In private, Trump can accept when he’s wrong. Told by aides that he’s made a mistake, he’ll reply with a simple Crap, the second former White House aide told me. What he won’t do is openly admit error. (This is too bad. Think of how disarming it might be if Trump, standing on the South Lawn while the helicopter blades whirred, told the press pool at least once in a while, Crap, I got it wrong.)
Over time, Trump’s seasoned aides have learned that predicting what he’ll do is risky. Aides have told me they don’t want to jeopardize their reputations by defending positions that Trump will later renounce. “Sometimes we were told that we back X legislation or we’ll sign that bill,” the second aide told me. “And then he’d tweet something the next day that changes it. That was one of those things that followed us around.”
Assumptions about how Trump will act at any given time can backfire. U.S. military leaders, for example, didn’t think Trump would pick the option of killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani when they presented it to him, The New York Times reported earlier this month. They thought wrong.
Read: The other reason Republicans won’t cross Trump
But no one in Trump’s orbit seems to want him to change his style these days. “He speaks casually,” a third former White House aide told me. “You understand the essence of what he’s thinking and saying.” By contrast, “you got beautifully crafted statements from the Obama administration. But you never got the man’s thinking or a sense of who he really was.”
If anything, staff members have encouraged Trump to trust his instincts. “You’ve got to be aggressive and make the case,” Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told me. “The media isn’t going to help you. You have to attack, attack, attack.”
Trump’s accessibility has its merits, some who have worked with him told me. If he trusts you, he’ll listen to you, tossing aside the filters that normally control the information getting to the president. Shulkin found some aspects of that approach liberating, he said. When he worked at the VA during the Obama administration, “you would go to a specific office and present papers and briefing material. You would have weeks where they’d be looking at and analyzing the issues, and you would come back and meet about it. Progress was steady, but slow.” Under Trump, the bureaucracy fell away. He would go directly to the president and the conversation might go like this, he told me:
“Look, this is what I want to do.”
“Is this a good thing for veterans?” Trump would ask.
“Go ahead and do it.”
But for all that face time, Shulkin came to a humiliating end, a casualty of the same managerial mess that had given him so much unstructured access to Trump in the first place. Conservatives were unhappy with him; they didn’t think he was doing enough to privatize certain VA services. Trump was listening. Hearing rumors that he might get dumped, Shulkin said he called then–Chief of Staff John Kelly to ask about his status. Kelly is someone who should have known the answer—he had taken the job to bring order to the West Wing. At first Kelly told him, “David, there’s absolutely no truth to that. You have the president’s confidence.”
Later that same day, Trump himself called, and he didn’t mention that Shulkin’s job was in jeopardy. Yet within a few hours, Kelly called him back: The rumors were true. “David,” he said, according to Shulkin, “I had no idea.”