If there’s a clear trend in President Trump’s recent decision to remove key advisers, it’s this: He gets rid of them because he doesn't get along with them. As he replaces them with people who seem to be more appreciative of his style, it's apparent that Trump is sharpening his focus on loyalty. But some critics worry that comes at the expense of people who can best do the job.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired because he is too establishment for the president and disagreed with too many of his decisions. They just never clicked, the president acknowledged when he fired him earlier this week.
Now it looks as if Trump has made up his mind to remove national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star general with whom the president has never personally gelled, according to The Washington Post's White House team.
The president is clearly sending a message with these firings: If you don't like me, get out.
One reason McMaster is out, The Post reports, is because the president thought he was boring. Dry. Too serious. “The president has complained that McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on too long and seem irrelevant,” my colleagues report.
Trump is a president who often doesn’t read a daily briefing of vital, classified information to prepare for the day, who demands his staff condense memos into one page or use visuals, who openly admits that rather than prepare for a meeting on tariffs with the Canadian prime minister, he just makes up stuff about trade deficits. That almost certainly grates on the meticulous McMaster, whose staff gets up before dawn to help prepare the Presidential Daily Briefing. And Trump appears to have noticed.
Trump and his supporters say the president is running the country like a business, quick to make decisions, hoping to speed up the slow pace of Washington.
“There will always be change,” the president told reporters Thursday. “And I think you want to see change. I want to also see different ideas.”
But as he says that, Trump is installing people who seem much more willing to echo the president's own ideas.
The risk there is that Trump is creating a leadership team of people who are willing to say “yes” to him or mold themselves after him rather than challenge him; people who make pleasing the president their main job rather than doing their jobs. And those very same people may be less qualified than those Trump doesn't like.
Trump decided to replace his economic adviser Gary Cohn, who announced his resignation in part over the president's decision to implement tariffs, with Larry Kudlow, a TV personality who does not have an economics degree and who said “there is no recession” before one of the worst recessions in U.S. history.
After Trump fired Tillerson via Twitter, he announced Tillerson would be replaced with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, someone who raised alarm bells at the CIA for appearing to back off on criticizing Russia to win favor with the president. And who, after echoing the president on Russia, is now extraordinarily close with the president.
“We’re always on the same wavelength,” Trump told reporters Tuesday of Pompeo. “The relationship has been very good. That’s what I need as secretary of state.”
Some of the remaining members of Trump's Cabinet could soon collapse under the weight of self-created ethical issues. Trump is applying the same mind-set on how to replace them: The Post reports he's considering replacing Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, under fire for a European taxpayer-paid trip with his wife, with a Fox News TV personality Pete Hegseth, who has no government experience. As The Fix's Callum Borchers has pointed out, Trump appears to feel more comfortable with people in the media environment than government.
The problem with Trump's strategy is no one agrees all the time. And in fact, some of Trump's most recent ideas have cost him valuable allies.
His decision to implement tariffs on aluminum and steel imports set off Republicans in Congress, who had until then bitten their tongues on many of the president's other controversial policy decisions.
His public criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Russia investigation earned him a rare show of defiance from Sessions, who publicly dined that night with his top two department officials in a show of solidarity.
As Trump moves into an apparent new phase of his presidency, he's firing those he doesn’t like and surrounding himself with people he believes appreciate him more. That’s a far cry from Abraham Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals,” a leadership style to which many future presidents would adhere. Trump seems to be building a team of “yes” men who seem more willing to earn the president's favor than to check him.