Fueling Trump's chaos: Can't fire who he wants, can't keep who he likes

President Donald Trump can't fire who he...

Posted: Mar. 2, 2018 1:55 PM
Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 1:55 PM

President Donald Trump can't fire who he hates -- but can't seem to keep who he loves.

His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has long born the brunt of Trump's insults, is openly flaunting his feud with the President. His chief of staff, John Kelly, keeps making enemies within. His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster -- who's never clicked with Trump -- remains in his post as finding a replacement proves difficult. And special counsel Robert Mueller, ever a Trump target, nevertheless keeps encroaching.

Meanwhile, longtime communications guru Hope Hicks announced her departure on Wednesday after three years of near-constant proximity to Trump. Senior adviser Jared Kushner has seen his top-level security clearance stripped and along with it his West Wing prestige status. And Trump's top economist, Gary Cohn, is threatening to quit after a rushed announcement on steel tariffs.

It's an infuriating predicament, even for a President who fosters and thrives on a culture of chaos. More than a dozen sources inside and outside the White House have described a deepening sense of disarray. The President's allies fear the rush of departures by valued aides will only continue in the weeks ahead.

Trump himself has told confidants he feels himself becoming more and more isolated atop his own administration, with fewer of the close aides who accompanied him on his rollicking campaign working in the White House. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, Trump has sought to re-create some of the spontaneous spark that ignited the political world in 2016.

Caught off-guard

On a series of occasions over the past weeks, aides have been caught off guard by Trump's proclamations of policy, including his shifting positions on gun control. After he accused a Republican senator on Wednesday of being "afraid of the NRA," he invited a representative of the National Rifle Association to the Oval Office a day later. The envoy, executive director Chris Cox, tweeted afterward that Trump and his administration "don't want gun control."

The whipsaw mood was most evident on Thursday, when Trump rushed steel and aluminum executives to the White House to discuss new tariffs on imports. Nostalgic for an era when the American economy was undergirded by steel plants -- and keenly aware that his base of supporters have felt left behind by evolving industries -- Trump has always viewed a trade war as a political win, even as he's been warned by aides of the pitfalls.

"IF YOU DON'T HAVE STEEL, YOU DON'T HAVE A COUNTRY!" Trump proclaimed on Twitter Friday, even as markets opened sharply lower on the tariff plan he unveiled in the Cabinet Room a day earlier.

The move came as a surprise, since the final language is still being vetted by lawyers and wasn't ready for final approval. And it proved a loss for Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and Democrat who serves as head of Trump's National Economic Counsel.

One person familiar with Cohn's thinking described him as furious at the trade moves, which -- aside from the economic consequences -- left him feeling like he's lost influence with the President. Cohn doesn't appear to be leaving the administration imminently since the tariffs aren't a done deal and could ultimately fail to materialize. But after months of speculation about his departure, Cohn appears ready to pull the exit slide, the person close to him said.

Asked about Cohn on Friday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders could say only that she'd seen him in the building the day before.

"Gary was here yesterday afternoon. I talked to him in my office several times," she said. Sanders added she "didn't have any reason to think" that Cohn was planning an immediate resignation.

Key departures

If he does leave, he'd join Hicks in the departure lounge -- both New Yorkers who'd grown close to a President who came to rely on their advice. She, along with former security chief Keith Schiller, provided Trump with a sense of the familiar during his first year in office. Schiller departed for the private sector in September.

Hicks told associates on Wednesday that she'd grown weary of the political spotlight after her personal life came under scrutiny. She'd been dating Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who resigned after he was accused by his ex-wives of spousal abuse last month.

Porter, too, was a trusted adviser to the President who Trump openly admitted he was sorry to see leave. Porter's role managing decision-making has been assumed by a replacement and by Kelly himself. But as the tariff episode illustrated, whatever processes exist to unveil policy decision can be easily upended by Trump himself.

Trump loyalists say it's precisely that instinct which drives his successes, inasmuch as a hasty announcement that sinks markets can be viewed as successful.

"If this is chaos, I think the American people are glad for it," Sanders said on Fox. "We're going to continue to do big and great things over the next year under his leadership. If they want to call it chaos, fine. We call it success and productivity and we will keep plugging along."

Even as Trump watches his original team evaporate, high-ranking officials with whom he's quarreled remain -- frustratingly, for him -- firmly in place. Trump was enraged on Wednesday evening after Sessions, his attorney general, rebutted Trump's accusation he was "DISGRACEFUL" by declaring in a statement he would "continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor."

A person familiar with Trump's thinking says he'll likely never forgive Session for recusing himself from Russia-related matters. But firing the attorney general seems out of reach for a President already under scrutiny for potentially obstructing justice.

And while Trump has openly aired annoyance with McMaster -- who he views as discursive and sometimes condescending -- finding a new national security adviser hasn't been easy. The White House still maintains a "blacklist" of Republican officials who criticized Trump during his campaign for president, a collection that is heavy with establishment foreign policy minds.

This week new names were floated as potential replacements, including Stephen Biegun, an executive at Ford Motors and a former government official, and Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle and a former member of the Trump transition team.

The White House said that reports of McMaster's impending departure are false, and that Trump has assured McMaster he's doing a "great job."

Porter scandal

Porter's departure at the beginning of February is regarded by many officials as the spark that ignited the current conflagration in the West Wing. It's handling was widely maligned even inside the White House, and it led to a week of finger-pointing over who knew what and when.

Even now, officials are working to clear the air. Kelly walked reporters through his version of events on Friday, even as he admitted missteps on the day of Porter's resignation.

"We didn't cover ourselves in glory in terms of how we handled that on Wednesday morning," he said. "It was confusing, it was my understanding."

It was the revelations about Porter's interim security clearance that led to Kelly's crackdown on who can access the nation's top secrets, which last week ensnared Kushner.

That, in turn, led to increased griping about Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump's special status at the White House, where their roles as family members and senior advisers have always caused tension. Trump is aware of the tensions, people familiar with the matter say, and believes it could be solved if his children depart the government and return to New York.

There was scant evidence of that happening soon, however, and White House officials -- long sensitive about any implication that Kushner or Ivanka Trump is in trouble -- have tamped down any suggestion they will leave.

Kelly has also told aides that Kushner will be able to continue in his role handling foreign and domestic policy, even as his top secret clearance in revoked.

On Friday, Kelly sought to provide an upbeat view of the administration during a mostly off-the-record session in his West Wing office. The last time Kelly convened such a meeting, Trump caught word that reporters were nearby and hijacked the meeting himself. This time, Kelly waited to begin until after Trump had departed the White House to attend the Rev. Billy Graham's funeral in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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