Trump on message during overseas trip, but now he's home

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump just returned from his first trip abroad and White House watchers hope he learned a lot during the week.

Not about the Middle East and Europe, but about the value of acting presidential.

On its face, the trip seemed to placate lawmakers, adversaries and even supporters who worried about the say-anything president at large on the world stage.

But Trump — known for making unforced errors large and small — largely stuck to script, giving no press conferences, ignoring most shouted questions from reporters, and even keeping quiet on Twitter.

On the ground in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium no utterances of "James Comey" or "Russia" came from Trump — leaving news on those issues to break on the home front without the president adding extra fuel to extend the coverage.

When NBC News exclusively reported Thursday that son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is under scrutiny in the FBI's Russia probe, Trump, who was in Sicily when the news broke, stayed uncharacteristically mum.

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President Donald Trump meets Pope Francis
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President Donald Trump meets Pope Francis
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/pool
Pope Francis exchange gifts with U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/pool
U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania, and the U.S. delegation pose with Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump stands next to Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool
Pope Francis (C) walks past US First Lady Melania Trump (R) and the daughter of US President Donald Trump Ivanka Trump (L) at the end of a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. US President Donald Trump met Pope Francis at the Vatican today in a keenly-anticipated first face-to-face encounter between two world leaders who have clashed repeatedly on several issues. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Alessandra Tarantino (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man raises a U.S. flag minutes before U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 24: US President Donald Trump arrives to meet Pope Francis, on May 24, 2017 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Vatican Pool - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 24 : U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and his wife Melania (R) arrive at the Vatican for their audience with Pope Francis, on May 24, 2017. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 24: US President Donald Trump is welcomed by the prefect of the papal household Georg Gaenswein as he arrives at the Apostolic Palace for an audience with Pope Francis on May 24, 2017 in Vatican City, Vatican. The president will return to Italy on Friday, attending the Group of 7 summit in Sicily. Trump will also visit American troops stationed in at a US air base in Sicily. (Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Archibishop Georg Ganswein escorts U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump who arrive to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump arrives to meet Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin after a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania talk with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool
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The man who campaigned on the "Muslim ban" was greeted warmly by Muslim and Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, talked up Middle East peace in meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, carried a tough (though somewhat awkward) message to NATO allies that they needed to boost their contributions on defense, and he survived a white-knuckled handshake from newly minted French President Emmanuel Macron.

"It's clear that they were looking to reduce risk and reduce any likelihood of an unscripted moment," said former President Obama Press Secretary Josh Earnest, an NBC News and MSNBC political analyst. "That clearly was one of their goals going in."

The White House celebrated the trip as a win after weeks of negative news cycles and the drip, drip, drip of Russia-related news reports consumed the administration.

"He had a message. He actually had a policy that he wanted to drive that wasn't a personal point, it was a policy point...He needs to up-play policy and downplay personality" — President George W. Bush's former press secretary Ari Fleischer

"No big speed bumps," one administration official told NBC of the trip.

"Imagery from the trip has been great," added the official, who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the president's trip. The "general mood here is that it has been a great success."

Before returning home, Trump himself proclaimed of his trip, "I think we hit a home run."

RELATED: Trump's first trip abroad: All the coverage

Critics had a more subdued reaction, but even they gave the president a passing grade.

"It wasn't a disaster," former Obama communications director Jennifer Palmieri told NBC News. "It could've been a disaster, could've easily been a disaster." Then again, she added, "the bar is so low."

Much-needed discipline

Though the foreign trip was on the books well before the president's decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey and the Department of Justice's appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia probe, putting thousands of miles between domestic controversies and a frustrated president couldn't have come at a better time.

"Foreign trips can help shuffle the deck when you are in a bad downward spiral," Palmieri said. "I think the foreign trip helped them because they...desperately needed something that was going to change the subject from Comey and Russia."

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Trumps visit Holocaust Memorial in Israel
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Trumps visit Holocaust Memorial in Israel
(From L-R) White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, daughter of US president Ivanka Trump, cantor Shay Abramson and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM - MAY 23: : (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'AMOS BEN GERSHOM /ISRAELI PRIME MINISTRY MEDIA OFFICE/ HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) U.S. President Donald Trump makes a speech as his wife Melania Trump (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left 3) and his wife Sara Netanyahu (left 2) stand behind at Yad Vashem, Israels Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Handout / Israeli Prime Ministry Media Office / Amos Ben Gershom/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM - MAY 23: : (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'AMOS BEN GERSHOM /ISRAELI PRIME MINISTRY MEDIA OFFICE/ HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) U.S. President Donald Trump signs guest book as his wife Melania Trump (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left 3) and his wife Sara Netanyahu (left 2) stand behind at Yad Vashem, Israels Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Handout / Israeli Prime Ministry Media Office / Amos Ben Gershom/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Melania Trump attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (back L), First Lady Melania Trump (front-L), US President Donald Trump (front-R), and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (back-R), attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
(From L-R) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, First Lady Melania Trump, US President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump stands next to first lady Melania as he greets Holocaust survivor Margot Herschenbaum (R) during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DEBBIE HILL (Photo credit should read DEBBIE HILL/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump stands next to first lady Melania as he greets Holocaust survivor Margot Herschenbaum (R) during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DEBBIE HILL (Photo credit should read DEBBIE HILL/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump (C) and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (R) listen to the US president delivering a speech during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C-R) and First Lady Melania Trump (C-L) lay a wreath during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump listen to U.S. President Donald Trump speak to the media at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Debbie Hill/Pool
U.S. first lady Melania Trump (R) sits by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife Sara at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L) and their wives Melania Trump (L) and Sara Netanyahu (2nd L), delivers remarks after a wreath-laying at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
(From L-R) White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, daughter of US president Ivanka Trump, cantor Shay Abramson and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner listen to US President at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DEBBIE HILL (Photo credit should read DEBBIE HILL/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump (L) and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner listen to the US president delivering a speech during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (back L), Ivanka Trump (back-R), First Lady Melania Trump (middle-L), US President Donald Trump (middle-R), and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (back-C), attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
(From L-R) White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, First Lady Melania Trump, US President Donald Trump, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara and Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (L) and Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the US president, attend a wreath laying ceremony during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum, commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said there was "no question" that the president showed discipline during the whirlwind five-nation journey. "Everything's been laid out for him in that matter," Corker told NBC.

