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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Do staff critiques and turnover indicate chaos in Trump’s West Wing?

You may not like or respect President Donald Trump, but if you’re honest, you’ll concede it’s never boring with him.

A case in point was late last week when the president engaged in a verbal (and Twitter) tiff with former Trump and SenateSecretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump got wind of some off-the-cuff remarks Tillerson made during an interview regarding the former’s work habits and results oriented get-it-done mentality. As would be expected, Trump didn’t have very nice things to say in return.

Diana Stancy Correll of The Washington Examiner reported, “President Trump on Friday fired back at former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, by calling him ‘dumb as a rock’ and ‘lazy as hell.’

“’Mike Pompeo is doing a great job, I am very proud of him. His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have the mental capacity needed,’ Trump tweeted Friday. ‘He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell. Now it is a whole new ballgame, great spirit at State!’

“Trump's tweet came after Tillerson said Trump often suggested doing things that were illegal. He also said Trump is a ‘man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read.’”

In other words, Tillerson fired the first shot -- and true to form, Trump hit back. It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated hundreds of times in these entertaining first three years of Trump the politician.

For what it’s worth, Tillerson’s critiques of Trump as being undisciplined and disdaining the intellectual arts (like reading) aren’t new. Practically every profile of the lifelong real estate developer and celebrity alleged the same thing, namely that Trump is easily distracted, wanders off topic easily, demands loyalty and fidelity above all else and often assigns tasks and missions without regards to the feasibility (or legality?) of the undertaking.

This description pretty much applies to every leader with a large ego and certainly sums up the complex human being that is Donald Trump. If you’re accepting a job in the Trump administration (or one of his companies) you’re aware he’s like this from day one. Tillerson most certainly realized early last year that assuming perhaps the highest profile cabinet role in Trump’s executive branch meant he’d be under intense scrutiny -- from the press, Democrats, Trump’s enemies, the deep state, self-interested swamp creatures… and from the man himself.

It goes with the territory with Trump. You don’t have to like it and unless you live in a press-free bubble you’re cognizant Trump changes horses on the fly. Frequently. Therefore, if you work close to Trump and aren’t the subject of rumors that you’re on your way out you must not be doing very good work or carry much importance. If the anti-Trump media isn’t interested in what you’re up to than they won’t peck at you. The media likes shiny objects, right? Sitting at a desk all day and doing your job ain’t sufficient motivation for a media smear piece or reputational hit job.

Trump already replaced his campaign leadership -- twice -- before winning the 2016 election. Neophyte original campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was drawing too much media inspection for his own antics and it made Trump look amateurish -- so the soon-to-be nominee brought in Paul Manafort to professionalize his operation. When news circulated later in the summer that Manafort had too many questionable associations and acquaintances, he too was removed in favor of Breitbart head Steve Bannon and the always affable and accessible conservative Kellyanne Conway.

In the course of the president’s first year staffers and cabinet members entered and exited at a frightening pace, providing fodder for Trump’s detractors to dredge up the personal traits that purportedly make him difficult to work for. Eternally disgruntled Omarosa Manigualt Newman wrote a tell-all book about her White House experiences, alleged Trump used racist terminology (and even claimed she’d recorded him) and was rewarded with a multi-stop media tour. But does anyone even talk about her now?

Tillerson wasn’t the first to feel the sharp blade of Trump’s personnel axe (was it Press Secretary Sean Spicer?) but Trump’s initial chief of staff, Reince Priebus, apparently wasn’t able to manage or work with Trump’s unconventional style and he soon was shown the door that only swings one way. Senior Trump advisor Bannon was booted shortly after Priebus, having displayed an annoying tendency to leak to the media and commit the most heinous of all Trump-world sins, speaking badly of the chief executive and his family to reporters.

To my recollection Tillerson didn’t follow suit while he was still in office, though the Texan did reportedly assail Trump as a “moron” at one point. That might’ve been the beginning of the end, but it was clear from the outset that the former Exxon Mobil CEO was not a good fit for Trump’s inner circle. As a titan of the global corporate establishment Tillerson was first and foremost a competitor for world influence and affection, something Trump wasn’t prepared to tolerate.

And let’s not forget now Senator-elect Mitt Romney was originally considered for the State department position. If Trump thought Tillerson didn’t listen or follow directives just consider how awkward it would’ve been for the ruling elites’ 2012 GOP nominee to head up his diplomatic team. Romney probably would’ve considered it his own personal fiefdom and run foreign policy the way he’d envisioned it had he beaten Obama. Probably for this reason Romney was cast to the side and the non-politician oil man was put in place at Foggy Bottom.

Months later Tillerson was obviously clashing with Trump and was fired. That should’ve been the end of the story but Trump’s calling Tillerson “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell” will certainly prolong this spat. The media thrives on controversy and when it involves someone formerly high up in the administration who worked closely with Trump for over a year (and therefore appears credible), it’s especially noteworthy in the talkers’ eyes.

As far as Trump goes, he sent the nasty Tillerson tweet and has likely forgotten about the matter already. If there’s any benefit to possessing a relatively short political attention span it’s the ability to compartmentalize difficulties and keep your eyes on the big picture. And if there ever was a good man to stay concentrated on the ultimate goal -- to make America great again -- it’s Trump.

