Washington (CNN)A buoyant President Donald Trump reemerged into public for the first time in more than a week on Friday, offering few signs of the malaise that has gripped his administration since the hasty dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.
“It’s such an honor to be here,” Trump declared to a group of military mothers gathered in the East Room for a Mother’s Day event. “So bright and festive.”
Downstairs, the mood was anything but.
In conversations with multiple advisers, conducted on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, officials described to CNN a sense of dejection within the West Wing ranks, where most aides were caught off guard by Trump’s decision and had little ability to develop a cogent response. Even Vice President Mike Pence, who found his public statements again undercut by Trump himself, was “a little rattled” at the events of the week, according to an administration adviser.
Through it all, Trump has remained largely out of sight, not leaving the White House once since he returned late Sunday night. He grew increasingly isolated and agitated, associates tell CNN, going a full week without hearing the applause and adulation that often brightens his mood.
Eager to move on
The President’s public schedule has been devoid of opportunities for the press to see him since last Thursday. The absence came on a week when his decision to fire Comey consumed Washington; the President acted as an invisible central player to the drama, tweeting in spurts about alleged links between his campaign and Russia while largely remaining entrenched behind closed doors at the White House.
The quiet stretch was long-planned, officials said, with little expectation that Trump would deliver a bombshell. Instead, many in Trump’s circle now view the past four days as the worst stretch of Trump’s presidency so far. All are eager to move on.
“I think a lot of people are trying to figure out the new dynamic in town,” one senior White House official said Friday, conceding the learning curve was often just as steep for those working steps from the Oval Office as across town.
Some of the more seasoned aides inside the West Wing refer to Trump as “the hurry-up president,” full of risk and reward. But this week, aides bluntly conceded, the risks were far more apparent. It was a fresh reminder the administration is not prepared to deal with a crisis of its own making, never mind a catastrophe outside its control.
Still, inside the West Wing the mood appeared to lift somewhat by the end of the week, as one exhausted aide declared, “It’s Friday.”
Trump, in both individual meetings and larger sessions, personally worked to bolster his staff’s plummeting morale after rampant criticism of their inability to cast his firing of Comey in a positive light.
But the scars were still apparent, with one White House official asking: “Do you think we’re liars?”
And just as some aides began to feel on firmer footing after Comey’s dismissal, Trump revived his longtime obsession with surveillance, suggesting that he was recording conversations inside the Oval Office. Neither Trump nor his spokesman tamped down on the implication, a telling development for a White House not shy about publicly rebutting what it claims is false reporting.
It was another distraction from a governing agenda that, only a week ago, appeared on track. Comey clean-up efforts largely crowded out attempts to move on to other items, leading to fears among White House staff that Trump’s governing agenda may be derailed.
Aside from vague references to rebuilding the military during his Mother’s Day remarks, Trump has otherwise made no mention of policy in public since Thursday of last week, when his administration hit its high mark after passage of a GOP health care bill in the House of Representatives.
When he did emerge for a pair of interviews, Trump only seemed to deepen questions about the episode. He told NBC News on Thursday that he was thinking about the Russia probe when he made the call to dismiss the man overseeing it. He added he had long ago decided Comey must go.
Both seemed to directly contradict the ways Trump’s aides — including Pence — had been working to salvage the Comey storyline.
After Trump told NBC that he’d long planned to fire Comey — and was not, as Pence declared seven times on Capitol Hill Wednesday, acting on the advice of his Justice Department — the Vice President found himself again in a position of being contradicted by his boss.
“He’s not rattled very often and he was a little rattled” about how the events transpired, a senior administration adviser said.
According to this adviser, Trump made the decision to fire Comey — and Pence knew the decision was coming before the announcement on Tuesday — but he wasn’t fully briefed on the President’s reasoning for firing Comey before he went in front of cameras on Wednesday.
“He went out there without all the information,” the adviser said. “It was not an attempt to lie.”
Other advisers found themselves in similar positions. Briefing reporters at the same time Trump spoke in the East Room Friday, press secretary Sean Spicer struggled to explain multiple shifts in the timeline surrounding Comey’s firing or the motivations behind it. Perhaps more worrisome, he wasn’t able to say whether conversations in Trump’s White House were being recorded — a possibility Trump raised himself on Twitter Friday morning.
“The President has nothing further to add on that,” Spicer said.
Indeed, Trump himself told a Fox interviewer that he wouldn’t talk about whether he’d recorded conversations with his canned FBI director.
In the public eye
Trump resumes a more robust public schedule starting Saturday. He’ll deliver a commencement address at Liberty University, the evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia. Next week he welcomes the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Colombia for talks and delivers another graduation speech at the US Coast Guard academy in New London, Connecticut.
And he departs on a five-stop foreign swing on Friday, though the grueling pace of presidential foreign travel isn’t likely to provide much relief for a beleaguered president.
For some aides, a departure from Washington can’t come quickly around. Those around Trump are eager to get him out of the White House and outside of Washington as soon as possible, according to a source close to the White House. Trump generally basks in crowd settings, though he has traveled far less than his predecessors.
“We need to get the President outside the beltway,” this source said.
Republican allies on Capitol Hill also hope the President can soon resume his push for key items of his legislative agenda, including a massive tax reform package that the White House promised in broad terms last month, but has since gotten little attention.
Trump’s legislative affairs operation has largely gone quiet since the health care victory last week. On Tuesday, as senators hunkered down on Capitol Hill to hammer out their own version of the health bill, Trump was executing his plan to fire Comey; the news dominated conversations among lawmakers for the rest of the week.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan visited Ohio on Wednesday, he wanted to talk about tax reform. But headlines from his event largely focused on his refusal to comment about Comey’s firing.
One Republican congressional source described the White House in “meltdown mode” as it scrambled to contain the Comey fallout.
Ryan himself worked to avoid the topic during an appearance in Wisconsin Friday.
“I’m going leave it to the President to talk about and defend his tweets,” he said when asked about Trump’s suggestion he may be recording his Oval Office meetings.
But Ryan seemed to acknowledge that, at least for the next four years, there will be little certainty coming from the White House.
“I’m focusing on what’s in my control,” he said.