President Trump announced on Friday that he had dumped his chief of staff Reince Priebus — a move that everyone saw coming after Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, had spent much of the last week publicly blasting Priebus. In just a week, the president has executed a long-rumored shake-up of his staff, appointing Scaramucci, accepting the resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer, who had threatened to quit if Scaramucci was appointed, and now replacing Priebus with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
But remember, these are only the changes that have actually occurred. Published articles have suggested that both national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are frustrated in their roles and that Tillerson may consider resigning. Trump is mad at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and seems to be trying to get Sessions to quit. All this is coming only a few months after there was news of tension between the president and chief strategist Steve Bannon — even though both Bannon and Sessions were among Trump’s strongest backers during his campaign and are deeply connected to the nationalist part of Trump’s base.
Whew. Washington always has drama and tension, but this amount of uncertainty and changeover in some of the most important jobs in government is highly unusual.
So what the hell is happening in the Trump administration? (Yes, beyond the volatile president.) Earlier this year, I wrote that there were at least eight power centers in Trumpworld and that they would compete with one another for influence. One of my assumptions in writing that article was that Trump, with little experience in Washington or in government and lacking a well-defined policy vision, would be fairly malleable — which might give his advisers more influence than advisers had under previous presidents.
I was wrong, to some extent. It’s still not clear that Trump has defined views on, say, U.S. policy in North Africa or how health care marketplaces should work. But six months into the administration, some of his preferences have become clear: He seems to trust family members and his associates from New York more than people with long experience in policy or politics, even on matters of policy and politics. He does not share the deep wariness about Russia and Vladimir Putin that is held by both Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington. His favorite kinds of policies appear to be ones that reverse something former President Barack Obama did. And he seems to have no intention of courting traditional Beltway constituencies like the D.C. press corps, the foreign policy establishment or even GOP congressional leaders.
Those four preferences don’t mesh well with the skills, connections and credentials that some of the key people in his administration bring to the table. As a result, those aides are at times either marginalized or pushed out.
This isn’t just a Beltway story of who is up and who is down. It matters. The people who aren’t in sync with Trump on his core preferences could lose their ability to set policy in areas where the president does not have strong views. So let’s revisit our eight power centers.
One wing that is basically defunct
The Party Wing — Priebus was running the Republican National Committee when Trump named him White House chief of staff. And several people from Priebus’s RNC team snagged top slots at the White House, including deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, senior assistant press secretary Michael Short and Spicer.
Walsh left the White House several months ago — it’s not clear whether she was pushed out or exited voluntarily. Spicer could have stayed on, but he had been disempowered. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new press secretary, was already doing many of the briefings that Spicer had done at the start of the administration. Spicer had shifted to a role directing the White House’s broader communications strategy, but Scaramucci got that portfolio when he was hired. Short resigned this week, with Scaramucci reportedly on the verge of firing him.1
Why did the Party Wing struggle so much?
Well, Trump is not trying to court the traditional constituencies of Washington. So he has no need for people, like Priebus and Spicer in particular, whose main credentials are their establishment ties. From his RNC tenure, Priebus had deep relationships with the GOP establishment in Washington, including his longtime friend and fellow Wisconsin native, House Speaker Paul Ryan. (Ryan, a day before Priebus’s removal became public, told reporters on Capitol Hill, “Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House and I believe he has the president’s confidence.” Spicer had been a spokesman in the Bush administration, on Capitol Hill and at the RNC, with extensive contacts with Beltway reporters.
Kelly, a Marine, had spent virtually his entire career in the military before taking the Homeland Security post. His lack of experience working on Capitol Hill or in the White House fits well with an administration that doesn’t value those skills.
One wing that is struggling
The McCain Wing — Similar to the Party Wing, the McCain Wing2 of the Trump administration — particularly general-turned-national-security-adviser H.R. McMaster and general-turned-defense-secretary Jim Mattis — has declining power because Trump is not following the edicts of the Washington Republican foreign policy establishment.
Trump’s moves on Russia — downplaying the election hacking, exploring the lifting of U.S. sanctions, trying to build closer ties with Vladimir Putin — are not the kinds of policies that the generals favored before they entered the administration. This is a problem if you are serving as a top Trump foreign policy adviser. So when Trump met with Putin at the G-20 summit earlier this month, McMaster was not included in either the formal meeting or an informal session the two leaders had later.3
It’s not clear that McMaster and Mattis want Trump to follow through on his campaign pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. So the president, according to Foreign Policy, has tasked a different set of staffers to present him with a path for leaving the agreement. Additionally, the Pentagon seemed to be blindsided by Trump’s tweets last week that he wanted to ban transgender people from serving in the military. It was not clear that Mattis supported such a ban.
It will be interesting to see how Kelly’s ascension affects Mattis and McMaster. On the one hand, Kelly, before he joined the Trump administration, was fairly skeptical of Russia and Putin as well. So he could be another voice pushing the president toward a more confrontational relationship with Putin, like Mattis, McMaster and congressional leaders in both parties. On the other hand, the chief of staff role is traditionally defined as executing the president’s agenda, even more than other top government posts. If Trump now has in Kelly a top aide with military experience who will endorse his more unorthodox stands on foreign policy, particularly toward Russia, the president could be even more eager to reject the advice of Mattis and McMaster. Stay tuned here, the role of Kelly on foreign policy could be very interesting.
The three wings maintaining power (but not gaining more)
The Friends and Family Wing — Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have convinced the president of at least one thing: the value of their being untouchable, powerful advisers, in a way no presidential daughter and son-in-law have ever been in modern times. And the swapping in of Scaramucci — a New York finance person with no previous government experience (like Ivanka Trump and Kushner) — for D.C. insider Spicer is another power grab for this wing. Ivanka Trump and Kushner reportedly favored the move.
