WASHINGTON >> In his first full Cabinet meeting in June, President Donald Trump invited a chorus of gushing praise from his top aides by boasting that he had assembled a “phenomenal team of people, a great group of talent.”
But in the nine months since then, Trump has fired or forced out a half-dozen of the “incredible, talented” people in the Cabinet Room that day: his secretaries of state and health, along with his chief strategist, his chief of staff, his top economic aide and his press secretary.
And the purge at the top may not be over. Trump, who is famously fickle, appears to have soured on additional members of his senior leadership team — and his frequent mulling about making changes has some people around him convinced he could act soon.
“There will always be change. I think you want to see change,” Trump said, ominously, today. “I want to also see different ideas.”
John F. Kelly, his second chief of staff, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, are on thin ice, having angered the president by privately saying “no” to the boss too often. White House insiders predict that Trump could decide to fire one or both of them soon.
Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, and David J. Shulkin, the secretary of veteran affairs, have both embarrassed the president by generating scandalous headlines. Carson could be axed over an eye-popping $31,000 dining set, and Shulkin might be replaced over a 10-day, $122,000 European trip with his wife.
And then there’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose original sin — the decision to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia investigation — made him the regular target of presidential ire. The attorney general has threatened to resign at least once, but has more recently indicated his determination to resist Trump’s obvious desire for him to leave his post at the Justice Department.
Trump could act as early as Friday to remove one or more of them, though the president is known to enjoy keeping people off kilter.
In his remarks today, Trump assailed predictions of further staff shake-ups by saying such reports were “a very exaggerated and false story.” But he hinted that his choices for a Cabinet might have been different had he known then what he knows now.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the last year,” Trump said.
Whether that means the president is about to exercise his option to find new people for his White House is unclear.
Trump has a long habit of musing about staff changes that he doesn’t enact. He does his own version of poll-testing different possibilities, asking aides what they think of one another and asking outside friends and top advisers whether different people would be better in specific jobs, but he often drops the topic without acting.
That was certainly the case with Rex Tillerson, whom he needled for months before finally firing him in a tweet on Tuesday. It has also been true of Sessions, who has had to endure a series of Twitter attacks from the president, each of which prompts new stories about whether Trump is about to dump his top law enforcement official.
“It’s devastating,” said William M. Daley, who served as former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff for about a year. “No business could handle this, much less the government. It’s supposed to be about stability and continuity. That’s just not in his lexicon.”
Just last month, Trump lamented that Sessions had failed to investigate the Obama administration’s handling of Russian election meddling, and later called it “DISGRACEFUL!” that Sessions was not investigating surveillance abuse.
“How Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre Might Start With Jeff Sessions,” blared a headline in New York magazine this month. Some White House officials believe that Scott Pruitt, an ambitious lawyer who is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is behind rumors that he is in line to replace Sessions.
And yet, Sessions remains in his job, at least for now. Some associates speculate that Trump realizes that firing his attorney general would cross a red line for many in his own party, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader.
“When the shoe drops on Sessions or Kelly, no one is going to be surprised,” Daley said. “But the long goodbye totally deflates their ability to be effective.”
At times, when Trump is focused on a specific person, he has taken action — hiring Kelly to replace Reince Priebus, for instance, or empowering Kelly to expedite the departure of Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s onetime chief strategist.
Recently, people close to Trump say that he has begun to feel more confident that he understands the job of president. He is relying more on his own instincts, putting a premium on his personal chemistry with people and their willingness to acknowledge that his positions are ultimately administration policy, rather than on their résumé or qualifications for the job.
That could explain the president’s recent decisions to replace Gary Cohn, his top economic adviser, and Tillerson. If people are unwilling to do what he wants, one adviser said, Trump now believes that he can get things done himself.
Right now, Trump is surrounded by Cabinet officials and a chief of staff who either have caused him negative headlines, such as Carson and Shulkin, or have declined to do what he wants, such as McMaster, Kelly and Sessions.
Contrary to the notion that Trump is surrounded by sycophants, the president has also tired of staff members who frequently tell him no. Tillerson disagreed with the president on Iran and North Korea, and Trump viewed him as disdainful and disloyal. But Kelly repeatedly staved off efforts to get rid of him.
Trump grew frustrated with Kelly and those delays, and also for stalling on the president’s desire for tariffs. The president finally forced the issue a few weeks ago, announcing tariffs on steel and aluminum, and then forcing out Cohn, who had opposed the policy.
Trump also grew frustrated last year with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for refusing to enact a ban on transgender members of the military. Mattis essentially ignored Trump for several weeks, White House officials said, until the president finally went around him and tweeted it. But Mattis appears to be safe, even when he ignores the president, in part because he is a general who in Trump’s mind “looks the part” of a military leader.
Kelly, who is also a former general, has not fared as well.
A few weeks ago, when the scandal surrounding Rob Porter, the staff secretary, exploded into view, Trump began working the phones to old friends, telling them that he needed his former advisers back and complaining that he was surrounded by people he didn’t know. He told them that Kelly had badly botched the Porter issue (his language was saltier and unfit for publication, according to several people with knowledge of the calls).
Since then, he has mulled over a number of potential replacements for Kelly, but he has kept his own counsel about his plans, according to several people close to him.
In remarks Tuesday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Trump praised Kelly, calling him a “four star” general who is “doing a great job in Washington.”
But in a bit of potential foreshadowing, the president also told the Marines in the audience: “I think he likes what you do better than what he does, but he’s doing a great job. He misses you.”