President Trump and his advisers, seeking to contain the escalating Russia crisis that threatens to consume his presidency, are considering a retooling of his senior staff and the creation of a “war room” within the White House, according to several aides and outside Trump allies.
Following Trump’s return to Washington on Saturday night from a nine-day foreign trip that provided a bit of a respite from the controversy back home, the White House plans to far more aggressively combat the cascading revelations about contacts between Trump associates, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Russia.
White House aides are also trying to find ways to revive Trump’s stalled policy agenda in Congress and to more broadly overhaul the way the White House communicates with the public.
That includes proposals for far more travel and campaign-style rallies throughout the country so that Trump can speak directly to his supporters, as well as changes in press briefings, likely including a diminished role for embattled White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
While much remained fluid Saturday, the beefed-up operation could include the return of some of Trump’s more combative campaign aides, including former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was fired nearly a year ago, and former deputy campaign manager David N. Bossie, who made his name in politics by investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton for two decades. Both of them have already been part of ongoing discussions about how to build a “war room,” which have been led in part by chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Other Trump players who have drifted from his orbit in recent months, such as Sam Nunberg, are also being courted to play more active roles, either officially joining the White House or in an outside capacity, working through confidants of the president.
White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway has been involved in related discussions, including with prominent Trump backers outside Washington and on Capitol Hill, and has contacted people from Trump’s campaign network, asking them to be more highly involved in supporting the president, according to three GOP consultants working with the White House.
Kushner has played an active role in the effort to overhaul the communications team, improve the White House’s surrogate operation, and develop an internal group to combat the influx of negative stories and revelations over the FBI’s Russia probe, said someone with knowledge of the coming changes.
“The bottom line is they need fresh legs; they need more legs,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a political adviser to Trump during the general election. “They’re in full-scale war, and they’re thinly staffed.”
As Trump has participated in meetings with world leaders in recent days, senior aides — including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Bannon and Kushner — have met in the White House to discuss a potential reshuffle.
Kushner’s own role has emerged as a particularly sensitive topic of discussion within the White House, as his actions have come under increasing scrutiny in the FBI investigation of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.
The Washington Post reported Friday night that Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.
Some White House aides have discreetly discussed among one another whether Kushner should play a lesser role — or even take a leave — at least until the Russia-related issues calm, but they have been reluctant to discuss that view with Kushner himself, and Kushner’s network of allies within the West Wing has rallied behind him.
Those close to Kushner said he has no plans to take a reduced role, though people who have spoken to him in recent weeks say that he is increasingly weary of the non-stop frenzy.
In recent weeks, the White House also brought on Josh Raffel as a spokesman to handle many of the issues in Kushner’s broad portfolio, and he works out of a shared office in the West Wing, though also has space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
During a lunch on Friday, Kushner and Priebus talked about how Trump’s foreign trip had gone and began outlining what’s coming up in the weeks ahead. Earlier in the day in Kushner’s office, the two briefly discussed the stories involving Kushner and Russia.
Underscoring the uncertainty of what lies ahead, some Trump associates said there have even been conversations about dispatching Priebus to serve as ambassador to Greece — his mother is of Greek descent — as a face-saving way to remove him out of the White House. A White House spokeswoman strongly denied that possibility on Saturday.
The president has expressed frustration — both publicly and privately — with his communications team, ahead of the expected overhaul.
Though no final decisions have been made, one option being discussed is having Spicer — who has been parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” to devastating effect — take a more behind-the-scenes role and give up his daily, on-camera briefings.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy press secretary, is being considered as a replacement behind the podium, and is likely to appear on camera more often in coming weeks. White House aides have also talked about having a rotating cast of staff brief the press, a group that could also include officials like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Having several aides share the briefing responsibilities could help prevent Trump — who has a notoriously short attention span — from growing bored or angry with any one staffer.
The White House has already been testing this strategy, sending Spicer to the podium along with another top staffer to talk about the news of the day: Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on budget issues, for instance, or McMaster on questions of national security.
On his foreign tour, Spicer conducted only one briefing, an informal gaggle with the small, traveling press pool. Otherwise, he served more as an emcee, introducing other senior administration officials at more formal briefings.
On Saturday, it was Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director, and McMaster who headlined the U.S. news conference at the conclusion of the Group of 7 summit in Taormina, Italy. Spicer introduced them and then retired to the corner of the room to watch McMaster and Cohn parry questions from journalists.
