President Donald Trump had just returned to the White House on Sunday from his final inauguration event, a tranquil interfaith prayer service, when the flashes of anger began to build.

Trump turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition - massive demonstrations around the globe protesting his day-old presidency and footage of the relatively sparser crowd at his inauguration, with large patches of white empty space on the Mall.

As his press secretary, Sean Spicer, was still unpacking boxes in his spacious new West Wing office, Trump grew increasingly and visibly enraged.

Press secretary Sean Spicer came under fire for his performance on Sunday but Donald Trump felt he did better yesterday. Photo / AP
Press secretary Sean Spicer came under fire for his performance on Sunday but Donald Trump felt he did better yesterday. Photo / AP

Pundits were dissing his crowd size. The National Park Service had retweeted a photo unfavourably comparing the size of his inauguration crowd with the one that attended Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony in 2009. A journalist had misreported that Trump had removed the bust of Martin Luther King jnr from the Oval Office. And celebrities at the protests were denouncing the new commander in chief - Madonna even called for "blowing up the White House". Trump's advisers suggested that he could push back in a simple tweet. Thomas J Barrack jnr, a Trump confidant and the chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, offered to deliver a statement addressing the crowd size.


But Trump was adamant, aides said. Over the objections of his aides and advisers - who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency - the new President issued a decree: He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary.

Spicer's resulting statement - delivered in an extended shout and brimming with falsehoods - underscores the extent to which the turbulence and competing factions that were a hallmark of Trump's campaign have been transported to the White House.

The broader power struggles within the Trump operation have touched everything from the new Administration's communications shop to the expansive role of the President's son-in-law to the formation of Trump's political organisation. At the centre, as always, is Trump himself, whose ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism.

This account of Trump's tumultuous first days in office comes from interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and moments.

By most standards, Spicer's statement on Sunday did not go well. He appeared tired and nervous in an ill-fitting grey pinstripe suit. He publicly gave faulty facts and figures - which he said were provided to him by the Presidential Inaugural Committee - that prompted a new round of media scrutiny.

Many critics thought Spicer went too far and compromised his integrity. But in Trump's mind, Spicer's attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The President was also bothered that the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.

Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media's failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements, and he feels demoralised that the public's perception of his presidency so far does not align with his own sense of accomplishment.

Yesterday, Spicer returned to the lectern, crisply dressed and appearing more comfortable as he parried questions from the press corps.

"There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has," he told reporters. "And I think that it's just unbelievably frustrating when you're continually told it's not big enough, it's not good enough, you can't win."

Unlike other senior aides - Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, counsellor Kellyanne Conway and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law - Spicer does not enjoy a close and long-standing personal relationship with Trump.

During the campaign, Trump was suspicious of Priebus and Spicer, who ran the Republican National Committee and were seen as more loyal to the party than to its nominee. Some privately wonder whether Conway is now trying to undermine Spicer.

As Trump thought about staffing his Administration, he hesitated over selecting Sean Spicer as press secretary. Photo / AP
As Trump thought about staffing his Administration, he hesitated over selecting Sean Spicer as press secretary. Photo / AP

As Trump thought about staffing his Administration following his victory, he hesitated over selecting Spicer as press secretary. He did not see Spicer as particularly telegenic and preferred a woman for the position, asking Conway to do it and also considering conservative commentators Laura Ingraham and Monica Crowley - who stepped down from an Administration job because of charges of plagiarism - before settling on Spicer at the urging of Priebus and others.

Yet if there was any doubt over the weekend about Spicer's standing with the President, it seemed to have been erased by his performance yesterday, at least for the moment. Trump told his senior team that he was pleased with Spicer's more confident and relaxed turn at the lectern.

"His very first briefing as White House press secretary was a tour de force," Conway said. "He engaged the media, he was respectful and firm, he talked about accountability on a two-way street, he gave facts, he broke news in terms of what the President was doing." But tensions and internal power struggles have plagued other parts of Trump's fledgling orbit, too.

Efforts to launch an outside group supporting Trump's agenda have stalled amid fighting between Kushner loyalists and conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, according to people familiar with the tensions. The central dispute is over who controls the data the outside group would use, these people said.

Two people close to the transition also said a number of Trump's most loyal campaign aides have been alarmed by Kushner's efforts to elbow aside anyone he perceives as a possible threat to his role as Trump's chief consigliere.

At one point during the transition, Kushner had argued internally against giving Conway a White House role, these two people said.

On Monday Trump watched as Conway sparred with NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Some Trump allies were unsettled by her performance but Trump called Vice-President Mike Pence to rave about how she handled questions from Todd. Trump was, however, perturbed that the media focused on two words from Conway's interview: "alternative facts".

Conway is arguably Trump's most recognisable aide, which has caused her to receive threats against her life.

She has been assigned a Secret Service detail, according to someone with detailed knowledge of the situation.

In perhaps the clearest sign of where the administration's power centre resides, the "Big Four" - Bannon, Conway, Kushner and Priebus - stood in the front row at Monday's swearing-in ceremony for senior staffers, in the White House's East Room.

Conway herself said that while the advisers sometimes disagree, rumours of dissension are overblown.

"We're a cohesive unit," she said. "The senior team exhibits many of the characteristics President Trump has always valued: cohesion, collaboration, high energy and high impact."