Will the Last Person to Leave the West Wing Please Turn Out the Lights?
As the administration faces a spate of departures from its top ranks, filling their posts will be a major challenge.
It’s looking like it might be spring-cleaning season at the White House.
Not only did Communications Director Hope Hicks announce her departure on Wednesday, ending her run as President Trump’s longest-tenured staffer, but a series of reports have suggested a number of other top-ranking officials might be clearing out their offices and desks soon. Those rumored to be considering exits include Jared Kushner, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, and Jeff Sessions.
One could be forgiven for treating these reports with some skepticism. Every one of them has been the subject of similar speculation in the past—which could indicate just how long the final departure has been coming, or could suggest the reports not be taken seriously. Yet there are also plenty of reasons why officials might be interested in leaving, many of them interwoven. It is common for administrations to see turnover in their second year. But there are also Trump-specific circumstances: It’s clear that working for this president is particularly trying; there remain serious disagreements about policy; and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation haunts the White House.
At the top of the card is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Kushner, who quickly acquired a sprawling portfolio despite having no experience in government and diplomacy nor a permanent security clearance, has clashed with other administration officials at times, but he has appeared to be somewhat insulated by the fact that the president is his father-in-law. It’s no longer clear that’s enough protection. Last week, Kushner lost his clearance to see top-secret material, a change that Trump could have blocked but did not.
Since then, there’s been a remarkable flurry of stories about Kushner. The Washington Post reported that according to intelligence officials, at least four countries had contemplated ways to manipulate the U.S. government using Kushner’s business ties, one reason he hadn’t gotten a permanent clearance. The New York Times reported that Kushner’s family’s real-estate business, from which he separated but did not fully divest himself, had received large loans from Citigroup and Apollo, a private-equity firm, following meetings with Kushner at the White House. (All denied any connection between the meetings and the loans.) The Associated Press found that the Securities and Exchange Commission had dropped an inquiry into Apollo shortly after it made a loan to the Kushner Companies. The Intercept reported that the Kushner Companies sought and were denied a loan from the Qatari government, one month before the Trump administration sided against Qatar in a Persian Gulf dispute.
The Times suggested that even Trump would like to see Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump leave the West Wing: “Aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out.” Getting rid of one’s own son-in-law and daughter is delicate business, though as I wrote in July 2017, Trump has not hesitated to turn on his own family members in the past.
If Kelly pushes Kushner out, it would be a remarkable turn of events. Although Kelly badly botched the White House’s handling of domestic-abuse allegations against then-Staff Secretary Rob Porter, he used the episode to tighten rules on clearances, which places Kushner on the ropes. Politico reported he had favored a Hicks departure, too.
Kelly might not stop there. NBC News reported Thursday that Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis are angling to depose National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, with an actual departure as soon as April. McMaster was a widely hailed successor to Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, too, but his personality clashed with Trump’s nearly from the start. In mid-February, after McMaster responded to Mueller’s indictments of Russians for interfering in the election by saying the evidence was “incontrovertible,” Trump dressed him down on Twitter.
Moving McMaster out is a delicate business. He entered the White House as a rising star in the military. (It’s intriguing to see two older, retired generals maneuvering to oust him.) The trick is to find a good landing spot for McMaster, rather than effectively end his career because he took a nearly impossible job. Doing so would not only be a bad break for McMaster, but it might make other people far less likely to take White House jobs, if they fear it will kill their own careers.
In any case, Kelly himself could still leave before too long. The chief of staff has been said to be clashing with Trump more or less since he took the job in August 2017, but repeated impending-departure stories have come to naught. He’s now lasted about as long in the job as Reince Priebus, and even in more conventional administrations, chiefs of staff have often stayed in the role for only a year or two. On Thursday, Kelly joked about how little fun he was having. “The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess,” he said at an event celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The reasons why Gary Cohn, who leads the National Economic Council, is said to be considering leaving are specific to this week. In a strange meltdown Wednesday night, the White House (or parts of it) announced that Trump would put forth new sanctions Thursday, taking other parts of the White House by surprise. Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs and Democrat who practically embodies the globalist free-trade establishment against which Trump ran, fiercely opposes this kind of protectionism, and Politico reported that Cohn was on the verge of leaving.
Yes, you’ve heard this before. Cohn was going to leave the White House after Trump offered kind words for white-supremacist marchers in Charlottesville in August; after he was passed over for chair of the Federal Reserve; and after the president’s tax plan was complete. Each moment passed, and Cohn remains. Perhaps this will really be the breaking point, but it’s hard to tell.
Trump also rekindled his feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, once again attacking him on Twitter. In this case, the president offered a factually challenged demand for Sessions to circumvent the investigative process at the Department of Justice. Faced with these attacks in the past, Sessions has taken a variety of approaches: He reportedly offered to resign, but was denied; he has sometimes simply ignored them. This time, he fired back, sort of. Sessions was seen at dinner with his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, and the solicitor general, Noel Francisco, in what looked like a united DOJ front. He also issued a statement:
We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.
That reads almost like a dare to Trump: If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you fire me? But the president has proven extremely reluctant to actually terminate anyone, catchphrase notwithstanding. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s exit has been foretold so many times that it’s easy to forget he’s still at Foggy Bottom, though based on his influence in discussions like tariffs, perhaps he might as well not be.
The in-or-out dance for most of these figures is so well-rehearsed that it’s easy to just tune them out as more white noise. Even if current rumors don’t come to anything immediately, these staffers will leave at some point, and then they’ll have to be replaced. As in the case of McMaster, the question of who might fill those roles remains a barrier to the incumbents leaving in the first place. The Trump administration had trouble recruiting for many jobs when it began, and convincing qualified people to work there hasn’t gotten any easier. Prospective hires face the challenge of a president who will berate them publicly, the humiliation of colleagues who will leak damaging information about them to the press without a second thought, the danger of having to retain costly attorneys amid Mueller’s Russia probe, and the reputational risk of association with this administration. Who wants to come work for a president whose own officials describe his behavior this week as “unglued”?