As he does so, something else has become clear. Whether the president praises his aides, or attacks them, on their way out the door has very little to do with how well they’ve served or the circumstances that occasioned their departure—instead, it depends on whether they’ve been publicly loyal and deferential to Trump, or questioned his judgment.
When acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan withdrew from consideration to head the Pentagon permanently in June, for example, over concerns about his handling and disclosure of domestic violence in his family, Trump lauded him with a particularly ill-chosen cliché.
Read: The slow-motion defenestration of Jeff Sessions
“Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who has done a wonderful job, has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family,” the president tweeted. “I thank Pat for his outstanding service.”
Even as aides urged Trump to ax scandal-ridden EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the president hesitated. But when Pruitt finally departed in June 2018, Trump was fulsome in his praise: “I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.”
Recently, Trump has celebrated even those aides who have left on bad terms. By the time Chief of Staff John Kelly departed the administration, he was reportedly not on speaking terms with Trump, yet the president called him “a great guy” “who has served our Country with distinction.” Spicer, who Trump by all accounts found weak and ineffective, was described as “a wonderful person who took tremendous abuse from the Fake News Media - but his future is bright!” When his book was published a year later, Trump plugged it.
When the economic adviser Gary Cohn left in a disagreement over tariffs, Trump was effusive. “Gary has been my chief economic adviser and did a superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms and unleashing the American economy once again,” Trump said in a statement. “He is a rare talent, and I thank him for his dedicated service to the American people.”
Read: Why Trump turned on Steve Bannon
But not everyone gets this treatment. Trump has been happy to toss out other aides and to take potshots at them after they leave. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report chronicled, Sessions attempted to resign in May 2017, at Trump’s behest. The president refused to accept the resignation, but also declined to return it to Sessions. Somehow, Sessions held on to his job until just after the 2018 election. But Trump’s animosity toward Sessions—one of his earliest endorsers in the Republican Party—has lingered. On Thursday, Senator Richard Shelby told The Hill that Trump “was not on board” with Sessions running to reclaim his old Senate seat, even though some Republicans see it as the best chance to win back the seat from Democrats.