intelligencer chats

The Mood in the White House During Trump’s Frenzied Final Days

Photo: Erin Schaff/Pool/Getty Images

With his days in Washington ticking down, President Trump is doing what he does best: ignoring reality. But what about all the people around him? I talked to our Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi about White House workplace dynamics, when (if ever) the GOP rank and file will abandon a lost cause, and whether Trump will even stick around until January 20.

Ben: It’s been five weeks since the election, and we’re a few days away from the Electoral College meeting to ratify Joe Biden’s win. Much of the Trump administration is at last cooperating with the incoming president, but Trump himself has, if anything, ratcheted up his I-wuz-robbed rhetoric, constantly tweeting out inflammatory lies about a stolen election and continuing to unsuccessfully pressure state legislatures to simply overturn the results and hand him the election (as his lawyers rack up loss after laughable loss in court). Based on what you’ve picked up, what is the mood in the White House right now amid his ham-fisted and doomed attempt to stay in power?

Olivia: As with anything in the White House, it depends on who you talk to. But several officials I’ve spoken to have told me that even though Trump understands he lost, he’s still not ready to admit it, even in private conversation — and that he doesn’t want to have people around him who aren’t willing to at least to pretend to buy his fiction that there’s a path forward to overturn the results. He’s also starting to worry about staffers writing books or doing interviews, like Brad Parscale just did with Fox, where they turn on him even in a minor way. So, for instance, he’s been reaching out to staffers who have been avoiding him since Election Day and asking them what they think. But when they tell him they think it’s over, he tells them he doesn’t want to hear it and dismisses them from the room.

So I guess I’d say the mood is frustrated. And I hear a lot from people who are either considering leaving early or who are just counting down the days until this is over. And also, unsurprisingly, a lot of the staff is totally preoccupied with petty infighting — which has always been the case. But it makes even less sense now that there’s an exit date for everyone, since it’s not like lancing your enemy is going to result in anything in the long term, like a better job or closer proximity to power. It kind of underscores the extent to which this White House is the definition of an unhealthy work environment and is populated by people who are entirely self-interested and sadistic.

Ben: So you’re saying everything is going smoothly.

Olivia: As the president says, I feel very, very strongly that things are going very well, big league! Yugely.

The fact that a lot of people who might ordinarily be honest with the president — even if he just ignored them anyway — are outright avoiding him has exacerbated the issue that’s always been the case, where the people in his ear are the craziest ones. Like, if you leave him physically alone, he fills the silence by dialing up allies who make him feel better, like Sidney Powell or Rudy. Abandoning him means leaving him in the hands of the most nefarious actors. But a lot of people are just sick of his shit — and no longer feel that it’s worth it to have an argument and create drama for themselves — and basically are just throwing up their hands. These people are now focused on what’s next for them, on how they can survive and profit in a post-Trump world. And whatever tiny part of them may have once believed that they could influence him for the better or have a chance of stopping him from being as destructive as he wants to be has been completely shut down. It’s always important to keep in mind, I guess, that almost everyone there is completely self-interested and unable or unwilling to look at the president’s actions in terms of what he’s doing to the country, if that makes sense. Very normal White House!

Ben: In that vein, the popular notion is that he just wants to be shown to be “fighting” and that the GOP leaders and functionaries — at least the ones who aren’t actually involved in election machinery — are indulging him in this so the feared base won’t turn on them. But, predictably, Trump shows no sign of letting up in this fight, and he likely never will. Do you think the fear of Trump is such that your average GOP senator or congressperson will still entertain his wild fantasies about the election even after the Electoral College meets and Trump’s days dwindle down and Biden is actually sworn in? (I should add that some of them probably wholeheartedly believe in the election-theft stuff.)

Olivia: I think we are beginning to see some slow and quiet and frankly anti-courageous movement away from him. And that will continue as we move closer to Inauguration Day. But it’s all about Georgia for the party, and until that’s resolved, I don’t anticipate we will hear any significant pushback to the president from influential Republicans, certainly not from leadership. Fear of Trump will continue as long as Georgia remains a point of leverage. It’s entirely cynical, but it’s the honest explanation for why establishment Republicans are tacitly or explicitly endorsing his behavior right now. But it’s also true that there are Trump Republicans who will probably continue to support him and attempt to appeal to his base even after he’s gone and he’s just tweeting angrily from the golf course in Florida.

Ben: How do you see him handling the last few weeks of his presidency? Of course he won’t concede, but will he even stick around? I believe you predicted that he would at some point retreat to Mar-a-Lago and just not return to the White House.

Olivia: That is my prediction still. A few officials privately responded to tell me they think it’s a good prediction, for what it’s worth. Also, apparently, Michael Cohen has a podcast, and he texted me to tell me that he made that same prediction on his podcast before I did. (I didn’t know! Sorry, Michael!) Even as Trump refuses to concede, it’s worth pointing out that the people around him are literally in the process of packing up and leaving, including leaving the White House residence, where he lives with his immediate family. So it’s all kind of silly. And it’s harder for him to cry wolf when the expiration date on the presidency is not up for debate, and everyone at the White House knows it and they know that he knows it. I expect we will see some more stunts from him in terms of pardons and ceremonies and bitchy tweets, but at least when it comes to how his own staff and his own advisers and his own allies feel, he’s never been less feared than he is right now.

The Mood in the White House During Trump’s Final Days