President Trump faces serious challenges in restructuring a White House, from getting experienced Washington hands to work for him to whether his own premium for loyalty will block otherwise qualified candidates from working for him.
Republicans say the problems mean that Trump, an outsider who basically took over his party and is still viewed with suspicion in establishment circles, will face even more trouble in trying to refashion his team.
“The talent pool is shrinking, because who wants to sign up for crazy?” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
“Nobody wants to step into a situation where you’re flying by the seat of your pants and don’t know whether what you just said will hold up from one news cycle to the next,” he added. “Nobody is going to be lining up for positions with that much uncertainty.”
The abrupt resignation of White House communications director Michael Dubke, who handed in his papers before Trump’s foreign trip, highlights the president’s dilemma.
Dubke’s departure, which was only announced on Tuesday, comes amid hand-wringing by Republicans over the trajectory of the GOP president, who has seen his approval numbers sag.
Investigations by congressional panels and a new special prosecutor looking into Russia’s role in last year’s presidential election have slowed Trump’s agenda and repeatedly thrown the administration off balance.
So has the general turbulence on Team Trump, which has struggled to put together a consistent message — in part because of the president’s own tendency to go off script.
Rumors that big changes could be coming for Trump’s team have circulated for weeks. Most of the reports have focused on the communications team once led by Dubke, though everyone from senior strategist Stephen Bannon to chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner has been mentioned.
Critics of Priebus have floated GOP operative David Urban and Andy Card, former President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, as possible replacements.
Outside advisers to Trump say Priebus bears responsibility for not bringing in a deeper talent pool to the White House, something they said he should have been able to do given his experience as RNC chairman.
“I have never seen it before where people came in to work in the West Wing and had never met the president — it’s unheard of,” said one former Trump adviser. “There are plenty of people who would give both arms to have one of these jobs. What they need is a chief of staff or someone else with a Rolodex of 5,000 names and a broad network to come clean this up.”
Card, who worked as Bush’s chief of staff for six years, would certainly fit that bill.
Yet there are real questions about whether someone like Card, a loyalist to Bush, would take a job in Trump’s White House. There are questions about whether Trump would want him. And if he won the job, there would be questions about whether Trump would listen to him.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s combative former campaign manager, and ex-deputy campaign chief David Bossie are rumored to be under consideration to operate a so-called war room to deal with the deepening Russia controversy.
This would bring back figures solidly aligned with Trump, but it is unclear whether they would be able to get the administration on track.
Some observers doubt it, arguing Trump himself must set the ship straight with his own behavior. It was Trump who launched bad news cycles for the White House with his unfounded accusation that former President Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped and his claim that he has secret recordings of his conversations with ousted FBI Director James Comey.
“I don’t foresee any staff changes having an impact on the trajectory of this administration,” said Ryan Williams, a former adviser to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “You cannot retool the communications operation unless the principal retools.”
Trump has repeatedly undercut his own team, sending advisers out to defend impossible positions or contradicting his spokespeople on key issues, often resulting in days of crisis management.
Some of Trump’s allies blame his senior aides for keeping his universe small, saying they’re fearful of relinquishing influence over the president by bringing in heavyweight operatives.
Dubke, a respected communications expert who worked on several Republican Senate campaigns before joining the White House, quit after reading rumors of his firing in the press.
In doing so, he became a cautionary tale for longtime Washington hands.
“It seems difficult for outsiders to come in and gel with the existing structure that has been put into place,” Williams said. “President Trump doesn’t seem to trust people who haven’t been loyal to him for a long time.”
The political climate surrounding the president has even hurt the search at Cabinet agencies, such as the State Department and Labor Department, slowing the process of rolling back Obama’s policies and implementing Trump’s own.
The steady stream of criticism aimed at the communications shop has put press secretary Sean Spicer in a tough spot.
On Tuesday, he got into a heated debate with reporters at the briefing over questions about a looming shake-up and whether Trump has confidence in his team.
Spicer fired back, accusing the media of peddling “fake news” before abruptly leaving the podium.
“I think he’s very pleased with the work of his staff,” Spicer said. “I think he’s frustrated, like I am and so many others, to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong and see quote-unquote fake news. When you see stories get perpetrated that are absolutely false, that are not based in fact, that is troubling. And he’s rightly concerned.”