It was fitting that less than 24 hours after his party lost the House, President Trump launched a purge of his administration by demanding the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Despite being one of the administration’s few capable top officials (as retrograde as his agenda was), Sessions had earned Trump’s contempt by recusing himself from the Russia investigation, which, as a member of the 2016 campaign with his own undisclosed contacts with Russian officials, he had no choice but to do.
The president has said publicly on several occasions that he was shocked and angry to discover that Sessions had a conception of the attorney general’s job that went beyond personal loyalty to Donald Trump.
By replacing Sessions on an acting basis with his chief of staff, Matthew G. Whitaker, Trump has given us a window into the coming bloodletting. Trump has a much better idea than he did two years ago about what he needs and wants in his underlings, so he has likely shifted his thoughts about personnel. The result will probably be an administration whose pathologies are even worse than they are now, as Trump adapts to a new phase in his presidency that, with Democrats taking over the House, will put him in much greater political peril.
Whitaker is a perfect example of the change. A former U.S. attorney, he has spent the past few years as a far-right activist, starting an organization to hound Democrats with ethics complaints and oppose Democratic judicial nominees after an unsuccessful run for Senate in Iowa in 2014. That year, he ran to the right of the extremely conservative eventual victor Joni Ernst; in one debate, he was asked what his criteria for evaluating judicial nominees would be, and he said, “Are they people of faith? Do they have a biblical view of justice?”
Whitaker has expressed the belief that the courts have virtually no power to constrain the other two branches of government, though his thoughts on this topic are utterly incoherent except insofar as they amount to the principle that whatever outcome conservatives like in any given case is what the Constitution demands.
Whitaker also seems to share with the president a kinship of spirit. He was part of an invention-marketing company that featured a “time-travel scientist” on its board and was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission after the FTC determined it had scammed inventors out of millions of dollars. It’s already being called “Trump University for inventors.” But most importantly, Whitaker repeatedly criticized the Mueller investigation in print and on TV before joining the administration.
That, more than anything else, is surely what convinced Trump that Whitaker would be his guy — and nothing is more important to Trump. The things Sessions was doing as attorney general, such as cracking down on immigrants and restarting the war on drugs, were all well and good. But especially now with Democrats holding a house of Congress from which they can restrain and bedevil the president, personal loyalty is the highest consideration.
This was always important to Trump, but at first he may not have realized that he couldn’t necessarily count on everyone around him to make it their top priority. Faced with the daunting task of filling thousands of positions in his new administration, Trump exercised only minimal oversight on the process, mostly farming it out to others. Apart from installing a few cronies here and there, he allowed allies and aides to populate the executive branch with Republicans who could be counted on to pursue the party’s agenda. While candidates were screened for disloyalty and often excluded from consideration if they had spoken ill of the president during the primaries, there wasn’t necessarily a requirement that they be enthusiastic Trumpites so much as that they couldn’t have demonstrated any antipathy toward him.
But because so many conservative policy wonks and professionals didn’t want to stain their reputations by working for Trump, the Republican barrel had to be scraped to its bottom to find enough people to fill out the ranks, leading to an administration that has been populated by the incompetent, the buffoonish and the corrupt. Trump usually acted as though as long as you didn’t oppose him directly or do anything to embarrass him, he didn’t much care how you went about your business.
But Trump’s attention is now focused on self-preservation. With his reelection campaign looming and Democrats in possession of subpoena power, more than ever before he’ll want to be assured that he’s surrounded by people who have no higher purpose than protecting him. Now he’ll be looking at everyone who works for him and asking, Is there anything this person cares about more than protecting me? If the answer is yes, they won’t last long.
Of course, not every corner of the administration is the same — I’m sure Trump neither knows nor cares who the deputy undersecretary of agriculture is. Much of his attention is going to focus on the Justice Department, because by its nature law enforcement is a threat to him. But if I worked in the administration, I’d be updating my résumé just in case, or maybe drafting some op-eds about how Donald Trump is the most perfect human being to have ever walked the Earth. Because a lot of people are going to be getting fired.