As White House's Revolving Door Whirls, Chaos Is the Only Constant
Posted March 13, 2018 5:40 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 11:11 a.m. EDT
SAN DIEGO — President Donald Trump explained on Tuesday that he fired Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson because they do not see eye to eye on certain major issues. Then he confirmed that he may hire Larry Kudlow as his economics adviser even though they do not see eye to eye on certain major issues.
In the never-ending reality-show drama of the Trump administration, characters come and go and sometimes come back again based as much on personality, chemistry and the mood of the moment as on ideology or competence. Those who get on Trump’s bad side are shown the exit, and those who connect with him rise through the ranks.
The particular alchemy of that equation has eluded any number of people who were once masters of their own universe, as was Tillerson, who dominated the oil industry as chief executive of Exxon Mobil. Trump has cast aside both establishment figures and nationalist outsiders. He has recruited confidants he genuinely respects as well as virtual strangers who impressed him on television. He has even swung hot and cold on his own family members occupying offices in the West Wing.
Anyone looking for a pattern should focus squarely on the man behind the desk in the Oval Office. Trump’s presidency of one depends not on the team around him but on the instincts inside him. Where others see bedlam, he sees purpose. “I like conflict,” he said the other day, a statement that elicited no objections from fact checkers. Sometimes the conflict seems to be within himself.
Other presidents seek to minimize disorder; Trump seems to maximize it. He fired Tillerson shortly before heading to Air Force One to fly to California to inspect prototypes of his border wall, announcing the move on Twitter, defending it on the South Lawn with the noise of helicopter blades almost drowning him out and then leaving behind chaos.
The spectacle did not end with his secretary of state being cashiered just hours after landing from a diplomatic mission to Africa. Even as attention focused on Tillerson, the president’s once-trusted personal assistant, John McEntee, was forced out and escorted from the White House by security guards so hurriedly that he could not even grab his jacket — but in a typical Trumpian twist then turned around and joined the re-election campaign. Then an aide to Tillerson was fired for discussing the firing of his boss.
The turnover has been so head-snapping — 43 percent of Trump’s most senior aides had left by last week — that it will soon become easier to talk about who is still around than who has left. Gary Cohn, the economics adviser, announced last week that he would step down, following Hope Hicks, the communications director, and Rob Porter, the staff secretary. It is tempting to look for larger meaning in the shifting personnel, but the momentum seems to shift by the week or even the day. One faction has the upper hand and then it does not. Cohn was the “it boy” of the Trump White House early on until he mildly criticized the president’s response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Then he was on the outs. Then he helped pass Trump’s tax cut plan and his stock was high again. Then he lost last week’s battle over tariffs and he quit.
Not to worry — even when Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs banker, announced his departure, Trump publicly predicted that he would simply go off to make a few hundred million dollars more and then rejoin the administration in one capacity or another.
Tillerson had yet to turn in his State Department decoder ring before speculation turned to who else would be gone soon. What about John F. Kelly, the forever-on-the-bubble White House chief of staff? Or Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the perpetually on-the-way-out national security adviser?
Maybe it depends on whom the president can convince to replace them. He said the other day he could find 10 people for any job opening, but many first-tier Republicans are staying away from this White House or are banned from its premises because of past opposition to Trump.
Still, he is not wedded to traditional choices as he scans the horizon for fresh staff members. It helps to be good on television, as Kudlow is, but not to be too good on television, because it might irritate the boss to be shown up.
Among those Trump enjoys on Fox News is John R. Bolton, the conservative firebrand who served as ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Tongues wagged when Trump met with Bolton in the White House recently, prompting speculation that he could replace McMaster.
But would Trump bring in Bolton, among the nation’s leading hawks on North Korea, at the very moment he plans to sit down with Kim Jong Un, the country’s mercurial dictator, for talks aimed at eliminating its nuclear program peacefully? And then there is Bolton’s famous mustache. Some around Trump say it bothers him. Can he get over the facial hair?
Trump’s choice of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson offers something of a window into his approach. Pompeo found that the key to favor in the Oval Office was engaging Trump. The president enjoyed his near daily interactions with Pompeo at his intelligence briefings.
By contrast, he never really connected with Tillerson, who was used to being a chief executive rather than a glorified staff member. It probably did not help that Tillerson was overheard after a meeting last summer calling the president a “moron,” a comment he never denied, although he had a spokeswoman deny it for him. Trump has likewise been said not to click personally with McMaster.
Trump’s aides said he acted now because he wanted to get a new team in place before the talks with Kim. But Pompeo, a skeptic of talks with North Korea, will become secretary of state, while Tillerson, an advocate of talks with North Korea, will head for the exits.
In speaking with reporters on the South Lawn before his trip Tuesday, the president cited clashing views with Tillerson over the Iran nuclear agreement and other national security issues.
“It was a different mindset. It was a different thinking,” he explained. “We disagreed on things.”
Just a minute or two later, a reporter asked if it was true that Kudlow was his top choice to replace Cohn as director of the National Economic Council. Such a selection would be striking given that Kudlow, a CNBC commentator, has criticized Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
But Trump shrugged that off and praised Kudlow. “We don’t agree on everything, but in this case I think that’s good,” he said. “I want to have a divergent opinion.”
At least for now.