Life in Trump’s Cabinet: Perks, Pestering, Power, Putdowns

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross came in for an Oval Office tongue-lashing after he used a mundane soup can as a TV prop. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis got overruled by President Donald Trump’s announcement that a new “Space Force” is in the offing. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who resigned Thursday, caught a sharp admonition from Trump to “knock it off” after his ethics problems dominated cable television.

Welcome to the Trump Cabinet, where broad opportunities to reshape the government and advance a conservative agenda come with everyday doses of presidential adulation, humiliation, perks and pestering. Sometimes all at roughly the same time. 

Members of the president’s Cabinet have a measure of prestige and power. They can streak across the skies in Air Force One with Trump, act unilaterally to roll back regulations not to their liking and set policies with far-reaching implications for millions of Americans. But they also can quickly find themselves in a harsh spotlight when an administration policy comes under question.

With the issue of migrant children separated from their families dominating headlines, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was so determined to get a better handle on the 12,000 migrant children under his department’s care that he was up until 1 a.m. one night last week personally poring through cases in the operations center of the bunker-like HHS building at the foot of Capitol Hill.

The Cabinet members are lashed to a mercurial president who has been known to quickly sour on those working for him and who doesn’t shy from subjecting subordinates — many of them formerly powerful figures in their own rights — to withering public humiliation. Think Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator who was labeled “beleaguered” early on by presidential tweet and who has since been repeatedly subjected to public criticism.

Trump’s Cabinet, a collection of corporate heavyweights, decorated generals and influential conservatives, has been beset by regular bouts of turnover and scandal. A Cabinet member’s standing with Trump — who’s up, who’s down; who’s relevant, who’s not — is closely tied to how that person or their issue is playing in the press, especially on cable TV.

Over the last 16 months, that dynamic has resulted in a Cabinet with varying tiers of influence with the president. Though all 24 Cabinet members, including the vice president, can have the president’s ear at times, some have been able to consistently influence Trump behind the scenes and mostly retained his respect. Others have fended off — so far — a swarm of accusations of ethical violations and moved steadily forward enacting the president’s agenda. A third group has largely flown under the radar, their names out of the headlines and their jobs seemingly secure.

Trump, like many modern presidents, has consolidated power in the West Wing and largely judges his Cabinet members by how well they reflect upon him, according to nearly two dozen administration officials, outside advisers and lawmakers. Most of those interviewed for this account spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about private discussions.

The powerful

One key measure of the effectiveness of Cabinet members has been their ability to manage up to the president — and manage their disappointment when he ignores their counsel.

Mike Pompeo, first as Trump’s CIA director and now as his secretary of state, has seemingly cracked that code.

During a classified briefing on economic assistance for one African nation, the then-CIA director whipped out an annotated map, pointing out where U.S. troops were located and showing how aid contributed to their counterterrorism mission. One official in the room said Pompeo presented the map as though he had worked it up the night before, rather than as something produced by his teams of analysts, earning brownie points and a sympathetic response from the president.

Pompeo’s stock with the president ran deep as an early supporter. But as CIA director, he worked with the national security team to try to steer the unconventional president toward more conventional approaches. Their personal relationship grew as Pompeo attended nearly every presidential daily intelligence briefing he could — always bringing visual aids.

His predecessor as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, never clicked with the president and often voiced his objections in a passive-aggressive manner that infuriated the president, delivering retorts like “if you say so” and “you know best, sir,” according to the official. Tillerson was fired in March, months after word leaked that he had reportedly privately referred to Trump as “a moron.”

Other officials have also remained in close orbit around Trump, in part by lavishing frequent praise on the president both publicly and privately. Trump has remained fond of hard-charging Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, praising his combative briefings with the press. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Ross, despite his mocked TV appearance, also have largely remained in Trump’s good graces. The president attended Mnuchin’s Washington wedding last year and the treasury secretary has become a regular on the Sunday talk shows.

Administration officials believe the Cabinet member who has been most successful in managing Trump has been Mattis. The retired Marine general, thought of as a warrior monk for his academic mindset, is soft-spoken in his interactions with the president — often passing up the chance to speak in meetings — but his advice carries outsized weight.