On the other hand, it is hard to see this wing’s influence on policy. If Ivanka Trump really wanted her father to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate deal, as was reported, she did not succeed. Her proposal for a national paid family leave program has little momentum on Capitol Hill.
The Bannon Wing — Bannon and Sessions were two of the architects of the nationalist parts of Trump’s campaign platform. But in the spring, Kushner and Bannon were warring internally, and the president downplayed his relationship with Bannon. Recently, the president has publicly complained about Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia and for allowing the appointment of a special counsel. So, at first glance, it would appear that the nationalist wing of Trumpworld is in decline, since the status of Bannon and Sessions has been in question.
But the ideas of the Bannon-Sessions wing are flourishing, even if the two men are not personally. Trump remained behind the travel ban on people from certain Muslim-majority nations, even after courts kept issuing rulings against it. That steadfast defense of the policy was rewarded when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated part of the executive order enacting it. Sessions is implementing hardline immigration and criminal justice policies at the Department of Justice, and Kelly, in his DHS role, was aggressive about defending the administration’s right to deport undocumented immigrants. And Bannon urged Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, which Trump has said he will do.
Why are these ideas still carrying the day in the Trump administration? You could argue that even if Bannon’s and Sessions’s stocks are down, nationalist views have advocates all over the administration. But the most important reason that these views and those who champion them have lots of power is that the president appears to agree with them.
The Wall Street Wing — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and other traditional economic figures were expected to push Trump away from the more unusual positions that he took during the campaign, when he proposed withdrawing from NAFTA and labeling China a currency manipulator. He has not taken either of those steps. So from that perspective, the Wall Street Wing has accomplished what the McCain Wing had hoped to do: have Trump govern more like a traditional Republican on their issues. But they have not fully turned him around: Trump is arguably more opposed to multi-country free-trade agreements than any recent American president.
The two wings gaining power (probably because of Trump’s Russia problem)
The Bureaucrats — Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is in charge of the DOJ investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign and whether there are any connections between that interference and Trump allies, is probably not who you think of when you think of a bureaucrat. But he occupies a major post in government, and he wasn’t put there by Trump — and those are the types of people this wing encompasses. The most important conflict in Washington right now is Mueller v. Trump, since Trump seems to want the Russia investigation to stop and firing Sessions or Mueller might be a route to accomplishing that goal.
It’s not exactly clear who is leaking to major newspapers like The New York Times the connections of Kushner, Sessions and others in Trump’s orbit to Russian figures. But many of the news accounts of these connections are often attributed to unnamed “U.S. officials,” suggesting that these are people inside the government. The people who are leaking this information that fuels the Russia-Trump stories have a lot of power at the moment because it’s keeping that issue in the minds of the public and irritating Trump.
The Pence Wing — If you look at policy, the traditional conservative wing of the Trump administration, led by the vice president, is winning like no other. Trump, despite little record of opposing abortion before his 2016 presidential campaign, has enacted or is pushing a number of provisions aimed at either reducing the number of abortions or cutting funding for Planned Parenthood. His budget reads like it was written at the offices of the deeply conservative Heritage Foundation, full of cuts to government programs. Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military was another policy advocated by social conservatives, including Vice President Mike Pence, according to reports.
The secret sauce of this wing is probably Russia. Trump, during his campaign, took positions on some issues that were distinct from the rest of the Republican Party, at one point suggesting that he opposed efforts to cut Medicaid funding. But the Russia scandal has in some ways heightened the president’s need for loyalty from congressional Republicans and the GOP base. They can save him from more investigations and potentially impeachment and removal from office. He appears to have traded policy for party loyalty, largely enacting the agenda of party activists and more conservative figures like Pence.
Other Important Figures — I noted in my earlier article that Tillerson and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway were high-profile figures who didn’t necessarily land in a particular camp, so we dubbed them part of their own power center of people who could emerge as major players. But neither of them have become central figures in the administration.
Conway appears on cable news often, but it is not clear that she has any substantial role in deciding the administration’s strategy or policy.
Tillerson, meanwhile, seems to favor policies that are out of step with Trump (like staying in the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal). And he has another big problem: Kushner is playing a big role in diplomacy, even on major issues like Israeli-Palestinian policy that would normally be the purview of the secretary of state.
But the Trump administration now has Kelly, another figure who does not obviously fit into any of these existing camps, in a central position. The chief of staff can insert himself into every policy decision Trump makes. So he has the potential to be a huge influence. But it’s not really clear what Kelly’s views are on domestic policies like health care and taxes, or national security questions like the Iran nuclear deal. We don’t know how Kelly will approach managing the White House. For example, does he have the power and standing with Trump to get the president to stop sending controversial tweets? Can he get staffers to stop blasting each other in press? Or, will Trump soon become dissatisfied with Kelly, like he became with Sessions, Priebus and others, thus allowing the internal drama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to continue.
So we knew that Trump would have an unusual administration. But its evolution, at least in its early stages, has been, frankly, kind of weird. Trump is executing a small government and conservative moral values agenda on domestic issues with a skew towards more nationalist policies on race and immigration but a somewhat pro-Russia foreign policy. That is an unusual mix. His chief of staff, press secretary and a deputy chief of staff have already left, and there have been rumors that his attorney general, chief strategist and secretary of state will quit in frustration or be pushed out, all while his daughter and son-in-law occupy secure roles. That too is unprecedented. Trumpworld still has a lot of of competing power centers, and it’s still not clear exactly which one dominates.