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Shutdown threat tanks West Wing morale

The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency is coming to a close with administration officials exhausted and uncertain after two extraordinary weeks of chaos, even by the standards of this White House.

The drama underlines a fundamental truth about Trump’s presidency: The faces may change, but it seems the storyline never does.

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Nearly six months after retired Marine Gen. John Kelly took over from former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as chief of staff, the president is as undisciplined as ever. That’s sent morale in the West Wing plunging to new depths, according to more than half a dozen current and former White House officials and outside advisers.

The current upheaval comes as senior administration officials are weighing whether to leave their jobs or stay in the government.

“You’ve got people who have taken big pay cuts who aren’t millionaires and will at some point run out of money,” said one White House official. “And you’ve got people who are just emotionally taxed and they’ve done everything they think they can achieve.”

After ending 2017 with the passage of a sweeping rewrite of the tax code, White House officials had hoped to return from their holiday breaks refreshed and refocused. Instead, they’ve been thrust into yet another real-life game of Whac-A-Mole, forced to deal with an explosive tell-all book; racially charged remarks by the president that upended negotiations over an immigration deal; and now the prospect of a government spending crisis.

Some West Wing staffers are dealing with their frustration by keeping their heads down and focusing on the issues over which they have control. As a result, the White House is becoming increasingly siloed, with policy staffers separated from the top brass in the West Wing.

But some episodes cannot be ignored. Trump’s comments during a closed-door immigration meeting last week in which he reportedly referred to “shithole countries” are still reverberating, with several administration officials privately worrying that their future job prospects could be damaged by association, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

People close to the Trump administration argue staffers are just feeling the wear and tear of jobs that routinely involve working 12- to 15-hour days.

“This has nothing to do with a particular president, it has more to do with the fact that these are all-encompassing jobs,” said American Conservative Union head Matt Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes, works in the West Wing and who regularly speaks with the president and other top staffers.

The White House declined to comment.

But some in the White House strongly rejected the notion that morale is at rock bottom, pointing to moments of extreme tension when Priebus and Bannon were still in the White House. They note that Kelly has succeeded in running a more professional operation in the White House and has cut down on the behind-the-scenes knife fighting that characterized the early days of Trump’s presidency. Nobody can control the president’s tweets, they argue, and Kelly has not tried.

Still, the top ranks of the White House remain unsettled heading into Trump’s second year in office. Kelly is waiting to formalize a series of organizational changes until he has a clear idea of who will be staying, according to two people familiar with the internal staffing shifts, adding to the sense of uncertainty in the White House.

Deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn remains in the building but already has announced plans to go.

Others have already left, including deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and National Economic Council Deputy Director Jeremy Katz — who made it clear internally that he wanted to leave the White House after tax reform despite early discussions about promoting him to succeed new Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as deputy chief of staff for policy, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Some of those departing staffers — including Nielsen — may not be replaced at all, White House officials said. Instead, their duties could be split among multiple people.

President Donald Trump is pictured. |AP Photo

It wouldn’t be the first time jobs vacated by departing staffers went unfilled: former chief strategist Steve Bannon and former deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka were never replaced.

Jim Carroll, a White House lawyer, is in line to be promoted to deputy chief of staff, but he is expected to play a more low-level operational role than Nielsen, who came with Kelly from DHS, or Dearborn, a former campaign aide who worked for Priebus and stayed on under Kelly. Multiple aides said he has no personal relationship with the president.

Longtime aide Johnny DeStefano is already taking on a broader role across multiple White House offices, but his exact title hasn’t been finalized.

Meanwhile, aides who left Washington for the holidays on a high after the passage of tax reform describe feeling adrift and unsure of what will come next.

“People are twisting in the wind,” another White House official said.

Trump’s major legislative priority for the year, a $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at fixing the country’s roads and bridges, faces massive hurdles in Congress, where Democrats have little incentive to strike a bipartisan deal ahead of the midterms. Other issues, like reworking federal welfare programs, face even longer odds.

“We had a pretty clear North Star in the first 12 months,” said a person close to the administration. “Going into an election year, that changes the dynamic about how much time there is to actually get something done.”

White House aides acknowledged that they are unlikely to be able to replicate the successful passage of a major bill like tax reform this year. So, in addition to pushing infrastructure, they’ll also focus on executive branch actions on trade and other issues, while continuing to push for smaller, more incremental wins in Congress.

A handful of administration policy experts have been working behind the scenes to continue to incrementally tweak and water down Obamacare through regulations and rulemaking, though it’s not clear those ideas have the support of the most senior staff in the White House.

And in the meantime, the White House is caught up in the congressional fight over funding the government, saving the DACA program and funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program — issues that some in the West Wing and many of Trump’s outside advisers view as distracting from the crucial task of preparing for the midterm elections and charting a 2018 agenda.

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On Thursday, Trump further complicated the tense negotiations over avoiding a government shutdown by questioning GOP congressional leadership’s decision to attach funding for CHIP to a spending bill that would keep the government open until the middle of next month.

Trump’s tweets continue to surprise White House staff. Many in the West Wing heard about Trump’s “Fake News Awards” when he first announced them on Twitter earlier this month.

Even the most senior White House aides often can’t predict how Trump will respond in key talks with members of Congress. The president’s direct conversations with lawmakers can sometimes result in jarring shifts in the president’s policy stances, leaving his staff with the task of explaining the new position and dealing with the fallout.

During the debate over legislation to repeal Obamacare, Trump caught his own staff off guard after calling Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and asking for changes to the bill after having a conversation with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the golf course, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

But Schlapp and other allies of the president maintained that most White House aides are happy. Schlapp said those concerned about the lack of legislative options on the Hill should look to the administration’s rosier record on executive actions and judicial appointments: “I’d say to any staffer who is maybe doing a bit of moaning and groaning about the legislative side that they’re missing two-thirds of the picture.”

Nancy Cook and Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.

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