Inside Trump's Paris temper tantrum, election woes and staff upheavalWashington Post
November 14, 2018
As he jetted to Paris last Friday, President Trump received a congratulatory phone call aboard Air Force One. British Prime Minister Theresa May was calling to celebrate the Republican Party's wins in the midterm elections ¡V never mind that Democrats seized control of the House ¡V but her appeal to the American president's vanity was met with an ornery outburst.
Trump berated May for Britain not doing enough, in his assessment, to contain Iran. He questioned her over Brexit and complained about the trade deals he sees as unfair with European countries. May has endured Trump's churlish temper before, but still her aides were shaken by his especially foul mood, according to U.S. and European officials briefed on the conversation.
For Trump, that testy call set the tone for five days of fury ¡V evident in Trump's splenetic tweets and described in interviews with 14 senior administration officials, outside Trump confidants and foreign diplomats, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"He was frustrated with the trip. And he's itching to make some changes," said one senior White House official. "This is a week where things could get really dicey."
During his 43-hour stay in Paris, Trump brooded over the Florida recounts and sulked over key races being called for Democrats in the midterm elections that he had claimed as a "big victory." He erupted at his staff over media coverage of his decision to skip a ceremony honoring the military sacrifice of World War I.
The president also was angry and resentful over French President Emmanuel Macron's public rebuke of rising nationalism, which Trump considered a personal attack. And that was after his difficult meeting with Macron, where officials said little progress was made as Trump again brought up his frustrations over trade and Iran.
"He's just a bull carrying his own china shop with him whenver he travels the world," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.
Meanwhile, Trump was plotting a shake-up in his administration. He told advisers over the weekend that he had decided to remove Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and that he also was seriously considering replacing White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, who scrambled early this week to try to save Nielsen's job.
The senior White House official, who speaks to the president regularly, said Trump has been grousing lately about getting rid of Kelly. "But he's done this three or four times before," this person said. "Nothing is ever real until he sends the tweet."
During Sunday's flight to Washington from Paris, aides filed into the president's private cabin to lobby against the leading contender to replace Kelly, Nick Ayers, who is Vice President Pence's chief of staff. These aides told Trump that appointing Ayers would lower staff morale and perhaps trigger an exodus. But the president has continued to praise Ayers, who also enjoys the support of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, according to multiple White House officials.
First lady Melania Trump shared her husband's irritation and impatience with some of the staff. On Tuesday, amid reports that the president had decided to oust deputy national security adviser Mira R. Ricardel over tensions between her and other administration officials, the first lady's office issued an extraordinary statement to reporters calling for her firing.
"It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House," said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's spokeswoman.
Melania Trump said in an October interview with ABC News that the president had people working for him whom she did not trust and that she has let her husband know. "Some people, they don't work there anymore," the first lady said.
In her role as No. 2 to national security adviser John Bolton, Ricardel berated colleagues in meetings, yelled at military aides and White House professional staff, argued with Melania Trump regarding her recent trip to Africa and spread rumors about Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, according to three current and two former White House officials.
Kelly has sought for months to oust Ricardel, calling her a problematic hire in the West Wing, and Mattis has told advisers that he wants her out as well, the officials said.
A National Security Council spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Grisham's statement was remarkable because it is so unusual for a first lady or her East Wing staff to weigh in on personnel matters elsewhere in the White House, particularly in the realm of national security.
Last week, the tumult began even before Trump took off for Paris. After directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, controversy swirled around acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker's qualifications for the job, business entanglements and previous public opposition to the Russia investigation.
As Trump walked out of the White House residence to board the Marine One helicopter on Friday morning, he paused to answer questions from the press corps and snapped when CNN correspondent Abby Phillip asked whether he wanted Whitaker to rein in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
"What a stupid question that is," Trump said. "What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions."
Later, aboard Air Force One, Trump again lost his cool, this time during his phone call with May. He berated the British prime minister on Iran, trade and Brexit, among other topics. The White House did not announce that the call took place nor did it provide an official readout, but U.S. and European officials said in interviews that Trump's mood was sour and his conversation with May was acrimonious.
On his flight there and throughout the weekend, Trump was preoccupied by political developments back in the United States. He watched TV with rapt attention as late-counting votes resulted in the Senate race in Arizona and a number of House contests to slip out of Republican hands, and as recounts got underway in Florida's Senate and gubernatorial races. He also complained about the lack of congressional funding for his promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump sent political aides in Washington scrambling to prepare detailed briefings for him on the still-to-be-called races. He aired baseless allegations of voter irregularities on Twitter ¡V writing from the plane that elections attorney Marc Elias was the Democrats' "best Election stealing lawyer" but that he would send "much better lawyers to expose the FRAUD!"
Still, the president told aides he felt disconnected from the action in his suite at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris ¡V even as he consumed countless hours of television news on the trip.
"Trump needs adulation, so heading into the midterms, holding these rallies, he was cheered and it became narcissistic fuel to his engine," Brinkley said. "After the midterm, it's the sober dawn of the morning."
Trump was awake Saturday well before dawn, if he got much sleep at all, tweeting at 4:52 a.m. Paris time a two-part defense of Whitaker as "highly thought of" and "outstanding." Later in the day, he scuttled plans to attend a ceremony honoring the military sacrifice of World War I at an American cemetery outside the French capital, citing bad weather.
Trump was told that morning by Deputy White House Chief of Staff Zachary D. Fuentes that the Secret Service had concerns about flying Marine One through the rain and fog from Paris to the cemetery 50 miles away, and that a motorcade could be lengthy and snarl traffic in the area, according to one senior White House official.
Trump chose not to make the trip, and Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended in his stead.
But Trump quickly grew infuriated by a torrent of tweets and media coverage suggesting that the president was afraid of the rain and did not respect veterans.
Former secretary of state John F. Kerry, a decorated Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, tweeted: "President @realDonaldTrump a no-show because of raindrops? Those veterans the president didn't bother to honor fought in the rain, in the mud, in the snow ¡V & many died in trenches for the cause of freedom. Rain didn't stop them & it shouldn't have stopped an American president."
Trump told aides he thought he looked "terrible" and blamed his chief of staff's office, and Fuentes in particular, for not counseling him that skipping the cemetery visit would be a public-relations nightmare.
Trump was still litigating the episode on Tuesday, when he tweeted from the White House that he suggested driving to the cemetery and "Secret Service said NO, too far from airport & big Paris shutdown."
On Sunday, he got angry at Macron for his remarks at a ceremony honoring the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The French president denounced rising nationalism around the world and called it a "betrayal of patriotism," with two of the world's leading nationalists ¡V Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin ¡V in attendance.
Trump told advisers he considered Macron's comment a personal insult, and it came on the heels of a disagreement between the two leaders over Macron's call for a "true European army." At their bilateral meeting on Saturday, Trump appeared subdued and almost sullen.
Once he was back home in Washington, Trump unloaded on his French counterpart, likening Macron's call for a European army to Germany's military expansion in World War I and World War II. Trump tweeted Tuesday morning, "How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!"
Trump also lashed out over trade agreements ¡V "Not fair, must change!" he tweeted ¡V that he argued make it easy for the United States to sell French wines but difficult for France to sell American wines.
And then he attacked Macron for his unpopularity in France while providing a bit of sloganeering advice.
"The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France, 26%, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%," Trump wrote on Twitter. "He was just trying to get onto another subject. By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France, very proud people-and rightfully so!.. MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!"