‘I would have preferred not to have been ejected like an Austin Powers villain’

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump has taken pains to control the narrative around his constant high-level staff departures, always seeking — with mixed results — to dictate exits on his own terms. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Kirstjen Nielsen got a 21-word tweet. Linda McMahon got a 13-minute lovefest.

One day after President Donald Trump ousted his embattled Homeland Security secretary, he and his senior aides have hardly spoken a public word about Nielsen’s 16-month tenure in one of his administration’s most important posts.

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Just last month, by contrast, Trump showered praise on McMahon, the departing Small Business Administration chief, honoring her with a long and warm appearance before rolling cameras at Mar-a-Lago.

“This is an outstanding woman, who has done an outstanding job,” Trump said, before prompting McMahon to name the highlight of her tenure. (“The highlight has certainly been the fact that you asked me to take on this position,” McMahon cooed.)

For a president who obsesses over the theatrics of his presidency, the sharp contrast between the sendoffs wasn’t accidental. Indeed, Trump has taken pains to control the narrative around his constant high-level staff departures, always seeking — with mixed results — to dictate exits on his own terms. Rarely does Trump allow a disgruntled senior official to jump before offering a public push first — or an after-the-fact kick.

There are rare cases of amicable partings — like those of McMahon and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley — and Trump, who has shown annoyance at reports of constant infighting within his administration, milks them for feel-good moments.

“He’s always thinking optics. Everything, whether it’s policy or a staff move, he’s always thinking about it in terms of PR,” said former White House staffer Cliff Sims, who wrote a tell-all book about the administration, drawing Trump’s ire. “And one of his favorite talking points is, ‘We’re going to hire the best and the brightest, everybody wants to work for me,’ and so any implication or public perception that someone abandoned him, someone left him, I think in his mind, undercuts that premise.”

Most of the time, however, the endings are not happy. And Trump often blindsides his own aides, announcing major departures on his own timeline.

Last December, before leaving the White House for the Army-Navy football game, Trump made a point to pause in front of reporters and announce the upcoming ouster of then-White House chief of staff John Kelly. That upended his aides’ plans for a formal rollout of news about Kelly two days later.

In 2017, the president tweeted out the news that his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was departing. The timing surprised even Priebus, who had submitted his resignation the day earlier and was not expecting to see his plans blasted out via Twitter so quickly. Trump also surprised his senior White House aides when he fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster via tweet.

In some cases, Trump and his aides have sought to rewrite history in their explanation of a top official’s departure. In December, Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote and circulated a resignation letter ahead of a visit to the White House in which he protested Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. But Trump later claimed to have “essentially” fired Mattis.

And when Trump’s Syria decision prompted the resignation in protest of Brett McGurk, his top official overseeing the coalition to fight the Islamic State, the president lashed out publicly, claiming in a tweet that McGurk, “who I do not know,” had already been planning to depart several weeks later and was simply being a “[g]randstander.”

“He jumps everyone who wants to leave so that it makes it looks like the president is the one doing the rejecting, not the other way around,” said a person close to the White House, adding, “It makes him look stronger. He wants to be the one organizing the pieces on the chessboard.

“[H]e’s definitely not the type to wait around and make anyone look good, that’s for sure,” the person continued.

Indeed, 15 years after rocketing to national fame with the hit series “The Apprentice,” Trump still likes to be known as the one doing the firing — even if the truth is often much more murky.

In one unusual case, the White House even claimed that then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin resigned, even though Shulkin insisted he was fired, because it gave the president more legal latitude to choose the successor for the job.

In some extreme cases, there is no ambiguity about an official’s departure. One of them was the abrupt sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, who spent a few days as White House communications director in July 2017 before being fired over a too-candid interview with a New Yorker reporter that he insisted was off the record.

“I would have preferred not to have been ejected like an Austin Powers villain,” Scaramucci said. “I didn’t think I deserved that because I worked hard on the campaign and I had raised a lot of money for the candidate.”

But he added, “I did something fireable, so you never once heard me say, ‘I didn’t deserve to be fired.’ I did something fireable. I shouldn’t have had the conversation with that reporter.” Scaramucci also noted that he believes that Trump and the White House are doing a better job of managing the departures now than before.

Nielsen’s departure was not quite so black-and-white. Initial reports said she planned to resign during a Sunday meeting with the president — “I have determined that it is the right time for me to step aside,” Nielsen wrote in her resignation letter to Trump — though some in the White House said Trump asked for her resignation.

But despite months of sometimes angry clashes with Nielsen, Trump has so far given her a relatively gentle sendoff.

“Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” Trump said in a terse tweet Sunday night, before announcing her interim replacement at the department. The president did not have any public events on Monday, so it’s possible he will unleash his frustration later in the week.

Still, Trump’s cold treatment toward so many other departed officials has made it harder for him to attract qualified new candidates, some warn.

“I have no problem when a president wants to change a member of their Cabinet, I just want to make sure it’s done in a way that people will continue to want to come in and serve,” Shulkin told POLITICO in an interview.

“When people ask me if they should consider serving, I absolutely believe it’s essential that people want to do that,” Shulkin said. “But I also understand why people are asking me that question. People watch what happens and the way that people are treated, and they ask, ‘Is this something that I want to put myself and my family through?’”

Several people who have worked for Trump complained that the president demands loyalty — but rarely returns it.

But multiple current and former White House officials insisted to POLITICO that the president tries to give people he likes smooth departures.

“People who have truly done good work or maintained a good relationship in either their department or agency and the White House, it’s handled in a gracious fashion,” said Heather Nauert, who withdrew from consideration to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in February and has maintained a good relationship with Trump. “When the president sends out a tweet about someone on their behalf and says something nice, then that’s the sign that everything’s kosher between the White House and that person.”

Haley, whom Nauert was slated to replace at the United Nations, was granted one of the most drama-free departures of any senior Trump administration official. After Haley privately told Trump of her intention to depart, they mutually agreed to announce the news in the Oval Office, where the president repeatedly praised his diplomat, while making sure to claim some credit for himself.

“She’s done a fantastic job, and we have done a fantastic job together,” Trump said.

A current White House official said the president tries to “make it look like we thought about this together and we both decided it’s time for you to go, otherwise it’s embarrassing for him, like he picked wrong or had a stupid Cabinet.”

Eliana Johnson contributed to this story.

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