(Bloomberg) -- White House chief of staff John Kelly told members of President Donald Trump’s senior staff on Friday that their West Wing jobs are safe -- a simple but necessary message after a week of heightened tumult in the administration.
The assurance from the chief of staff was intended to silence whispers about a looming purge of Trump’s top aides and Cabinet. But it came accompanied by a plea to stop the cycle of backstabbing and gossip within the White House that’s fueled speculation the president will make major changes, according to two officials who asked not to be identified discussing an internal meeting.
“The chief of staff actually spoke to a number of staff this morning, reassuring them there were no immediate personnel changes at this time and that people shouldn’t be concerned,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at a briefing. “We should do exactly what we do every day, and that’s come to work and do the very best job that we can.”
Recent high-profile departures, including the firings of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s personal aide, John McEntee, earlier this week, fed a sense in the White House that everyone was vulnerable and anyone might go. Those dismissals followed the recent high-profile resignations of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Communications Director Hope Hicks, compounding the sense that sweeping change was afoot.
White House staffers are exhausted after a dizzying week of personnel changes both real and rumored, one official said.
‘People That Change’
It appeared that turmoil finally had caught up to a president who courts it, distracting from his agenda and unnerving allies both in Congress and in foreign capitals. Trump has publicly stoked speculation that Tillerson’s departure was only part of an effort to reshape his inner circle, and he’s floated possible staff replacements by a cadre of friends and outside advisers.
“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” Trump said Tuesday after the formal announcement of Tillerson’s ouster. In a press conference a week earlier, Trump said there would be “people that change” within his administration.
Kelly himself has been a subject of some of the rumors, though he appears to be safe for now. Various Cabinet members who have generated negative headlines because of their expensive travel habits and furnishing tastes, including Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Housing and Urban Affairs Secretary Ben Carson and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, have been reported to draw the president’s ire.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to be a subject of Trump’s scorn on Twitter.
Kelly’s assurances to his staff on Friday were directed particularly at young aides without much experience in government, one person familiar with the matter said. The departure of McEntee -- a well liked young staffer constantly at the president’s side, responsible for everything from resetting clocks in the West Wing to keeping hair spray at the ready -- was especially jarring for colleagues in his generation, the person said.
“This is complete dysfunction. He’s created a ‘Department of Fear and Infighting’ that threatens the institution of the presidency,” Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said in an interview. “It is so visible and so on the front pages that all of our adversaries and enemies see it for what it is, as well. Now, if you are dealing with the secretary of State, you’re asking, ‘how long is he or she even going to last?”’
Shulkin, the only member of the Cabinet who is a holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration, may be the most vulnerable. His department has been overrun by infighting, leading Shulkin to publicly threaten to purge political appointees he says are undermining him. He also generated a travel scandal after accepting tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and flying his wife to Europe on taxpayers’ dime last summer.
On Thursday, Sanders offered something short of a vote of confidence in the VA secretary.
“I don’t have any personnel announcements, but I can tell you that every day we’re looking for how we can better the system, whether it’s through policy changes or personnel changes,” she said in her briefing.
Even after Kelly’s Friday morning assurances, some of those Cabinet members remain at risk while their departments’ inspectors general investigate their activities.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump had decided to remove national security adviser H.R. McMaster, long seen as out of sync with the president, and was actively discussing potential replacements. Trump met Tuesday with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, whom he had previously interviewed for the national security adviser post.
Sanders denied the Post report, issuing a statement late Thursday insisting that McMaster and Trump shared “a good working relationship” and that “there are no changes” at the National Security Council. But Kelly has recently asked the Defense Department about potential military positions for McMaster.
Military leaders are looking for an opening for him, with an eye toward a command in which he would receive a fourth star, a promotion from his three-star rank, said a former military official with knowledge of the Pentagon’s efforts.
The White House has sought to assuage concerns by stressing the value of continuity. Larry Kudlow, the CNBC personality named to replace Cohn, said in an exit interview on his network that he hoped to retain staff, including Cohn’s deputy and fellow Goldman Sachs Group Inc. alumnus Shahira Knight.
The chaos takes a toll not only on the president’s staff, but on his agenda.
The decision to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo means that at least two high-profile confirmation battles await the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-vote majority. That will crowd the summer legislative calendar ahead of midterm elections in November, when Republicans are worried they will take a beating from voters tired of the drama in the White House.
“With everything we have to do around here, having the prospect of two additional confirmation fights, perhaps, is going to be a challenge,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican, said this week. “I think it would help us get more things done if there weren’t so many distractions. But that’s why we do our job here and they do their job at the White House and the executive branch.”
Democrats see the turmoil as a potent campaign issue. Conor Lamb, the Democrat who declared victory in a special election on Tuesday in a western Pennsylvania congressional district Trump won by 20 points in 2016, shied away from direct criticism of the president. But his low-key, controversy-free campaign was seen as a contrast with the Trump administration -- a look his party will try to replicate across the country over the next seven months.
Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican, said that voters will weigh whether Trump’s accomplishments merit the discord.
“He’s an executive. If you don’t give him what he wants, needs or expects, he’s going to replace you,” Ross said. “Having got tax reform done -- and if we get reunification of the Korean Peninsula, a lessening of the nuclear threat, or something done on Dodd-Frank reform -- the voters will decide if they tolerate his tactics to make economy stronger or the world safer.”
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