Published On: Sun, Dec 10th, 2017

Inside Trump’s Hour-By-Hour Battle For Self-Preservation

Around 5:30 each morning, President Trump wakes and tunes into the television in the White House’s master bedroom. He flips to CNN for news, moves to “Fox & Friends” for comfort and messaging ideas, and sometimes watches MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” because, friends suspect, it fires him up for the day.

Donald Trump

Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, has told associates that Mr. Trump, deeply set in his ways at age 71, will never change. Rather, he predicted, Mr. Trump would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will.

That has proved half true. Mr. Trump, so far, has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.

‘Time to Think’

In the jargon of the military, John F. Kelly, a retired four-star general, served as a “wagon boss” for Marines crashing into Iraq in 2003, keeping his column moving forward despite incoming fire. As White House chief of staff, Mr. Kelly has adopted much the same approach, laboring 14-hour days to impose discipline on a chaotic operation — with mixed success.

At times, Mr. Trump has been able to circumvent Mr. Kelly. Over Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, the president mingled with guests the way he had before the election. Some passed him news clips that would never get around Mr. Kelly’s filters. And he dialed old friends, receiving updates about how they see the Russia investigation. He returned to Washington fired up.

Mr. Kelly has told people he will try to control only what he can. As he has learned, there is much that he cannot.

‘I Don’t Watch Much’

For most of the year, people inside and outside Washington have been convinced that there is a strategy behind Mr. Trump’s actions. But there is seldom a plan apart from pre-emption, self-defense, obsession and impulse.

He was calm at first when his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, pleaded guilty. The next morning, as he visited Manhattan for Republican fund-raisers, he was upbeat. He talked about his election and the “major loser” in the Senate who had said his tax bill would add to the deficit (presumably meaning Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee).

By Sunday morning, with news shows consumed by Mr. Flynn’s case, the president grew angry and fired off a series of tweets excoriating Mrs. Clinton and the F.B.I., tweets that several advisers told him were problematic and needed to stop, according to a person briefed on the discussion.

‘Aren’t You Glad I Don’t Drink?’

To an extent that would stun outsiders, Mr. Trump, the most talked-about human on the planet, is still delighted when he sees his name in the headlines. And he is on a perpetual quest to see it there. One former top adviser said Mr. Trump grew uncomfortable after two or three days of peace and could not handle watching the news without seeing himself on it.

During the morning, aides monitor “Fox & Friends” live or through a transcription service in much the way commodities traders might keep tabs on market futures to predict the direction of their day.

Only occasionally does Mr. Trump let slip his mask of unreflective invincibility. During a meeting with Republican senators, he discussed in emotional terms the opioid crisis and the dangers of addiction, recounting his brother’s struggle with alcohol.

According to a senator and an aide, the president then looked around the room and asked puckishly, “Aren’t you glad I don’t drink?”

‘Don’t Interrupt Me’

Mr. Trump’s difficult adjustment to the presidency, people close to him say, is rooted in an unrealistic expectation of its powers, which he had assumed to be more akin to the popular image of imperial command than the sloppy reality of having to coexist with two other branches of government.

Mr. Graham, once a fierce critic and now increasingly an ally, said Mr. Trump was adjusting. “You can expect every president to change because the job requires you to change,” he said. “He’s learning the rhythm of the town.” But Mr. Graham added that Mr. Trump’s presidency was still “a work in progress.” At this point, he said, “everything’s possible, from complete disaster to a home run.”

‘He Wears You Down’

In almost all the interviews, Mr. Trump’s associates raised questions about his capacity and willingness to differentiate bad information from something that is true.

Jeanine Pirro, whose Fox News show is a presidential favorite, recently asked to meet about a deal approved while Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state that gave Russia control over some American uranium, which lately has become a favorite focus of conservatives.

Mr. Trump is an avid newspaper reader who still marks up a half-dozen papers with comments in black Sharpie pen, but Mr. Bannon has told allies that Mr. Trump only “reads to reinforce.” Mr. Trump’s insistence on defining his own reality — his repeated claims, for example, that he actually won the popular vote — is immutable and has had a “numbing effect” on people who work with him, said Tony Schwartz, his ghostwriter on “The Art of the Deal.”

“He wears you down,” Mr. Schwartz said.

‘Where the Hell Have You Been?’

Some of the changes resulting from Mr. Kelly’s arrival have been subtle. For the last decade, for example, Mr. Trump’s most trusted aide was his longtime security chief, Keith Schiller, a bald, brawny former New York police officer who played an ambiguous role as protector, gatekeeper and younger brother to the president. An early warning system, Mr. Schiller tipped callers when the boss was in a bad mood and sometimes reached out to the president’s friends to urge them to buck him up.

If Mr. Kelly knows he cannot always control access, he is intent on at least knowing who is peddling what to his boss. He reserves the right to listen to calls coming to the president through the White House switchboard. To some callers, Mr. Kelly politely promises to forward messages. On calls he cannot monitor personally, Mr. Kelly or a deputy will usually double-back to debrief the caller on any promises the president may have made in unguarded moments.

‘I Can Invite Anyone’

Mr. Trump seeks release on the golf course on weekends. But on weekdays, his principal mode of blowing off steam is his nightly dinner in the White House residence, which begins at 6:30 or 7 p.m. with a guest list organized by the ever-vigilant Mr. Kelly.

From there it is off to bed for what usually amounts to five or six hours of sleep. Then the television will be blaring again, he will reach for his iPhone and the battle will begin anew.