The episode highlighted how difficult it is to drive Trump’s agenda with Russia so prominently in the news. The briefing grew testy after several questions related to Kushner’s activities were posed to McMaster, who largely deflected them.
The expected revamp in White House operations comes at a key juncture in Trump’s presidency, as his job approval ratings continue to sag and he presses for progress on several marquee campaign promises — including revamping the Affordable Care Act and tax reform — before Congress takes its August recess.
A White House aide said Saturday that Trump is now also considering pushing some more modest initiatives in Congress that would stand a better chance of quick passage.
The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said that could include measures on immigration or infrastructure-related initiatives that are well liked by most Republicans.
“They need accomplishments on issues that affect jobs,” said one Trump adviser. “If the White House and Congress have nothing in hand to tout by this summer, members of Congress are going to come back after their August recess freaking out.”
Conversations about what some are calling a “war room” have focused on a model similar to what emerged during President Bill Clinton’s tenure to cope with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other crises. Clinton pulled together a team of lawyers, communication and political aides to deal with those issues apart from the regular White House structure, with the aim of letting other business proceed as normally as possible.
Aides and allies of Trump say they have come to the realization that unflattering stories about Russia will be part of the daily conversation for the foreseeable future and acknowledge that the White House has been ill-equipped to handle them.
Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said the White House has been caught flat-footed on many of the Russia stories.
“Because they did not believe there’s anything to it, they’re playing catch up to get their side of the story out,” Ruddy said.
“At first, I thought the president was fretting too much about this,” said Ruddy, who is chief executive of Newsmax Media and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. “But it keeps growing like a bad fungus, even though there’s nothing there.”
“The deep state and the swamp and many in the media are never going to let up,” added Jason Miller, who served as Trump’s senior communications adviser during the campaign and remains close to the White House. He is not expected to come back in a formal role.
The White House has also been pushing the Republican National Committee to play a more active role in defending the president.
Members of the Trump family outside of the White House have also been ramping up their engagement in the president’s political operation, eager to contribute and guide the party.
On Thursday, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Eric’s wife, Lara, participated in a two-hour meeting at the RNC headquarters in Washington, according to three people familiar with the session who were not authorized to speak publicly.
RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney declined to address the specifics of the meeting but said the RNC is stepping up efforts to bolster Trump.
“The RNC’s role is to support the president,” he said. “We’re focused on creating as much content as possible to ensure we’re messaging effectively and doing so quickly in order to promote and defend this administration. It’s our top priority. “
Aides say they think Trump’s agenda will be boosted by making more targeted appearances around the country to tout it.
And several advisers are pushing Trump to do more of the campaign-style rallies like the one he had planned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday night. It has since been postponed but will be rescheduled soon, according to Trump’s campaign.
Being outside of Washington among his supporters, particularly in a state he won last year, energizes Trump and provides a way for him to communicate without the filter of the media, his advisers say.
“The conventional ways of communicating are not working for them,” one adviser said, adding that Trump should consider Facebook Live sessions and get out on the road “as frequently as possible.”
“They have to get the campaign brand back,” the adviser said.
Several Trump advisers cited the president’s recent interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, in which Trump made clear it was his idea to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, as the kind of thing to avoid going forward.
“I hope he’ll travel more and do these rallies once a week,” Bennett said. “You get to say whatever you want to say, and you don’t have to take questions.”
As the White House tried to bolster its operations, some staffers who once fell out of favor with Trump have been brought back into conversations.
Lewandowski, who was fired from the campaign amid serious clashes with Kushner and the president’s daughter, Ivanka, has also been suggested as an effective messenger — either from inside the administration or from his current perch outside — to push back on the Russia controversy.
Nunberg, who was fired by the Trump campaign in 2015 and has been hostile to Lewandowski ever since, is now working with Ruddy. At a recent breakfast in Washington, D.C. with Ruddy, Lewandowski, and Alexandra Preate, a close ally of Bannon, the trio discussed whether Lewandowski and Nunberg could put aside their differences to again rally behind Trump, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
Aides to Trump say they’re pleased with both the substance and the optics of his nine-day foreign trip, the first time he’s traveled abroad as president, and hope that it could generate some momentum for his agenda back home. Others aren’t so sure.
“He was given the chance to look presidential and change the pictures on our television screens,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “But it will be harder for him to manage news back at home than abroad. … The worries he had when he left have not gone away. They’ve only gotten worse.”
Staff writer Philip Rucker in Italy contributed to this report.