Housecleaning in West Wing Stalls for Now
Posted March 16, 2018 10:44 p.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2018 10:49 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — No one was fired at the White House on Friday.
At least not as of 10 p.m. Which was news.
Seeking to tamp down the anxiety inside the West Wing and the sense of never-ending dysfunction, President Donald Trump refrained, dawn through dusk, from any firings-by-tweet. His chief of staff delivered a buck-'em-up message that no heads will roll — for now.
Over at the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired Andrew G. McCabe, the former FBI deputy director and a frequent target of Trump’s scorn, late Friday night. That was widely suspected. But at the White House, the lack of any resolution to the steady reports of coming firings has left the president’s top advisers in limbo, and has undercut their authority.
Some aides say they wake up each morning wondering if they will still have a job by the end of the day.
Two embattled Cabinet secretaries — Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and David J. Shulkin at the Department of Veterans Affairs — remained in their posts despite speculation that they would soon be replaced because of the president’s anger over their use of public funds.
John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who is himself reported to be on thin ice with the president, reassured senior members of the White House staff Friday morning that “there were no immediate personnel changes at this time.” He urged officials to come to work focused on policy goals.
Yet even as Kelly sought to project calm, he and other advisers struggled to explain conflicting indications that at some point, perhaps soon, Trump intends to fire Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his second national security adviser. (Trump fired his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after Flynn served 24 days in the job.) McMaster’s dismissal would follow Trump’s firing this week of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Multiple White House officials have said that the president has decided to seek a new national security adviser, leading one online gambling site to give McMaster the best odds at becoming the “next to be fired or resign from Donald Trump administration.”
But during Friday morning’s national security briefing in the Oval Office, a White House official said, Trump told McMaster, “You’re not going anywhere.” At a briefing for reporters, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, called McMaster a “dedicated public servant” who has a “great working relationship” with Trump.
Spotted Friday afternoon outside the West Wing, McMaster told a reporter, “Everybody has got to leave the White House at some point.” Asked if he was leaving sooner rather than later, he said, “I’m doing my job.” Then he walked inside.
Numerous White House officials said that McMaster, whose job requires him to negotiate internal disputes among factions within the administration as well as deal directly with foreign officials on delicate topics, is operating with the expectation that every day may be his last.
National security veterans expressed alarm, saying perceptions about the general’s job security would directly affect his ability to speak on behalf of the president when it comes to complicated issues like the North Korea nuclear negotiations. Others said McMaster’s expected dismissal, along with the anticipated firings of the others, would further devastate White House morale.
“You can imagine how people lower down feel,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and a former diplomat who worked for presidents of both parties. “They don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next. They don’t know if their boss is going to be fired or not. You can’t have an effective government like this. It just won’t work.”
People close to the president said Friday that the numerous reports of the general’s imminent demise — including a Washington Post article Thursday night — along with the role Kelly was said to have in pushing for McMaster’s departure, caused the president to pull back, most likely giving McMaster a reprieve of several weeks. Reacting to The Post late Thursday, Trump initially wanted to issue over-the-top praise of his national security adviser, aides said. But the aides persuaded him not to because of the voluminous reports of their strained relationship.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties remained largely silent about the White House churn, though Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring this year, called McMaster “a stabilizing force” and expressed concern about his possible departure.
Sanders insisted that the recent personnel moves were normal for any White House. In fact, a Brookings Institution study found a 46 percent turnover rate in the Trump White House for the most important jobs, compared with a 24 percent rate for President Barack Obama and 33 percent for President George W. Bush during the same period.
Trump seems poised to increase his percentage soon.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions remains at odds with the president, who has repeatedly — and publicly — demeaned him, leaving it an open question how much longer Sessions will stay.
Kelly, too, is trying to run a White House under the dark cloud of reports that the president is also looking for a replacement for him. Chiefs of staff to previous presidents have said that uncertainty can only hobble Kelly’s ability to operate effectively.
In an off-the-record conversation with reporters, disclosed by a reporter for Axios who did not attend, Kelly said no firings were imminent, but acknowledged that rumors may be coming from the president, who Kelly said talks to many people on the phone. Those people in turn talk to reporters, Kelly said.
Several White House officials said that Trump is under pressure from advisers to “rip the Band-Aid off” by announcing any firings quickly, and all at once.
Carson and Shulkin are the most vulnerable because of spending scandals at their departments, though officials close to the president said he is aware that it would be poor public relations to fire Carson, the highest-ranking African-American man in an overwhelmingly white administration.
The president’s leading choice to replace Shulkin would most likely face difficulties being confirmed by the Senate. Pete Hegseth, a host of “Fox & Friends Weekend” and the former head of a veterans group, has ties to two major conservative donors, Charles G. and David H. Koch, who are anathema to Democrats. The Veterans Affairs inspector general issued a scathing report this year describing “serious derelictions” related to a trip Shulkin took last year to Britain and Denmark that cost more than $122,000. The report prompted bitter infighting among Shulkin and his top lieutenants and generated embarrassing headlines for the administration.
Carson has been dogged by the continuing story of HUD’s purchase of a $31,000 dining set for his office. Carson initially claimed that neither he nor his wife, Candy, were involved in the selection of the dining room table, chairs and hutch when he was confronted with reports that the purchase far exceeded the $5,000 federal limit on office renovations.
But this week, the department released emails showing that Ben Carson and his wife were, in fact, involved, down to reviewing a dozen swatches of material used on the seats of the 10 chairs, each costing taxpayers $600 to $700.