The recent series of staff changes in the Trump administration, including the tapping on Thursday of John Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, may be best understood through the lens of loyalty, not policy. President Trump seems to be hiring people who will be loyal to him — and getting rid of those who won’t.
The people Trump has recently selected (and those rumored to be on the way) have been more likely to publicly praise the president’s actions, particularly on Fox News. Bolton, for instance, has often spoken favorably about the president in his position as a Fox analyst. And several of the new appointees have a strong reason to stay loyal to Trump: Many, like Bolton, would almost certainly not get these high-level posts if a more conventional Republican were president. (Bolton served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, but was never a serious candidate for a top job like national security adviser, defense secretary or secretary of state.)
Alignment with Trump’s policy vision, in contrast, doesn’t seem to matter that much to the president. Bolton, for example, was one of the leading advocates in the Bush administration for going to war with Iraq, a decision Trump has said was a “big fat mistake.” Bolton also floated the idea of pre-emptive strikes on North Korea even as Trump has said he plans to sit down with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
If the president wanted to implement his foreign policy vision in the fastest and most efficient way, he could have picked people who agree with him on major issues. But instead of shaking up the staff to bring in more policy agreement, Trump’s goal seems to be the appearance of more agreement: Trump is getting rid of people who have disagreed publicly with him — or whose private disagreements, such as those of McMaster, have reached reporters at outlets like The New York Times. And he’s replacing them with people, whatever their policy views, who have been more willing to toe the administration line.
Here’s a closer look at how these factors have played out in Trump’s staff shake-ups and what they portend for his presidency.
Recent staff changes
John Bolton for H.R. McMaster as national security adviser: McMaster reportedly had a frosty relationship with the commander-in-chief. Whether McMaster instigated them or not, the media reports suggesting that he disagreed with Trump on foreign policy have been numerous. And, on the record last month, McMaster highlighted special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals as the latest “incontrovertible” proof of Russian interference in the 2016 election, even as other White House officials, including Trump, were downplaying it.
I doubt the hawkish Bolton agrees with Trump on Russia, among other foreign policy challenges. But Bolton appears to have cultivated Trump personally. And, as I mentioned, he’s been quick to heap praise on the president.
Mike Pompeo for Rex Tillerson as secretary of state: Outgoing Secretary of State Tillerson certainly had some policy differences with the president, such as backing the Iran nuclear deal. But his replacement, current CIA Director Pompeo, has also taken different tacks from Trump — at times sharply criticizing Russia and hinting that the way to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is for Kim Jong Un to be removed from power.
Tillerson’s real sin may have been reportedly calling Trump a “moron” in a private meeting with other administration officials. Pompeo, in contrast, has said that Trump asks “sophisticated questions that then lead to important policy discussions” during briefings. (So, not a moron.) Whereas Tillerson publicly distanced himself from the president’s controversial comments in the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — “The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson noted — Pompeo said the comments were “very clear” and “frankly pretty unambiguous.” And as CIA director, Pompeo was willing to meet — reportedly at Trump’s request — with a former U.S. intelligence official who has argued that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign was an inside job, not the work of Russian figures, as the U.S. intelligence community believes.
Larry Kudlow for Gary Cohn at the National Economic Council: TV business commentator Kudlow, the new head of the National Economic Council, seems just as much of an internationalist as the man he is replacing. They both generally support free-trade agreements and oppose tariffs — the opposite of Trump. So this swap doesn’t seem to be about policy. (In fact, in picking Kudlow, Trump opted against promoting pro-tariff White House economic adviser Peter Navarro.)
But after Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, Cohn criticized the president in public, and a New York Times story reported that Cohn had written a letter of resignation over Trump’s comments but opted not to submit it. Cohn’s disagreements with the president about tariffs and trade agreements were also public months before his resignation.
