For years, reality TV star Donald Trump relished delivering the boardroom version of fate’s final judgment. “You’re fired!”, he blared, and even if he couldn’t trademark it, the exclamation became more than a tagline. It was his ethos – words to live, or die, by. His brand.
But President Trump’s time in the White House has revealed a less assertive and assured executive than appeared in the carefully curated, stage-managed world of the “The Apprentice.” Personnel, from high-level Cabinet members to low-profile staffers, have come and gone at a stunning pace. The logic informing those decisions has been more difficult to access.
Perhaps it’s Twitter to blame. Why stare down and dismiss “beleaguered A.G.” Jeff Sessions when it’s so much less awkward to spend months berating him, effectively daring him to resign, on social media? Likewise, it’s much easier to tweet the news of your secretary of state’s dismissal, then call him to chat it over more than three hours later, than sit him down in the Oval Office.
Absent Twitter, the President’s tough-guy schtick unravels and recedes. It’s almost as if the presence of an audience, be it online or on the other side of the cameras, provides him a certain brand of confidence he lacks in private. The decision to sack Rex Tillerson on Tuesday morning, without telling him face-to-face, is – as of this hour – the most glaring example of Trump’s sudden-onset diffidence.
Trump had gotten crosswise with Tillerson before, publicly undermining his top diplomat on the North Korea front, tweeting last October that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” It’s easy – and, history tells us, misguided – to ascribe too much meaning to a message like that. Whether it was posturing or a petulant slap is hard to say, though Tuesday’s unceremonious adieu suggests the latter.
The space between what Trump projects and how business actually gets done in the White House is not lost on the staff. Or people who were, until very recently, on board.
Steve Goldstein, the erstwhile undersecretary of public affairs at the State Department, contradicted a White House account of the firing on Tuesday morning.
“The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning,” he said in a press release hours before his own ouster, “and is unaware of the reason (he was fired), but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
How exactly Tillerson received the news remains something of a mystery.
A senior White House official told CNN that Trump asked chief of staff John Kelly to call Tillerson on Friday night. Kelly informed Tillerson that he was on the way out, but didn’t say when. They spoke again on Saturday and Kelly, again, makes this clear. It gets a little murkier after that. Goldstein insists Trump swung the ax, with his morning tweet, on Tuesday. Asked by reporters how Tillerson learned his fate, Trump demurred, saying as he left the White House about an hour later, “Rex and I have been talking about this a long time.” (Tillerson, speaking later at the State Department, said Trump only called at “a little after noontime,” presumably to rehash the day’s big news.)
Whichever account suits your taste, none points to a cold-blooded defenestration. The irony – at least when considered against what was promised during the 2016 campaign – is that Trump is much closer to being a traditional modern executive than a throwback “killer.” He delegates the tasks that make him uncomfortable.
Former FBI Director James Comey can attest. He was talking to agents at the bureau’s Los Angeles field office when word of his fate arrived – on television – back in May of 2017.
With that, Comey excused himself to phone home and confirm his demise. Had he been in Washington at the time, the fatal notice would’ve been delivered by former Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, who was dispatched to FBI with a manila folder and the message: “You are hereby terminated and removed from office.”
By Tuesday afternoon, some 10 months after Comey was canned, word had spread that more changes were in offing. “Winds of a change,” is how a source close to the White House described it to CNN’s Jim Acosta. It might be time then, on the off chance they hadn’t already, for staffers to blow on over to Twitter, and set that alert for @realDonaldTrump.