With less than five months until the presidential election, Donald Trump’s four year war against Washington is heading into a critical phase. Even as a handful of onetime allies in the establishment speak out against what they say is Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior, the President is taking more aggressive steps to enforce control over the levers of executive authority in an attempt to squash what he sees as internal threats to his re-election, current and former aides tell TIME. The resulting fights seem set to test just how far Trump is willing to go to bend the power of the presidency towards his political interests as his re-election efforts founder.
The internal power plays flared across government on Wednesday. In an attempt to quash a new book by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump’s Department of Justice filed an emergency restraining order against Bolton and his publisher, even as copies of the book circulated around the country and news outlets published excerpts. Elsewhere, Trump’s new pick to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which controls the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and other federally-funded broadcasters overseas, cleaned house on Wednesday, replacing senior staff and firing the heads of each broadcaster in an afternoon email.
The latest battles between Trump and his opponents in the federal government, real or perceived, are taking place against the backdrop of a push from within the White House by Trump’s former body man, 30-year-old John McEntee, to place aides viewed to be sufficiently loyal to Trump across the executive branch. McEntee has already imposed senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management. Trump has also removed inspectors general at Health and Human Services, the State Department, and the watchdog overseeing over $1 trillion in pandemic stimulus funds.
The mounting purge suggests that the five months between now and the vote could see new examples of Trump’s tendency to project personal politics onto the power of the presidency, as Trump and his aides increasingly see the executive branch itself as a threat to his re-election. “There’s the threat that people who are not loyal are going to blow up something right before the election,” says a former White House official who is still in close contact with Trump aides.
Trump’s moves at America’s overseas media operations have been building for some time. President Trump has repeatedly returned from overseas trips and told aides he was frustrated that CNN’s International broadcast is a major way people around the world get news about the U.S. Trump feels CNN hates him and often portrays the U.S. in an uncomplimentary light. He has repeatedly told aides he wants the U.S.-government funded Voice of America to counter CNN’s coverage overseas and launch a more full-throated, pro-American take on the news.
To make that happen, Trump picked conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA. Pack was confirmed by the Senate on June 4 and started work this week. The agency’s new top legal counsel, staff learned, will be Michael Williams, who had recently worked in the White House chief of staff’s office and was formerly a lawyer for a gun silencer lobby. Pack’s new chief of staff, Emily Newman, was recently the White House liaison to Health and Human Services. The top two officials at VOA resigned on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Pack met with senior staff at the agency’s headquarters on Independence Ave., but made no mention of a coming shake up. Then a few hours later, at the end of the workday, a message went out that authority to run the broadcast networks was being given to Pack’s senior staff and that no leaders were allowed to make any public statements without first clearing it with Pack’s office.
The top Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot Engel, was alarmed at the prospect of Pack pushing out career experts at the agency. The agency’s mission is “‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy’—not to be a mouthpiece for the President in the run up to an election,” Engel said in a statement. “Mr. Pack needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information. The law requires that our international broadcasting be independent, unbiased, and targeted toward audiences around the world,” Engel said.
Some aides are arguing that Trump’s purge is less about improving his re-election chances, which critics say would be an abuse of power, than about establishing his authority ahead of a hoped-for second term. “They’re preparing for a second term,” says the former Trump aide familiar with the changes. Some in the White House have studied the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush and believe Bush didn’t do enough to put a conservative stamp on the civil service while he was in office, and they want to change that, the former official says. “It needs to happen quicker,” said a current White House official about the effort to place more of Trump’s picks throughout the agencies.
Trump’s hiring apparatus in the White House has been a source of frustration for Trump for years, the former official says. “There was a problem as far as approach in fulfilling the President’s wishes,” the former official says. “McEntee is trying to fulfill the President’s wishes and execute. He’s executing. He’s making decisions and moving,” says the former official.
Inside the White House, McEntee encouraged the head of the Office of Personnel Management Dale Cabaniss to resign over concerns that she wasn’t moving quickly enough or aggressively with personnel decisions. She was replaced by the deputy director, Michael Rigas. In addition, since he arrived in the West Wing in late March, Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has worked with Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah to wrestle the agency public affairs operations under White House control, especially leading into the election. In April, McEntee placed former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for public affairs.
Past administrations have grappled with how to bring on board people who won’t contradict the President. When Ronald Reagan was elected, his advisors created a list of what Reagan had promised during the campaign and would show the list to nominees, asking them not to take public positions against them, says Terry Sullivan, an expert on presidential leadership at the University of North Carolina. In the Trump administration, the loyalty test can be harder as the list of what to adhere to “changes from day to day,” Sullivan says. “They aren’t good at coaching,” Sullivan says. “They end up with what appears to be disloyalty because people have a hard time figuring out what they’re supposed to be doing.”
The decision making of Presidents usually reflects the lives and experiences they’ve had, says Martha Kumar, an expert on White House management. “For Trump, he ran a company that he controlled. He wasn’t responsible to stockholders. He never held elective office. He really didn’t have to go beyond his initial experience which was to have people around him who were loyal to him,” Kumar says.
President Trump’s appointment of William Barr to head the Justice Department in February 2019, just as Special Council Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was wrapping up, has led to a cascading loss of independence in the justice system, say Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, including signs of political interference in criminal cases against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump’s former campaign advisor Roger Stone.
The removals have been widespread across the agencies, with particular focus on officials charged with finding waste, fraud and abuse of power. In April, Trump fired the chief watchdog of the intelligence community who had passed to Congress the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president that led to his impeachment. That same month, Trump demoted the top watchdog at the Defense Department, Glenn Fine, which stripped him of his additional duty overseeing the more than a trillion dollars in pandemic stimulus payments. Trump replaced him with the acting inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The acting inspector general of the Department of Transportation was removed in May at a time when the office reportedly was looking at whether Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had taken actions beneficial to her husband Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political interests. The State Department’s inspector general was also fired in May after looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played a role in selling arms to Saudi Arabia in a way that was circumventing the Congressional process.
“The firings send a terrible messages to inspectors general, basically, ‘You’re going to lose your job,’ and for a career appointee, ‘You’re treading on thin ice if you do anything that is not going to align with the political interest of the leadership,’” Canter says.
Trump has chafed at recent critiques he views as disloyal. Former National Security Advisor Bolton’s book alleges that Trump urged China’s leader to buy more farm products to help Trump’s reelection and mused about staying beyond two terms. The Justice Department’s attempt to block publication of the 592-page memoir argues that despite months of pre-publication review, Bolton’s book still contains classified information.
Bolton is not the only senior Trump official to voice criticism of the President as the election nears. After Trump’s ham-handed attempt at a photo op in front of St. John’s Church in Washington just moments after federal, state and local forces cleared Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters, Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued his first direct criticism of the President in a scathing letter. Mattis said Trump should not threaten to use the military to “dominate” cities and Americans should reject those would would “make a mockery of our Constitution.” In response, Trump called Mattis “terrible” and “overrated.”
There has been some push back to Trump’s effort to keep control over his agencies. In addition to criticism from Bolton and Mattis, senior military officials have publicly expressed their discomfort with Trump saying he was willing to use the military to put down protests inside the U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was against using active-duty troops to stop civil unrest in the country. After the Lafayette Square Park incident, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Mark Milley said it was “a mistake” to have walked with Trump for a photo-op at St. John’s Church. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said.
How long those voices remain in the administration will show just how much dissent Trump is willing to take.
— With Reporting from Kim Dozier/Washington