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Trump administration prepares for massive shake-up after midterms

The fates of many top officials hang in the balance as Election Day looms large.

President Trump looks to the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally at Pensacola International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pensacola, Fla.
President Trump looks to the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally at Pensacola International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pensacola, Fla.Read moreEvan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is bracing for a massive staff shake-up in the weeks following the midterm elections, as the fates of a number of Cabinet secretaries and top White House aides are increasingly uncertain heading into a potentially perilous time for President Trump.

Some embattled officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are expected to be fired or actively pushed out by Trump after months of bitter recriminations. Others, like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, may leave amid a mutual recognition that their relationship with the president has become too strained. And more still plan to take top roles on Trump's 2020 reelection campaign or seek lucrative jobs in the private sector after nearly two years in government.

The expected midterm exodus would bring fresh uncertainty and churn to a White House already plagued by high turnover and internal chaos. Many in Trump's orbit worry that the administration will face challenges filling the vacancies – especially if Democrats win the House majority and use their oversight powers to investigate the administration and issue subpoenas to top officials.

Trump's allies, however, note that some turnover at the two-year mark is normal in any administration. They also say that any departures would give the president a chance to reshape the White House more fully in his own image.

"I don't think he likes people leaving him," said Marc Short, the former White House director of legislative affairs. But, he added, "It does provide the president with an opportunity to reset. When he came in during the transition, Washington was new to him. I think he has a better idea of the talent he wants around him."

Short added that, more than previous Oval Office occupants, Trump "does function as his own chief of staff in a lot ways" and might welcome the chance to bring in a new crop of aides more aligned with his vision. "He may not even know what all those people do," Short said, referring to some members of the current staff.

This portrait of the White House preparing for post-midterm staff changes comes from interviews with 14 senior White House officials, administration aides and Republican operatives, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal deliberations.

Among those most vulnerable to being dismissed are Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation after Sessions recused himself. Trump has routinely berated Sessions, whom he faults for the Russia investigation, but he and Rosenstein have forged an improved rapport in recent months.

Allies of Sessions and some in the Justice Department believe the attorney general could be fired in humiliating fashion in the days immediately following Tuesday's elections. The White House has already begun considering replacements, while Trump aides and confidants have cautioned the president he would face a backlash if he fired either of the top two Justice officials, particularly before the midterms.

Other Cabinet officials – including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Nielsen – also face uncertain futures.

Mattis and Trump have long had "an uncomfortable working relationship," in the words of one former White House official. The two have clashed on a range of issues, including transgender people serving in the military, the Iran nuclear deal, military exercises with South Korea and conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. Mattis has made securing military alliances a priority, and he has often found himself assuaging European and Asian allies rattled by Trump's comments.

But Trump is unlikely to fire Mattis, and Mattis – who has backed Trump on his controversial deployment of troops to the U.S. border – is unlikely to resign, according to people familiar with the dynamic.

Trump has been skeptical of Nielsen because of her service in the George W. Bush administration, and the two have feuded over an influx of migrants on the southern border, which the president does not believe Nielsen is addressing forcefully enough. Like with Sessions, the White House also has already been discussing possible replacements for her.

Nielsen's primary protector has been White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, another potential departure who has at times clashed with the president but has been asked by Trump to stay through 2020. If Kelly does leave, however, many say Nielsen is likely to follow.

On Zinke, the president started complaining in recent days to aides about news reports that the Justice Department is scrutinizing the interior secretary's real estate dealings in Montana. Trump has apparently asked how problematic Zinke's conduct has become.

Other top figures, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and press secretary Sarah Sanders, also have been mentioned as possible departures in the coming months, though if they leave, they seem likely to do so of their own accord.

Sanders has a strong relationship with Trump and is expected to leave only if the right opportunity arises. In recent weeks, she has held increasingly infrequent briefings with the media, all but eliminating one of her most fraught responsibilities.

Other West Wing aides intend to transition to Trump's reelection effort. Justin Clark, who heads the Office of Public Liaison, is expected to leave in the coming months to work on the campaign in a senior adviser role.

Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, is also mentioned as a possible departure. He has a young family and has told those close to him that he is eager to return to his home state of Georgia. If he leaves, he may work on the reelection campaign, but he could stay in the West Wing, especially for a new job with more responsibility.

Deputy Chief of Staff Johnny DeStefano, newly married and starting a family, is similarly expected to exit soon.

Trump's White House has weathered an extraordinary amount of turnover. In its first year, the Trump administration far outpaced its modern predecessors for turnover with a rate of 34 percent, and its current overall rate is 58 percent, according to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been studying White House personnel patterns for more than two decades.

Some turnover around the two-year mark is natural, Dunn Tenpas said, but "the number of people resigning under pressure far exceeds that of any other administration."

"The turnover," she added, "makes it that much more difficult to implement your agenda, when you're constantly hiring and rehiring and having to train and retrain people."

In 2006, then-President Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after Democrats seized control of both chambers of Congress, in part because of deepening public opposition to the Iraq War.

After the 2010 elections, which then-President Barack Obama called a "shellacking" because Republicans took over control of both the House and Senate, several top White House staffers left their posts. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel resigned to pursue a run for mayor in his hometown of Chicago, Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina left to manage Obama's reelection campaign and press secretary Robert Gibbs departed a few months later.

A poor performance by Republicans at the polls next week could also complicate the calculation inside Trump's White House. David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, former campaign officials who informally advise the president from outside the administration, are publishing a book the last week in November titled "Trump's Enemies: How the Deep State Is Undermining the Presidency."

The book has caused consternation in Trump's circle among those who believe the duo might name aides and appointees who they feel are not serving the president well.

"It is fair to say that we outline in the book the challenges that he faces, both external to his administration and internal to his administration," Lewandowski said.

A poor Election Day showing also would magnify the administration's existing challenge of recruiting and retaining top talent, especially in senior positions. The task is so difficult that Trump's aides are waiting until after the elections in the hopes of poaching Republican operatives who find themselves suddenly jobless, either because they worked on failed campaigns or lost their jobs in congressional leadership offices if Democrats takeover.

Trump has cast himself as a magnet for talent. "Believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House," he said in March.

But Christopher Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers," a history of White House chiefs of staff, said the absence in Trump's orbit of experienced staffers who command respect is striking.

Referring to two White House chiefs of staff from the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, Whipple said: "The bad news for Trump is that there are not a lot of Jim Bakers or Leon Panettas around, much less anybody of that ability who would be willing to work with him."