scorecardresearch
d.c. notebook

White House churn reaches new heights in a chaotic week

This chaotic week follows 14 months that have seen an extraordinary turnover among President Trump’s top officials.
This chaotic week follows 14 months that have seen an extraordinary turnover among President Trump’s top officials.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Trump fired his secretary of state in a tweet and hired a TV personality as his new economic director. One of his closest aides was escorted out of the White House by security.

The State Department spokesman who provided reporters with an account of why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired? He, too, was fired.

And that was just Tuesday.

Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, is now denying he has interest in becoming the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to replace the current secretary, whose days seem to be numbered. There’s speculation that Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, could soon become attorney general (the current occupant, Jeff Sessions, is weighing whether to fire former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, who recently announced a retirement that hasn’t yet taken effect).

Advertisement



Even by the standards of a Washington accustomed to Trump’s governance by chaos, this has been an extraordinary week. And it follows 14 months that have seen an extraordinary turnover among Trump’s top officials.

Senators of both parties seemed shaken by this week’s events. White House staffers were unsure which one of them could be fired next. And the president who said he hires “the best people” is shuffling though staffers quicker than any modern president.

“I mean, who’s next?” GOP Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said Thursday. “It’s hard to imagine how you get things done with this high level of turnover.”

Others felt like they had become extras in the reality TV show Trump once starred in.

“The president is acting more and more as if this is an episode of ‘The Apprentice’ rather than governing a country facing remarkable international challenges,” said Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.

The president’s raw, often angry Twitter feed has long been a source of heartburn for Republican lawmakers whose dearest wish is for Trump to stick to a script and generate fewer bad headlines. But the Tillerson firing — and rumors of more shake-ups to come — spark the more serious concern that the president is ready to throw off the few constraints placed upon him and his impulsive management style in the second year of his presidency.

Advertisement



Senator Jeff Flake said he is concerned about news reports and rumors that the president is considering several more firings — from chief of staff General John Kelly to Sessions. “It’s a lot of time,” he said of the lengthy confirmation hearings that would eat up the Senate’s time.

Indeed, Trump appears to be setting up a “Hunger Games”-style competition among his remaining Cabinet secretaries, asking them if they’d like to take over their colleagues’ jobs.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke sounded a philosophical note to an ABC News reporter after emerging from a tough House oversight hearing on Thursday. “Do right and fear no man,” he intoned when asked if he was scared of losing his job.

The president has railed against Sessions for supposed disloyalty ever since he recused himself from the special counsel’s investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. Pruitt could temporarily lead the agency without a confirmation hearing, but would eventually be subject to a Senate vote.

Firing Sessions would be seen as an act of aggression in the Senate, where lawmakers have repeatedly warned Trump to leave the Russia investigation alone. Confirmation hearings will be a challenge in general, with just 51 Republicans in the Senate and fired-up Democrats more willing to vote against Trump’s nominees than they were last year.

Advertisement



“I’d hope he’d keep him on because I think right now there’s a lot of disarray at the White House and this would just add to it,” Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama said of Sessions.

Trump refers to several members of his Cabinet as “dead weight” and wants to remove them as soon as possible, CNN reported on Thursday. He has decided to oust H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser and is actively discussing potential replacements, the Washington Post reported Thursday night. Veterans Affairs chief David Shulkin is widely believed to be on the chopping block, and there are rumblings that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson could be shown the door over questions about his order of a $31,000 dining set for his office.

The turnover is a troubling sign for some lawmakers at a time of mounting foreign policy crises in North Korea and souring relations with Russia. It also comes amid other unsettling developments around Trump, including an ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and a legal battle over whether a porn star whose silence was bought during the final weeks of the presidential campaign can speak out about her alleged affair with Trump.

The Trump White House’s turnover rate among top staffers is at 43 percent since he took office, much higher than the five presidents who came before him, according to a study from the Brookings Institution.

Advertisement



The churn is not without political consequences. On Wednesday, Republicans digested the grim news that they had narrowly lost a Pennsylvania congressional seat in a district that had voted for Trump by 20 points, stoking fears that the president’s low approval ratings could spell doom in the midterms.

“With peace and prosperity breaking out all over the place the president should be wildly popular,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. “He’s not because of all the chaos that surrounds him.”

Trump is strongly denying any charges of disarray or confusion. “There is no Chaos, only great Energy!” he tweeted cryptically earlier this month.

He also appears to be enjoying scouting for new talent, bragging last week that he could get “anyone” to work for him. After his top economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation last week over the president’s decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum, Trump tapped CNBC conservative commentator Larry Kudlow to replace him.

“There will always be change,” Trump said on Thursday at the White House, while also downplaying the amount of turmoil. “And I think you want to see change.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin