President Donald Trump might fire any one of seven different Cabinet-level officials — Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt, or Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — in the coming days.
He might fire one or more of them Friday. Or he might fire one of them Friday and the rest of them next week, or weeks from now, or not at all.
This is not uninformed speculation spurred by the president’s sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Twitter on Tuesday. It’s the takeaway from articles written by the White House teams at the New York Times and Washington Post — after speaking to President Trump himself.
Trump told reporters that rumors of a shake-up were “fake news,” and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has denied reports from the Post, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN that Trump has already decided to fire McMaster. But there’s a reason reporters are skeptical of Sanders’s denial, and it’s not just that the Trump administration doesn’t mind lying to the press.
Trump has enjoyed dropping extremely heavy hints that he was unhappy with some of the people in his administration. And other officials in this leaky, backbiting White House have been happy to tell the Times — and plenty of other reporters — exactly which people those are.
The president is mad at Sessions, of course, because of Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. He’s mad at Kelly and McMaster for, as the Times put it, “saying ‘no’ to the boss too often.” (The Post reports that Kelly is the rare official whose position is safe.) He’s apparently mad at Carson, Shulkin, Zinke, and Pruitt for recent embarrassing scandals involving improper use of government funds (for, respectively, a dining room set, a personal vacation, private flights, and first-class plane tickets) — though that doesn’t even cover the whole list of Trump officials under fire for personal use of government money. Additionally, he’s apparently mad at Pruitt for spreading rumors posing himself as Sessions’s replacement.
And so, the Times writes: “Mr. 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.”
Anyone who’s ever watched an hour-long competition reality show will be familiar with this scenario. The last 20 minutes of the episode are usually devoted to speculation and deliberation about who is getting sent home that week, with several commercial breaks in between and a few “up next” shots designed to make you guess which contestant may be the one who gets the ax.
We know that this is Donald Trump’s model for the presidency because he has told us so. (It’s worth noting that when Trump was actually in charge of deciding who would be sent home on an hour-long competition reality show, his decisions often made so little sense that producers would have to deliberately cut the episode to make it look like the loser had committed a fireable offense.)
It is not, by any means, a way to run a government.
As a result of Trump’s desire to keep everyone off-kilter, every other government is going to spend Friday wondering if they’re about to deal with not just a new secretary of state but also a new national security adviser. The officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs who took the unusual step of calling for Shulkin’s ouster will have to keep wondering how much longer he’ll stick around. The fate of asylum seekers will depend on whether Trump is mad enough at Pruitt to keep Sessions around after all.
And literally everyone who relies on the federal government for anything, including Congress, will be wondering just how many things are going wrong, or being left undone, because the people at the top are spending their time playing Trump’s guessing game instead of doing their jobs.
Trump does not care about the jobs his officials are supposed to be doing — or if he cares, he hasn’t bothered to learn a lot about them. The Post reports that Trump has complained to Pruitt about problems with the granting of construction permits, even though that is not the job of the EPA. By all appearances, the president spends more time thinking about who should be in which position than about what they should be doing there.
It does not matter if Trump is impulsive because he’s ruled by his emotions, or because he thinks he’s giving the people what they want. It doesn’t even matter if he is giving the people what they want — as unlikely as it is that the people who voted for Donald Trump for president did so because they love Thursday night cliffhangers about who will be the next secretary of housing and urban development. Trump’s showmanship is eating away, more and more aggressively, at American governance.