Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the latest torrent of “White House in chaos” headlines is the degree to which President Trump seems to be enjoying it all.
He isn’t lashing out in anger over the breathless Beltway speculation about which aide or cabinet secretary he will fire next. He isn’t acting swiftly to tamp down coverage of the ongoing shakeup, or to change the news cycle, or to return the administration to a state of relative calm and stability. Instead, it appears, he’s leaning into the maelstrom—relishing it, joking about it, maybe even courting it.
“So many people have been leaving the White House,” Trump said at the Gridiron Dinner earlier this month. “It’s actually been really exciting and invigorating ‘cause you want new thought. So, I like turnover. I like chaos. It really is good.” Then, he joked, “Now the question everyone keeps asking is, ‘Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?’”
This week, as cable-news talking heads obsessed over the tumult in Trumpworld, the president took in the coverage “with amusement,” according to the Associated Press. Discussing the staff shakeup in the Oval Office with his vice president and chief of staff, Trump reportedly laughed and quipped, “Who’s next?”
And on Thursday, Trump did little to cool the fevered D.C. chatter about more impending departures, telling reporters, “There will always be change.”
Personnel drama has been a steady feature of the Trump White House throughout his presidency. But in the days since he announced the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the press has exploded with stories about other administration officials that may be on the verge of defenestration—from Chief of Staff John Kelly to National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to Secretaries Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, and David Shulkin.
It’s impossible to know who really is on the way out. Many of the stories contradict each other, and virtually all of them are sourced to anonymous insiders. But as Kelly reportedly admitted during an off-the-record gathering of journalists Friday, Trump himself is likely stoking the speculation.
John Kelly acknowledged in an off-the-record session with reporters today that his boss, Donald Trump, is likely speculating about staff moves to people outside the White House and that reporters are then talking to those people. And that’s how a good deal of news is likely being made about all the possible replacements.
Indeed, what makes the current upheaval in the White House unique is that—unlike the turmoil wrought by an independent counsel’s investigation, or an unwieldy legislative process, or an international crisis—the current situation is almost entirely within the president’s control. If he wanted these stories to stop, he could simply stop firing people (or musing about firing them).
But maybe the essential controllability of this particular “crisis” is what makes it so appealing to Trump. Unlike other controversies that preoccupy the media, this story is exclusively about his power. Everybody on cable news is talking about who he will fire, and who he will spare; who can work their way back into his good graces, and who will be exiled from the president’s inner-circle. It is about his authority—and there is little Trump loves more than performing authority.
By now, it is commonplace to invoke reality TV in describing the Trump White House. But this might be a case where The Apprentice is particularly instructive. The persona Trump cultivated on that show was predicated on wielding a kind of god-like power over the contestants who spent each week sweatily scrambling for his approval. There, in the darkened boardroom where every episode ended, Trump was free to be as pitiless or as magnanimous as he wanted. The fate of his subordinates was in his hands.
Many have noted the irony of Trump’s widely reported aversion to the real-life, off-camera act of firing people. Rather than confront his staffers face-to-face to deliver the bad news, he often seems to outsource that unpleasant task, or announce it on Twitter.
But for Trump, the performative aspect of those made-for-TV boardroom firings mattered much more than which underling actually got the axe. As a skilled performer, Trump practiced and perfected those moments—from the delivery of his trademark line, to the snake-like swivel of his hand as he pointed at the unlucky contestant.
Now that he’s president, of course, these firings come with higher stakes and very real policy implications. It’s too early to tell what the White House will look like once the dust has settled and the shakeup is over (if, in fact, it ever really is). In the meantime, though, everyone will be watching—just as he likes it.