Kudlow, in a CNBC interview just before his White House appointment, criticized Trump for imposing new tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, but then added, “He’s so good on tax cuts. He’s so good on deregulation, infrastructure. I even like him on immigration.” Amid the Charlottesville controversy, Kudlow told MSNBC of Trump: “I don’t believe there’s a hate bone in his body.”
Other potential changes
Public reports have identified a number of rumored resignations and dismissals among top Trump advisers, as well as their potential replacements. I’ve chosen to list just the major ones here, alphabetically, without speculating on how likely they are to happen.
Mick Mulvaney for John Kelly as White House chief of staff: A number of stories (usually relying on unnamed sources) have suggested that Kelly considers his main job as chief of staff to be managing the president and keeping him from making unwise decisions. Earlier this year, Kelly reportedly told a group of lawmakers that Trump was “uninformed” about immigration policy during the 2016 campaign, leading him to make some unrealistic promises.
Mulvaney, while also serving in the Cabinet as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, has largely avoided casting the president as uninformed or needing to be restrained from his instincts.
Scott Pruitt for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General: Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, irritating Trump. Trump is also annoyed that Sessions has not appointed a special counsel to re-examine the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email use as secretary of state.
It’s not clear if Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and former attorney general of Oklahoma, would act differently than Sessions by limiting Mueller’s probe or appointing someone to investigate Clinton. But it’s hard to imagine Pruitt could do anything worse (in Trump’s view) than allowing the appointment of Mueller.
Indeed, Trump’s tensions with Sessions are one the clearest signs that Trump’s frustration with some of his top aides are not really based on policy. The anti-illegal-immigration, pro-law-enforcement rhetoric of Trump’s campaign has been dutifully and persistently executed by Sessions at the Justice Department. If Trump were focused on policy, he wouldn’t have much to complain about with Sessions.
Pete Hegseth for David Shulkin as Veteran Affairs Secretary: We don’t have much evidence of personal tension between Trump and Shulkin. But Shulkin was appointed to his post by Obama, and Trump (surprisingly) opted to keep him on. Now Shulkin is in a fight over policy with some Trump political appointees and under fire after he improperly billed the government $122,000 for a trip he and his wife took to Europe.
In contrast, Hegseth, an Iraq War veteran, is a co-host of “Fox and Friends Weekend” who praised Trump’s Charlottesville remarks.
In some ways, Trump is following the pattern of the last two presidents by replacing staff with people more loyal to him — Trump is just doing it a bit sooner than they did. In his second term, then-President George W. Bush appointed two of his top White House advisers, Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Spellings, to run key departments (State and Education, respectively). Rice was known to be more in line with Bush’s foreign policy views than the man she replaced, Colin Powell, whose disagreements with Bush had become public.
Obama made a long-time aide, Denis McDonough, his chief of staff for his second term after appointing people with big names and long pre-Obama resumes (Rahm Emanuel, William Daley) to that post in his first term. Disagreements between those two and the president had also became public.
But for Bush and Obama, the staff overhaul that put loyalists in key positions came after they’d already been in office for four years. Trump is making these changes after a year — and on top of a host of other personnel moves last year that removed everyone from establishment types (Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer) to lightning-rod figures (Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci).
I think last year’s changes reflected a certain amount of chaos at the White House, while the changes we’re seeing now are different. They show that Trump is ready to move on from a team of advisers who seem to view some of the president’s instincts as wrong-headed, and who think that talking him out of those instincts is one of their job responsibilities.
Of course, why not pick people who are both loyal and in agreement with the president on the issues? It’s hard not to conclude that Trump doesn’t value policy much. Although, the president has also said that he likes having aides with differing views debate one another so he can choose the best argument, so a certain amount of policy tension may be a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s governing style.
And broadly speaking, Trump seems to be showing a clear vision for what he’s looking for in his advisers: If you want a top job in his administration, you should probably get yourself on camera and praise the president. If you are hired, save your criticisms of the president for the book you write after you quit — instead of leaking them to Politico while you are working in the administration.