Trump's decision to stick to the script is not one to be taken for granted given the number of times he's tossed aside prepared remarks and launched into news-making riffs of his own. In fact, the one time he went off-script to answer a reporter's shouted question on the trip ended up giving fresh legs to reports that he disclosed highly classified information to the Russians during a meeting in the Oval Office.

"Folks, folks, just so you understand, just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel during that conversation" with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office, Trump said Monday in Jerusalem with Netanyahu standing beside him.

The administration official called the opening Saudi Arabia leg of the trip "huge" from an optics vantage point, including a speech to the Muslim world and announcement of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called a "strong message to our common enemies."

The administration official said the president's messaging wasn't the result of pre-trip conversations about the necessity of staying on topic, but came from Trump being "dialed in on communicating exactly what he wants folks to take away from each stop."

Some Democratic lawmakers, like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, scoffed. "I don't think he's been disciplined because he went on travel, I think he's been disciplined because he's had a lot of lawyers telling him you better be careful about what you say," Kaine told NBC News.

A glaring gap in rhetoric

For all the talk of sticking to the script, those scripts were noticeably lacking in a discussion of American values abroad, critics said.

Speaking to Muslim and Arab leaders in Riyadh, Trump said he was "not here to lecture" but "to offer partnership."

"By downplaying or even obscuring the differences in values...that has made Trump's meetings with other leaders look much more harmonious," Earnest said.

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Melania and Ivanka Trump arrive in Saudi Arabia
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Melania and Ivanka Trump arrive in Saudi Arabia
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave as they arrive in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. first lady Melania Trump (from L-R, seated) holds the attention of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman at a Saudi welcome ceremony for U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ivanka Trump (C-L) and Jared Kushner (C-R) arrive to attend the presentation of the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave as they arrive in Riyadh during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017.Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C, in brown and white) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump (top, 3-R) with a military honor cordon after they arrived aboard Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump (R) to a tea ceremony in the Royal Terminal after they arrived aboard Air Force One at King Khalid Airport International in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (C) and his wife Ivanka Trump walk on the tarmac after arriving with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One at King Khalid Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R), U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump (C) are greeted with flowers by children in an arrival ceremony at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ivanka Trump (C-L) and Jared Kushner (C-R) arrive to attend the presentation of the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (lower left, back to camera) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump as they arrive aboard Air Force One at King Khalid Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (C) and his wife Ivanka Trump walk on the tarmac after arriving with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets with U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (2-L) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump as they arrive aboard Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump step off Air Force One upon arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump (L) and Jared Kushner (C) walk across the tarmac after arriving in Riyadh with US President Donald Trump (unseen) at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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"When President Trump goes to Saudi Arabia and doesn't stand up for our values, the leaders of some of the Arab countries breathe a sigh of relief and have fonder feelings or warmer feelings for the president," he added. That allows him to tell a story of improving relations with other countries around the world and I guess the question the American people have to ask is, at what cost?"

Trump's Thursday remarks to NATO also brought another case of necessary words left unsaid. The president did not explicitly commit to Article 5 of the NATO charter — a promise that the United States would come to the defense of its NATO allies if they ever came under attack. A senior White House official later told NBC that the commitment was implicit in the president's being at the gathering.

Can Trump stay on message?

Now that the president is back on his home turf, the question becomes can the no-drama, on-message approach stick or was the trip merely a temporary respite from a roiling wave of controversy still playing out in D.C.?

"I hope he comes back from this trip recognizing the power of a disciplined president, how he needs to now repeat this domestically," said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, adding that he was hopeful yet uncertain the president would make a sustained pivot to presidential.

"He had a message. He actually had a policy that he wanted to drive that wasn't a personal point, it was a policy point," he said. "If he could do the same on tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare, if he can do the same on immigration, energy development, he could be so successful domestically. He needs to up-play policy and downplay personality."

Trump has shown that he can modulate his shoot-from-the-hip behavior only for a short time. He's self-sabotaged past attempts to pivot — during the campaign and as president — and in the face of conflict, reverted back to his instinct to counter-punch, even if his defense only worsens the crisis.

That's what happened after his widely applauded joint address to Congress when Trump's glowing "presidential" moment was trampled on less than 24 hours later by further reporting on Russia that put his administration on defense. And the president capped off that week with a series of tweets alleging without any evidence that Obama had his "wires tapped" at Trump Tower.

The lesson from the past four months is not to stop the spontaneity that propelled Trump to office and endeared him to his base, said American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, but instead to find ways to weave it into the environment he's returning to, where a special counsel is now leading an investigation into the Trump's campaign alleged ties with Russia.

White House aides told NBC News Friday that they're preparing for a "new reality" going forward, including creating a "war room" headed up by Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus to deal with all things Russia-related.

"I don't think the lesson from the last four months is that you should never be spontaneous or genuine or tell them what you really think," Schlapp, a longtime Trump supporter, told NBC.

"I want him to keep doing that, but, by the same token, I think the staff has to up their game and the president as a leader has to look for all the ways in which he can improve as a leader," he continued. "When they come back, they need to understand that there's a special counsel and this has gotten quite serious politically and they've got to perform at a better level."

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