Turmoil takes toll on White House

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President Trump says he thrives on conflict, but the turmoil engulfing the White House has GOP lawmakers more concerned than ever about the direction of his administration.

In just the past month, Trump has lost three of his closest advisers and lashed out at others on the ropes, including his attorney general and national security adviser.

Trump tweeted Tuesday he still has “some people that I want to change,” a sign the tumult is far from over.

The latest to quit is top economic adviser Gary Cohn, who served as a moderating force during Trump’s first year in office. His departure has sparked fears of an even larger wave of exits that could hamper the president’s ability to advance his agenda.

{mosads}“The type of turnover and instability we see in the White House is not reassuring,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who is retiring next year. “We like stability in operations. We like continuity and, frankly, institutional memory.”

Trump this week called the White House a “great place” to work that has “tremendous energy.”

“Believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House,” he said.

Yet there has been a near-constant churn of personnel and the most vacancies at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in decades.

Forty-three percent of top-level White House positions have turned over since Trump was inaugurated, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution’s Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. Two years into their terms, former President Obama’s staff turnover rate was just 24 percent, while former President George W. Bush’s was 33 percent.

Seven of Trump’s 12 most senior advisers, including Cohn, have resigned, been fired or been reassigned.

“When individuals depart like Cohn, you cannot replicate their personal relationships,” Tenpas said in an interview. “It’s basically starting from ground zero all over again, and it makes it hard for them to advance President Trump’s agenda.”

White House staff secretary Rob Porter was forced out of the White House a month ago after domestic abuse allegations against him became public.

Communications director Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s closest confidantes, announced last week she would be departing. That followed longtime Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller’s exit last fall.

Multiple reports have indicated that national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has publicly clashed with Trump over hotspots like Russia and Iran, could soon depart the administration.

The White House has struggled to attract top talent, and officials say that the constant turmoil will only heighten those problems. 

Low morale, Trump’s demand for personal loyalty and the sprawling Russia probe are also deterrents.

“When people are considering working at this White House, they’re having to ask themselves, can I work here? If I do, how long will I survive? And if I survive, how long will it take me to find a new job once I leave?” said Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of Defense in Bush’s administration.

Trump’s White House shares similarities with his family real estate business and reality TV series: heated interpersonal drama combined with frequent departures. In the president’s telling, those things are what make him a successful boss.

“I like conflict,” he said Tuesday alongside Sweden’s prime minister, who criticized his tariff plan.

Cohn’s exit hit congressional Republicans hard, given the political storm surrounding Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which could be formalized on Thursday.

They are worried that the tariff decision points to the growing strength of White House aides Peter Navarro and Stephen Miller and their economic nationalism, and wonder what will happen next.

“I don’t think it’s good news,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Wednesday. “I’m concerned who the president will turn to for advice. I think Mr. Cohn was an outstanding public servant and somebody who had the credentials and experience to help the president decide what the policies of the government should be.”

Cohn’s exit has also spooked the business community, which is concerned that Trump could take even more aggressive trade actions, such as ripping up the North American Free Trade Agreement or a trade pact with South Korea.

“Folks downtown are running out of people to call there and it’s not a good dynamic,” said a senior official at a major Washington business group with close ties to the White House. “The business community is without a doubt nervous about the road ahead.”

“The policy process is certainly not following the traditional rules of the road at the moment, and that is, frankly, troubling,” the official added.

In Cohn’s absence, lawmakers said they might fill the void by passing legislation to restrict Trump’s ability to set trade policy.

“I believe it’s important that Congress assert its authority and check the president, rein him in on this,” said Dent.

Some Washington power players say concerns about internal strife at the White House are being overblown by the media.

They point to the GOP’s tax overhaul and the humming economy as evidence the press is “running around breathlessly” screaming about imaginary “horrors” at the White House, as one GOP lobbyist put it.

“The tweets are unnerving and sometimes his behavior is bizarre. So what?” the lobbyist said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also brushed aside the talk about chaos, citing progress made against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and a possible diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

“If you have a place in chaos, you’re not able to function and make big things happen, and we certainly have the ability and continue to do that,” said Sanders, who added it was not unusual to see people come and go.

Melanie Zanona contributed.

Tags Charlie Dent Donald Trump Hope Hicks John Cornyn Politics of the United States

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