, and you’ve just reached a point to where everyone is burned out,” a senior administration official said. “Everyone is thinking, 'I'll set myself on fire for the president of the US for this, for this and for this – but I'm not doing it for that’.”

A former senior administration official in touch with the White House said in describing the staff mind-set: “People are just over it. The 20th couldn’t come soon enough. Sometimes there’s a bunker mentality or us-versus-them or righteous indignation that the Democrats or the media are being unfair, but there’s none of that right now. People are just exhausted and disappointed and angry and ready for all this to be done.”

Other than family members, the president is mainly talking to Meadows, Scavino, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and personnel director Johnny McEntee. Hope Hicks, counsellor to the president and long one of his closest confidants, has been checked out for some time, according to people familiar with her status.

Other than his trip to Texas, Trump’s public schedule has been empty, and he is said to be doing little these days besides watching television and fulminating with this coterie of loyalists about Republicans not defending him enough.

Several aides laid blame for the situation not only on Trump but also on Meadows, because the chief of staff indulged Trump’s delusion that the election was rigged and fed him misinformation about alleged voter fraud.

“He is the one who kept bringing kook after kook after kook in there to talk to him,” one adviser said.

In the days since Twitter barred Trump from its platform, McEntee pushed the president to migrate to other social media sites, such as Parler. But Kushner and Scavino pushed back and stopped the president from joining the fringe platform, according to a person familiar with what happened who confirmed a CNN report.

Another former senior administration official said: “He is feeling increasingly alone and isolated and frustrated. One of the metrics by which he's often judged any number of things is, ’Who's out there saying good things about me or fighting on my behalf?’ And he never seemed to think there were enough people doing it strongly enough.”

Now, in the final days, this official said, “It's like death by a thousand cuts”.

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