It was common knowledge for weeks that David Shulkin's tenure as Veterans Affairs secretary was in serious trouble, and the White House did little to knock down rumors that a search was underway to find a successor. When Shulkin spoke directly with Donald Trump on Thursday, he probably expected to get bad news about his future in the administration.
But that's not quite what happened.
[Shulkin] said on MSNBC's "All In with Chris Hayes" Thursday that he spoke to President Donald Trump by phone on Wednesday, the same day the president announced on Twitter that he would be replaced with White House physician Admiral Ronny Jackson. [...]Shulkin said that during the phone call Trump was "very focused, he was very inquisitive about the things that we were working on, making sure that we were focused on the job at hand."
Just so we're perfectly clear, the president spoke directly to his V.A. secretary on Wednesday. Later that day, Trump fired Shulkin -- by way of a tweet -- and had White House Chief of Staff John Kelly alert Shulkin to the fact that his services were no longer required. (According to Politico, Kelly had told Shulkin that morning that he wouldn't be fired on Wednesday.}
I suppose it's possible that the president spoke to the cabinet secretary, then decided to fire him, and then lined up his temporary and permanent successor, all over the course of an afternoon, but the more plausible scenario is that Trump knew he was replacing Shulkin when the two spoke.
The president just chickened out during the conversation. During Trump's career as a reality-television personality, his preferred catchphrase was, "You're fired," which makes it all the more curious that he seems too afraid to say it to those in his administration that he's firing.
The Washington Post had a good piece on this a couple of weeks ago, long before the Shulkin announcement.
[Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] learned that he was being fired via a presidential tweet. FBI Director James B. Comey found out he was sacked last year by seeing a headline on cable news. Last summer, chief of staff Reince Priebus's White House career ended when other top officials hopped out of the black Suburban SUV that was carrying them from Air Force One back to Washington, leaving Priebus the lone passenger in a vehicle that then peeled out of the president's motorcade.In these and many other cases over the first 14 months of Trump's administration, there was no "You're fired" moment, at least not from the president.
To be sure, the turnover on Team Trump has come at a dizzying pace, with the revolving door at the White House spinning out of control for months. The staffing volatility surrounding this president is unprecedented in any modern administration.
But the developments come with a twist: Trump, perhaps afraid of unpleasant confrontations, lacks the courage to drop the hatchet himself, preferring to make staffing changes through tweets, leaving officials to learn of their fates from others.
In Shulkin's case, the president could have paid him the courtesy of telling his cabinet secretary what was about to happen. That Trump chose not to says a great deal about his style of "leadership."