President Trump’s desire to surround himself with proven loyalists is now colliding with the stark realities of the presidency and governing, and some of his longtime allies fear that their influence inside the administration is sliding as a result.
There is little doubt that Trump prizes loyalty above most other qualities. "We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that,” he said this summer during remarks at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree.
But a rash of recent White House departures by some of the president’s allies has raised red flags among others close to him, who see the changes as jeopardizing Trump’s populist-nationalist agenda.
Chief strategist Steve Bannon, deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, and a handful of sympathetic advisers on the National Security Council all were pushed out last month. Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime bodyguard who was his director of Oval Office operations, will also leave the White House, Bloomberg reported Tuesday.
“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon told the Weekly Standard following his resignation. On the Breitbart News Saturday radio program, Gorka bemoaned that “the forces of MAGA ... have been systematically undermined” -- referring to the acronym for the president’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
For a president whose rise has broken with so many precedents, Trump’s White House is now following a familiar pattern: replacing campaign insiders and other trusted allies with a wave of aides who boast deep Washington experience.
But the shift is disquieting for some of those who vouched for Trump during the campaign, when few Washington insiders would. Now, they are wincing as onetime outsiders like Gary Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, another Goldman alum, have ascended within the administration and the president’s personal esteem.
Campaign loyalists “naturally became more vulnerable to maneuvering” following the inauguration, Gorka told RealClearPolitics via email, “as senior posts had to be rapidly filled, often by people who had little or nothing to do with the original platform that got the President elected.”
Gorka was even less diplomatic in a recent interview with conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, saying, “The people in the White House who are there, who probably would have been there had Hillary won, they don’t represent the MAGA agenda.”
Among campaign alums, some have waited months for jobs they felt they earned during the campaign, only to be cast out to the far corners of the administration; others remain completely shut out.
“Who is there actually representing the president’s view of ‘America First’?” said one close Trump ally. “Not only are Trump loyalists being purged, there is no plan to replace them.”
A key contingent of Trump’s campaign inner circle has remained intact at the White House, including his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner; senior policy adviser Stephen Miller; and Hope Hicks, recently named White House communications director.
And as some allies have feared a purge of their peers, there have meanwhile been other high-profile departures by creatures of “establishment” Washington, including former chief of staff Reince Priebus, his deputy Katie Walsh, and press secretary Sean Spicer.
In a recent interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson batted down talk of any “division between America First-ers and so-called globalists” in the administration, as host Chris Wallace pressed him.
“I don’t see any division, Chris,” Tillerson said. “I think it’s a question of tactics and how you achieve those objectives.”
But some campaign loyalists have stewed over their roles in the administration, or lack thereof, and at times their irritation has burst out into the open.
Anthony Scaramucci, a member of Trump’s finance committee during the campaign, waited months in line for an administration post before finally being named White House communications director this summer. In an interview with the New Yorker at the time, he vented that Priebus had “cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months” from taking a job in the White House. (Subsequently, the brash and outspoken Scaramucci was fired from his still-new job.)
There has been even more private frustration. Carl Higbie, a cable news fixture during the campaign as a surrogate for Trump, was long rumored to be in line for an administration post: In February, amidst a report that he had interviewed for the press secretary role, Higbie tweeted that he had “spoke[n] to some in admin regarding communications or spox positions,” although he had had “NO formal interviews.”
Late last month, Higbie was finally named chief of external affairs for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes AmeriCorps. But the appointment was not without drama: In a July email obtained by RealClearPolitics, Higbie vented to Priebus regarding his status in administration purgatory, with other White House officials copied on the message.
“I could do any job assigned better than any of the insiders and bureaucrats that are currently getting appointed before those of us that were there from the beginning,” Higbie wrote. “If it was not a good fit you should have told me from day one, and you know what? I would have still been loyal.
“I will always be loyal to President Trump, I would take a bullet for him,” Higbie added. “But I now understand that his agenda is hampered by you and other political insiders like you that believe in structure over function and lack the conviction to see things through.”
Reached for comment by RCP, Higbie acknowledged that “many of us on the outside were/are frustrated about the process and how long it takes.”
“Reince was unfortunately the only avenue some of us had to express that frustration,” Higbie continued. “... He worked hard to help me get a position, and I am grateful.” Priebus declined to comment.
The tug-of-war between outsiders who performed the grunt work of winning an election and those Washington insiders steeped in governing know-how, might prove to be particularly pronounced in the Trump administration. But the dynamic is hardly new.
There was President Kennedy’s so-called “Irish Mafia” of longtime advisers, and President Carter’s similarly nicknamed “Georgia Mafia” that followed him to Washington. After Carter’s 1976 victory, his campaign staff were “torn between the fear they won’t be asked” to serve in the administration “and the anxiety they will be asked and can’t handle it,” the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
During President Reagan’s administration, his trusted aide William P. Clark urged that advisers “let Reagan be Reagan” — a mantra echoed today by some Trump loyalists in regards to this president. But Clark’s tack was at odds with the more orthodox style championed by Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, an experienced political operator.
In his first term, President Clinton famously relied on a roster of top aides from his home state of Arkansas, including his chief of staff, Mack McLarty.
“I think every president naturally wants people around him that he knows and trusts, and that was certainly President Clinton,” said McLarty. “We were of a common philosophy, had known each other; there was a level of trust there, and that’s particularly critical in the first year.”
When McLarty was replaced by Leon Panetta, a 30-veteran of Washington, Clinton likened the men to two legendary Army running backs, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. One "was called Mr. Inside and one was called Mr. Outside, reflecting different skills,” Clinton said, “but they were both all-Americans.”
Some veterans of the Trump campaign are getting comfortable playing the outside game in this administration. David Bossie, former deputy campaign manager for Trump, has signed on as a Fox News contributor and returned to Citizens United as president. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski last month signed on as a spokesperson and adviser for a pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, and will be a visiting fellow at Harvard in the fall.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said in May that he would be appointed as a deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, but the department never confirmed his selection; by June, Clarke had withdrawn his name from consideration. Now, like Lewandowski, he has signed on as an adviser and spokesman for America First Action, the group announced Tuesday. The new role, Clarke said in a statement, “gives me the chance to do what I love most—promote President Trump’s agenda ... and ensure that the will of the American people who got President Trump elected is not derailed by the left or the self-serving Washington establishment.”
Trump now finds himself confronting a classic tension between honoring his campaign promises to his most fervent supporters, and making sensible compromises to get things done. So far, the president has seemed to gravitate more toward energizing his base, with legislative output and his approval ratings suffering as a result.
The president’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, has sought to shift this dynamic by injecting discipline into the White House — spurring many of the notable staff departures in recent weeks. But the sudden shift has left some of the president’s supporters with whiplash.
Still, some Trump loyalists have not given up hope that they might scrape their way back inside the administration at some point.
“The current state of affairs is simple a temporary one,” Gorka told RealClearPolitics. “Part of MAGA has moved outside the building. It will return.”