After Michael Cohen’s surprise plea agreement last week and Robert Mueller’s latest disclosure that Michael Flynn sat for 19 interviews with the special counsel’s office, the West Wing walls can feel like they’re closing in. “They’re freaking out,” a former White House official told me, reflecting an emerging consensus that Mueller’s investigation is entering the endgame. Even allies raised their eyebrows at Trump’s tweet praising Roger Stone for not cooperating with Mueller. “Wow, that’s actually obstruction of justice,” a former West Wing official told me.
But the ominous signs of Mueller’s progress have not completely overwhelmed other subplots. On Monday, Trump hosted a 2020 strategy meeting with a group of advisers. Among the topics discussed was whether Mike Pence should remain on the ticket, given the hurricane-force political headwinds Trump will face, as demonstrated by the midterms, a source briefed on the session told me. “They’re beginning to think about whether Mike Pence should be running again,” the source said, adding that the advisers presented Trump with new polling that shows Pence doesn’t expand Trump’s coalition. “He doesn’t detract from it, but he doesn’t add anything either,” the source said. Last month, The New York Times reported that Trump had been privately asking advisers if Pence could be trusted, and that outside advisers have been pushing Nikki Haley to replace Pence. One veteran of Trump’s 2016 campaign who’s still advising Trump told me the president hasn’t been focused enough on 2020. “What he needs to do is consider his team for 2020 and make sure it’s in place,” the adviser said. “He has to have people on his team that are loyal to his agenda.”
Trump’s doubts about Pence are surprising given Pence’s frequent public encomiums and professions of loyalty. “Trump waxes and wanes on everyone,” a prominent Republican close to the White House explained. Part of what’s driving the debate over Pence’s political value is Trump’s stalled search for a chief of staff to replace John Kelly. According to a source, Kelly has recently been telling Trump that Pence doesn’t help him politically. The theory is that Kelly is unhappy that Pence’s 36-year-old chief of staff, Nick Ayers, has been openly campaigning for Kelly’s job. “Kelly has started to get more political and he’s whispering to Trump that Trump needs a running mate who can help him more politically,” the source said. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
The death of George H.W. Bush was another cause of West Wing anxiety, given Trump’s frequent criticisms of various members of that family. But allies have mostly been relieved. “Look at how he’s been. It’s presidential,” a former West Wing aide said.