Mattis is a frequent guest at White House lunches and dinners, a sign of his elevated status. He frames his suggestions to the president in terms of his expertise, and when Trump is leaning in a different direction calmly makes his case. White House officials have noticed that Trump sometimes later repeats historical military anecdotes that Mattis related to him — evidence the president was really listening.

But even Mattis has seen his influence wane in recent weeks — he opposed the Space Force plan before Trump announced it — as the president has grown less tolerant of dissenting viewpoints in the Oval Office.

The embattled

Winding down a presidential monologue extolling the EPA for rolling back regulations and shrinking staff, Trump turned to Pruitt across the Oval Office to discuss one other matter.

“Knock it off,” Trump said at the end of the April meeting.

With that terse yet mild reprimand, Pruitt retained his job despite the long run of bad headlines he’s generated for a series of questionable ethical moves. The incidents number more than a dozen, including renting a lobbyist’s Capitol Hill home at below-market rate, spending millions on security and travel, and using government staff to try to get his wife a fast-food chicken franchise.

Congressional Democrats, some influential Republicans and even much of the West Wing, including chief of staff John Kelly, urged Trump to fire Pruitt. The president refused, believing that Pruitt’s effectiveness on the job outweighed his personal transgressions. However, Trump on Thursday accepted Pruitt’s resignation.

Pruitt is far from alone in drawing scrutiny for possible ethical violations. Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, was accused of spending tens of thousands of dollars on office renovations and private flights. David Shulkin was fired from his post as veterans affairs secretary amid a mutiny from his own staff after an internal review found ethics violations related to his trip to Europe with his wife last summer.

Trump berated his first health and human services secretary, Tom Price, for a series of misstatements last year that the president felt was complicating the administration’s push to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, according to a former administration official. Price was later fired amid his own ethical scandal involving spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars on private travel.

All told, Trump has had more turnover of Cabinet-level positions than any president at this point in their tenure in the last 100 years.

But what has angered Trump more than the substance of the scandals are the bad images they produced, according to four White House officials and outside advisers. The president has complained to confidants that more members of his Cabinet “weren’t good on TV.” He fumed to one ally in the spring, at the height of the ethical questions surrounding Pruitt, Zinke and Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson, that he was only seeing his Cabinet on TV for scandals and not for fulfilling campaign promises.

Trump has also complained that he wants to see more of them on cable television defending his administration and showcasing his accomplishments. In recent months, the White House has pushed Cabinet members to make more public shows of support: They were encouraged to tweet about Trump’s 500th day in office; were asked to stop by an opioid exhibit on the Mall; and were urged to show up at the annual congressional baseball game.

Zinke may have gone a bit overboard. He showcased his support for Trump by tweeting out a photo of himself in late June wearing socks with Trump’s face and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” He later deleted it after outside groups complained he was violating federal law by endorsing a political slogan.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, for her part, had an angry exchange with protesters outside a Washington restaurant while defending her husband — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and the president’s policy of separating migrant families at the border.

“Why don’t you leave my husband alone?” she demanded.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders plays down reports of tension between Trump and his Cabinet, saying the president typically talks to at least one member a day and now has a better sense of “what he wants and what his expectations are” from them.

“The president likes to engage,” Sanders said. “He likes to talk to his team. He likes to get their feedback. He likes to throw out ideas.”

The quiet ones

Every Wednesday at 7 a.m., up to a dozen Cabinet members leave their staffs behind and quietly gather, often at the mammoth Department of Agriculture building just south of the National Mall.

There, they dive into Bible study. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Carson are among the regular attendees, and at times they are joined by Vice President Mike Pence and others.

The members rarely speak about the sessions, reflecting the low-key, keep-their-heads-down approach most have taken to their positions. Some have had boomlets of bad press — Carson over a $31,000 dining set ordered for his office, DeVos for a disastrous television interview in which she had trouble with basic facts about her department — but they have mostly avoided the devastating headlines and cable chyrons generated by the likes of Pruitt and Price.

