Sometimes, Aides Save a President From Himself

Trump-McGahn incident detailed in Mueller report shows presidents need staff around them who won’t just blindly do their bidding

When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.

On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.

Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.

Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.

The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.

Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.

Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”

Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.

Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.

In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.

Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.

Mr. Trump also needs aides who will challenge him, as they have when he sought to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria, fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and blow up existing trade treaties. In the wake of the departure of Mr. McGahn last fall, as well as the exits of Chief of Staff John Kelly, economic adviser Gary Cohn, staff secretary Rob Porter, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, the question is whether he has enough of them.

Trump Weighs Replacing Chief of Staff John Kelly in White House Shake-Up

The first to go is expected to be the deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel, who has clashed with First Lady Melania Trump. Mr. Trump is also leaning toward the ouster of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is a close ally of Mr. Kelly, White House officials said. The president has decided to replace Ms. Nielsen, but hasn’t finalized the timing, White House officials said, in part because there isn’t an obvious candidate to replace her.

.. The president often games out multiple staffing scenarios with advisers, including months of talking about whether to replace Mr. Kelly. While those discussions often signal impending changes, that is not always the case.This is how the president works,” one White House official said. “He’s doused a bunch of people in gasoline and he’s waiting for someone to light a match.”

.. A rift emerged after Mrs. Trump staff’s battled with Ms. Ricardel during the first lady’s trip to Africa last month over seating on the plane and requests to use National Security Council resources, according to people familiar with the matter. The first lady’s team also told Mr. Trump that they suspect Ms. Ricardel is behind some negative stories about Mrs. Trump and her staff.

The first lady’s office issued a statement on Tuesday calling for Ms. Ricardel to be dismissed. “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House,” said Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Trump.

.. Late Tuesday, one White House official pushed back against the criticism but offered no assurances about Ms. Ricardel’s job security.

“Mira Ricardel is one of the highest ranking women in the Trump administration,” the official said. And she “has never met the first lady.”

Ms. Ricardel also repeatedly clashed with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Pentagon team over staffing decisions and policy differences, according to people familiar with the feud.

.. Ms. Ricardel has served as a vital ally for Mr. Bolton since he took the national security job in April. He resisted efforts by Mr. Kelly to force her out, including when the chief of staff cited Mrs. Trump’s concerns two weeks ago, the officials said. Mrs. Trump and her staff then discussed the issue with the president during the trip to Paris, White House officials said. Mr. Trump told his wife that he would have Ms. Ricardel removed, the officials said.Mr. Bolton, meanwhile, has been among those pushing for Ms. Nielsen’s ouster, officials said. The Washington Post reported Mr. Trump’s decision to remove Ms. Nielsen on Monday.

.. One reason: The White House has no one ready to nominate, and there are succession questions at Homeland Security. The administration has yet to replace Elaine Duke, who resigned as the deputy secretary in February.
.. Mr. Trump also has soured on Kevin McAleenan, who is commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
 .. One source of tension between Mr. Bolton and Ms. Nielsen stemmed from a plan she raised to deal with the migrant caravan heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. Ms. Nielsen raised the possibility of asking the United Nations refugee agency to set up camps on the Mexico side of the border to house the migrants, said to people familiar with the talks.Mr. Bolton pointedly dismissed the idea as unworkable and misguided, a response that irked Ms. Nielsen and triggered a forceful defense from Mr. Kelly, these people said. Mr. Kelly asked Mr. Bolton what he thought would be a better approach, and Mr. Bolton said he would discuss it directly with the president, one of these people said.

.. In a meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump further aggravated Mr. Kelly by suggesting that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser, use his contacts in the Mexican government to try to resolve the caravan issue. “Let’s get Jared involved; he’s our best guy on this,” Mr. Trump said.

.. In recent days, Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Ayers in the present tense as his chief of staff, one White House official said. Mr. Trump has told officials he expects to offer Mr. Ayers the job when Mr. Kelly leaves

 

Kushner Resists Losing Access as Kelly Tackles Security Clearance Issues

Mr. Kushner is one of dozens of White House officials operating under interim security clearances because of issues raised by the F.B.I. during their background checks

.. Mr. Kushner, frustrated about the security clearance issue and concerned that Mr. Kelly has targeted him personally with the directive, has told colleagues at the White House that he is reluctant to give up his high-level access

.. In the talks, the officials say, Mr. Kushner has insisted that he maintain his current level of access, including the ability to review the daily intelligence briefing when he sees fit.

.. But Mr. Kelly, who has been privately dismissive of Mr. Kushner since taking the post of chief of staff but has rarely taken him on directly, has made no guarantees, saying only that the president’s son-in-law will still have all the access he needs to do his job under the new system.

“As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico,” Mr. Kelly said in a statement the White House released on Tuesday in which he refused to address Mr. Kushner’s security clearance or elaborate on his memo.

It is unclear whether Mr. Kushner would need to review highly classified information. His current portfolio — which includes acting as an intermediary with Mexico, trying to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, participating in an economic dialogue with China and working on revising the North American Free Trade Agreement — seems unlikely to involve major intelligence or national security secrets. But Mr. Kushner, by dint of his relationship with Mr. Trump, has wide-ranging access to the president and the information that he sees, and senior advisers to the president typically require such access to perform their duties.

.. Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump have been critical of Mr. Kelly in conversations with the president, who spent the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., surveying people about whether he should fire his chief of staff.