More Turmoil Ahead for Trump White House

Staffers are fleeing the administration like rats from a sinking ship.

While stories of turmoil in the Trump White House are virtually an everyday occurrence, there are more than usual today.

Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman start us off in the NYT: (“Trump’s Chaos Theory for the Oval Office Is Taking Its Toll“)

For 13 months in the Oval Office, and in an unorthodox business career before that, Donald J. Trump has thrived on chaos, using it as an organizing principle and even a management tool. Now the costs of that chaos are becoming starkly clear in the demoralized staff and policy disarray of a wayward White House.

The dysfunction was on vivid display on Thursday in the president’s introduction of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The previous day, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary D. Cohn, warned the chief of staff, John F. Kelly, that he might resign if the president went ahead with the plan, according to people briefed on the discussion. Mr. Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president, had lobbied fiercely against the measures.

His threat to leave came during a tumultuous week in which Mr. Trump suffered the departure of his closest aide, Hope Hicks, and the effective demotion of his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was stripped of his top-secret security clearance. Mr. Trump was forced to deny, through an aide, that he was about to fire his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

Mr. Kelly summed up the prevailing mood in the West Wing. “God punished me,” he joked of his move from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House during a discussion to mark the department’s 15th anniversary.

When White House aides arrived at work on Thursday, they had no clear idea of what Mr. Trump would say about trade. He had summoned steel and aluminum executives to a meeting, but when the White House said only that he would listen to their concerns, it seemed to signal that Mr. Cohn had held off the tariffs.

Yet at the end of a photo session, when a reporter asked Mr. Trump about the measures, he confirmed that the United States would announce next week that it is imposing long-term tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. The White House has not even completed a legal review of the measures.

Mr. Trump’s off-the-cuff opening of a trade war rattled the stock market, enraged Republicans and left Mr. Cohn’s future in doubt. Mr. Cohn, who almost left last year after Mr. Trump’s response to a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va., indicated he was waiting to see whether Mr. Trump goes through with the tariffs, people familiar with his thinking said.

The chaotic rollout also reflected the departure of another White House official, Rob Porter, who as the staff secretary had a key role in keeping the paper flowing in the West Wing and who had backed Mr. Cohn in his free-trade views. Mr. Porter was forced out last month after facing accusations of spousal abuse.

It was the second day in a row that Mr. Trump blindsided Republicans and his own aides. On Wednesday, in another televised session at the White House, he embraced the stricter gun control measures backed by Democrats and urged lawmakers to revive gun-safety regulations that are opposed by the National Rifle Association and most of his party. But late Thursday, he appeared to have changed his mind again, this time after a meeting with N.R.A. leaders that he described as “great.”

“I always said that it was going to take awhile for Donald Trump to adjust as president,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president’s. In business, he said, Mr. Trump relied on a small circle of colleagues and a management style that amounted to “trial and error — the strongest survived, the weak died.”

Mr. Ruddy insisted that Mr. Trump was finding his groove in the Oval Office. But his subordinates are faring less well. With an erratic boss and little in the way of a coherent legislative agenda, they are consumed by infighting, fears of their legal exposure and an ambient sense that the White House is spinning out of control.

Mr. Trump is isolated and angry, as well, according to other friends and aides, as he carries on a bitter feud with his attorney general and watches members of his family clash with a chief of staff he recruited to restore a semblance of order — all against the darkening shadow of an investigation of his ties to Russia.

The combined effect is taking a toll.

One would think. While I was vehemently opposed to Trump taking the reins from the outset of his campaign, I did have a milder version of Ruddy’s take during the transition and early days of the administration. I expected a steep learning curve given Trump’s temperament an complete lack of governing experience. But I did hold out hope that he would eventually succumb to the discipline of the Executive process. And, even in my worst fears, I never envisioned this sheer chaos.

Not surprisingly, then, people are looking for the exits.

WaPo‘s Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey (“Trump and McMaster have seemed anxious to part but so far remain together“):

For months, the White House has been stuck when it comes to replacing H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser.

President Trump has often seemed eager to move on from the Army three-star general, who has struggled to bond with his irascible boss. And McMaster, who friends said has threatened to quit in fits of frustration and anger, has seemed eager to leave.

But efforts to move McMaster back to the Army have been stymied by two issues: Trump has had trouble finding a high-quality replacement who is willing and able to take over, and it is also not clear that McMaster, still an ­active-duty general officer, has any place to go in the Army.

The net result is one of the weaker National Security Councils in recent memory — a critical part of the White House that has struggled at times to corral powerful personalities in the Pentagon and State Department and advance the president’s often ill-defined foreign policy agenda.

McMaster has had an especially strained relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a favorite of the president’s, who has been slow to respond to McMaster’s requests for military options to counter adversaries such as Iran and North Korea, officials said.

“He treats me like a three-star” rather than a coequal, McMaster has complained to colleagues of Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general.

On Thursday, NBC News reported that the White House is preparing to replace McMaster as early as next month, the latest in a series of stories in recent weeks predicting the general’s departure.

One long-rumored candidate to become Trump’s third national security adviser is Stephen ­Biegun, an auto-industry executive who worked in the George W. Bush administration but is not well known in foreign policy circles, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Biegun, who colleagues say is a steady manager and centrist, shares the president’s skepticism of big global trade deals.

