We don’t yet have a good sense of why, exactly, Donald Trump ousted Randolph “Tex” Alles as the director of the U.S. Secret Service, though there are reports that the president didn’t necessarily respect him. The New York Times reported overnight, for example, that Trump “made fun of the director’s looks, calling him Dumbo because of his ears.”
Obviously, anecdotes like these reinforce impressions that the president has the temperament of a spoiled child, even ridiculing the head of an agency that protects him and his family – not because of anything to do with his job performance, but because Trump found Alles’ ears amusing.
But I think there’s a larger significance to this beyond the president’s immaturity. The Washington Post had a report on Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who’ll soon become the acting secretary of Homeland Security. The article noted in passing:
McAleenan … presents as a natural leader of DHS, a no-nonsense law enforcement official with longtime practical immigration experience. For a president who places a premium on appearances, McAleenan, 47, also looks the part, with close-cropped hair and a stern bearing.
In theory, this should be a trivial and inconsequential detail. But in Trump World, it may be one of the few details that actually matter: the president cares deeply about who “looks the part” and who doesn’t.
This isn’t to suggest McAleenan is moving up and Alles is moving out entirely because of Trump’s assessment of their physical appearance, but given everything we know about the president’s preferences, it’s probably a mistake to overlook this aspect.
Trump has ideas in his mind of what various officials are supposed to look like. It’s the basis for his preoccupation with “central casting,” which is a topic the president has been emphasizing with great enthusiasm lately.
Last week, for example, in remarks to the National Republican Congressional Committee – the speech in which he suggested wind turbines cause cancer – Trump praised NRCC Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) because he’s “central casting.” The president added, “You couldn’t pick a better guy in Hollywood. There’s no actor that could do it better.”
Soon after, in the same speech, Trump said he spoke to a U.S. general named “Raisin Caine” who was “out of central casting, I’m telling you. There’s nobody in Hollywood that could look like this guy.”
A few days later, Trump traveled to southern California, where he praised U.S. border officials as, you guessed it, “central casting.”
As regular readers know, this has become a bizarre staple of the Republican’s presidency. It was last summer, for example, when the White House had to choose a Supreme Court nominee, and this was a major consideration.
“Beyond the qualifications, what really matters is, does this nominee fit a central casting image for a Supreme Court nominee, as well as his or her spouse,” the Republican close to the White House told Politico. “That’s a big deal. Do they fit the role?”
A few months earlier, he chose Ronny Jackson, the then-White House physician, to oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs, in part because of the Navy admiral’s guise.
“He’s like central casting – like a Hollywood star,” Trump told donors at a fundraiser.
The president can’t seem to help himself. When describing Vice President Mike Pence, Trump likes to say he’s “central casting.” On his Inauguration Day, the president also turned to Defense Secretary James Mattis and said, “This is central casting.” When Trump considered Mitt Romney for his cabinet, Trump’s transition officials said the president believed Romney “looks the part of a top diplomat right out of ‘central casting.’” Rex Tillerson was described as having a “central casting” quality.
The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty told MSNBC after the election that “central casting” is “actually a phrase [Trump] uses quite a bit behind the scenes.”
As we discussed last year, I’ve heard other politicians and other presidents use the phrase, but not to this extent. Trump cares about “central casting” as if he were the executive producer of an elaborate show.
Because to a very real extent, that’s exactly how this president perceives his role.
As Trump’s purge of the Department of Homeland Security continues, would-be officials should probably keep this in mind. If you’re not out of “central casting,” evidently the president has little use for you.