President Donald Trump is still looking for a new United Nations ambassador. He has no deputy national security adviser. His attorney general and EPA administrator are serving in an acting capacity, and his constant badmouthing of his chief of staff and Secretary of Homeland Security has undermined their authority.
The president once openly signaled plans to revamp his cabinet and staff after the midterm elections, calling it a “very customary” act — and his aides acknowledged that big changes might be coming. But while he demanded the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after last month’s midterm elections, the once-breathless anticipation of his next personnel move has stretched into a long and awkward waiting game.
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The result is an administration in a holding pattern. Trump has offered almost nothing in the way of a legislative vision for 2019 beyond approval of a new trade deal and vague references to infrastructure. His only clear priority is enforcing border security. The White House has even sent mixed signals about its desire to fight for a criminal justice reform bill that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, played a key role in shaping.
While many presidents shake up their cabinets after their first two years, Trump has turned what might have been a natural transition point into a months-long ordeal that has left many advisers in limbo, inhibiting their ability to prepare for the next two years, according to senior Trump officials and experts on the presidency.
“I think Trump likes to make nominations into kind of a reality TV show moment, he likes to keep people sitting on the edge of their seats. ‘Are you in or are you out?’ ‘Are you hired or fired?’” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “But it creates a sense of chaos in the administration.”
Trump’s ability to restock senior administration posts faces several limitations, including the continued reluctance of many experienced Republicans to work for him. The hunt for a U.N. ambassador has been hamstrung by concerns about the qualifications of several candidates.
Making things more difficult is the intervention of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has warned the president against plucking any members from his caucus, which will hold a 53-47 majority. Asked by the Associated Press about the next attorney general this fall, McConnell was unequivocal: “It’s not going to come from our caucus, I can tell you that.”
McConnell’s stance is driven by what’s widely seen as a disastrous transition period in 2016 for Republicans, when Trump tapped GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general, Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke for interior secretary. The GOP lost Sessions’s seat and failed to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whom many Republicans felt Zinke could have defeated. Trump also rebuffed McConnell’s advice that he find a cabinet post for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who went on to win re-election in a state where many Republicans believe they could have won an open seat.
McConnell’s hands-off edict also puts off-limits candidates whom Trump has previously considered for cabinet posts, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a potential replacement for Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a potential replacement for both Mattis and Sessions. Trump interviewed Cotton to be his Pentagon chief during the presidential transition before ultimately tapping Mattis for the job and has developed a close relationship with Graham over the past two years.
Despite pressure from Senate Republicans, the president shows no sense of urgency to name a permanent successor to Sessions, believing that the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, can legally hold his post for several more months without facing a Senate vote. But an earlier replacement for the controversial Whitaker would soothe nerves in the GOP caucus.
“Sooner the better,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who added that the Senate likely could not confirm a new attorney general before early next year.
The White House counsel’s office has in recent weeks had several conversations with Bill Barr, who served as attorney general under president George H.W. Bush. Barr had initially urged the president’s advisers to look at other candidates but is now at least open to the top law enforcement job if the administration cannot find another candidate, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversations.
But while Barr is widely respected among Congressional Republicans, White House aides wonder if the president would tap a relative stranger for a job he thinks should belong to a loyalist.
Sessions, for his part, defended Whitaker on Wednesday, though Whitaker was widely viewed as a disloyal aide openly lobbying for Sessions’ job.
“He was right in the middle of everything we were. So I’m supportive of what he does. And I think he’ll be very effective in what he does,” Sessions said as he traveled through the Senate subway after George H.W. Bush’s funeral.
Another subplot with no clear resolution involves the shifting fortunes of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose dismissal many Trump officials believed was just a tweet away after the midterms. But Nielsen’s hawkish approach to the migrant caravan currently waylaid on the Mexican side of the Southern border has eased Trump’s concerns that she is an ineffective guardian of the southern border.
That’s not to say that Nielsen is now assumed to be in the clear. Asked whether her job was safe, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) answered: “How would I know?”
“The only knowledge I have is what I read,” Johnson added. “If I’ve got to confirm a new one, I’ll try to confirm a new one.”
Then there is White House chief of staff John Kelly. Rumors about Kelly’s once supposedly-imminent departure have abated of late. But uncertainty about his future has not. In the latest clue that Kelly’s days may be numbered, his deputy, Zachary Fuentes, has circulated his resume to other cabinet agencies, including the Department of Defense, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation.
One Republican who speaks frequently with the president could not predict how long Kelly will hang on — despite Kelly’s announcement to White House staff earlier this year that he’d agreed to stay on until 2020.
“The president more than most presidents seems to like to change advisers,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “And it’s not at all unusual after two years to say, ‘I did my service,’ and move on.”
Still, he added he was “anxious” to see who would replace Whitaker.
“I’m anxious to see who the president’s going to nominate for attorney general,” Kennedy said. “We need to get a nominee.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.