Trump's Cabinet woes could cripple administration, ex-WH staffers say

Story highlights

  • The public airing of dirty laundry comes at an inopportune time
  • Veterans of past White Houses are dumbfounded by Trump's relationship to his Cabinet

Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump's public attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as reported infighting with other officials, will only cause problems as he continues to lag in staffing his administration, veterans of previous administrations say.

Trump has spent a week publicly expressing frustration with Sessions in a series of interviews and tweets, calling him "beleaguered" and "very weak."
On top of that, reports have trickled out signaling frustration with the White House from other key Trump officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
    All officials have indicated no plans to leave the administration, but they have had to spend recent days batting away rumors about their supposed perilous positions in the administration.
    The public airing of dirty laundry come at an inopportune time. Just six months into the administration, the swirl of rumors about possible Cabinet departures come as the administration is already having trouble keeping up with the task of staffing the first wave of staff -- and veterans of past White Houses are dumbfounded by how the President is handling it.
    While all administration officials serve at the pleasure of the President -- as the saying goes -- that doesn't mean the loyalty only goes one way, former Defense Secretary, CIA Director and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta told CNN.
    "I think that what you're seeing playing out is the gradual erosion of trust with an administration that usually winds up in a failed presidency," Panetta said. "It is unheard of to have a President publicly take on a Cabinet member, demean him publicly, and then allow him to keep slowly twisting in the wind. And what that does when it happens is it creates a tremendous disruption in terms of others in the Cabinet, who then are concerned that they're going to be the next target."
    Both Clay Johnson, who managed presidential personnel and the transition into office for President George W. Bush, and Christopher Lu, who managed the transition and served as Cabinet secretary to President Barack Obama, said that their administrations had their own tensions between the Cabinet and White House. But they said disputes were handled discreetly and at the staff level.
    "There are always tensions within the White House, there are always tensions between the President and the Cabinet," Lu said. "Those are worked out behind the scenes, with senior staff. The fact that the President is doing this is a terrible use of his own time."
    "President Bush, he had disagreements with a few of his Cabinet members and it just was dealt with discreetly," Johnson said. "To do it publicly causes more bad things to occur than good, as far as I can tell."
    The effects cascade throughout the administration, the veterans said. For one, the public fighting casts a chilling effect over current Cabinet members. Beyond that, the display could complicate hiring for existing open positions, which remain numerous, and then will affect the ability to recruit any potential replacements for a next wave of appointments, which usually don't come so early in an administration.
    "It's not only scaring the hell out of people who are currently in the Cabinet, you are scaring the hell out of any potential appointees to the Cabinet in the future," Panetta said. "Anybody who's halfway responsible is going to think twice about being targeted publicly and being demeaned publicly by the President; they're just not going to want to do that."
    At this point in the administration, Bush had 350 nominees for key administration posts and 207 confirmations. Obama had 386 nominated and 228 confirmations.
    Trump has made 237 nominations and just 51 confirmations, according to CNN data compiled with the Partnership for Public Service.
    Trump especially lags at key agencies like the Departments of State, Defense and Justice, which spearhead the administration's national security and foreign policy. The administration has blamed Democrats in the Senate for deploying delay tactics even as Republicans have a majority, but the White House has also been slowed by problems getting nominees' paperwork together and reports of disagreements between the White House and Cabinet members on whom to appoint.
    The veterans acknowledged that the White House still remains a powerful draw for people interested in policy, and a senior Republican operative with ties to the administration cast doubt on the idea that the administration wouldn't be able to recruit talent.
    "It's still the presidency, it's still the most senior levels of government and you're always going to have people who want to get involved," the operative said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. But, the operative acknowledged: "I think when you get to the higher levels where you're in the line of fire, that's probably a different question."
    Panetta, Lu and Johnson spoke of the critical need for trust within the Cabinet.
    Cabinet officials hold a wide array of responsibility for the President, being delegated authority to make policy decisions, execute administration strategy and recruit staff, the veterans said. Without confidence that the White House will back up those decisions, and with the potential fear of a broadside from the President himself, the ability to make those decisions and keep government functioning is undercut.
    "The relevance of this kind of treatment is not only in terms of being able to find people to fill positions, it's also how the current people in Cabinet positions are likely to view this, and what does it tell them about how the President responds to bad news, how the President responds to something not going his way," Johnson said. "And it just adds a degree of difficulty to every job, not only the unfilled jobs."