When Rod J. Rosenstein reports to the Oval Office on Thursday to be fired, resign or continue tenuously in his post, the deputy attorney general will also be cementing his status as a player in one of President Trump’s favorite parlor games: White House Survivor.
Though the outcomes often differ — fired by tweet (former secretary of state Rex Tillerson), permitted to faux-amicably resign (former national security adviser H.R. McMaster) or flayed but never quite offed (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) — one near-certainty for those navigating their departures from Trump’s orbit is a prolonged and capricious public humiliation.
Trump’s penchant for allowing his underlings to dangle and stew in Washington’s fickle swamp often seems to be a form of psychological cruelty — and also the way he prefers to conduct business, according to the president’s advisers and associates.
The onetime reality-television showman who made his name by declaring “You’re fired!” has an aversion to in-person conflict, friends and advisers said. Trump believes that by dragging out what ultimately will be a dismissal, he can best gauge the prevailing views in his circle, as well as public sentiment, they said.
“I think it pleases him to sort of paw at a wounded mouse in front of him because it asserts his sense of control and authority, and he enjoys that to no end,” said Tim O’Brien, author of “TrumpNation,” a biography. “That’s classic bullying, where you’re sort of tough on the exterior and you enjoy making people miserable, but when push comes to shove, you can’t really do what it takes to be brave face-to-face.”
Rosenstein’s saga has followed a familiar pattern. As the Justice Department official overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, Rosenstein has been a frequent target of Trump’s ire, although officials said relations between the two men had been relatively smooth recently.
But whatever detente existed between Trump and Rosenstein risked immediate rupture last Friday, when the New York Times reported that Rosenstein had suggested surreptitiously recording the president and rounding up support in the Cabinet to remove him from office via the 25th Amendment.
Rosenstein denied the report, but still, many in Trump’s orbit braced themselves for a presidential eruption that, uncharacteristically, never came.
On Monday, the conjecture over Rosenstein’s job status began anew after Axios reported that the deputy attorney general had “verbally resigned” to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly in anticipation of being fired by Trump. Later reports said he had merely offered to quit. After two hours of feverish speculation and conflicting reports, the White House announced that Rosenstein was staying on the job — at least until he and the president could meet in person on Thursday.
The meeting, at the very least, is likely to be unpredictable. White House aides stress that they believe that the only way Rosenstein would leave his post is if he resigns, while Justice Department officials say they believe he would have to be fired — a potentially problematic action by Trump that could be interpreted by Mueller and his investigators as obstruction of justice.
People close to the president predict that the meeting could be deeply uncomfortable for Rosenstein, especially if Trump presses him on the veracity of the reporting about his alleged disloyalty. As one outside Trump adviser quipped, Rosenstein would be wise to arrive “wearing some Depends.”
But for now, Rosenstein simply awaits his fate.
In his 20 months as president, Trump has elevated routine, if high-volume, staff turnover into a sport, prompting media outlets to turn every plot twist into a breaking-news headline.
For some senior officials, like Tillerson and Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus — both of whom Trump ultimately fired unceremoniously on Twitter — the president first made them submit to a months-long period of public purgatory. He peppered friends and advisers with questions about whether he should fire the men — private doubts that quickly surfaced in embarrassing news reports — and openly undermined them in internal meetings.
Sean Spicer, the first White House press secretary, resigned before Trump took action against him, but he, too, faced months of humiliating headlines generated by the president himself, who would call Spicer in one moment to reassure him of his job security and rail against and mock him in the next.
The result, in the words of one former White House official, was “totally neutering the person.”
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff, said Trump’s management style is detrimental to the proper functioning of the federal government.
“It’s a recipe for paralysis,” Whipple said. “This has been the most dysfunctional White House in modern history, and it makes it even more so when you have senior officials who don’t know from day-to-day whether they’ll be around the next morning.”
The president’s behavior also further heightened the existing factionalization in his West Wing. After Trump showed signs of turning on an underling, many staffers would use the opportunity to either further marginalize or mobilize against an aide they disliked.
This happened with Tillerson, who had few natural allies, even in his own State Department. Increasingly, the National Security Council cut him out of deliberations, some foreign leaders stopped interacting with him, and the Foggy Bottom bureaucracy turned against him.
Alternatively, Trump’s game of will-he-stay-or-will-he-go has sometimes resulted in bolstered support for the persecuted staffer. This occurred with McMaster, who, despite his sometimes-toxic relationship with Trump, was well respected by many colleagues who worked to help prolong his White House tenure. Yet his ouster, when it finally came last March, was still viewed as inevitable.
Trump’s method dates to his earliest days as an executive. At the Trump Organization, his family real estate company, Trump would torment junior executives, both as a means of inspiring loyalty and because he enjoyed exploiting people’s vulnerabilities and keeping them off-kilter, according to Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization vice president who has become a critic of her former boss.
But, she added, he rarely actually fired employees.
“He did like to torture people, the way he tortures Sessions — ‘You’re stupid!’ ‘You’re no good!’ ‘You’re this, you’re that!’ ” Res said, referring to the president’s frequent taunts of the attorney general. “But nobody feared they would get fired because he didn’t fire anyone.”
Other presidents have struggled with dismissing staffers. “Presidents historically are terrible at firing people,” Whipple said.
Whipple recalled President George H.W. Bush’s unwillingness to personally fire John H. Sununu despite his struggles as White House chief of staff, ultimately outsourcing the dirty work. President Bill Clinton, too, was a reluctant executioner, keeping aides on his staff well past what many others felt was their due date.
As the host of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” Trump honed the tactic of teasing and trumpeting coming firings to build suspense — and goose the show’s ratings. Similarly, in the White House, Trump likes to air out personnel dramas to gauge public sentiment.
Early in his administration, as Cabinet secretary after Cabinet secretary was ensnared in ethics scandals, the president was sometimes reluctant to let them go, uncertain of what his base might think. This was particularly true in the case of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who for months weathered a string of damning controversies until he finally resigned under pressure in July.
Trump has also said he thinks keeping his aides perpetually insecure about their status fosters a cutthroat environment that ultimately inspires loyalty. But in the case of Rosenstein, it may have inspired something more akin to fear.
O’Brien, who is also the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, said he was struck by descriptions in news reports of Rosenstein’s hoping to amicably exit the administration — however and whenever he finally goes.
“The fact that Rod J. Rosenstein is worried that he may not depart on good terms with Trump, after Trump has done nothing but debase him and the entire Mueller investigation for months, shows that people in the Trump orbit are suffering from Stockholm syndrome,” O’Brien said, referring to the phenomenon in which captives come to form an alliance with their captors. “It was revealing that Rosenstein cared, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, Trump is just going to devour this guy.’ ”