WASHINGTON — Amid unusually high staff turnover, confusion over major policies, and unexpected salvos from the tweeter-in-chief, President Trump on Tuesday portrayed the White House as a dream place to work but admitted: “I like conflict.”
“It’s tough, I like conflict, I like having two people with different points of view – and I certainly have that – and then I make a decision,” he said at a joint press conference with visiting Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. “But I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.”
Earlier in the day, Trump had denied that his West Wing was in “chaos,” but cryptically added “I still have some people that I want to change.” That poured fuel on speculation that he could part ways with troubled Cabinet officials, like Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or senior aides like national security advisor H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly.
Asked at the press conference whether his comment might have referred to Sessions, Trump told reporters “I don’t really want to talk about that” before going on an extended riff praising his own West Wing.
“The White House has tremendous energy, it has tremendous spirit. It is a great place to be working. Many, many people want every single job,” he said.
“You know, I read where, ‘Oh, gee, maybe people don’t want to work for Trump.’ And believe me, everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump declared. “They all want a piece of that Oval Office they want a piece of the West Wing. Not only in terms of it looks great on their résumé, it’s just a great place to work.”
But he again alluded to possible staffing changes.
“There’ll be people — I’m not going to be specific — but there’ll be people that change,” he said. “Sometimes they want to go out and do something else. But they all want to be in the White House. So many people want to come in. I have a choice of anybody. I could take any position in the West Wing and I’ll have a choice of the 10 top people having to do with that position.”
In fact, however, the administration has approached Republicans in Congress, at trade associations and think tanks, and in the private sector for various executive branch jobs, only to be rebuffed, according to people who have turned down White House overtures.
And the Trump administration has been slow to nominate candidates to fill important positions — of 638 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, 218 have no nominee, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. (To the delight of conservatives, judges have been the exception).
Trump has seen remarkable turnover. According to data from a Brookings Institution report cited by the New York Times, the turnover rate of Trump’s staff in his first year — 34 percent — was higher than any White House in decades. He is on his second national security adviser – his third if you count a placeholder early last year – his second chief of staff, and will be hiring his fifth communications director after the sudden resignation of Hope Hicks.
Just last week, the president surprised some senior aides by announcing tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent on imports of steel and aluminum, respectively. While not shocking in terms of ideology — Trump has been vocally protectionist for decades — he short-circuited the process for announcing such a major policy. Senior aides told reporters no announcement was imminent. The White House was unable to give details of the proposal, because there none had cleared the complex legal and interagency process that typically precedes a rollout. Lawmakers allied with the administration but caught unawares reached out to reporters for any scraps of information about a decision that, critics warn, could trigger a trade war.
Former chief of staff Reince Priebus says in an upcoming book that the chaos looks worse from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus says, according to an excerpt from the book published last month.
Trump’s efforts to deny that his administration is particularly volatile are also nothing new. After a string of departures last year – press secretary Sean Spicer, Priebus, and blink-and-you-missed-his-tenure communications director Anthony Scaramucci — Trump took to Twitter.
His message? “No WH chaos!”
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