WASHINGTON — In some of the most critical corners of the Trump administration, officials show up for work now never entirely sure who will be there by the end of the evening — themselves included.
Even for an administration that has been a revolving door since Day 1, this has become a season of turmoil. At a moment when first-term presidents are typically seeking a stable team to focus on their reelection, President Donald Trump has embarked on a systematic attempt to sweep out officials perceived to be disloyal.
The headquarters of the nation’s intelligence apparatus roiled with the ouster of acting director Joseph Maguire and his replacement by a sharp partisan amid a dispute over Russian election interference. The Justice Department remained on edge with whispers of further resignations, including perhaps even that of Attorney General William Barr, after the president’s intervention in a case involving one of his friends. Witnesses from the impeachment inquiry into Trump have been summarily dismissed. Dozens of policy experts have been cleared out of the National Security Council staff as part of a restructuring that will mean fewer career professionals in range of the president. A deputy national security adviser dogged by innuendo about disloyalty was exiled to the Energy Department. A Trump appointee’s nomination for a top Treasury Department post was pulled. The No. 3 official at the Defense Department was shown the door.
And Johnny McEntee, a 29-year-old loyalist just installed to take over the Office of Presidential Personnel, reporting directly to Trump, has ordered a freeze on all political appointments across the government. He also convened a meeting to instruct departments to search for people not devoted to the president so they can be removed, according to people briefed about the session, and informed colleagues that he planned to tell Cabinet secretaries that the White House would be choosing their deputies from now on.
“Trump appears to be launching the biggest assault on the nation’s civil service system since the 1883 Pendleton Act ended the spoils system,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied presidential personnel.
But career professionals are not the only ones in the crosshairs. Also facing scrutiny are Republican political appointees considered insufficiently committed to the president or suspected of not aggressively advancing his agenda.
Allies of the president said he should be free to make personnel changes, even if it amounts to shedding people who are not seen as loyal to Trump.
“It is not unusual at all that these types of assessments are done, and thereafter changes are made,” said Bradley Blakeman, a Republican strategist and former White House official under President George W. Bush.
Nonetheless, the tumult and anxiety come at a time when the Trump administration confronts enormous challenges, including the coronavirus outbreak, Iranian and North Korean nuclear development and Russian determination to play a role again in the U.S.’ next election. Democrats, for example, have expressed concerns about the administration’s ability to respond if there were a severe coronavirus outbreak in the United States, noting that a global health security expert position on the National Security Council has been left vacant for almost two years.
Trump has long been obsessed with loyalty, a view only exacerbated by his impeachment and the various investigations over the last three years that have convinced him that he is surrounded by a deep-state enemy within that is leaking, lying and sabotaging his presidency.
He has also been frustrated by the decision-making process of government, aggravated at competing centers of power that have shaped the modern presidency but have, in his view, hindered his ability to enact policies.
With a more loyal team in place, he hopes to make more progress on initiatives that have been slow-walked by institutional inertia or resistance, like tougher rules on trade and immigration. But it could mean less dissent and less open debate, with surviving officials fearing the loss of their jobs if they are seen as stepping out of line.
From the beginning, his administration has been a turnstile of people who fall in and out of favor with the president. Including those with “acting” designations, he is on his third chief of staff, his fourth national security adviser, his fourth defense secretary, his fifth secretary of homeland security, his sixth deputy national security adviser and his seventh communications director.
According to data compiled by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, turnover among what she calls Trump’s “A team,” meaning his senior staff, has hit 82% — more in three years than any of the previous five presidents saw in their first four years. Moreover, the Trump administration has been notable for a high level of serial turnover, with 38% of the top positions replaced more than once.
“Many key departments and White House entities have been hollowed out,” Tenpas said. The president has thus been left with acting officials in many key areas. “He seems completely unbothered,” she said. “He claims that actings give him flexibility but fails to see that temporary leaders cannot advance his policies nearly as well as a Senate-confirmed appointee who has the stature and all the powers to do so.”
While some of the reliance on acting officials owes to a dysfunctional Senate confirmation process, Trump seems to prefer to keep senior advisers on edge as to whether they will keep their job. Mick Mulvaney, his acting White House chief of staff, a position that does not require Senate confirmation, is finishing his 14th month with an “acting” in front of his title for no reason that has ever been publicly articulated, and he may be forced out without ever having been granted the full title.
Mulvaney has shrugged it off, saying that anyone who works for Trump is by definition an acting official who could be dismissed at any time. But the president’s refusal to bestow the full title strikes many as a form of ritual humiliation depriving him of stature, influence or job security.
Just a few days ago, Mulvaney seemed to speak out in a way that caused many to wonder whether he may leave soon, voluntarily or not. During session with the Oxford Union in England, he said that the United States was “desperate” for more immigrants and that Republicans seemed to stop caring about rising deficits when Trump took office. He added that “I disagree with the president every single day” but did not talk about it publicly.
The newest power center at the White House is McEntee, a former assistant to the president who was fired by the previous chief of staff, John Kelly, but has been brought back as presidential personnel director. McEntee has made clear that his mission is to establish a more loyal team around the president. His meeting last Thursday with Cabinet liaisons in which he called for rooting out disloyal officials was first reported by Axios.
The ousters have extended beyond impeachment witnesses like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Gordon Sondland. John Rood, who was removed as undersecretary of defense for policy, did not speak out publicly but had written internal emails skeptical of the freeze on security aid to Ukraine that was at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
In National Security Council staff meetings, however, Rood was a constant voice of skepticism over the administration’s troop reductions in Syria, its pending peace deal with the Taliban and other issues. With McEntee’s arrival, that dissenting voice was no longer welcome, said a person familiar with the matter.
Supporters of Jessie Liu, a Trump backer who served as the U.S. attorney in Washington, suspect her nomination for undersecretary of Treasury was pulled because of dissatisfaction with her prosecution of Roger Stone, the president’s adviser convicted of obstruction and witness intimidation to protect Trump.
Victoria Coates, a deputy national security adviser, was dispatched to the Energy Department despite denials that she was the anonymous official who wrote an op-ed and book critical of the administration.
Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence who angered the president by allowing intelligence officials to tell House lawmakers that Russia was already intervening in the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf, was replaced by Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany and a vocal conservative with no background in intelligence.
One of Grenell’s first moves was to push out Andrew Hallman, the popular principal executive who had been acting as the top deputy. Arriving with Grenell was Kashyap Patel, a senior National Security Council staff member and former key aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. and a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Patel has been viewed warily by intelligence officers, especially since news reports that his mandate was to clean house. Some top civil servants told colleagues they were contemplating quitting or feared being fired.
But Grenell also began a charm offensive with senior officials, and his initial meetings have put some at ease while making others think they should give the new boss a chance. It is also not clear who placed Patel in the office, with one official saying it was not Grenell’s idea.
Some allies of the administration cautioned against overanalyzing the developments in the intelligence office. Maguire was scheduled to leave next month anyway under a vacancies law, although administration officials had been looking for ways to extend him, and Grenell is only temporary while the president comes up with a nominee to send to the Senate.
“The ODNI, I think, is less than meets the eye,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security scholar at the Heritage Foundation, using the initials for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Even so, it has added to the wave of concern across the administration, even among Trump appointees. And that may be part of the point. Convinced that so many officials in government have been working against him, Trump does not mind if they are more than a little unsettled.