“People close to the White House say they expect more major personnel shifts this week,” tweeted Maggie Haberman yesterday. Attorney General and National Security Advisor sound pretty major.
Cycling out Jeff Sessions and cycling in John Bolton would be even weirder than bringing in Larry Kudlow to run economic policy in a protectionist White House. Until Trump jumped into politics, Sessions was the most prominent nationalist in the Republican Party, certainly in elected office. Bolton, meanwhile, has been one of the GOP’s most outspoken hawks for decades. Somehow, a little more than a year into his term, a guy who got elected president running as an anti-interventionist “America First” populist is prepared to cashier the former and hire the latter. On what planet does that make sense?
Answer: The planet where personal “loyalty” to Trump matters more than policy does. Bolton says nice things about the president on TV while Sessions put his ethical duty to recuse himself from the Russiagate probe above Trump’s personal interests. That’s all there is to it. Gabriel Sherman sees change a-comin’:
According to a person who spoke with Bolton after the meeting, Bolton recalled that Trump said he wanted him to join the administration: “We need you in here, John.” Bolton responded that there were only two jobs he’d consider: secretary of state and national security adviser. Trump said, “O.K, I’ll call you really soon.” Sources added that Trump spent much of the time with Bolton fuming that McMaster was speaking privately with Barack Obama’s former national security adviser Susan Rice. “Trump kept saying, ‘Can you believe it? To Susan Rice? Can you believe it?’”
Perhaps most consequential for Robert Mueller’s investigation, sources said Trump has discussed a plan to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions. According to two Republicans in regular contact with the White House, there have been talks that Trump could replace Sessions with E.P.A. Administrator Scott Pruitt, who would not be recused from overseeing the Russia probe. Also, because Pruitt is already a Cabinet secretary, he would not have to go through another Senate confirmation hearing.
No confirmation hearing for Pruitt? Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it. First, though, note that CBS is also hearing that the McMaster-for-Bolton swap is happening verrrrry soon — as in “don’t wander far from a TV or computer” soon. And that might not be the end of the firings.
The sense that H.R. McMaster’s days are numbered as national security adviser has reached something close to a fever pitch. Several sources inside and outside the White House say they expect McMaster to leave this week and, in all likelihood, return to the Army with the anticipation that the three-star general will be given a fourth star. This would be part of the easing out deal Defense Secretary James Mattis (who retired as a four-star general) has quietly nudged along…
Congressional sources and White House advisers tell CBS News that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is in serious jeopardy. There is an expectation he also will not last the week in the Trump administration. After emails released Wednesday showed that Carson knew more about the expensive furniture ordered for his office than he had previously let on.
Trump has taken to referring to disfavored members of his cabinet as “dead weight,” according to CNN, whose sources also say Carson is in trouble over his stupidly exorbitant office furniture expenditures. Trump can choose anyone he likes for National Security Advisor but all of these other positions — HUD, DOJ, VA, State, CIA — require confirmation hearings, which will keep McConnell busy through the end of the term. Per CNN, there’s even a chance that Betsy DeVos could be on her way out at the Department of Education after her trainwreck interview on “60 Minutes” last weekend.
Does POTUS know, though, that all of the new hires will need to be confirmed and that that’ll affect both midterm politics and the Senate’s agenda through spring, summer, and fall? Sherman’s claim that cabinet members, once confirmed, can simply lateral into vacancies at other department without needing to be confirmed again is a common mistake. They can do that *temporarily*, for 210 days under the Vacancies Reform Act, but then they need to be reconfirmed to the position. (That’s how Mick Mulvaney, the head of OMB, was able to take the reins at the Consumer Financial Protection Board without needing a new hearing — for now.) That is, Trump could fire Sessions and move Scott Pruitt, a former AG of Oklahoma, into the Attorney General slot but Pruitt would need a confirmation hearing no later than November or the appointment would lapse. Maybe Trump’s okay with that: Knowing that he’s time-limited in the role, Pruitt might be willing to ingratiate himself to Trump by acting aggressively to shut down the Russiagate investigation. But the fact remains that if any of these confirmations hit a speed bump and get pushed into next year, conceivably Chuck Schumer rather than Mitch McConnell would be in charge of them. And that would give Democrats even more reason to turn out this fall.
Possible solution for McConnell: Fast-track all of the confirmation hearings to put maximum pressure on centrists like Collins and Murkowski to rubber-stamp whoever Trump wants, knowing that if they kill a nomination it may be a Democratic majority that takes up the next nominee’s case. Or, if he and Trump are feeling bold and confident about the very GOP-friendly Senate map this fall, they could sit back and slow-walk the confirmations in the expectation that they’ll have even more Republicans in the Senate next year. How lucky do you feel?
Either way, it’s a cinch that we’ll be doing this again 15 months or so from now, analyzing Trump’s deep dissatisfaction with his cabinet and his intentions to “clean house” by bringing in yet another crop of even more MAGA appointees. Most department chiefs are destined to run afoul of him, after all: His policy positions blow with the wind and he says indefensible things sporadically that they’ll be pressed to defend in the name of “loyalty,” and some simply won’t do it elegantly or convincingly enough to stay on his good side. Others, like Gary Cohn, will bite their tongues and soldier on until they reach some breaking point, whereupon they’ll quit. It almost *has* to be that way for Trump to be comfortable. He thrives on chaos and drama. A smooth-running cabinet would probably irritate him with sheer boredom, unless he collects a crop of advisors so sycophantic that he can’t bear to part with them. There’ll be room eventually for Corey Lewandowski and Chris Christie in this show. Maybe not during MAGA 2.0 but surely by MAGA 3.0.