In Washington, time is no longer measured in years or months, but in Scaramuccis. Rex Tillerson was secretary of state for 40.6 Scaramuccis. Hope Hicks was head of White House communications for 19.6 Scaramuccis. H.R. McMaster, the beleaguered national security advisor, could leave at any moment, but has already persevered for 39 Scaramuccis.*
It is a reference to Anthony Scaramucci, the flamboyant banker who was, for 10 days, Donald Trump’s White House communications director in the summer of 2017. In many aspects, his lightning-quick rise and fall were a prelude to the chaos in which the White House currently finds itself. Trump instinctively chose the foul-mouthed New Yorker, in whom he recognized much of himself. Scaramucci quickly insulted everyone in the White House. Trump dropped him swiftly, and Scaramucci was fired after 10 days (1 Scaramucci). He became the shortest residing communications director in American history.
This week, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. By tweet. Last week, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn left. And speculation is increasing that National Security Advisor H.R. Herbert McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly will be thrown out quickly as well.*
The past few weeks, the ghost of Scaramucci is haunting the White House again. Tillerson was fired, by his own account, via a tweet from Trump. The highest economic adviser of the president, Cohn, quit. Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee, was, for reasons that are unclear, fired immediately and had to be walked out of the White House by security. Shortly beforehand, Trump confidante Hope Hicks, who appeared to be an essential player in the Russia investigation, and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, accused of abusing two ex-wives, left.**
Trump suggested that a big cleanup had only just begun. We are “close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” he said this week. “There will always be change. I think you want to see change.”
Days of Wild Speculation
For months now, Trump has been threatening to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions. According to numerous reports from the White House, H.R. McMaster’s days are numbered as well. The national security advisor, who as a lieutenant general, was known for his criticism of superiors, is seen by Trump as too pro-establishment. On Thursday, when McMaster was asked by a journalist whether he knew what his future would look like, he asked a question in return: “Have you heard anything?”
These are days of wild speculation because no one can look into Trump’s head. Chief of Staff John Kelly, the general who was supposed to bring calm, is on the list to be fired, according to NBC. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, powerless after the departure of practically all his faithful cohorts, may want to leave. Many of these stories come directly from the Oval Office. At least, that is what Kelly said in a confidential discussion with journalists, reported by the website site Axios on Friday. According to Kelly, Trump continually talks with acquaintances outside the White House about whom he is dissatisfied with and who needs to be fired.
American journalists and experts like to analyze Trump through the lens of his advisers. The idea is that Trump has few ideas himself and thus leans strongly on his faithful: family members, business partners and political allies. Every time Trump changes his mind, it is explained as a shift in the power structure. One moment, Trump is under the influence of a right-wing, nationalist like Steve Bannon. The next moment, he’s listening to the “generals,” Kelly, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Then, the businessmen, then the family members. All groups fight for the ear of the president.
The lesson of the past few days is that that dynamic is coming to an end. Almost nobody talks about Trump anymore. He makes his decisions without informing his advisers. The internal resistance against the announced trade wars in steel and aluminum was great, but Trump persisted. He criticized Tillerson, who covertly tried to negotiate with North Korea. Last week, Trump decided that that was indeed a good idea, accepting an invitation from North Korea to meet, but Trump did not inform Tillerson.
The powerful groups surrounding Trump have been depleted. On the right, only strategist Stephen Miller remains. Family members are making themselves invisible, just like his (depleted) group of advisers from the New York business world.
Dismissals are part of the world Trump has made of his White House, in line with “The Apprentice,” the TV show in which “You’re fired!” became his trademark. The drama of the dismissed held the attention of the audience. Trump even brought a star from “The Apprentice” to the White House, Omarosa Manigault. She was fired in December and forcibly removed from the White House.
New names, or speculation of new names, is a way to keep the conversation going. This week, Trump appointed TV personality Larry Kudlow as his highest economic adviser. Names are being actively mentioned for the McMaster’s replacement (former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, for example)*** and Kelly (former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski?). As Trump so often tweets: “Stay tuned!” — keep watching!’
He Rarely Fires Someone Directly
Yet, Trump is considerably worse at firing people outside the TV studio. Multiple biographers have outlined how apprehensive Trump was to fire people from The Trump Organization. He rarely fires someone directly. Former FBI Director James Comey was fired while Comey was on the West Coast. Jeff Sessions will keep getting bullied until the day he quits. Last week, Tillerson heard from Kelly that a tweet “You are not going to like” was imminent. That tweet arrived on Monday: Tillerson turned out to be fired and Mike Pompeo was hired as the new secretary of state. “Congratulations to all!” Trump tweeted.
A constant in Trump’s leadership is that he distances himself from his advisers at difficult moments. That is how he led his company, and that is how he acts as president. Trump impulsively removes himself from his environment in the same way he makes decisions. Even the advisers who are allowed to stay for now have little to argue about.
*Editor’s note: On March 22, 2018, Trump fired National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. This followed at least two other changes since this article was published: On March 16, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe hours before McCabe was scheduled to retire. And on March 28, 2018, Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
**Editor’s note: Hope Hicks served as White House communications director in the Trump administration.
***Editor’s note: Trump appointed John Bolton as National Security Advisor on March 22, 2018.