Over the weekend a top aide to President Trump boasted about the speed with which the new administration is moving to enact its agenda. “The President of the United States has accomplished more in just a few weeks than many Presidents do in an entire administration,” said Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller.
While there’s no disputing the fact that Trump and his team have been extremely active in the first few weeks of his term, the new administration is also threatening to set another speed record: shortest time to a major staff shake-up.
While rumors of staff infighting and potential dismissals and resignations are the standard stuff of reporting on any White House, the sheer bulk of stories about very senior figures in the executive mansion who find themselves in doubt about their future is stunning, coming as they do less than a month into the new administration.
It’s generally assumed that the man standing on the thinnest of the thin ice is retired three-star Army General Michael Flynn, who now serves as Trump’s National Security Adviser. Flynn has been accused, by sources in the Intelligence Community, of discussing the lifting of Obama administration sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador before Trump officially took office.
Flynn later denied that he had done so, expressing his innocence directly to Vice President Mike Pence who then went on television to defend him. Later, further leaks from intelligence operatives with access to intercepts of the calls claimed that Flynn had misled both the vice president and the public.
Lying to the vice president would likely be a fireable offense in any other White House, and Flynn’s status within Trump’s remains unclear. Miller, in television appearances over the weekend, declined to offer even the standard claim that Flynn enjoys the president’s “full confidence,” which assertion, by itself, usually signals that someone is in trouble.
The result is a National Security Council operating in crisis mode, with career staff unsure not just of the new administration’s priorities, but about whether or not they will have the same boss when they wake up each morning.
Flynn, however, is far from the only high-visibility staffer who might be in trouble. From his first moments behind the podium in the White House briefing room, Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been the target of ridicule in the media and reported criticism from within the Oval Office.
Over the weekend, Washingtonian magazine reported that former Navy SEAL and early Trump supporter Carl Higbie was being considered a replacement for Spicer, which Higbie appeared to confirm. Trump has reportedly been unhappy with some elements of Spicer’s job performance and with mockery he has become, particularly on Saturday Night Live, where actress Melissa McCarthy has been lampooning him as a rage-driven fabulist.
Possibly the most surprising person that Trump is said to be considering for replacement is White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. There wasn’t much discussion about it until last weekend when Newsmax CEO and Trump friend Chris Ruddy had drinks with the president, then promptly went on CNN to rip into Priebus for “weakness” and poor communications.
Ruddy, in an interview with The Washington Post, repeated his criticism, saying, ““It’s my view that Reince is the problem. I think on paper Reince looked good as the chief of staff — and Donald trusted him — but it’s pretty clear the guy is in way over his head. He’s not knowledgeable of how federal agencies work, how the communications operations work. He botched this whole immigration rollout. This should’ve been a win for Donald, not two or three weeks of negative publicity.”
His statements earned Ruddy a couple of calls from the White House, as he reported on Twitter Sunday. “Reince just briefed me on new WH plans. Impressive! CNN today my personal view. Told him I have 'open mind' based on his results,” he tweeted. Later, he noted that Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner had also reached out to him. “Jared Kushner tells me COS Reince is doing ‘amazing job.’”
Nevertheless, his statements, and his relationship with Trump, naturally led to speculation that the former chair of the Republican National Committee might not be long for the chief of staff job. Mike Allen, of Axios, reported that there is speculation Trump might smooth Priebus’s exit by offering him a cabinet position.
Trump has been publicly silent about the future of all three of the men, and at this point, it is unclear what constitutes a firing offense in his White House. Known to prize loyalty, Trump has received plenty of it from all three men who have taken plenty of slings and arrows on his behalf over the past year.
But loyalty to Trump is no golden ticket. Just ask Corey Lewandowski, the dedicated former Trump campaign manager who was ousted in the midst of the primary season and was not pulled into the administration after the election.
Trump has demonstrated that he’s happy to cut someone loose if he decides their liabilities outweigh their benefits. At the moment, though, the balance sheet for Flynn, Spicer and Priebus is stored in his head.