Even for an administration that seems to thrive on wrong-footing allies and opponents alike, the last 24 hours has been remarkable. Early this morning, Donald Trump tweeted out that he might veto the omnibus bill that his White House had pledged he’d sign. The day before, Trump contradicted his earlier denials and dismissed national security adviser H.R. McMaster, appointing John Bolton in his stead.
That may have surprised John Kelly most of all. According to Politico, Trump’s chief of staff had prepared an action plan to jettison three top-ranking officials at the same time, in part to keep any one move from becoming a media focus, but Trump surprised Kelly by moving on his own:
President Donald Trump’s decision to abruptly fire national security adviser H.R. McMaster surprised senior White House aides who had been preparing a single statement announcing the departure of multiple top Trump officials, according to two senior administration officials.
White House chief of staff John Kelly and other top aides were waiting for inspector general reports that they believed would deliver devastating verdicts on Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who have both been accused of racking up extravagant expenses. They were also debating whether several senior White House aides, including McMaster, should go with them.
It’s unclear which other West Wing officials were possibly set to depart with McMaster, but the two senior administration officials said they believed it would be easier to manage the optics if multiple firings were made public in a single statement instead of drawn out. The announcement, though, was not expected for at least another week.
Trump, however, upended those plans late Thursday, firing McMaster and offering his job to former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in a move that surprised not only his top advisers — but also Bolton himself.
That seems like an odd strategy to take. McMaster’s departure would have been the most provocative regardless of who else headed out the door at the same time after Trump’s declaration of “FAKE NEWS” days ago. The only firing that might have eclipsed a McMaster termination would be if Trump dumped Jared Kushner at the same time.
McMaster’s departure is only provocative because of Trump’s denials and attacks on the media. Basically, the red flag had already been waved in front of the bull, and the response wouldn’t change much by offering red herrings next to it. The change is explainable in several different ways, including McMaster’s desire to achieve a fourth star and the sudden change of direction on North Korea and Russia, even if it didn’t have a lot to do with either. Pairing him up with already-on-the-hot-seat people like Carson and Shulkin would have eclipsed their terminations, not McMaster’s.
Besides, Trump might have outstrategized his strategician. The McMaster change provides a distraction from other issues, at least for some news networks:
CNN is dedicating the entire 11:00 hour to their exclusive on Trump's alleged affair with a former playmate.
— Cortney O'Brien (@obrienc2) March 23, 2018
That still leaves Shulkin and Carson on the chopping block. Why not just pull the trigger now, and offer even more distraction to other, ahem, narratives that threaten to overshadow the weekend news cycle? The VA IG supposedly has another report coming out about Shulkin’s use of his security detail for personal business, but the IG has issued two other reports about Shulkin and his performance at the VA, including a damning one about his use of government funds for personal travel and then conducted a clumsy cover-up of it. Shulkin then lied to the White House about it; Trump hardly needs more of an excuse than that.
Carson’s another matter. Trump’s base loves his formal rival for the nomination, and Carson’s been solidly loyal. Shulkin was an Obama holdover, but Carson’s his friend, and Trump needs all the friends he can keep these days. There isn’t any IG report coming on Carson, at least not yet, and his public scandal is relatively mild: spending too much money on office furniture. It seems unlikely that Trump will really want to go through another confirmation hearing for HUD over something like this, even if perhaps he should take that step. Firing Shulkin might distract enough from Carson’s interior decorating peccadilloes long enough to make it old news, even if it’s not fake news.
Strategic thinking, or at least tactical thinking, suggests that having another head roll this afternoon would disrupt the news cycle in the White House’s favor. And no one can really argue that David Shulkin hasn’t earned a boot at this point.