In Trump’s White House, the Adviser Who Really Matters Sits in the Oval Office
Posted March 7, 2018 8:43 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump once said “I alone can fix it.” Looks like he may have to. No one else seems to be sticking around.
The record-high turnover at the White House has reached 43 percent with the pending departure of Gary D. Cohn, the national economic adviser, as the team that arrived with Trump 13 months ago heads for the doors in increasing numbers and the president increasingly relies on his own judgment for key decisions.
The head-spinning pace of departures has contributed to the sense of disarray in the West Wing, but it reflects the way Trump has operated since he announced he was running for president. He constantly searches for new voices, but burns through staff as he quickly loses faith in the people around him, leaving him with a dearth of advisers on whom he genuinely depends. In effect, it can feel like a presidency of one.
Trump said this week this did not lead to chaos but to a healthy refreshing of his team, adding that a reasonable amount of conflict helped him make better decisions. But Washington veterans see a dysfunctional operation in which a president becomes trapped in an insular bubble and too dependent on his own instincts and assessments, however informed they may or may not be.
“The truth is that no one has a good gut,” said James K. Glassman, who served as a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush and then founded Bush’s public policy institute after leaving office. “Everyone needs a foundation of values and beliefs and then good advice to test them against.”
Glassman said Trump seemed to have concluded that his predecessors made mistakes by listening to bad advice. “Trump looks at Bush and Obama and thinks, ‘Those guys made some lousy decisions — Iraq, Iran, health care — so why should I do it their way? I was right during the election campaign by relying on my instinct. I’ll do the same in office.'”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, said Cohn’s decision to resign demonstrated that Trump’s White House could not assemble a coherent team that could navigate the political and policy challenges that face a president.
“One of the problems here is the White House is getting hollowed out and the number of people capable of doing things, of doing real things whether you agree or disagree ideologically, is getting smaller and smaller,” Schumer told reporters. “So the mess-ups we’ve seen this past week,” he added, “I think we’re going to see over and over and over again.”
The White House pointed the finger the other direction later in the day, accusing Schumer of blocking the confirmation of many officials nominated by Trump for no other reason than partisan politics.
“Senator Schumer is blocking nominees indiscriminately,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. “He forces time-wasting procedural votes on nominees and then eventually votes in support of them.” She added, “It’s a disgrace, it’s dangerous and it must come to an end.”
Many of the recent departures, however, have come from the White House staff, which does not require Senate confirmation. Cohn announced this week he would step down after losing a fractious internal battle over imposing tariffs. Many White House officials anticipate that some of his top aides will end up leaving as well.
His resignation came soon after Hope Hicks, the president’s communications director and confidante, said she would leave soon and Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who was part of the inner circle, was forced out amid allegations of spousal abuse by two former wives.
The 43 percent turnover rate calculated by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, far outpaces that of any first-year presidency in the last four decades. And many assume it will rise even higher soon amid talk that John Kelly, the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, or even Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, might leave.
Even if they do not step down, the constant speculation makes it harder for a White House staff to focus. Few of the original team remain in place; among the survivors are Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, and Stephen Miller, his senior policy adviser.
Conway said she frequently reminded colleagues that they served at the pleasure of the president. “There are only two people in the building that were elected to anything,” she said she told other staff members. “If you don’t hear your name on the list, get with the program or get out — Donald J. Trump and Michael Pence.”
Trump has long brought new people in and then cast others out in a perpetual cycle of advisers. The few with staying power tend to be members of the family, although even those who are exiled often stay in his orbit in some fashion. The president, several people close to him said this week, is increasingly running the Oval Office the way he ran his 26th-floor office at Trump Tower, with teams broken into small groups visiting him.
“It’s obviously very different from most presidents but it’s how Trump has operated,” said Andy Surabian, a former special assistant to Trump. “He’s someone who likes getting different opinions thrown at him. It’s a fascinating thing for a guy who’s very hardened on certain issues. But I view it as a big positive for him.”
Roger Stone, Trump’s longest-serving political hand, said the changes in staff were ultimately “a good thing because I think that’s how you get back Trumpism. The people who are leaving are the people who are telling him you can’t do this, the people who would dilute the platform on which he was elected.”
Trump has rebuffed concerns from allies and advisers about the tariffs, saying he is right and he believes he will be proven so. He has excoriated Cohn privately for choosing to leave. Stone said that working in Trump’s favor is that “he’s extraordinarily stubborn. When he sets his mind to do something — for instance, utilize the threat of tariffs against those are utilizing tariffs against us — it doesn’t matter who his advisers are. He knows his own mind on this.”
At a news conference this week, Trump made clear that he thrived on the constant churning and hinted there will be more departures soon, but he rejected the idea he had trouble recruiting new people to work for him because “the White House has tremendous energy.”
“There will be people that change,” he said. “They always change. Sometimes they want to go out and do something else. But they all want to be in the White House. So many people want to come in, I have a choice of anybody. I could take any position in the White House and I’ll have a choice of the 10 top people having to do with that position.”
Still, even Trump has taken to joking about the revolving door lately. At the annual Gridiron Dinner with politicians and figures in the news media last weekend, he said, “I like chaos,” and called the turnover “invigorating.”
Almost as if he were previewing the next episode of a show, he added, “Who’s going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?”