WASHINGTON – Before the wall, before “Crooked Hillary,” before “I alone can fix it,” what many Americans knew about Donald Trump was summed up in one blunt catchphrase: “You’re fired.”
Trump’s signature line from his NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” was, in quintessential Trump style, improvised. He blurted it out during the taping of his first show, and the crew instantly knew they had a winner.
Now, Trump is again being viewed as a leader given to frequent, dramatic sackings, this time with far more than ratings at stake. From national security adviser Michael Flynn’s departure less than a month into the new administration to this week’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the parade of departures has become a different kind of prime-time drama, raising questions about whether Trump is draining the swamp or creating dangerous instability.
Although the number of departures is unusual, the biggest change in how Washington operates is the way in which Trump has gone about swapping out personnel.
Tillerson learned that he was being fired via a presidential tweet. FBI Director James Comey found out he was sacked last year by seeing a headline on cable news. Last summer, chief of staff Reince Priebus’s White House career ended when other top officials hopped out of the black Suburban SUV that was carrying them from Air Force One back to Washington, leaving Priebus the lone passenger in a vehicle that then peeled out of the president’s motorcade.
In these and many other cases over the first 14 months of Trump’s administration, there was no “You’re fired” moment, at least not from the president. Presidents often outsource the unseemly business of firing people to their chief of staff, but “what’s really unusual about this president is the public humiliations,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who studies presidential transitions at the Brookings Institution. “I’ve never seen a president criticize his staff so publicly and individually.”
The high-velocity spin on the White House’s revolving door stems in part from “an insurgent campaign that shunned experience” and in part from the president’s tendency to “value loyalty over qualifications,” Tenpas said.
She has calculated that first-year staff turnover in the Trump White House is more than triple that of Barack Obama’s administration and double that of Ronald Reagan’s.
Trump’s approach to management may be new to the White House, but it’s not surprising to those who have worked for him for decades.
Longtime executives in Trump’s business empire say that although he successfully constructed a popular conception of himself as a tough, blunt truth-teller, the “You’re fired” image was always a caricature.
On “The Apprentice,” the decisions about which contestant to jettison came not from the mercurial chief executive at the big, gleaming desk, but from the program’s producers, according to people who worked on the show. Trump got his instructions on whom to sack via a prompter on his desk that was made to look like a phone.
And in real life, in more than four decades at the helm of his family business, Trump did sometimes made a show of taking charge by dispatching underlings in public, humiliating fashion. But those were the exceptions. At the Trump Organization, he didn’t fire many people and, when he did, he only rarely took the action himself, generally leaving the dirty work to his deputies.
Trump has frequently explained the turnover in his operations by saying that he thrives on chaos and controversy. He has been quick to criticize or humiliate members of his administration in public – he peppered Tillerson with disdainful tweets and leaks, just as he had with Comey, Priebus and Jeff Sessions, who remains in the role of attorney general.
Yet some of those who have been subjected to harsh public critiques stay on in their jobs. And many of those who have left nonetheless remain loyal to Trump both publicly and privately – a pattern that has continued throughout his career, as fired staffers come back to work for him years later.
“Some people just haven’t synced well with him, but they still support his goals and philosophies,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, who quit after six months in the position. “I approached my job in a very traditional way, as Rex did. And the president is a very untraditional disrupter. But even after you’re gone, he’s very helpful and looks after people who’ve been part of the team.”
Tenpas’ study of turnover in the Trump White House concluded that the staff volatility is so high in part because the president disdained people with government experience and was unwilling to hire people who had opposed him during the campaign.
Trump promised a break with business as usual, a governmentwide housecleaning that would entail plenty of departures. But his time in the White House has been notable for the number of sackings from within his own roster of appointments. Many of those who have left or been pushed out departed not because of policy differences, but because Trump did not connect with them or did not trust them.
“There’ll always be some degree of turnover because that’s who he is,” Spicer said. “But it will be less over time because he’s really starting to get a handle on the type of people he needs to push his agenda.”
Like the contestants on “The Apprentice,” many of those who have suffered embarrassing endings to their short tenures over the past year had the great disadvantage of not having spent much time around their boss before this job.
They therefore lacked the skills honed by executives who worked for Trump for decades. Most of his inner circle in the Trump Organization had, contrary to popular impressions of the president, devoted most of their working careers to what was often portrayed to the public as a virtual one-man show.
Those who stayed with Trump say they learned how to let him vent when he was angry. They knew how to appeal to his delight in appearing to be unpredictable. They knew not to challenge him in public but rather to master the art of hanging out in his office long enough to subtly make their case and, most crucially, get him to believe that some alternative to his stated view was also his idea.
“At some point, you have to understand your boss,” Spicer said. “You either cut against the grain or you understand how he operates.”
Those who have enjoyed long tenures with Trump say they learned early on that if they could balance his craving for respect and loyalty against his desire to project strength, they could sometimes get their way.
“The funny thing was that if you played him right, you could often win,” said Barbara Res, who ran Trump’s construction operations in the 1980s. “He needed to be stroked all the time and told how smart he was. Every decision process was clouded by his sense that he knows more than anybody else. But you could work with that: The way we got things done was to approach him with an idea and make him think it was his. It was so easy.”
While he built his reputation as a savvy dealmaker who relished conflict, Trump has rarely tolerated open dissent. Rather, he tells his executives that he expects them to rally around and defend him against reactions stirred up by his various provocations.
From his stunning dismissal of Comey last May through the flurry of recent firings, Trump has sought to define his brand as leadership that moves swiftly and unilaterally, embracing controversy because it’s a surefire way to dominate the news.
He has called himself a “ratings machine,” and he has always rewarded those who enhanced that role and punished those who sought to share the limelight.
Since the 1970s, Trump has been quick to push out people who spoke out against him, contradicted him in public, claimed credit for something his company had achieved or behaved in ways he considered disloyal.
The hierarchical structure of the federal bureaucracy was never going to be a comfortable place for Trump. Before taking office, Trump told a group of visiting Silicon Valley executives that it would be simple to work with him: “You’ll call my people, you’ll call me,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference. We have no formal chain of command here.”
But once he got to Washington, Trump found himself without close aides who knew when to yield to him and how to push him without sending him over the edge.
And as his presidency has faced pressure from low popularity ratings, dangers around the world and a constant drumbeat of investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by his campaign, he has gotten rid of or threatened people for failing to embrace his policies, embarrassing him, or being what he considered weak or insufficiently supportive.
“I listen to people,” Trump wrote in one of his books, “Think Like a Billionaire,” “but my vision is my vision.”
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