The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’ve never seen anything like Trump’s rough treatment of his White House staff

Sean Spicer, left, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

When writing about President Trump, there's a tendency toward exaggeration. This thing he did is UNPRECEDENTED! This thing he said has NEVER been said before in the history of the English language!!

Some of that is because of Trump's own penchant for exaggeration. Some of it is because of the nature of the Internet; the best or worst of something is more interesting — and clickable — than something that is just sort of interesting. And some of it is due to the fact that Trump does, more than occasionally, say or do something that is truly unprecedented. As in, there is no historical precedent for it. There's no map for the places he's going.

The way that Trump treats his senior staff is one of those places where he is totally and completely off the charts.

Most presidents do everything they can to show public support for the men and women in their inner circle. If a president has an issue with someone in a senior spot in their administration, that person is usually discreetly given a tap on the shoulder and a nod. Almost always, they resign — citing a need to spend more time with their family or pursue some lifelong dream/once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In short: It's handled privately. Only in the absolute worst situations does any sort of ugliness emerge in public.

Trump, on the other hand, not only seems entirely comfortable airing his issues with senior staff but also appears to enjoy doing so. Consider two examples from just this weekend alone.

1. A Politico piece headlined “Trump reviews top White House staff after tumultuous start” includes these two eye-opening paragraphs:

Yet Trump’s concern goes beyond his embattled national security adviser, according to conversations with more than a dozen people who have spoken to Trump or his top aides. He has mused aloud about press secretary Sean Spicer, asking specific questions to confidantes about how they think he’s doing from the podium.
Others who’ve talked with the president have begun to wonder about the future of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Several Trump campaign aides have begun to draft lists of possible Priebus replacements, with senior White House aides Kellyanne Conway and Rick Dearborn and lobbyist David Urban among those mentioned. Gary Cohn, a Trump economic adviser, has also been the subject of chatter.

2. This Post piece on Trump's conversation with Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of his, is incredible. Check out these quotes from Ruddy on Priebus:

“It’s my view that Reince is the problem. I think on paper Reince looked good as the chief of staff — and Donald trusted him — but it’s pretty clear the guy is in way over his head. He’s not knowledgeable of how federal agencies work, how the communications operations work. He botched this whole immigration rollout. This should’ve been a win for Donald, not two or three weeks of negative publicity.”

It's hard to overestimate how demoralizing that is to the people working day in and day out to make the Trump presidency succeed.

Trump campaign aides have drafted names of people who could replace Priebus? Trump himself is asking people around him if they think Spicer is doing an okay job? (This comes after stories last week making clear that Trump is displeased with Spicer and that a shake-up in the communications shop might be in the offing.)

And, to me, the coup de grace is what Ruddy said about Priebus. Those quotes — on the record no less! — come 48 hours after Ruddy had drinks with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. It's sort of hard to imagine Ruddy didn't (a) run Priebus down even more in private and (b) let Trump know he was going to tell people about it.


How can this happen, you ask? Because this is who Trump is. He had a hit show called “The Apprentice” in which he fired someone — in front of their peers — every single week. He views life — business, politics, personal — as survival of the fittest. If you can't take it, that's a negative judgment on you, not him.

Which is his right. He won, after all, by being unapologetically himself: brash, bullying and never, ever sorry. And it's not as though Priebus or Spicer or current national security adviser Michael Flynn didn't know what they were getting into when they signed on with Trump. They knew and did it anyway.

In 2017, The Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman looked at the influence that Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior policy adviser, held inside the White House. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But it is worth noting just how anomalous Trump's treatment of his senior staff is when compared to past presidents. Trump seems to keep a running list of whom he likes best — and least — among his top advisers, constantly updating the rankings based on TV hits or the last person he talked to. And, most strange of all, Trump seems entirely comfortable sharing that list with just about anyone. (Sidebar: UP: Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway; DOWN: Priebus and Spicer; NEUTRAL: Steve Bannon.)

It's fun to watch. It's a nightmare to be a part of.