In any other administration, constant staff turnover would be a clear sign of dysfunction and aimlessness. Under President Donald Trump, it’s an opportunity to stack his administration with loyalists and cable-news personalities.
The highest-profile administration departure to date came Tuesday with the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the nomination of Central Intelligence Agency Chief Mike Pompeo to replace him. Announced just as the U.S. eyes a historic diplomatic sit-down with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, the move seemed on its face to be a particularly ill-timed shakeup. But for Trump, it meant the chance to bring the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus more fully in line with Trumpism.
“It’s just figuring out your people. A Fortune 500 CEO probably looked good to him on paper, but he meshes better with a junior rep from Kansas,” an administration official told The Daily Beast, referring to Pompeo, a former House member. “I wouldn’t read a seismic shift into it, but he’s definitely figuring out who he does and doesn’t like around him, and acting on it.”
Trump and Tillerson have clashed on major foreign-policy items, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and the administration’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And for Trump loyalists, replacing him with Pompeo was long overdue.
“After a period of adjustment to the difficult and unfortunate realities of Washington, I think the president is assembling the team he truly needs and deserves,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign hand. “And only a modern-day Rip Van Winkle would not have expected Tillerson’s imminent departure.”
But the remaking of the administration in Trump’s image is extending well beyond the confines of Foggy Bottom. Two people on the shortlists for senior gigs under the president are both informal, outside advisers, and two men Trump has followed closely for years. A leading contender to succeed Gary Cohn as director of the National Economic Council is CNBC’s Larry Kudlow.
Kudlow is a Wall Street-friendly free-market enthusiast who has openly been critical of Trump’s recent dalliance with putative tariffs on steel and aluminum. But he has something that other Cohn-replacement contenders lack: a cable-news platform. The president is a fan of Kudlow’s TV commentary, according to sources in and outside of the administration, and the two occasionally speak on the phone. Trump said Tuesday that he is “strongly considering” Kudlow for the job.
Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton also speaks with the president on occasion, and according to three sources familiar with Trump’s thinking, he is on the shortlist to replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who is said to be eyeing the exits. Like Tillerson, McMaster has clashed with the president on some major foreign-policy issues. And while Bolton’s hyper-interventionist views clash with some of the president’s skepticism of post-9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, he has also advised Trump on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal.
Bolton also happens to be a regular on Fox News. And the president is said to enjoy his commentary.
Choosing senior officials based, in part, on their performance during cable hits is a novel, if not, high-risk strategy. For Trump, however, it is a recalibration to a team that more closely fits in with his idiosyncratic leadership style
It’s not without cost, however. The constant staff churn in the White House and the administration’s Cabinet agencies pose challenges for the president and his agenda. Pompeo and Gina Haspel, the CIA official tapped to lead the spy agency, are both expected to face withering confirmation fights. If either falls short in the Senate, the president will face another leadership vacuum in an administration already racked by high-level staff turnover.
At the Cabinet level, Trump has now lost both a secretary of State and a secretary of health and human services. Another potential departure looms as murmurs abound of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s already shaky standing in the administration. And at the staff level, the White House continues to hemorrhage senior officials, as others are sidelined due to widespread problems with security-clearance applications.
At federal agencies, that turnover has recently ensnared a number of senior officials. Hours after Tillerson’s resignation, one of his deputies, Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of State for public affairs, was also sacked. He was quickly replaced by Heather Nauert, a department spokeswoman and former Fox News host. Other Tillerson aides are also expected to resign.
Departures have also recently hit other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, where the scheduling director and deputy chief of staff for operations, Kevin Chmielewski, recently departed.
In the West Wing, constant staff churn has become the new normal. The latest departure occurred Monday, when John McEntee, Trump’s longtime body man, was fired from his White House post and escorted off the premises. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of McEntee’s firing, reported that it was due to security-clearance problems created by an online-gambling habit and accompanying tax problems.
Despite those issues, McEntee quickly landed on his feet in Trump-world—hired by the president’s re-election campaign. Brad Parscale, the campaign manager, did not respond to questions about McEntee’s hiring.
Another official departed the West Wing last week under similar, if less ominous, circumstances. Justin Caporale, first lady Melania Trump’s director of operations, resigned due to issues with his security clearance, according to a source familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the first lady declined to comment on Caporale’s departure.
Beyond the immediate staffing issues created by those clearance problems, the White House is facing questions about the individuals to whom it grants access to the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, and the processes in place to vet them. McEntee’s firing quickly revived those questions Tuesday.
“This recent report about President Trump’s personal assistant is just the latest indication that the process for vetting White House employees for security issues is seriously flawed,” wrote Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, in a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (PDF). “The White House’s ongoing obstruction of congressional oversight appears to be an attempt to conceal from the American people pervasive and widespread dysfunction inside the White House, which directly threatens our nation’s security.”