Trump White House feels under siege

The White House is feeling under siege as President Trump prepares for a nine-day trip abroad that will present a host of new challenges for his reeling administration.

Staffers are on edge, weary from endless speculation about their jobs and struggling to keep their bearings amid the ever-shifting political terrain.

“Some of them think it will pass, some are frustrated because they look like amateurs in responding to all of this, and some are freaked out because there is an actual investigation now,” said one GOP operative in touch with White House officials. “It’s leaks and tweets and frenzy. They wake up every day and are continually slapped in the face and it doesn’t look like it will stop. They’re demoralized.”

Trump’s allies say the president has failed to get a handle on the rolling crises, which have taken their toll on staff, according to interviews with about a dozen people in the White House or with close ties to the administration.

Trump and others at the White House believe they are coming under unprecedented and unfair attacks from the established Washington institutions, from the permanent government to the media.

“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Trump tweeted Thursday.

After one of the most dramatic stretches in any presidency, getting outside of Washington could come as a reprieve.

At home, Trump’s deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, has saddled him with a special prosecutor charged with investigating Russian meddling in the election and possible ties to his campaign.

Senators exiting a meeting with Rosenstein on Thursday said the probe of Russia’s actions in last year’s election and possible ties with Moscow appeared to be veering into a criminal investigation.

Trump’s legislative agenda is in danger, and reports circulated Thursday that the president was being advised to find outside counsel.

Former FBI Director James Comey, whose dismissal last week started Trump's latest round of problems, has signaled he could leave a paper trail documenting his interactions with Trump.

Some White House officials are seeking to move on, saying they were focused on preparing for Trump’s upcoming trip, which will feature a speech warning about radical Islam in Saudi Arabia, home of the religion's holiest site, Mecca.

“Not going to add to the noise,” one official said.

A second official said that contrary to media reports, most in the administration are putting their heads down and not getting sidetracked by the sideshow. Asked how staffers could drown out the relentless barrage of negative press, the official responded: “You mean like every day since Jan. 20?”

The White House is choosing to scale back its on-air presence, and press secretary Sean Spicer, whose job has been the subject of endless speculation, has noticeably altered his style. 

Spicer has taken to offering only short responses to questions or dodging entirely, as he has done repeatedly under pressure from the press corps to elaborate on whether Trump has “tapes” of private conversations with Comey, as the president has insinuated.

Allies say it is a smart decision to withdraw, arguing that the administration can’t win with the press and is only giving oxygen to the day-to-day controversies by addressing them.

“You're gonna have people leaking stuff every few days. You can't be responding to every leak,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who also urged the president to stop tweeting.

Some in Trump's orbit view the leaks coming out of the government as a mortal threat. They are bracing for an expected daily onslaught from Comey loyalists at the FBI and view the administration as at war with the “deep state.”

In recent days, government leaks have produced stories about Trump revealing classified information to Russian diplomats, asking Comey to end the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and detailing Flynn’s extensive communications with Russians, among many others.

One former senior Justice official described the leaks as an attempted “coup.”

They’re at a loss as to how to deal with it, but are hopeful the administration will root out leakers and says Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) SessionsFBI opens tip line requesting information on Charlottesville rally Sessions rails against Chicago during visit to Miami DOJ warrant of Trump resistance site triggers alarm MORE is committed to prosecuting leakers in instances where crimes may have been committed.

“If the CIA can find a man in a dark cave halfway around the world, they ought to be able to find out who is it is calling the Washington Post,” said Barry Bennett, a GOP operative who advised the campaign. “If they can’t do it, maybe a special prosecutor can.”

The media is viewed as the other sworn enemy, although Trump’s allies readily concede the White House is to blame for many of its stumbles.

“We need some communication discipline from the White House because you know that the enemy — and the enemy in this case is everyone from the New York Times and Washington Post to the Democratic Party — is laying in wait for him,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), whom Trump interviewed for a Cabinet post.

“There are times you can hit a bully in the nose and be successful but politics isn’t one of those areas where that works every day. So rather than invite the drama, a little more communications discipline would frustrate [the press].”

Scott Wong and Jordan Fabian contributed.