President Donald Trump continued his public humiliation of his attorney general on Monday, and West Wing aides wondered whether other senior officials would exit the administration following a shake-up in the communications department.
Trump’s dressing-down of Jeff Sessions continued with an morning tweet labeling his top law enforcement official "beleaguered," and aides and advisers said Trump was considering whether to make a change.
Sessions, an Eagle Scout, was noticeably absent on a West Virginia stage as Trump spoke to a Boy Scout jamboree, flanked by other scouts in his administration.
And some White House and national security officials continued to speculate about the jobs of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
No one was publicly fired on Monday. In a White House in which rumored exits rarely materialize, it was unclear if anyone else was leaving the administration soon. Still, the uncertainty has distracted the White House at times from its legislative agenda and kept it from presenting a united front against investigations involving the 2016 Trump campaign.
The president has been frustrated since Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s activities during the 2016 election, and Trump recently began airing those feelings in public. But replacing Sessions might not be easy. Some potential choices, like Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, once were keen on the job but have grown concerned about working in this administration, people close to them say. And the Senate would have to confirm any replacement pick.
One adviser said Trump would see firing Sessions as a way to have more control over special counsel Bob Mueller, who he has decided he cannot fire — at least for now.
Sessions was in the West Wing on Monday, though he didn’t meet Trump, a White House spokeswoman said. New communications director Anthony Scaramucci told POLITICO the president remained upset. Sessions was one of Trump’s first Capitol Hill supporters, but Scaramucci suggested the two men needed to have a serious conversation.
"The president remains disappointed in some of the ways the attorney general has handled certain situations," Scaramucci said.
Scaramucci, whose arrival prompted the exit of press secretary Sean Spicer, said Sessions’ fate would be up to the president and Sessions. The attorney general has said he intends to stay in the job. Trump ignored a question from a reporter about the subject during a public appearance Monday.
One longtime business associate said Trump rarely fires employees but prefers to make their jobs unpleasant, as he’s done with Sessions.
"I worked with him for 16 years. I never saw him fire anybody. The issue about firing people only came when he went on the TV program," said Louise Sunshine, a longtime executive in Trump’s real estate company. "He would make it extremely clear you had made him angry, and you would go on his list. He would have a long memory and make your life miserable."
"Maybe it’s easier if Jeff Sessions gets the message and resigns," Sunshine said.
Talk that Trump and McMaster have been on the outs was fueled over the weekend by a Bloomberg View article reporting on multiple headaches for McMaster at the White House, as well as a Politico story detailing how Trump has been dismissive of McMaster’s views on Afghanistan policy.
A George W. Bush administration National Security Council aide who remains in touch with the White House and a Trump transition aide separately said that, should he leave, McMaster would likely be replaced either by C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo or by Bush’s former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton. A reported early candidate to be Trump’s secretary of state, Bolton is a regular visitor to the White House, where he has developed a strong rapport with the president, the former NSC aide said.
Several White House officials on Monday denied that McMaster was on his way out, though they acknowledged he has a contentious relationship with Trump. Rather, they said, McMaster is in the crosshairs of senior West Wing aides, who they said had tried to oust him by leaking damaging — and, McMaster allies say, false — information to the media.
National Security Council staffers threw a surprise birthday party for McMaster early Monday evening on the balcony of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It was standing room only and paid for by the staffers, one White House official said. Top aides Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Tom Bossert attended the gathering, where there was singing and chocolate cake for the general, who turned 55 years old on Monday.
"The president would like the leaking to stop about getting rid of McMaster," Scaramucci said. A McMaster spokesman declined to comment.
Meanwhile, not only McMaster’s fate but also that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a hot conversation topic among attendees at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last week.
Tillerson has grown increasingly frustrated in his job and even lost his temper with White House aides as he battles with Trump aides over personnel and policy matters — from State Department nominations to the U.S. position on a dispute between Qatar and its Arab neighbors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Tillerson has defended Qatar from its neighbors’ charges of supporting terrorism, but Trump has repeatedly contradicted that position.)
One source familiar with conversations Tillerson has had recently with associates said that Trump’s top diplomat feels he is “not being allowed to do his job” and is reconsidering how long he is willing to stay. Tillerson initially planned to stay for at least a year, the source said, but now “he’s no longer wedded to that idea.” Some Tillerson allies believe that, like McMaster, he is the target of a whisper campaign intended to undermine his stature.
“Thought never crossed his mind," R.C. Hammond, a State Department spokesman, said of the idea Tillerson might leave early. “Plenty of work to do.”
In the West Wing, aides openly mused about the fate of Priebus. With Scaramucci’s hiring, Priebus no longer controls the communications department — which is "the most important to Trump," one person said — and has seen his role diminished in political and policy decisions too.
Scaramucci told POLITICO Monday he wanted a positive relationship with Priebus and that comments on his job standing “have to come straight from the president." Priebus has told others he wants to make it one year before leaving.
Scaramucci said there would be changes in his communications shop — but he was still evaluating the landscape.
"Senior people have gone to the comms people and said, leak this or leak that on this person or that person," Scaramucci said.
"The comms department reports to me. I report to the president. It has to stop, and I’ve told them that. If it doesn’t stop, I’ll fire all of you."
Nancy Cook contributed to this report.