President Trump is moving swiftly to clear his administration of perceived foes and fill it with loyalists, a sign he’s trying to consolidate power post-impeachment as he heads into the reelection fight.
Trump appears emboldened by his acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate, ousting individuals from his White House and administration whom he believes crossed him during impeachment. This includes Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who the Army secretary said Friday, was not under investigation after Trump hinted he may face further disciplinary action after he was dismissed from his White House post and sent back to the Pentagon early.
While some Republicans hoped the president would be chastened by the impeachment proceedings, the opposite has proven true.
He has expressed no remorse over his actions, instead seeking to strengthen his hold over the executive branch.
This week he waded into the fight over a sentencing recommendation for longtime associate Roger Stone, criticizing the career Justice Department prosecutors who worked on the case and the judge assigned to the trial. The commentary prompted a rare rebuke from Attorney General William Barr, one of his most prominent and trusted Cabinet members.
Asked what he learned from impeachment, Trump told reporters Wednesday his takeaway was that “the Democrats are crooked. … That they’re vicious. That they shouldn’t have brought impeachment.”
His comments dashed the hopes of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and others who had expressed optimism that Trump would have gleaned from impeachment that his behavior was at times inappropriate and needed to change.
“The acquittal liberated Donald Trump,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “It’s one of the reasons I thought censure was a better maneuver for Democrats.”
Trump’s acquittal has turned over a new leaf for the president. The impeachment process further underscored his wariness of the government bureaucracy outside his inner circle.
The president moved quickly to shake up his staff in the aftermath of impeachment. He pushed out Vindman from his post on the National Security Council and fired U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a $1 million donor to Trump’s inauguration.
Democrats viewed those two ousters as retaliation for providing damaging testimony in the impeachment inquiry against White House orders. Their exits followed voluntary departures by a handful of other witnesses, including former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and diplomat William Taylor.
At political rallies, Trump often rails against the “swamp” and the “deep state,” feeding into conservative conspiracy theories that factions in the government are working to undermine him.
Trump and his advisers have suggested that more individuals could be shown the door. The president tweeted cryptically Thursday morning, “DRAIN THE SWAMP! We want bad people out of our government!”
“We have people certainly in this administration that are probably holdovers and also people who don’t believe in President Trump’s agenda,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said this week on “Fox & Friends.”
National security adviser Robert O’Brien, meanwhile, has long planned to significantly reduce staff at the National Security Council inside the White House, saying this week he expected the staff to be reduced to 115 to 120 individuals, down from close to 180, in the coming weeks.
O’Brien framed the ousters of Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny, both of whom were detailed to the White House and have been sent back to the Pentagon, as part of the broader effort to reorganize and scale back the council. He disputed widespread suspicions that Trump forced the Vindmans out as part of a retaliatory purge.
“We are not a country where a group of lieutenant colonels can get together and dictate what the policy of the United States is,” O’Brien said at an Atlantic Council event on Tuesday.
“The policy of the United States is formulated and decided by an elected president of the United States. We’re not some banana republic,” he continued, later clarifying that he was not asserting that the Vindmans specifically were trying to dictate U.S. policy.
The president further sought to eliminate dissent within the West Wing this week by bringing back two of his most loyal longtime advisers.
Hope Hicks will return next month for a second stint at the White House, where she will serve as a counselor to the president working alongside senior adviser Jared Kushner. Hicks previously worked on the Trump campaign and served as communications director prior to her February 2018 resignation.
John McEntee, who spent about a year as Trump’s personal assistant before being dismissed based on security clearance concerns, has been elevated to oversee the Presidential Personnel Office. The shift gives McEntee significant influence over the vetting and appointment process for scores of executive branch positions.
“All great shows have a reunion episode, and it looks like the reunion is starting a little sooner than maybe expected,” said Bryan Lanza, an official who worked on the president’s transition team.
Taken together, the new roles for Hicks and McEntee show the president’s effort to remake the West Wing into an outfit of loyalists. Trump has long been weary of leakers and “Never Trumpers” undermining his agenda and has steadily jettisoned career officials over the last three years whose views differed from his own.
O’Brien is less outspoken than his predecessor, John Bolton, giving Trump more freedom to pursue his agenda on national security. McEntee overseeing the personnel office could lead to Trump installing even more loyalists across White House agencies. And Trump’s fiery and at times vindictive response to impeachment is a warning shot against further internal criticism if he wades into controversies like the Stone case.
One former adviser said the staffing changes are an indication Trump is ready to govern using his instincts, much in the same way he campaigned in 2016, and officials have not ruled out the possibility of further changes in the coming weeks.
“The president is an outsider and he’s never been comfortable with Washington and Washington has never been comfortable with him. There is great distrust on both sides. He’s endured what he feels were multiple attempts to weaponize the government against him,” said one former White House official.
“So the people who you do know and trust become extremely valuable,” the person said.
“I think he’s really reeling from these experiences and wants people around him that he feels he can count on.”