Analysis 02-28-2020


Trump firing of Key Administration Officials – What Does it Mean?


Since President Trump was acquitted by the US Senate, he has been firing government officials.  These include the withdrawing of Jessie Liu’s name from a top Treasury position, firing the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, and pushing about 200 people out of the National Security Council.  And the word is that many more are expected to be push aside in the coming months.


In addition to pushing out anti-Trump officials, it appears that there is a pro-Trump list that has names of people loyal to Trump that will be named to fill these positions.  It is rumored that one of the people compiling these lists is Ginni Thomas, wife of conservative Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.


There are several questions that these moves raise: are Trump’s actions legal, why is Trump doing this, and what policy implications will come out of the new order?


The US Constitution makes the Executive Branch of the government a singular entity.  In other words, all executive power resides in the president.  Those people under him merely act in his behalf.  So, the Secretary of State merely uses the authority of the president to carry out the foreign policy that the president wants to pursue.  If he fails to carry out that policy or refuses to carry it out, he can be summarily fired.  And, since he “serves at the pleasure of the president,” he can be relieved of his position for no reason at all.


This power to fire isn’t limited to Cabinet members.  It also extends to high administration officials, heads of government departments inside the executive branch like the FBI, ambassadors, and commissioned officers of the US military.


However,  the right of presidents to summarily fire officials has been a bone of contention in the past.  In fact, ironically the first impeachment, of President Andrew Johnson, was for firing a Cabinet official. 


In 1868, President Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, which caused the same type of uproar that the firing of FBI Director Comey did in 2017.  Johnson was impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act, which was passed specifically to protect Stanton.  Johnson was eventually acquitted.


Over 50 years later, the US Supreme Court ruled (Myers v. United States) that the president has the power to remove senior people without congressional approval.  The majority opinion stated, “The Tenure of Office Act of 1867, insofar as it attempted to prevent the President from removing executive officers who had been appointed by him and with the advice and consent of the Senate was invalid.”


Consequently, although the Democrats are condemning Trump for his actions, he has the law, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court on his side.


Although Trump has the authority, what is the reason for his actions?


Unlike others who won the presidency, he had no cadre of political allies he could appoint to office.  Since he wasn’t a politician, he hadn’t collected a group of loyal politicians and bureaucrats that he could use to fill the administration.  Consequently, he relied on other Republicans (who were once opposed to Trump) and former Obama officials.


The problem was that these officials had policy goals far different than those of Trump and those who voted for him.  In many cases, they ignored his orders, leaked damaging information to the press, and worked to continue the policies of the past.  One example was National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was a Republican, but whose foreign policies were more interventionist than Trump’s.


The same is true of the 200 NSC officials sent back to their original departments.  In most cases, they had been brought onboard by Obama and tended to continue his policies.  The result of this action is that now NSC advice will more closely reflect Trump’s desires.


One of the most senior firings was Pentagon policy official John Rood who had frequently been accused of slowing down Trump policy, while implementing policy that Trump disagreed with.  Rood was also reluctant to provide the White House with a plan to withdraw troops from Syria.  In addition, he didn’t pressure South Korea or Japan to pick up more of the cost of stationing troops there – a Trump priority.  He also stonewalled the appointment of pro-Trump people and preferred to leave the positions vacant.


Trump also fired the entire White House Presidential Office staff, which is responsible for administration appointments.  Several members of the staff were anti-Trump and it was preventing pro-Trump appointments.


Now that Trump is free of the impeachment charges and is starting to look forward to a second term, he is interested in cleaning out the bureaucracy (called the Swamp by Trump and the Deep State by others).  That means discovering who has opposed his agenda and targeting them for firing.  It also means finding Republicans who approve of Trump’s policies that he can insert into the administration.


However, that isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Even pro-Trump officials become advocates of the departments they head and try to protect the members of their departments.


One example is the Department of Justice and the FBI.  Although the Inspector General and the federal courts have found major problems with the FBI’s handling of FISA warrants and have recommended major changes, Attorney General Barr has joined the DOJ and FBI in order to minimize any corrective actions.  And, although Barr’s actions have proved him to be a pro-Trump Cabinet official, he has sided with his department to protect officials and fight the publication of embarrassing documents.


Barr is fenced in.  If he carries out the cleanup of the DOJ and FBI that Trump desires, he will alienate his subordinates, who will work to undermine him through leaks to the press.  If he sides totally with his subordinates, he will get fired by Trump.


This is the problem for any Trump Administration official – past, present, and future.


Interestingly, civil liberty advocates in both parties warn that allowing agencies to set policy and ignore the president is dangerous.  Many say the intelligence community and FBI have too much power and little accountability under anti-terrorism laws.  As it stands now, the only way to stop them is to allow the president (of either party) to fire them.


Given the growing distrust of the intelligence community and the FBI by voters, their only recourse is to vote for a president that promises to reform these agencies. 


Looking Towards the Future


The question now is, what will the firing of some administration officials and hiring of pro-Trump officials mean?


As we just mentioned, it is traditionally easy for an official to become an advocate of department policy, even though he was appointed by the president to change that policy.  That means that any attempt by Trump to change the status quo policy inside the federal bureaucracy will be difficult.  It will require officials who are committed to Trump’s policy and who aren’t afraid to upset their department and even risk damaging leaks to the media.


Then there is the question of how the vacancies in the government and the appointment of pro-Trump officials will change US policy.


Except for the wholesale removal of about 200 people in the National Security Council, the vacancies created so far are few.  Other officials will be able to fill in and slowly, the policies of Trump might prevail.


One change will be in foreign policy and national security policy.  Obama had dramatically increased the NSC, since he didn’t need Senate approval to bring them onboard.  The move to reduce the size of the NSC means that the NSC will act more like it did during the George W Bush presidency. 


With the reassignment of this block of NSC employees, much of the policy will go back to other departments like State, Defense, and Homeland Security.


However, the major change in policy will not come until after the November presidential elections.  If Trump is reelected, as some analysts expect, we can expect to see a major reshuffling of the Administration.  Officials who have stayed in but haven’t been aggressive in pursuing Trump’s policies may be removed in favor of someone more willing to carry out the President’s policies.  That could mean a more aggressive immigration policy and a serious attempt to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  It also means a reduction in federal government regulations.


Given the controversial actions by the FBI and intelligence community during the 2016 campaign that perceived to be against Trump, it’s very likely that Trump may move against them and appoint officials who will “clean house” and institute major reforms if he wins reelection.


There are two scenarios that could stop this – a Democratic Senate or House.  If the Democrats retain the House in November, they could always reintroduce articles of impeachment.  And, if the Senate becomes Democratic, it will allow the Democrats to block the appointment of pro-Trump officials, even though there is very little possibility that the Democrats would gain enough seats to convict Trump of impeachable actions.  However, a Democratic majority in the Senate would allow for a full impeachment trial, unlike the short trail held a few weeks ago.


Both the threat of impeachment and the inability to place his preferred officials into his administration would tend to curtail Trump’s actions.  However, since NSC appointments aren’t sent to the Senate for confirmation, Trump may be forced to rely on his NSC for foreign policy actions.


Although many are criticizing Trump for firing some members of his administration, the fact is that what we are seeing is only a sample of what we could see if Trump is reelected.