The clown car known as the Trump administration spat out another senior official this week when the president fired national security adviser John Bolton (or, if you believe Bolton's version of events, when he quit). The third person to hold that post in Trump’s White House, Bolton is now the latest example of the unceasing personnel churn that has gripped this administration virtually from Day One.
At best, the pre-9/11 national security shake-up is a reminder of Trump’s inability to identify or retain quality people — never mind “the best people,” as he once promised — to fill the senior levels of government; at worst it’s another grim sign of Trump’s relentless drive to surround himself with aides whose signal qualifications are absolute loyalty and fealty rather than competence.
Trump famously likes to make exaggerated claims about himself and his administration, but records he actually has but rarely mentions involve turnover. According to data compiled by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institution, Trump has had more first-term Cabinet-level turnover than any predecessor going as far back as Ronald Reagan — and this for a president who hasn’t even completed his third year in office.
The nine Cabinet secretaries who have departed his employ to date are as many as left in the entire first terms of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton combined. And 77 percent of Trump’s top non-Cabinet positions have also turned over, a figure already ahead of the four-year total for each of his six predecessors not named Reagan; with 15 months yet left in his term, it seems fair to assume that he’ll blow past the Gipper’s 78 percent.
And that 77 percent figure doesn’t even take into account senior positions that have had serial turnover, like Bolton’s erstwhile gig: Thirty-two percent of what Tenpas calls “A Team” positions have turned over multiple times. Trump is on his fifth communications director (or sixth, depending on how you count) and whoever follows Bolton will be the fourth person in that job in less than three full years.
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Some Trumpkins, of course, departed under a cloud of scandal: The first person to hold Bolton’s job, Mike Flynn, is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI. Trump’s first (of four) secretaries of health and human services, Tom Price, resigned because he took too many private plane rides; Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first interior secretary and Scott Pruitt, his first EPA administrator, quit while under ethical clouds. So did Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
Some left under circumstances that were not criminal but merely absurd: The State Department’s chief of protocol was suspended pending investigation after reports surfaced that he would intimidate and abuse employees, including carrying a whip around the office. Omarosa Maginault Newman (originally of “The Apprentice” fame) was canned from the Office of Public Liaison for having a photo shoot for her 39-member wedding party on the White House grounds. And Anthony Scaramucci lost his job as White House communications director after just 10 days when he speculated in profane terms about then-chief strategist Steve Bannon’s personal habits.
Trump has even turned on those he once esteemed, even if they didn’t depart on the worst terms. Bannon went from being a top policy aide to “sloppy Steve” who had “lost his mind” after he was ousted in the wake of doing too many interviews taking credit for Trump’s win. (More recently, Trump has called him “one of my best pupils.” Was that at Trump University?) Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was reportedly “mentally retarded” in Trump’s estimation. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went from being “one of the truly great business leaders” to “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell” after his departure. Manigault Newman went from a trusted staffer to “wacky” and a “lowlife” after her firing and then the release of her tell-all book. (By contrast, Trump still speaks warmly of Flynn.)
It all makes one wonder whose bright idea it was to hire these bozos in the first place.
But in the case of Bolton, one need not wait for the inevitable Trump backlash to ask who thought they would be a good match. Bolton, the ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, is a vocal neocon hawk who wants both to talk loudly and hit everything with a big stick. Trump — while sharing Bolton’s taste for rhetorical bellicosity (remember “fire and fury”?) — is an isolationist who campaigned on making America less involved in the world.
Bolton disdains diplomacy and doesn’t believe our global rivals can be trusted to keep their word, while the showman Trump yearns for a big, historic accord (see the near-confab with the Taliban at Camp David, originally scheduled for the weekend before 9/11) to prove that he is the ultimate dealmaker and secure his legacy.
But, despite their differences, Trump’s admiration for Bolton’s combative television performances overcame his dislike of Bolton’s famously bushy mustache. (Seriously. Because these are the criteria for building a national security team.)
But live by the TV appearance, die by the TV appearance: Bolton reportedly backed out of scheduled Sunday show appearances last month because he wasn’t comfortable defending Trump’s policies, souring their relationship. “Trump was heard complaining about the cancellations days later,” the AP reported Wednesday.
Now Trump has promised a replacement for Bolton sometime next week, but don’t be surprised if whoever he appoints comes with “acting” appended to their title. Trump has developed a preference for having interim and acting officials rather than giving people jobs outright. It gives him “more flexibility” he says, but mostly he seemingly enjoys the extra leverage he has over the temps — and, not for nothing, having interim appointees lessens the amount of time he has to deal with pesky senators and their confirmation hearings.
But as Trump chases deals with North Korea, Iran and/or the Taliban, he’s operating with a national security team riddled with "actings" and vacancies. And never mind that it undercuts acting Cabinet secretaries with the very bureaucracies they’re supposed to be guiding, making them the Cabinet equivalent of substitute teachers; their effectiveness is not his concern.
This is the second act of the Trump presidency. The first was dominated by talk of serious people redirecting or otherwise restraining Trump’s worst instincts. Remember the “axis of adults”? But having seen those cable news segments, Trump wants his employees to let Trump be Trump and is installing yes-men to see to it. Bolton had become a foreign policy Dr. No, tamping down Trump’s desire to go for big, showy deals with North Korea, Iran and the Taliban. Whoever replaces him will know to cheer on Trump’s ideas, no matter how ill-conceived.
Ordinary presidents deserve advisers who buy into their agendas — but they also need aides willing to tell them when they’re embracing a bad idea, for their own sake as well as the sake of the country. Trump, however, is no ordinary Oval Office occupant, but one with authoritarian instincts who has long chafed at being constrained by aides and rules alike.
There is, after all, a dark side to the search for the loyalty and obsequiousness. “It is part of [authoritarians’] consolidation of power and creates an inner sanctum so they can freely plunder and ruin the country w/o being challenged,” New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat tweeted on Tuesday.
Don’t then mourn the loss of John Bolton — but do fear the gain of an increasingly unhinged, unbound Trump.