Before he entered politics, two words defined Donald Trump in the public imagination: “You’re fired!”
But now that he is president, that simple phrase is one Trump can’t quite bring himself to utter.
On Tuesday, after a week of repeatedly humiliating his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in both tweets and media interviews, Trump again refused to say, definitively, just what it would take for him to fire a man he has described on Twitter as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak.”
“I’m very disappointed with the attorney general, but we will see what happens,” Trump said when pressed by reporters in a Rose Garden news conference about why he has not just fired Sessions. “Time will tell. Time will tell.”
With Sessions — as with other administration staffers who have fallen out of favor — the president has taken a passive-aggressive approach, preferring to demean, diminish and demoralize subordinates as a way of making his displeasure known.
“Presidents have people in their Cabinet they’re less than enamored with, but they don’t go out in public and demean them, denounce them,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. “They do things with a certain decorum, and this man lacks presidential decorum. He is so vulgar in the way he proceeds and is so lacking in good taste.”
The installation of wealthy Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci as his new communications director on Friday so far seems to have only heightened the 71-year-old president’s existing tendencies. Trump has an impulse for trash talk and public combat — but enough unease about actually dismissing staff that he often leaves it to others to handle the seminal moment.
When Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, for example, he dispatched his personal bodyguard, Keith Schiller, to FBI headquarters to deliver the message; Comey, traveling in Los Angeles, learned of his termination through news reports.
“This is how Trump tells people they need to move along,” said an informal adviser in frequent touch with the White House, speaking anonymously to offer a candid assessment. “Who wants to put themselves in a position where they’re going to be subjected to that?”
In the past week, Trump has savaged his attorney general on social media and to reporters, a cruel strategy designed, some White House officials said, to prompt Sessions to tender his resignation.
The president has frequently mused both publicly and privately — and in belittling fashion — about the fate of his aides, including White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and departing press secretary Sean Spicer. He hired Scaramucci over the vociferous objections of both men, a decision that prompted Spicer to announce his resignation and left Priebus more isolated. Many White House officials are now buzzing about what, if anything, might prompt Priebus to depart the West Wing before his stated goal of staying at least a year.
But Dallek said the president still clearly struggles with the catchphrase that made him famous as a reality television star on “The Apprentice.”
“He can’t seem to fire them, but he doesn’t hesitate to abuse them publicly,” Dallek said. Referring to last year’s campaign, he added, “It’s like when all the women accused him of groping and so forth, he tried to demean them and say, ‘We have evidence against them.’ But he never brought it forward. He never sued.”
Trump also gave his new communications chief a broad mandate to overhaul his West Wing, with an emphasis on rooting out leakers, real and perceived. For months now, Trump has fumed about leaks of all kinds — from the serious, such as unauthorized disclosures of sensitive intelligence, to the more frivolous, including embarrassing revelations about White House machinations and feuding.
Scaramucci and his allies almost immediately began discussing a possible purge, circulating an informal list of press staffers whose jobs are in jeopardy — many of them Priebus loyalists.
On Tuesday, clad in blue-tinted aviator sunglasses, Scaramucci said he is willing to overhaul the entire press operation in an effort to plug the leaks that have so infuriated the president.
“I’m going to fire everybody, that’s how I’m going to do it,” Scaramucci said, offering a statement of broad authority more typically reserved for a chief of staff. “You’re either going to stop leaking or you’re going to get fired.”
The Trump White House is one in which loyalty is prized above almost all else but not necessarily returned, especially to staffers considered outside the president’s inner circle.
One former Trump adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment, said Trump is looking for “original gangsters” and “wants people who will take bullets for him.”
The first to leave the West Wing on Tuesday was senior assistant press secretary Michael Short, who resigned after a report emerged in Politico hours earlier saying that he would be fired in Scaramucci’s quest to uproot leakers. The White House did not produce any evidence, however, to show that Short had ever leaked damaging information.
And in a theatrical if disingenuous twist, Scaramucci — who confirmed Short’s ouster to Politico — told reporters moments later that the fact that the news had trickled out before anyone had personally talked to Short was yet another challenge he was trying to manage in Trump’s chaotic West Wing.
“This is the problem with the leaking, which I really don’t like,” Scaramucci said. “Let’s say I’m firing Michael Short today. The fact that you guys know about it before he does really upsets me as a human being and as a Roman Catholic, you got that? So I should have the opportunity, if I have to let someone go, to let the person go in a very humane, dignified way.”
Because Trump has proved himself so rarely willing to actually fire anyone, some staffers have weathered rocky periods simply by lowering their public profile and quietly remaining in the West Wing until their perceived misstep recedes from memory. Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s senior strategist, was once likened to a terminally ill patient entering hospice care but has since at least partially resuscitated his stature within the White House.
Spicer, who resigned under contentious circumstances but plans to stay on through August, also was part of an odd tableau Tuesday. The departing press secretary looked cheerful and relaxed on the White House grounds, walking with former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, taking photos with visitors and watching the Marine One helicopter take off from the South Lawn.
Asked about Scaramucci’s expected purge of more junior aides close to him and Priebus, Spicer told reporters that Scaramucci has the authority to remake the press team in his own image but defended the current staff.
“Obviously I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done here, but he’s in charge now,” Spicer said. “I’m proud of the people and the products and what we’ve done.”
In some ways, Trump-the-president is similar to Trump-the-reality-TV-star, at least according to Clay Aiken, a well-known contestant on “American Idol” who also appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2012.
In an interview on the podcast of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Aiken’s home town, he said that on “Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump left the tough work of terminating contestants to others — in this case, NBC executives and producers.
“He didn’t make those decisions,” Aiken said. “He didn’t fire those people.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.