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Mood at White House grim as sense of crisis mounts
[WASHINGTON] Less than four months ago, a keen set of young up-and-comers strode into the White House in their best high heels and power ties, bursting with optimism and pride in serving their country.
Now, their stint in the White House - the supposed apogee of their lives, something to brag about someday to the grandkids - has begun to look more like it would be an albatross tied around their necks.
Donald Trump may have left behind his domestic woes as he jetted off Friday on his first foreign trip, but he also left behind a White House staff that is increasingly demoralised and overwhelmed.
On Wednesday night, inside the cramped communal offices of the White House's famed West Wing, the news struck like a thunderclap - a special counsel had been appointed to investigate ties between Mr Trump, his inner circle and the Kremlin.
As a television on the wall blared the news over and over, young aides to the president sat stone-faced and mute.
"Collusion," "grand jury," "impeachment" - the pundits were droning on, but those words stood out.
Communications staff scuttled from meetings to their desks and back, in the vain hunt for a positive way to spin news that could define the rest of Mr Trump's presidency.
For months, Mr Trump's staff have lived with exhaustion, backstabbing and a seemingly perpetual drumbeat of crisis.
This latest wrenching experience - just the midpoint in a week of tumult as bad as any modern administration has experienced - was played out in full view of the world, and for the history books.
A White House photographer stalked the hallways snapping pictures of a historic, if harrowing, moment for posterity, before being shooed away.
'HOW ARE YOU?'
Trump's management skills - lauded by many, including himself - have nevertheless not translated into a finely tuned White House.
Backbiting and almost daily rumours about mass firings are the norm.
Staff privately complain about the administration's incompetence and understaffing.
Aides say they often wonder whether they will be allowed to return to work the next day - half expecting heartbreak, half wanting deliverance.
Some half-joke that an innocuous "How are you?" has become something like an existential question, as they whisper to each other about the latest staffing rumors.
Some say they are looking for the exit. Others are fearfully talking about "lawyering up." Republicans outside the still half-staffed administration who have been asked for lists of jobs they are willing to consider are holding off.
For a few Trump aides, like Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the personal and professional maelstrom has played out in a brutally public way.
Ridiculed by satirists, mocked by the press corps and almost ritually undermined by his boss, Spicer has also had to suffer the humiliation of his colleagues briefing the press that he will soon be a goner, while his family looks on.
One would-be successor, Kimberly Guilfoyle - a former lawyer, model and now Fox News presenter - even told her hometown newspaper recently that she was already talking to the White House about taking over Mr Spicer's job.
"I think I have a very good relationship with the president," Ms Guilfoyle told The Mercury News.
"I think I enjoy a very straightforward and authentic, very genuine relationship, one that's built on trust and integrity, and I think that's imperative for success in that position."
Mr Spicer - like key aides Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Steve Bannon - on Friday boarded Air Force One for a pressure-cooker first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.
For the staff happy to be left behind at the White House, the next week may offer some much needed respite.