NEW YORK — One Cabinet member was grilled by Congress about alleged misuse of taxpayer funds for private flights. Another faced an extraordinary revolt within his own department amid a swirling ethics scandal. A third has come under scrutiny for her failure to answer basic questions about her job in a nationally televised interview.
And none of them was the one Trump fired.
President Donald Trump's Cabinet in recent weeks has been enveloped in a cloud of controversy, undermining the administration's ability to advance its agenda and drawing the ire of a president increasingly willing to cast aside allies and go it alone. Trump's ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday may have just been the first salvo in a shakeup of a Cabinet that, with few exceptions, has been a team of rivals for bad headlines and largely sidelined by the White House.
“Donald Trump is a lone-wolf president who doesn't want to co-govern with anybody and doesn't want anyone else getting the credit,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. “For his Cabinet, he brought in a bizarre strand of outsiders and right-wing ideologues. Many are famed conservative or wealthy business people, but that doesn't mean you understand good governance.”
The string of embarrassing headlines for Trump's advisers, as well as the president's growing distance from them, stands in sharp contrast to how he portrayed the group last year.
“There are those that are saying it's one of the finest group of people ever assembled as a Cabinet,” Trump said then.
On Tuesday, the president hinted after firing Tillerson that more changes may be forthcoming, saying an ideal Cabinet is in the making.
“I've gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year,” Trump told reporters at the White House, “and I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”
Even as Trump routinely convened Cabinet meetings in front of the cameras for “Dear Leader”-type tributes over the past year, his relationship with many of its members began to splinter.
Last summer he began publicly bashing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former close adviser who was the first senator to back his campaign. Furious that the attorney general recused himself from the Russia probe that has loomed over the White House, Trump has privately mused about firing Sessions and taken to delivering unprecedented Twitter broadsides against him.
Trump has used the words “beleaguered” and “disgraceful” to describe Sessions, who only recently stood up to the president and defended his recusal decision. Tillerson also frequently clashed with Trump, who never forgave the outgoing secretary of state for reportedly calling him “a moron” last summer after grumbling that the president had no grasp of foreign affairs.
The pair never developed a particularly warm relationship.
Last November, during a full day of meetings in Beijing, Trump and his senior staff were served plates of wilted Caesar salad as they gathered in a private room in the Great Hall of the People.
None of the Americans moved to eat the unappetizing dish, but Trump prodded Tillerson to give it a try, according to a senior administration official.
“Rex,” the president said, “eat the salad.”
Tillerson declined, despite Trump's urging.
After repeatedly undermining and contradicting Tillerson, Trump at last fired his secretary of state in a tweet. Trump in recent days has told confidants that he feels emboldened. He's proud of his unilateral decisions to impose sweeping tariffs on metal imports and to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and far less willing to put up with disloyalty around him, according to a person who has spoken to the president in recent days but was not authorized to discuss private conversations publicly.
Trump's esteem for the Cabinet has faded in recent months, according to two White House officials and two outside advisers. He also told confidants that he was in the midst of making changes to improve personnel and, according to one person who spoke with him, “get rid of the dead weight” — which could put a number of embattled Cabinet secretaries on notice.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke underwent questioning Tuesday by Senate Democrats, who accused him of spending tens of thousands of dollars on office renovations and private flights while proposing deep cuts to conservation programs. Zinke pushed back, saying he “never took a private jet anywhere” — because all three flights he had taken on private planes as secretary were on aircraft with propellers, not jet engines.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin's days on the job may be limited after a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer, according to senior administration officials. He also has faced a potential mutiny from his own staff: A political adviser installed by Trump at the Department of Veterans Affairs has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official.
Trump has floated the notion of moving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to the VA to right the ship, believing Shulkin has become a distraction, according to two people familiar with White House discussions. They were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Others under the microscope:
- White House aides deemed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ recent appearance on “60 Minutes” a disaster as she struggled to defend the administration's school safety plan and could not answer basic questions about the nation's education system.
- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came under fire last month after reports his agency was spending $31,000 for a new dining set, a purchase HUD officials said was made without Carson's knowledge.
- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has faced questions about $25,000 spent on a soundproof “privacy booth” inside his office to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and another $9,000 on biometric locks.
- The first Cabinet member to depart his post, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, resigned last fall following reports he spent at least $400,000 in taxpayer funds on private jets for himself and his staff.
Other Cabinet members — such as Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — keep a low profile and are barely heard from.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has faced a barrage of attacks from right-wing media outlets, has never clicked with Trump, leading to speculation that he too may soon depart.
“This is the most irrelevant Cabinet since the Carter years,” said Brinkley, evoking former President Jimmy Carter, another Washington outsider who struggled to delegate authority.
A handful of Cabinet-level officials have remained in Trump's good graces.
Defense Secretary James Mattis is widely viewed as the most powerful Cabinet member, his military record commanding Trump's respect and giving him leeway to at times disagree with the commander in chief without drawing his rage. Budget director Mick Mulvaney is perceived within the West Wing as a Trump favorite, while CIA director Mike Pompeo was tapped to replace Tillerson at the State Department.
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