Perry has told allies that he wants to stay in his lane and build relationships on Capitol Hill while frequently turning up in the West Wing — including popping up at key events, like Pompeo’s swearing-in — to get valuable face time with the president. The former Texas governor, who turned down a chance to succeed Shulkin at the VA, has taken pride in his lower profile, joking about how he doesn’t get bad press like some of his colleagues.

While many of the Cabinet members are collegial, there have been moments of strain between agencies. During the onslaught of heartbreaking images from the border as migrant families were separated, a quiet turf battle emerged among the Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments. Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, who had been on shaky ground with Trump for an increase of border crossings, later became the public face of the policy and was heckled at a Mexican restaurant.

Trump likes to take Cabinet secretaries along with him on Air Force One trips — in part to defray the costs for the White House, according to a former administration official. Past administrations, including Obama’s, used the same tactic.

The White House tries to hold Cabinet meetings every two weeks — the beginnings are open to the press — to foster better interaction, aides have said, but also to project the feel of a corporate boardroom with Trump presiding as America’s CEO and overseeing the nation’s business.

Those sessions, held more frequently than under Obama, have become a signature image of the Trump White House. Cabinet members, accomplished individuals in their own rights, take turns around a table praising the president in a manner reminiscent of “Dear Leader” sessions in authoritarian nations.

Chao in June 2017 said, “I want to thank you for getting this country moving again, and also working again.”

Price: “I can’t thank you enough for the privilege that you’ve given me, and the leadership you’ve shown.”

Mnuchin: “It’s been a great honor traveling with you around the country for the past year, and an even greater honor to be serving you on your Cabinet.”

Trump returned the favor last month at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, turning a meeting on the upcoming hurricane season into a storm of compliments.

To Chao: “All you do is produce. You do it in a very quiet way and so effective and so incredible.”

To Azar: “Alex, I’m very proud of what you’ve done. We’re going to have a great health care bill planned.”

To Carson: “What you’re doing is great, Ben. That’s really inspirational. More than just brick and mortar.”

On it went, as Trump went around the room to shower all of the present Cabinet members with praise. All but one, that is.

“Thank you, Jeff. Thank you very much,” is all Trump said to his attorney general.

The attorney general

About a half-dozen members of Trump’s inner circle, including then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, then-chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, were hurriedly summoned to the Oval Office on a chilly Friday afternoon in March 2017. Once they were inside, Trump erupted.

The day before, Sessions had announced his recusal from the Russia probe, blindsiding the president. Trump screamed at the staffers, according to one person with direct knowledge of the conversation, demanding to know how Sessions could be so “disloyal” while musing that he should fire the attorney general, who had been one of his earliest and most loyal supporters.

From that moment forward, Sessions became a singular figure in Trump’s Cabinet. No Cabinet member in recent memory has been the target of so many broadsides from his own boss yet has still managed to hang onto his job.

In an onslaught of tweets and interviews, Trump has tormented Sessions publicly, while in private often refusing even to speak his name, sometimes just referring to him simply as “one of my attorneys.” He unloads to confidants whenever Sessions appears on the TV in his private West Wing kitchen or his office on Air Force One. And he has accused the Justice Department of conspiring against him.

But to his deep frustration, Trump has been restrained from firing Sessions, for at least as long as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe continues. The attorney general has support from conservatives and Republican senators, and Trump’s confidants, including attorney Rudy Giuliani, believe that dismissing Sessions would upend the special counsel’s investigation.

Sessions, for his part, has largely been silent in the face of Trump’s attacks, his defense limited to a statement defending the department’s “integrity and honor” and a highly visible dinner with his two top lieutenants in February that was interpreted by some as a sign of a solidarity pact in case the president moved to fire one, or all, of them.

The attorney general has told allies that the post is his dream job and he aims to keep pushing his agenda, including a hawkish immigration stance, even if it means coming under fire from the White House. Earlier this year, to mark the one-year anniversary of his confirmation, his senior aides gave him a gift: a bulletproof vest emblazoned with his name.

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