Perks, pes­ter­ing and some­times hu­mil­i­a­tion ac­com­pany a chance to re­shape gov­ern­ment


WASH­ING­TON — 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. Be­fore he re­signed last week, En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency head Scott Pruitt 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 can also 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 whom Trump early on la­beled “be­lea­guered” by pres­i­den­tial tweet and has since been re­peat­edly sub­jected to pub­lic crit­i­cism.

For all his bad press, Pruitt man­aged to last longer than many in Wash­ing­ton had ex­pected. But on Thurs­day, Trump tweeted that Pruitt had re­signed, later ex­plain­ing that the EPA chief felt he had be­come a “dis­trac­tion” from the pres­i­dent’s agenda.

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 past 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, at times, have the pres­i­dent’s ear, 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.

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 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.

On the op­po­site end of the spec­trum is Ses­sions, whom Trump has tor­mented pub­licly in an on­slaught of tweets and in­ter­views 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 been largely silent in the face of Trump’s at­tacks. 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.


Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks at the White House dur­ing a meet­ing of the Cab­i­net, a col­lec­tion of cor­po­rate heavy­weights, dec­o­rated gen­er­als and in­flu­en­tial con­ser­va­tives. Trump’s Cab­i­net serves a pres­i­dent who does not hes­i­tate to dish out with­er­ing scorn as well as praise in a White House that has seen reg­u­lar bouts of turnover and scan­dal.

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