After months of wavering, President Donald Trump finally decided in mid-March to get rid of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – and he did so in a fashion that heightened discord both outside the White House and within.
Chief of staff John Kelly – hoping to disprove the endless headlines declaring the West Wing was in chaos – was furious when Trump discarded his suggestion to make the announcement during a traditional White House ceremony.
Trump, meanwhile, wasn’t in a waiting mood. He refused to promise he would wait until Tillerson had returned from Africa to announce his decision. And he rebuffed Kelly’s recommendation that he meet with Tillerson and Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, in the Oval Office.
Kelly hurriedly phoned the secretary of state, suffering from an illness in Kenya, to warn him that the President was ready to announce his ouster. He suggested he return home quickly. Hours after Tillerson landed at Joint Base Andrews, the tweet arrived.
The episode, recounted by a senior official familiar with the proceedings, offers a glimpse into the disorderly manner Trump has adopted as he works to shape his Cabinet and senior staff to his liking. As he continues to shed advisers he’s deemed insufficiently aligned with his agenda, he’s ignored the advice of his senior-most aides to try and mitigate the appearance of disarray. Instead, he’s heightened the sense that his administration is lurching from one firing to the next by dispatching tweets announcing his decisions as they happen, and discarding advice to formalize his personnel announcements.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
His own best adviser
People familiar with his thinking say Trump has renewed his longtime conviction that he is his best adviser, listening principally to his own instincts as he navigates the presidency. While frustrated by the outside impression that he is overseeing a tumultuous administration, Trump has in reality openly admitted that he prefers chaos to a staid sense of order.
Kelly has seen his influence steadily waning, people familiar with the matter say, even as Trump has shown no signs he’s ready to dismiss him. One person familiar with Kelly’s thinking described the retired Marine general as viewing his job like a battlefield commander, with a patriotic duty to remain on board.
As Trump enters a new phase of his White House tenure, there is widespread assumption among his aides that the impulsive moves which have colored the past several weeks will continue. Lacking key advisers who sometimes acted as moderating forces – such as communications director Hope Hicks, staff secretary Rob Porter and National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn – Trump is expected to make decisions from his gut, with few voices able to guide him otherwise. Top advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the President’s son-in-law and daughter, do not seem to be major forces of influence at this point.
Aides often become frustrated with the President’s short attention span. One official described Trump as frequently meandering from the topic at hand in meetings, particularly if he believes the positions being aired by his advisers differ from his own point of view. He’ll stall sessions with non-sequiturs, complaining at random about Amazon’s tax status or proclaiming that he’s only visited Russia once, for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.
A boss who cares little for policy memos or rollout plans, Trump has focused more on the attendant media coverage of his decisions than on the choreography of announcing them, people familiar with the matter said. He has remained preoccupied with the Russia investigation and has lately grown concerned that his base believes he’s softened on immigration, matters which have agitated him and driven some of his recent rash decisions, according to the sources.
During a long weekend at his Florida estate, Trump heard from a parade of conservative voices that his base is beginning to question his commitment to tough immigration reforms. The conversations – including with Fox News personalities – led to an storm of angry tweets on the matter.
Partly fueling the outburst: Trump’s notice of outspoken conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who has taken her disappointment with Trump public in recent weeks, including on the Fox airwaves. As he approaches this year’s midterm elections, Trump has openly expressed concern that lack of progress on building a border wall could harm Republican prospects.
He’s huddled with longtime political advisers, such as former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, to formulate plans for his appearances on the campaign trail in the coming months. At the same time, he’s reminisced fondly about the freewheeling days from his own campaign, which have not been replicated during his time in office.
Only one campaign original remains in the White House: Dan Scavino, the social media director who recently moved into Hicks’ old office, a few paces from the President’s desk. Trump has openly wondered how he’ll operate without Hicks around and staffers admit there’s little certainty about what the departure might mean for Trump’s mood.
Decisions on the fly
Proclamations over the past month to impose new steel tariffs and open talks with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un demonstrated Trump’s penchant for making decisions on the fly, even with supposed guardrails like Hicks and Cohn in place. The moves sent aides scrambling to execute their boss’s commands and, in some cases, sending the stock market plummeting.
In past administrations, the nomination or retirement of a Cabinet secretary was typically a highly staged affair, marked with an in-person statement from the President himself, along with remarks from the outgoing secretary and a statement from the person chosen as a replacement. Such ceremonies were formal events, held in the White House East Room or Rose Garden, with family members of the nominees or retirees sitting in the front row.
Trump, whose splits with Tillerson and recently departed Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin were preceded by months of acrimony, has announced few of his personnel decisions in person. Instead, he’s used Twitter to declare when he’s ready to change around his staff.
That’s made it difficult for his aides to predict when, precisely, the announcements will be made. In the lead-up to Trump’s statement that national security adviser H.R. McMaster would be departing, White House aides repeatedly insisted the two men enjoyed a good working relationship and that no staffing changes were coming to the National Security Council.
Similarly, aides were left to tap dance when questioned about Shulkin’s standing after it was widely reported that Trump had decided to dismiss him. After days of uncertainty, Trump finally tweeted he was replacing the embattled VA chief with Dr. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician.
As with his decisions to install John Bolton as national security adviser, Pompeo as secretary of state and Larry Kudlow as chief economist, the decision to elevate Jackson reflected Trump’s desire to surround himself with known entities who have demonstrated a willingness to agree with the President on policy and political matters.
But the rollout of Shulkin’s firing raised questions about what planning went into the White House moves. An administration official said on Monday that Shulkin called Kelly last Wednesday morning, asking how the press team at the VA should respond to inquiries from reporters who said they were being told Trump would fire him on Twitter that afternoon. Kelly then spoke with the President, who said he was indeed planning on announcing Jackson as Shulkin’s replacement. Trump asked Kelly how he thought it should be carried out.
Kelly told the President he would call Shulkin to inform him of Trump’s intentions. It was during that phone call that Kelly offered Shulkin the opportunity to resign, which he did, according to this official.
Shulkin, however, has insisted he did not resign.
“I came to run the Department of Veterans Affairs because I’m committed to veterans, and I’m committed to fighting for them,” Shulkin told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday. “And I would not resign, because I’m committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end.”