White House officials insisted that no move to replace McMaster is imminent. “I was just with President Trump and H.R. McMaster in the Oval Office,” said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the NSC. “President Trump said that the NBC News story is ‘fake news’ and told McMaster that he is doing a great job.”

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly privately told colleagues Thursday that he did not know Biegun, who was reported by NBC to have Mattis’s backing and to be a front-runner for the position.

The aforementioned NBC report (“White House preparing for McMaster exit as early as next month“) is from Nicolle Wallace:

The White House is preparing to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser as early as next month in a move orchestrated by chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to five people familiar with the discussions.

The move would be the latest in a long string of staff shake-ups at the White House over the past year and comes after months of strained relations between the president and McMaster.

A leading candidate to become President Donald Trump’s third national security adviser is the auto industry executive Stephen Biegun, according to the officials.

Biegun, who currently serves as vice president of international governmental affairs for the Ford Motor Company, is no stranger to the White House. He served on the National Security Council staff from 2001 to 2003, including as a senior staffer for then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Rice introduced Biegun to Mattis, recommending him for a position in the administration, according to a close associate of Rice. After Mattis met with Biegun at a think tank event he was convinced Biegun would be a good fit for the national security adviser role, the associate said.

In an interview on MSNBC Thursday, Rice called McMaster “one of the best generals of his generation.”

“He’s doing a really fine job as national security adviser,” she said. “I have no idea about his future in that job. I hope he stays, he’s really good.”

Rice called Biegun “an outstanding person.”

“He’s an expert in foreign policy and of course has spent time in the private sector and obviously he would be very, very good,” she said. “But let’s wait and see because H.R. McMaster is still in the job and he’s doing a really fine job.”

Two people close to Biegun said he would need several weeks to get his financial affairs in order to be able to join the administration this spring.

So, some red flags with Biegun (of whom, I must confess, I had never heard): he would be yet another Trump official with complicated financial issues that would make getting Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance challenging and there are indications that he’s going to have trouble getting along with Kelly. The endorsement of Condi Rice, which once would have bolstered my confidence considerably, is rather diminished by her and Bob Gates being the ones to put forth Rex Tillerson for State.

Finally, BuzzFeed‘s Tarini Parti and Matt Berman report (“Many Trump Staffers Are Trying To Leave His Out-Of-Control White House“) that the issue likely goes beyond a handful of top staffers.

Many mid- and low-level staffers are anxious to leave and are actively looking for jobs elsewhere, sources close to the White House say. Those staffers saw the surprising resignation of Trump loyalist and communications director Hope Hicks on Wednesday as a sort of tipping point.

A former White House official said he’s spoken with more aides inside the White House who are trying to leave the administration, but not necessarily getting the kinds of high-paying offers in the corporate world as former aides usually do.

“Things are still pretty bleak inside the White House,” the source said. “I’ve talked to several people in the last week trying to find a way out, but they can’t get out because no one is really hiring people with Trump White House experience. Not a fun time to say the least.”

Another source close to the administration said he has also talked to those on the inside about potential job offers. The source said he remembers seeing one particularly fitting pun about Hick’s departure on Thursday: “The White House has lost Hope.” “That about says it all, right?” the source added.

We’re well over a year into the Trump presidency. There is simply no indication that he’s figuring out how to govern. That is, to put it mildly, not good.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    So much winning. . . . . . .

  2. mattb says:

    So, some red flags with Biegun

    Agreed. However, given that the other name that has been floated for quite a bit is John Bolton (who was initially considered for both SoS and National Security), I’m still pulling for Biegun. This is doubly so if the rumors are correct that McMaster is being forced out in part over his advocating to attack North Korea. Given that Bolton is even more onboard with a preemptive war with North Korea, it would be a disaster to have him in that position.

  3. CSK says:

    The only people who will be willing to work for Trump will range from the less-than-mediocre (at best) to the appallingly incompetent (at worst).

  4. Kathy says:

    There’s no indication Trump is even interested in figuring out how to govern.

  5. CSK says:


    Nor any indication that he has the ability to learn.

  6. Mikey says:

    So this Biegun guy had a couple years in the White House…15 years ago. Why would Trump consider him for National Security Adviser?

    Well, he has a bio up on the Ford Motor Company website, and…

    Mr. Biegun, born 1963, graduated from the University of Michigan where he studied Political Science and Russian Language. He is a third generation Ford Motor Company employee. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Strategy Group, and is a member of the boards of the US-Russia Foundation for Economic Development and the Rule of Law, the Moscow School of Politics, Freedom House, the US-Russia Business Council, the US-ASEAN Business Council and FordSollers, Ford Motor Company’s joint venture operating in the Russia Federation.

    …I think his qualifications to serve in the Trump administration speak for themselves.

  7. CSK says:

    Son-of-a-gun. Who’d have guessed?

  8. Franklin says:

    So the people who voted for Trump and still can’t admit a mistake, how long are they going to cling to the idea that he was good at running organizations?

    The man was successful at marketing his brand. That’s *it* for his accomplishments.

  9. Kathy says:

    @CSK: There’s every indication he does not posses such ability.

  10. Kathy says:

    I just realized the perfect quote to inform prospective White House staff in the Trump era:

    “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.” Friedrich Schiller

  11. CSK says:


    Maybe we should replace “e pluribus unum” with that.

  12. HarvardLaw92 says:


    I like it. Like any attorney whose education included Jesuits 🙂 , I’ll volunteer the Latin:

    “Contra stultitia deos se contendere frustra”