WASHINGTON – First, President Donald Trump called Jim Mattis “one of the most effective generals and extraordinary leaders of our time.”
Now, he says his former secretary of defense “is the world’s most overrated General.”
John Kelly was once a great Homeland Security secretary who would be an even better White House chief of staff, “if it’s possible.”
This week Trump said he is an also-ran who “was not in my inner-circle, was totally exhausted by the job, and in the end just slinked away into obscurity.”
Jeff Sessions entered the administration being hailed by the president as “a world-class legal mind” who was “greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”
Now, Trump demeans him as someone who “didn’t have a clue,” “let our Country down,” “was played like a drum” and is not to be trusted by Alabama voters weighing whether to return him to the Senate.
And Rex Tillerson went from “the embodiment of the American Dream” whose “tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State” to “‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State”
There are few constants in the tumult of the Trump administration, which has had far more staff departures than any recent president. But one rule of thumb is that if you speak ill of Trump – and a remarkable number of former officials have – the president will strike back.
But beyond illustrating Trump’s counter punching ethos, it’s a pattern that raises serious questions about his ability to fill some of the most important posts in government and why he continually hires top officials he later comes to describe as incompetents.
If they were such stooges, why were they hired in the first place? And if Trump didn’t know enough about them, what type of vetting took place?
Former aides say the answer for why the president turns on so many officials is that Trump can’t stand any public dissent or criticism – and grows frustrated when aides push back on his impulses. His current White House staff, officials said, does far less of that.
“You can never stay on good terms with him forever unless you’re willing to defend every single thing,” said one former official.
The spectacle of Trump harshly denouncing his former aides and those aides so freely and publicly criticizing his performance as president is unprecedented among modern presidents.
“President Trump’s approach to personnel management resembles that of a rich man who disowns his relatives because they do not show him proper deference or respect,” said Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker. “Anyone who works for him appears to need to adhere to a kind of unwritten nondisclosure agreement. Breaching that agreement even in a minor way brings the president’s wrath down on them.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
While his feuds with some former aides, such as former communications director Anthony Scaramucci and former adviser Omarosa Manigault, seemed more like colorful moments in a chaotic presidency, his feuds with Mattis and Kelly could be more politically perilous.
Both men were seen early on as proof that Trump could attract top talent to his administration and their appointments quelled fears among congressional Republicans about who would fill key administration spots. They were also participants in sensitive discussions about some of the most important national security decisions of the Trump presidency.
A senior administration official said that the view inside the West Wing is that Mattis’s statement this week won’t damage the president with swing voters by itself, but it shows vulnerability that other Republicans who previously have not criticized the president may be moved to do so.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said Trump’s tendency to fire, or part ways with people, unceremoniously leads to them leveling potentially politically damaging criticism. There has been an effort in recent months to keep officials Trump has been angered with, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, “inside the tent.” And Trump was determined, even as he parted ways with acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, not to have an acrimonious situation like he had with John Kelly.
Trump recently acknowledged he’s aware of the problems posed bad relations with former officials.
“I learned a lot from Richard Nixon. Don’t fire people,” Trump told Fox News.
Some aides are concerned that Mattis may have also given other former officials more reason to speak out ahead of the election, including Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Kelly could also be more explicit about what he witnessed as chief of staff and he has been wrestling with what to do, according to people who have spoken with him.
Mattis’ scathing critique this week of the president’s handling of protests across the country following the death of a black man in police custody has already had some political impact – one GOP senator suggested she may not vote for Trump this fall.
“General Mattis’s comments yesterday, I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Thursday.
One problem for the White House is that there is such a large pool of former officials who could speak out if they chose. Trump’s staff turnover rate is currently 88 percent, after slightly less than 3.5 years in office, according to a running tally maintained by the Brookings Institution.
“Just for the sake of comparison, after four full years in office, President George W. Bush had 63 percent turnover among his most senior aides,” said Kathryn D. Tenpas, senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings.
“The level has far surpassed presidents from Reagan through Obama,” with Trump far exceeding his five most recent predecessors after the entirety of their first terms, Tenpas said.
Democrats are trying to take advantage of this sense of chaos after the latest comments from Mattis and Kelly.
Trump’s presumed Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, released a video ad Friday reprising criticism of Trump from retired senior military leaders.
Kelly’s quote from earlier in the day is the kicker: “We need to look harder at who we elect.”
Trump blasted both Mattis and Kelly this past week after they criticized his handling of racial unrest and street protests that gripped the country. Mattis called Trump a threat to the Constitution and its system of checks and balances. On Friday, Kelly said he agreed.
Trump has also gone through several national security advisers as well and none of their departures were without controversy or hard feelings.
After John Bolton left, Trump claimed the man he hired was “holding him back” on key foreign policy initiatives. Trump said later that Bolton, who claims he resigned last fall, was “very publicly terminated,” and only interested in selling a book. Bolton has written a tell-all book that he is fighting with the White House to publish.
Among Trump’s high-profile hires, some have left without rancor. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley tops the list among those whom Trump has praised on the way out and kept on his nice list thereafter. Other aides, including Trump’s first chief of staff Reince Priebus, have stayed close and even those who left under clouds of scandal can stay in Trump’s good graces if they don’t speak out.
The impulse to denigrate and humiliate is part of Trump’s political biography, with antecedents in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, where insult nicknames – “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz – shocked and titillated. Having vanquished those Florida and Texas Republican senators and the rest of the field, Trump moved on to “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, a moniker he continues to use for the Democratic nominee he defeated.
Mattis drew laughs last year when he mocked Trump’s insults during a charity dinner, a day after Trump had called him “the world’s most overrated general,”
“I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress,” Mattis said, referring to the famed performer.
“So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals and frankly that sounds pretty good to me. And you do have to admit between me and Meryl and you do have to admit between me and Meryl, at least we’ve had some victories.”
Trump and his defenders have savaged Mattis in recent days, calling him out of touch but not engaging in much debate about Mattis’s constitutional arguments regarding deploying active-duty military within the United States to quell protests.
“It’s obvious that the general doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the American cities out there, or is he actually worse, turned a blind eye to it,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox News Thursday.
Kelly has kept his criticism somewhat veiled. On Friday, he said he strongly disagreed with the idea of deploying the military on American streets, as Trump has said he is considering in response to protests.
“No president, ever, is a dictator or a king,” and must be checked by Congress and the courts, Kelly said, by way of agreeing with Mattis’s overall critique.
“I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should start, all of us, regardless of what our views are on politics, I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter of, ‘what is their character like? What are their ethics? Are they willing if they are elected to represent all of their constituents, not just the base?’,” Kelly said, appearing by video link on Scaramucci’s new “SALT Talks” forum.
He acknowledged tension with Trump before he left the White House in January 2019 and laughed along with Scaramucci, whom Kelly had fired as one of his first official acts as chief of staff, at the general level of chaos.
Scaramucci thanked Kelly for firing him in 2017 after less than two weeks on the job, saying Kelly had saved his career and his marriage.
Scaramucci went through his own emotional roller coaster with the president.
Hired for a short stint as communications director in 2017 after being friendly with Trump for years, he became a critic of the president in recent years.
Trump hasn’t liked it.
“Anthony Scaramucci is a highly unstable ‘nut job'” who had supported other candidates during the primary, Trump tweeted in August 2019. “I barely knew him until his 11 days of gross incompetence-made a fool of himself, bad on TV.”