In less than a year and a half in office, President Donald Trump has overseen an unprecedented level of Cabinet turnover, so far ousting his Secretary of State, Secretary of Health and Human Services and Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.
But others remain in office, despite attracting Trump’s displeasure or being touched by scandal. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to face ethics questions. Lesser dust-ups at Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development and Ryan Zinke’s Interior have irked the president but haven’t put their jobs in peril. And Trump continues to delight in belittling ever-on-the-brink Attorney General Jeff Sessions as the Russia probe wears on.
Here’s a look at five tricks for surviving in Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
1. Stay close
Trump likes to see his aides, and senior officials like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have learned that visibility can be key to maintaining good relations with the president.
“The president often will say, ‘Get me Rick Perry! Oh, he’s traveling again?’” said a Republican lobbyist close to the White House. “There is no surprise why Mnuchin is always around him.”
And if you can’t stay physically close to the president, at least make yourself rhetorically close. Sessions, for example, has found a way to weave effusive Trump praise into many of his speeches.
“With President Trump, we have a new era of support for law enforcement like we haven’t seen in many years,” Sessions declared at a recent event in New Mexico. “You might even say we’ve got a new sheriff in town. I would think so. Under his strong leadership, we are working to take criminals off the streets by restoring the rule of law.”
2. Look the part
When Trump announced Mike Pence as his running mate, he commented that Pence looked like he was straight out of central casting. He’s made similar comments numerous times, and is famously fastidious[not fickle] about the appearance of those around him—even resisting hiring John Bolton, now national security adviser, early on because of Bolton’s famously brushy mustache.
Two strongly independent members of Trump’s Cabinet, Defense Secretary James Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, benefit from looking their parts, according to one longtime Trump observer.
“Trump likes how Haley and Mattis look. He thinks they fill their roles, in a very central-casting kind of way – and that’s also a key part of how he assesses people,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien said in an email.
O’Brien added that Trump also defines people as weak or strong—and dumps people like former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson who seem to him to fold under pressure.
“He sees Haley and Mattis as ‘strong.’ He saw Tillerson as ‘weak,’” O’Brien said. “He sees Pruitt as ‘strong.’ So he dumps the scandal-free weak one (Tillerson) and stands by the scandal-plagued strong one (Pruitt).”
3. Get lucky
Sometimes, it all comes down to timing.
The drumbeat of scandal that prompted former White House physician Ronny Jackson to withdraw his nomination to head the Department of Veterans’ Affairs benefited one person more than any other in Washington: Scott Pruitt.
For weeks, Pruitt has faced escalating controversies over his first-class travel and spending on security, as well as a below-market rental arrangement with a lobbyist and a history of questionable real estate deals in his native Oklahoma.
But that drama was drowned out by questions last week about Jackson’s handling of prescription sleep aids in his time as White House physician for Trump as well as his predecessor, President Barack Obama. With public attention elsewhere, Pruitt successfully navigated a pair of House hearings—and appears to be on track to hold on to his job, for now.
The former Oklahoma attorney general has benefited not only from the collapse of Jackson’s nomination, which has exacerbated concerns in the West Wing about courting additional confirmation fights by ousting any other Cabinet members.
“Pruitt is an interesting example of someone who has probably done some of the most egregious things and had some of the most egregious and public calls against him,” said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But he’s someone who’s navigated his position by praising the president as much as he can, highlighting his accomplishments at his agency.”
4. Fly under the radar
Ben Carson drew the president’s ire in January after it came to light that the HUD secretary had tapped his son to organize a listening tour in Baltimore, overriding objections from agency ethics experts.
Just weeks later, Carson was engulfed in a second scandal after a whistleblower complaint that he’d busted his office decorating budget, spending $31,000 on a dining room set even as he planned deep spending cuts to the agency.
Trump reportedly was furious and House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy demanded an explanation. After initially fumbling his response and claiming he knew nothing about the furniture, Carson eventually took the blame and canceled the order.
The scandals have blown over and Carson seems to have largely escaped Trump’s wrath. One reason is HUD’s low position on Trump’s pecking order – the housing agency wasn’t barely on the president’s radar early in his presidency when he was busy building a cabinet. But Trump aides also had reservations about ousting Carson because he’s the only black member of the Cabinet.
The soft-spoken former brain surgeon also maintains a low profile. He flies coach and doesn’t stay at fancy hotels when he travels. He and his wife live outside the Beltway in a Virginia suburb.
The White House pitched in to work on HUD’s messaging during the controversies but Carson was never summoned into the Oval Office for a dressing down, according to a HUD spokesman.
Carson’s below-the-radar work has been aided by the White House’s general disinterest in HUD.
In early organizational charts of the Trump presidential transition obtained by POLITICO, the HUD agency had no leader listed for weeks because it was considered such a low priority. Other agencies such as EPA, Energy, HHS, and Treasury were overseen by policy wonks, lobbyists, or business people like Andrew Bremberg or David Malpass, both of whom later entered the administration.
5. Stick with the Trump line
Past presidents have endeavored to surround themselves with people who could disagree with them.
“Most presidents [want] somebody who can tell them off,” said Doug Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. That is not the case with Trump, he said, where “challenging the president leads to dismissal or resignation.”
“I’m not sure that debate – robust, limp, whatever—I’m not sure that he’s ever interested in debate,” said Gwenda Blair, who wrote the Trump biography “The Trumps.” “He’s interested in the transactional aspect of any particular moment. That’s always the question: What’s in it for me?”
Disagreeing with the boss – especially if those disagreements become personal and public – can carry a heavy price.
Tillerson once reportedly called Trump a “moron,” and the president’s humiliation of the former secretary of state was severe. He was fired via tweet, and chief of staff John Kelly later told reporters that he delivered the news to Tillerson while Tillerson was ill and sitting on the toilet.
Trump also forgives people who seem to come around to his way of thinking.
Economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who was hired in March, previously disagreed with Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel and other imports.
But after Kudlow started at the White House, he swallowed his opposition—and the president rewarded him with public kudos: “He's a special man. He has been a friend. I have been on his show many, many times over the years. And we have had a lot of fun together. We haven't always agreed. But I noticed lately Larry is agreeing more and more with me, which makes me quite happy.”