Following on the Tillerson controversy was news that chief of staff John Kelly’s days as Trump’s top scheduler are numbered. The world’s collective sigh was tangible. Robert Donachie reported at The Washington Examiner, “White House chief of staff John Kelly will leave his position by the end of the year, roughly 18 months after he first signed on to bring about order in President Trump's White House.

“Trump made the announcement to reporters Saturday as he departed for Philadelphia to attend the Army-Navy football game. Calling Kelly ‘a great guy,’ Trump said his replacement would be announced in the next few days…

“Trump has previously floated Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows as a possible replacements for Kelly, but the White House gave no indication who might be at the top of its list.”

Kelly’s departure was the subject of conjecture for months, so this weekend’s announcement that he’d be gone by New Year’s was hardly surprising. Like with Tillerson, Kelly as Trump’s chief of staff worked like a square peg in a round hole within the confines of Trump-world, a supposedly non-partisan military man embedded in a highly political environment where the antagonistic and hostile media nitpicks on every little gesture or whisper of body language and interprets it as hating on the president.

Donachie and other media reporters indicated Kelly was originally added to bring “order” to the West Wing. That may be true, but Trump largely keeps his own counsel and wears his emotions on his sleeve -- facts that proved much to take even for a career military leader who’s conditioned to top-down command and executing (and giving) orders.

Who knows whether the tales of Kelly’s job dissatisfaction were true. But again, because of his tendency to change his mind and speak off the cuff one never knows what Trump’s going to say until after he’s said it -- which makes him notoriously hard to control. Trump is the epitome of an instinctual leader, a trait that wouldn’t survive in the planning-is-everything fighting forces.

The business and political universes aren’t disciplined and ordered like a military operation. Maybe this is the reason why former generals never made good presidents and don’t take to the gamesmanship that’s a daily reality in Washington DC.

In the military, it’s all about “the man next to you.” In Trump’s White House, it’s about getting things accomplished and upholding campaign promises. Stepping on egos is one of Trump’s best talents -- if you can’t take it, don’t work there. We’ll certainly hear more about Kelly’s replacement and what really happened in the coming days. Kelly’s unfortunate fate gives the media something to talk about at a normally news-scarce time of year.

You can’t help but feel Trump’s enemies will use these latest “instability” episodes to once again suggest he should be removed in two years -- not by impeachment, but by Republican primary voters. Is an intra-party competition taking shape?

Esteemed Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley wrote last week at The Washington Examiner, “Trump will face a primary challenger in 2020, if not several. Governor John Kasich of Ohio is dropping broad hints, while some others are talking up the chances of Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. There could be other contenders as well who haven't yet expressed interest, such as Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, or Ben Sasse, R-Neb. Given current dynamics, beating Trump in a 2020 primary is possible, but not necessarily easy...

“A challenger would have to work fast and make the case that Trump is no conservative, which at this point would be especially difficult. The case would have to go something like this: Trump supports federal subsidies for ethanol and corporate seizure of private property as expressed by the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision. Trump favors the increased regulation of cigarettes, he’s exploded our national debt, and his administration has made the D.C. swamp deeper. Beyond the 2016 election, Trump has never been a consistent conservative. In the past, he’s given generously to Planned Parenthood, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, and Chuck Schumer, along with multiple Democrats and liberal causes.

“But it's not enough to knock Trump. A challenger will also need to also make the case for American conservatism that advances freedom, liberty, and the dignity of the private individual. They need to articulate that conservatism isn’t some hodgepodge of soundbites and angry tweets; it’s a coherent philosophy that can guide an entire life.”

Shirley’s excellently reasoned and supported piece offers a look back at party primary challenges from the recent and distant past, strongly suggesting any effort made to topple Trump at this point will most certainly fall short. Of particular interest to Shirley was Reagan’s 1976 attempt to supplant unelected President Ford as the Republican Party’s nominee, a challenge that might’ve succeeded had it not been for questionable behind-the-scenes tactics by the GOP establishment.

It's hard to disagree with Shirley on this subject -- not only has he studied (and witnessed) intra-party battles, Trump has basically walled himself off from any legitimate threats to his nomination. Shirley observed that Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary run against George H.W. Bush weakened the incumbent president and caused many conservatives to abandon Bush in favor of Ross Perot.

But any challenge to Trump in 2020 would originate from the mushy middle of the party, not from Trump’s right. There simply isn’t room to argue Trump’s not “conservative” enough to merit an early exit. Everyone recognizes Trump isn’t a principled conservative -- but he’s taking advice from the conservatives around him and implementing the most conservative administration since Reagan.

One can’t help but surmise Vice President Mike Pence enjoys a major influence on the president on the domestic front and on foreign policy and national security there are solid conservatives like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to persuasively advocate their views. Trump may not always heed his team’s advice but results speak for themselves.

There are also no reputable candidates who could hope to challenge Trump for the conservative grassroots’ favor at this point. This could change if Trump starts cutting deals with Nancy Pelosi and the new House majority…and also allows “Chucky” Schumer to control all judicial nominations.

Don’t count on it happening. The next two years are going to be all-out political war.

The list of Donald Trump’s former staffers is growing by the day and his swampy establishment enemies swear the body count is a sign of instability and danger. But the sun will rise tomorrow and the administration forges on, another non-boring day in the life of the Trump presidency.

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