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Trump settles in as producer in chief

Midway through the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump had an idea. Wouldn't it be fun, he told an associate, ...

Posted: Mar 18, 2018 8:06 AM
Updated: Mar 18, 2018 8:06 AM

Midway through the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump had an idea. Wouldn't it be fun, he told an associate, to revive his hit NBC reality show "The Apprentice" inside the White House, using his own staffers as the contestants and the West Wing as his board room? The idea, conveyed to CNN by two people familiar with the conversation, was quickly squelched by aides.

But if the past week has illustrated, Trump's inclination to use his office as a television control room hasn't waned.

After more than a year in office, the President has grown more comfortable in his new role as producer in chief, reverting to his old ways and embracing the chaos while delighting in the fact that the nation is now his captive audience.

As his aides sought to tamp down rumors that a staff shake-up was imminent Friday, the President watched the build up play out on television with barely contained glee, an administration official said. Trump, who hosted a reality show on NBC for 14 seasons before entering the White House, relishes in the feeling of being able to control the banners that flash across the lower third of his screen, people familiar with his thinking said.

Week of turbulence

It was a week of turbulence in the West Wing -- beginning with the President's decision to fire his secretary of state on Twitter -- and whispers of more dismissals created the impression among White House staff that there would be a staffing upheaval come Friday.

Sources say Trump is more poised to make significant changes now because he is back in his comfort zone, with a year in office under his belt. He is beginning to trust his gut more and he now feels less inclined to listen to input from his advisers and aides, who he feels are constantly trying to restrict him from doing what he wants. Those same advisers once cautioned him that making too many changes would give off the sense that the administration was engulfed in chaos -- an idea the President now embraces.

"I like conflict," Trump said recently. "I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that. Then I make a decision. But I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it's the best way to go."

Trump's reasons for considering replacing his chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster have been pinned to his frustration at having his freewheeling style limited by process-minded functionaries. But people who know Trump say he dislikes the appearance of being constrained by his advisers more than he dislikes actually being constrained.

Though the White House insisted Friday that there were no staff changes on the immediate horizon, the President has fueled much of the revolving door discussion himself by speaking often and openly with friends and associates outside of the West Wing. He has, at times, even teased his upcoming staff decisions with a "we'll see."

As it happens, many of the people he's identified as his second string share the trait of appearing on television frequently. Trump, who has sometimes viewed himself as a casting director in filling his administration with an eye to candidates who "look the part," has taken note of commentators who praise him consistently.

John Bolton is once again the leading candidate to replace McMaster as national security adviser, and after the two met in the Oval Office last week, a source close to the President said: "Trump has always wanted Bolton."

Despite once bemoaning Bolton's thick mustache as unbefitting a senior White House official, Trump has now determined he can look past it, one person familiar with his thinking said.

He has also expressed interest in replacing Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin with Pete Hegseth, the broad-shouldered weekend host of "Fox and Friends" who the President speaks with by phone regularly.

And he's slated to discuss the open position of communications director with Bill Shine, the co-president of Fox News who stepped down last year after he was criticized for the way he handled sexual harassment claims at the network, in the coming days.

Far from certain

The potential appointments are far from certain as Trump continues to mull his options. But the candidates speak to a President eager to return to his comfort zone. Some individuals whose names have been floated for open positions have even phoned cable news hosts who are known to regularly speak with Trump, hoping that they can put a good word in with the President.

The President's penchant for television is so obvious that West Wing hopefuls have adjusted their views during television appearances in order to boost their chances of being offered a position in the White House. Bolton, who said last fall that "the only diplomatic option left" in North Korea was regime change, has tempered his comments during recent appearances as speculation ramps up that he could replace McMaster as national security adviser. In one recent appearance on Fox News, Bolton encouraged diplomacy with North Korea, advising that Trump should meet with Kim Jong Un in Geneva by the end of March.

Trump, who often quizzes his aides on how his decisions are playing on television, has also shown he favors candidates with on-screen experience who can adeptly defend his administration and spar with cable news hosts. This was most recently evidenced by his recent selection of economist and television pundit Larry Kudlow to be his top economic adviser, replacing Gary Cohn, who recently stepped down over steel tariffs.

In the Trump White House, the President is the casting director -- and these are his screen tests.

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