President Trump’s national security adviser, Mike Flynn, is out. He resigned under fire late Monday night, amid controversy over conversations he had with the Russian ambassador before Mr. Trump’s inauguration – conversations he then misrepresented to top White House officials, including Vice President Pence.
General Flynn’s departure caps a tumultuous episode, extraordinary for an administration not even one month in office. But the situation with Flynn isn’t the only personnel matter afoot.
There’s also buzz that White House press secretary Sean Spicer may be in trouble, and questions, too, about the performance of chief of staff Reince Priebus. The Flynn story is much bigger than the other two, but the sum total is the appearance of a White House in turmoil, and a president new to government struggling to find his balance.
So here’s the question: How much of the early ferment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stems directly from Trump himself – in both his management style and his lack of government experience – and how much is the typical settling-in that any new administration experiences? The answer may be, all of the above.
“The turmoil is not normal,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It is true that every new administration has a shakedown period…. But we’ve never seen it in quite such an early and tumultuous way.”
President Obama’s first national security adviser, James Jones, lasted less than nine months, and his first communications director, Ellen Moran, only three months. As happens in any enterprise, some new hires just don’t work out.
But with Trump, there are complicating factors to layer on. His is an insurgent presidency, whose stated goal is to shake things up. And so he may be less inclined to listen to voices of experience in his effort to disrupt the status quo. In addition, Trump’s management style is to bring competing power centers into his midst, as a way to surface new and creative ideas, say people who have studied his business practices.
Still, it’s one thing to operate that way in a privately held corporation, and another to bring that style into the White House. Trump the executive has a history of being mercurial, according to people who have studied his management style.
“Rather than magisterial and decisive, Trump the actual boss swings wildly between micromanaging meddler and can’t-be-bothered, broad-brush, big-picture thinker,” writes Michael Kruse in a Politico profile of Trump last summer.
“He is both impulsive and intuitive, for better and for worse. He hires on gut instinct rather than qualifications; he listens to others, but not as much or as often as he listens to himself,” Mr. Kruse writes.
The story of Flynn, who had been fired by the Obama administration as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, may be a case in point. While at DIA, Flynn reportedly made enemies with his bosses at the Pentagon and with a rival spy service, the Central Intelligence Agency, according to NPR.
Flynn’s clashes with Obama administration officials may have been a plus for Trump, and chalked up to politics, not a sign of a potentially troublesome employee.
In recent days, Flynn faced a flood of questions over contact he had with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, before Trump took office. In conversations with Mr. Pence and other senior administration officials, Flynn initially denied discussing US sanctions against Russia with Ambassador Kislyak, then said later that he may have.
Did Flynn mislead?
Such a discussion on sanctions may violate a US law that bars private citizens from interfering in foreign policy. But the immediate issue was whether Flynn misled top-level US officials. An obvious trouble sign yet for Flynn’s employment prospects came Sunday, when senior White House aide Stephen Miller declined to say that Flynn still had Trump’s confidence.
“It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind,” Mr. Miller said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
On Monday, top administration officials put out mixed messages. After Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters the president still had “full confidence” in Flynn, Spicer put out a statement saying the president was “evaluating the situation.”
By Monday night, Flynn’s prospects grew even worse. The Washington Post published a story saying that in late January, the acting attorney general had informed the Trump White House about Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador, and warned that Flynn was “potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”
In his resignation statement, Flynn acknowledged that he had misled his colleagues, but said he did not do so intentionally.
"I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the President and the Vice President, and they have accepted my apology," Flynn wrote.
Spicer may also be in trouble
Perhaps the second-most-endangered member of Trump’s corps of top advisers is Spicer, the press secretary. His debut in the press room quickly became the stuff of legend, when he stepped out in an ill-fitting suit and reamed out the press without taking questions, reportedly leaving Trump less than satisfied.
Spicer has since settled into a routine with his daily briefing, calling on a range of reporters – including many from conservative media – and sticking less to the usual mainstream outlets.
Spicer still mixes it up with reporters who push back and try to ask follow-ups. And Melissa McCarthy’s hyperkinetic lampooning of Spicer on “Saturday Night Live” is said to keep Trump on edge over his spokesman.
Complicating life for Spicer is the fact that he is also serving as communications director, a more strategic role usually held by someone who works behind the scenes.
Critique of Priebus
Questions about Mr. Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, have come out, too. Over the weekend on CNN, Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, CEO of conservative Newsmax Media, knocked Priebus’s performance, saying “there’s a lot of weakness coming out of the chief of staff.”
Mr. Ruddy later pulled back on his negative assessment. And there’s no indication that Trump himself wants to replace Priebus.
More likely, Ruddy’s critique was a cry of frustration that his friend’s early weeks as president have gone less than smoothly, more than that Priebus is about to get the boot. After all, Priebus is former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a valuable lifeline between the Trump White House and the Republican establishment.
But with Trump – whose most famous line from his days on reality TV is “You’re fired!” – there are no guarantees.