By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
RIYADH, May 20 – President Donald Trump was taking off on Air Force One when the latest bad news pinged into the inboxes of his besieged staff – a report that he had told Russian officials that fired FBI Director James Comey was “a nut job”.
Officials on board the Riyadh-bound presidential plane scrambled to coordinate with staff in Washington and those who had just landed in the Saudi capital for a response to the New York Times story about Comey.
A second bombshell came from the Washington Post, which reported that a federal investigation about Russian contacts with the Trump campaign last year had reached a current White House official, who was not named.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus sought to play down the reports of disarray. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Priebus said Trump had spent the flight reading newspapers, meeting with national security advisers and other staff, getting briefed about the trip and getting a little sleep.
But the sense of frustration was clear. Presidential aide Dan Scavino captured the mood of confrontation, seizing on a comment from Trump’s nemesis in the 2016 Republican presidential race, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who called Trump a “chaos president” for all the bad headlines of late.
Scavino fired back by reviving the derogatory nickname Trump had given Bush last year to raise doubts about his energy level and ultimately defeat him.
“LOW ENERGY JEB is out of stock on Jebbity JEB Jebbers. Perhaps @RedBull or @MonsterEnergy could help out. ¯\_( ツ)_/¯” Scavino tweeted.
“PEOPLE GET HYSTERICAL”
Trump’s nine-day tour takes him to four countries. White House staffers, shell-shocked from the daily barrage of bad news, were soldiering on, trying to keep the focus on a trip that could bring some significant achievements.
“We’re focused on that. The media will talk about what they talk about and people will get hysterical about what they get hysterical about but there’s a lot of people who are not focused on the day-to-day horse race and they are just making sure that the president’s objectives are followed through on,” a senior aide told Reuters.
It will be Trump’s longest time away from the White House since he took office on Jan. 20.
He is joined on the trip by some aides who have squabbled in the past but who have sought to set aside their differences to try to advance the president’s agenda, such as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and senior strategist, Steve Bannon.
Trump’s agenda has been sidetracked by the hubbub over his firing of Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Russia ties.
“I think this foreign trip is something they’re all looking forward to because it changes the narrative. It buys them a little time,” said a Republican close to the White House.
While Trump has privately vented about his staff, the source doubted there would be a major staff shakeup in the near-term.
The source said there might be some adjustments in the communications team to enable the White House to respond much more swiftly to the news.