The Trump White House spent the latter part of this week teasing the likelihood that someone was going to be fired. It could be the national security adviser. Or the HUD secretary. Perhaps the chief of staff. Or all of them.
By Friday morning, senior Trump administration officials were wondering if their own jobs were even safe. And then... nothing happened. The day came and went and no one was let go. Unless they were after this piece was posted. Honestly, it could happen. No one knows, including those sitting inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This is the current state of Trumpland: a presidency conducted like a reality show with no one quite certain of the script. Those close to the president say he revels in the drama that he’s allowing to unfold. But veterans of past White Houses find it both counterproductive and, if they’re being blunt, certifiably insane.
“I don’t even know what is happening in Trumpworld. Up is down and down is up. Everyone is getting fired and no one is. The cast of Fox and Friends is going to run the National Security Council,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to President Barack Obama. “We obviously operated differently.”
For embattled agency officials in particular, the unfolding drama has fed a sense that, when controversy flares, the West Wing is unhelpful at best and adversarial at worst. “If there’s a crisis, they’re not there to help us,” as one senior administration official put it. “Each agency operates on its own.”
Inside the administration, some officials have grown convinced that the president and his staff can no longer be relied on to defend top officials from controversy and, indeed, will actively work to worsen a cabinet secretary’s troubles if it means insulating the president from any blame.
One official pointed to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s staff, which was mostly left to fend for itself this week in the wake of revelations that the secretary spent tens of thousands of dollars on adornments to his office. As a number of cabinet secretaries face scrutiny of their travel habits, that official added, agencies have grown loathe to provide the White House with any information due to concerns that the information will be leaked—or used against those bosses down the line, if they end up on Trump’s bad side.
Even officials who are not on the president's shortlist for sacking seemingly grasp the risks of providing material on demand.
Two knowledgeable West Wing sources have told The Daily Beast that the White House had weeks ago requested that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s staff turn over documents pertaining to Pruitt’s travel expenses. (The administrator is currently facing increased scrutiny after reports surfaced that Pruitt was flying first class on the taxpayer dime.) These sources say that Pruitt’s team has frustrated the White House by “dragging their feet,” according to one source, and not handing over comprehensive documentation of these expenses.
As of Friday morning, the EPA still had not produced the requested materials to the White House. One source described it as further evidence of a “breach of trust” that has become “too common” between senior officials at the EPA and the Trump White House.
Even as it stonewalls the White House, the EPA appears to be working cooperatively with Congress on a nearly identical request. As The Daily Beast reported this week, the EPA missed a deadline for handing over travel records to the House Oversight Committee, but both the committee and the agency said they were working to get those records turned over.
The creeping paranoia and feelings of distrust between cabinet agencies and the West Wing are not without merit. Behind the scenes, White House officials and Trump in particular have mused with outside advisers about potential replacements for officials facing controversy—musings that then made their way into press reports of a seemingly imminent high-level purge. On Friday, Axios reported that in an off-the-record meeting with reporters, Chief of Staff John Kelly acknowledged that the president was likely the source of many of those reports.
“It keeps everyone uneasy and it likely distracts from their ability to do their job effectively,” Mack McLarty, who served as President Bill Clinton's first White House Chief of Staff, said of the constant discord. ”We have kind of normalized chaos here.”
No one in Trumpworld is more exposed to that normalized chaos than H.R. McMaster, whose job seems to be perpetually close to an inglorious end. Senior officials told reporters on Thursday that Trump had finally decided put his national security adviser out to pasture, only for other officials to clarify that McMaster wasn’t going anywhere—at least not at this immediate second.
“McMaster death watch has been going for a long time now; it’s now a matter of who replaces [him] and when,” is how one senior White House official described it to The Daily Beast on Thursday evening. “It could be National Security Adviser [John] Bolton, it could be Geraldo. Place your bets.”
On Thursday night, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, “Just spoke to [Trump] and Gen. H.R. McMaster - contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.” A White House official later told The Daily Beast that the tweet was calculated and “carefully worded,” noting “nothing in there [is] a lie.”
Speculation has also swirled around Kelly’s future, only to (as in McMaster’s case) be hastily downplayed as Beltway gossip. By mid-day Friday the White House was assuring reporters that Trump and his chief of staff had smoothed out their differences, which stemmed from the firing of White House staff secretary and alleged wife beater Rob Porter last month.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has been on thin ice over the misuse of taxpayer funds. But his standing has been hurt even further as White House officials have agitated for a replacement.
Prominent Trump allies publicly state that all is well, the change can be good—including for the ousted—and that a little bit of uncertain can prompt harder work and energy.
“This is normal turnover that you get in any administration from time to time,” Vice President Mike Pence’s former press secretary Marc Lotter, who left the administration on his own accord last year, told The Daily Beast. “Obviously, they are 14 months in. These jobs are mentally and physically demanding. So, I think you do see that natural transition in bringing in some new faces and new ideas, and folks to deal with these high-stress and mentally taxing positions.”
But not everyone is convinced that the president is playing a game of three-dimensional chess as he lets his top aides and cabinet members wonder if they’ll have a job in the coming day.
“To say what he is doing is mind games would be like calling a monkey throwing his feces art,” said Pfeiffer. “I don't think he knows what he is doing.”