We still don’t know exactly how Rex Tillerson was told he was losing his job, but we do know one basic fact: President Donald Trump only talked to him about it after announcing it on Twitter, speaking to the press, and reportedly having his Chief of Staff John Kelly give Tillerson some sort of heads up a few days earlier.
In other words, the man who became famous for uttering the phrase “you’re fired!” outsourced the dirty work of terminating someone – and not for the first time.
That’s more than a little off-brand. It’s also part of a bigger-picture change in the way Trump operates.
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“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want,” explained the president on Tuesday.
Translation: he’s pushing out anyone who might challenge his point of view.
After 14 months in office, Trump has gone from hiring people who make others happy, to listening to his gut, making impulsive decisions, and surrounding himself with voices who confirm his own thinking.
Remember the early days of the Trump White House? Establishment Republicans had carved out a little niche in a room full of political outsiders and outcasts.
There was former GOP chair Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff, and GOP Communications Director Sean Spicer as Press Secretary. Rex Tillerson and economic advisor Gary Cohn were part of that world, too. One was an oil company executive, while the other came from the heart of Wall Street.
Observers often joked that the establishment “swamp” Trump so often talked about draining, had instead been given a home. It was almost as though he was extending an olive branch to the mainstream by allowing each of these men to enter his sphere of influence.
But one-by-one, those establishment types have either left or been shown the door.
In fairness, a few of the outsiders in Trump’s original circle, such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, have been turfed along the way, too.
In almost every case, their replacements are the kinds of people Trump would probably rather have at his side.
It’s part of a trend toward a more freewheeling, “do what feels good” style of management, in which the president is free to make impulsive decisions without fear of blowback from aides and advisors.
Just look at who he has lined up to replace Tillerson at the State Department. CIA Director Mike Pompeo is a Trump loyalist, and a former Tea Party Republican who’s firmly in the president’s corner. As a congressman, he even welcomed the WikiLeaks release of hacked DNC emails in a tweet.
He’s not likely to contradict the president the way Tillerson did, so don’t expect many opposing points of view.
The Iran nuclear deal is one prime example of how things are about to change.
The president was always a little miffed that Rex Tillerson wanted to keep the agreement, while he so badly wanted to rip it apart. Now Mike Pompeo is taking over the State Department, and it just so happens he’s no fan of the Iran deal, either.
The same thing happened with the departure of chief economic advisor Gary Cohn. He was infuriated by the president’s out-of-the-blue push to bring in tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. His replacement, Larry Kudlow, has apparently warmed to the idea now that Canada and Mexico are temporarily exempt. He’s also a cable TV commentator with a sketchy track-record of economic predictions. That’s good enough for Trump.
But building himself an echo chamber runs counter to everything Trump has claimed about his own management style, even if it really is the way he prefers to operate. Just last week he told reporters about his love for chaos and opposing viewpoints. “I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that. And then I make a decision,” Trump explained, “I think it’s the best way to go.”
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It’s not unusual for a politician to surround themselves with loyalists, but presidents tend to bring in trusted advisors who give them the best advice and are free to advocate their opinions.
Trump, it seems, is more interested in having free rein. That also means he has fewer people to save him from himself.
“When he’s under pressure is when he tends to do this impulsive stuff,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, to the Washington Post.
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Pressures right now include Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, the scandal surrounding his alleged affair with a porn star, and numerous issues involving members of his staff and cabinet. Oh, and then there’s North Korea, the threat of a looming trade war, and the looming midterm elections that could see Republicans delivered a serious blow.
With all that going on, Trump has decided to hunker down and harden his approach, while signaling to his remaining staff that there’s little room for dissent.
Already there are hints of more firings and resignations from the administration, with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson considered the most likely to go next.
At this point, Trump seems content to rip off the band-aid as quickly as possible to build the kind of inner circle he wants. That means more chaos and uncertainty, and more decision-making power based directly on the whims of the president.
Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.