It was the week that Donald Trump’s new communications director was meant to reset the White House after six turbulent months. Instead, the fight-to-the-death between Anthony Scaramucci and chief of staff Reince Priebus framed a week that shed the harshest light yet on the chaos at the heart of the administration.
From Mr Trump’s tweeted attacks on his own attorney-general to the resignation of Mr Priebus, days of rolling controversy have shown up the divisions wracking the senior levels of his team and reinforced concerns about the trajectory of his presidency.
Having once welcomed Mr Trump’s November victory for putting the levers of American power in Republican hands, conservatives now are aghast at the disarray threatening the president’s agenda.
While the week of rancour was bookended by the departure of Mr Priebus on Friday afternoon, its lowest point may have come in the early hours of the day when Republican senator John McCain, suffering from cancer, cast the vote that killed the president’s dream of repealing Obamacare after weeks of Republican wrangling over the plans.
“I don’t think there’s a clear understanding of what the party is any more and what it stands for,” said Adam Brandon, head of FreedomWorks, a conservative group with close ties to the lawmakers.
Mr Scaramucci had barely taken up his new role when he made clear in extraordinary terms the state of open warfare in the White House, publicly likening his feud with Mr Priebus to the fratricidal relationship between Cain and Abel. He went even further in an online New Yorker interview with a profane rant against his White House colleagues.
Defiance and divisions defined the week. After Mr Trump’s Twitter attacks on Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general on Tuesday and Wednesday, Republican senator Lindsey Graham warned Mr Trump that there would be “holy hell to pay” if he tried to fire Mr Sessions.
Next to stand up to Mr Trump was the military. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, insisted that the Pentagon would not discharge transgender soldiers as demanded by the president unless Mr Trump gave him a proper order — rather than a tweet.
Tax reform ambitions faltered as the president’s economic advisers, after months of work, produced a six-paragraph outline that only underscored just how far they remained from a genuine plan. And the US Senate gave final approval by a vetoproof margin to legislation that tightens sanctions on Russia and barring Mr Trump from lifting them. Late on Friday, he accepted the inevitable and announced he would sign the bill.
Even what should have been Mr Trump’s innocuous appearance at a Boy Scouts jamboree descended into tribal politics, as the president used the event to deliver a tirade against opponents and the media. The organisation’s embarrassed chief executive subsequently had to apologise.
Few presidents have suffered so many challenges to their authority in so short a period so early in their term. No one in Washington expected Mr Trump’s troubles to end this week; the replacement of Mr Priebus with retired general John Kelly only sends the administration deeper into uncharted waters.
When he was not busy savaging his coworkers, Mr Scaramucci offered a telling diagnosis of one of the problems ailing the wounded president. “He’s not a Washingtonian,” Mr Scaramucci said. “We’re both New Yorkers.”
Mr Trump, who made his name in Manhattan real estate, represents an extreme version of New York style. He shuns Washington’s traditions, musing aloud about rewriting the Senate’s nearly two century-old legislative rules, demanding “wins” and browbeating allies.
“The Trump New York class doesn’t care how the sausage is made or really anything about how things are done in Washington,” said one Republican veteran of Capitol Hill. “All they care about is winning. It’s very binary to them.”
But after six months in office, the out-of-towner is finding that what worked in New York is not a winning strategy in Washington.
This week, as the healthcare overhaul hung in the balance, Mr Trump ordered Ryan Zinke, his interior secretary, to threaten Alaska’s senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican holdout, with the loss of federal cash for her state.
But rather than demonstrating toughness, the pugnacious move only telegraphed Mr Trump’s failure to appreciate how Washington works. Ms Murkowski was the wrong person to bully: as chairwoman of a Senate panel, she controls Mr Zinke’s budget.
“They act like they’re not governed by the normal rules of politics,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “But they don’t have the leverage over house and senate members that they think they do.”
Bill Smullen, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and now director of national security studies at Syracuse University, said the president needed to be more involved in the details of highly complex initiatives such as healthcare reform rather than delegate them to the Senate. The president was creating “chaos” by firing off tweets that often turn out to be untrue, he said. “I don’t think he is being very statesmanlike.”
Following the healthcare collapse, Mr Trump is turning to what he vows will be history’s largest tax cut. But the effort is months behind schedule and now may not be ready for Congress until 2018. How any cuts will be paid for remains unclear following House speaker Paul Ryan’s abandoning of a border-adjusted tax that would have raised $1tn over 10 years.
“Like many of the business people I deal with, every day that goes by, I am less optimistic, simply because of the nature of the way power works in Washington,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a former commerce secretary and now chairman of Albright Stonebridge Group. “Power is greatest early in an administration.”
Still, Mr Trump shows no sign of adjusting to Washington. Instead, by siding with New Yorkers like Mr Scaramucci in the internal brawl, he seems determined to double down on the approach that got him to the White House — and to the brink of a failed presidency.
“This will not get better,” said Eliot Cohen, a longtime critic and former state department official. “I don’t know how people can delude themselves into the idea that he will change. He will not change.”
Follow David J Lynch on Twitter: @davidjlynch
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