To hear Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his allies tell it, rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Administration officials and close White House advisers say the 80-year-old Ross could be out of a job in a broader Cabinet shakeup as soon as January or as late as mid-2019. Ross, long said to be on thin ice with President Donald Trump, denies either scenario. “I’ll serve as long as the president wants and I have no indication to the contrary,” he told an audience at a Yahoo! Finance event on Nov. 13.
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But in a sign of Ross’s perceived weakness, at least one influential Trump ally has begun speaking openly about his desire for the Commerce job if and when it becomes vacant: Office of Management and Budget chief Mick Mulvaney.
Over the summer, Trump considered a willing Mulvaney as a potential replacement for his chief of staff, John Kelly. However, in recent days, Mulvaney has abandoned that ambition and told allies and other officials that he is now interested in succeeding Ross, according to several people familiar with the conversations. Trump and Mulvaney have not spoken specifically about the Commerce slot, a Mulvaney ally said.
Other names circulating for the top Commerce slot include Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon; Ray Washburne, a major Republican donor and the President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and Karen Dunn Kelly, undersecretary for economic affairs at Commerce, who is jockeying for the job internally at the department.
Although Commerce lacks the high profile of some other departments whose leadership is currently in question — including the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense — Ross and his aides have played a critical role in Trump’s high-stakes trade negotiations with China, as well as trade and tariffs involving Canada, Mexico and other nations. His successor would also oversee the crucial 2020 census, which will help determine the future apportionment of seats in Congress.
The deliberations and back-channel conversations about Ross’s job show the extent to which the White House is currently consumed by personnel machinations as it braces for the onslaught of a Democratic House in January and possible new indictments of Trump associates by special counsel Robert Mueller. Top aides and Republicans close to the White House describe an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty as they monitor the president’s mood and study his Twitter feed for clues about the fates of beleaguered Cabinet officials— including that of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen, whose long-rumored firing is believed to be imminent.
The White House’s mood, and its latest internal thinking about personnel changes, were described to POLITICO by eight current and former administration officials and close White House advisers.
This week has already seen the dramatic ouster of national security adviser John Bolton’s deputy, Mira Ricardel, whose clashes with the office of First Lady Melania Trump led the president’s wife to issue a highly unusual public statement calling for her ouster.
Several top Trump aides are weighing their own fates by looking for other work. Some hope to find refuge in Trump’s 2020 campaign, which will be staffing up in the coming months.
Trump himself has snapped at a handful of top aides and outside lawyers in the past several days. He is unsettled over a flood of bad news — from poor reviews of his weekend trip to Paris to the slow trickle of bad news for Republicans about outstanding mid-term races to mounting worry that Mueller may soon drop more bombshell indictments.
Even in an ever-roiling White House that has always tested its staff, the current moment looks particularly dark.
“Morale is a low point,” said one former administration official. “There is all of this uncertainty about who will still be in the White House in a few months and anxiety about what anyone has to look forward to – just the Democratic Congress making everyone’s lives miserable.”
A major wild card now is how and when Kelly decides to leave the administration. He and Nielsen — who served as his top aide when he ran the Department of Homeland Security and followed him to the White House — remain close, and he recently berated a senior colleague who questioned her abilities. Several Republicans believe that Kelly will exit the administration shortly after she does, meaning that a Trump tweet announcing her exit could also amount to word that the White House’s top staff job will imminently open up.
Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, is seen as a leading contender to replace Kelly. While the 36-year-old Ayers enjoys the support of Trump’s family, including daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, he also has powerful internal detractors who could block his ascent.
Meanwhile, some White House officials says that Mulvaney’s interest in a Cabinet position — following summer talk that he might succeed Kelly — may reflect a belief that the former politician was unlikely to get that job in the first place. The 51-year-old Mulvaney, an ideological economic conservative, served as a South Carolina state legislator and congressman before taking over Trump’s budget office in February 2017.
Other Cabinet officials remain under the close watch of the White House, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose current plight reminds administration sources of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s before his firing. Trump openly admires Zinke and White House aides do not expect the president to oust him any time soon. But several aides said they feel exasperated by the half-dozen ethics-related investigations into Zinke’s conduct and worry those investigations could be a drag as Trump revs up his 2020 re-election campaign.
One White House official said Zinke’s troubles are worse than Pruitt’s ever were because they now include a referral to the Justice Department, which is weighing whether a criminal investigation is necessary.
On Nielsen, White House aides are so confident Trump will fire her that some have already started to coalesce around her potential replacement: Thomas Homan, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Trump also needs to tap a new attorney general to replace the fired Jeff Sessions. The job is now held by Sessions’ former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, a controversial Trump loyalist considered unlikely to win Senate confirmation. In an interview with the conservative Daily Caller published Thursday, Trump said that he was “looking at a lot of people” for the post, adding: “I have been called by so many people wanting that job.”
All these subplots have recently overshadowed the fate of Ross, whom Trump has called “past his prime” and whose influence with Trump over China policy has markedly diminished since the start of Trump’s presidency. That has helped Ross to lay low as his allies and a handful of White House aides seek to cast any near-term Ross departure as voluntary, easing him into retirement.
“Ross has not done anything terribly wrong that caused distrust with the president. The president might not be happy with everyone all of the time, but what happens this week is often forgotten with no grudges held,” said one former senior administration official. “Loyalty in this business is all you got, and Secretary Ross is loyal to the president. That is the difference between him and some of the other Cabinet members.
While Trump likes Ross personally — the wealthy Commerce chief was among a select group joined the president in the White House residence on election night, for example — he has increasingly relied more heavily on other senior administration officials, like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and National Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow to take the lead on sensitive negotiations
But another former senior administration official noted that Ross is deeply involved in at least one policy issue that Trump obsesses over: a crucial ongoing report outlining the impacts of potential tariffs on imported foreign cars. Trump, against the advice of most in his administration, has repeatedly threatened to slap tariffs of as much as 25 percent on auto imports.
“Wilbur has had ups and downs in his relationship with the president throughout the past two years. At various points he’s been sidelined on trade and other policy processes,” the former official said. “But it’s Wilbur who’s in charge of the report on potential auto tariffs, so it’s unlikely he’s fired if the president is serious about pursuing that path.”
Although he is the oldest of Trump’s Cabinet officials, a source close to Ross says the Commerce secretary shows no sign of slowing down and continues to attend the weekly trade meeting in the Oval Office, in addition to taking on a key role with the White House’s workforce initiative.
Undermining that portrait, however, are embarrassing reports that he falls asleep in official meetings.
Ross and his wife, Hilary are also among the few top Trump officials to really settle into Washington. Unlike Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic official — who stayed at the Four Seasons hotel on weeknights and returned to New York for weekends — Ross bought a $12 million house in the tony neighborhood of Massachusetts Avenue Heights, where his wife is known for throwing elaborate dinners and parties.
The couple are also members of Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club and have deep ties in the surrounding Palm Beach community where Trump has wintered for decades — social ties which other Trump officials currently on the hot seat lack, and which make the potential departure awkward for a president who dislikes confrontation.
As for Mulvaney, a White House official said Trump likes his budget chief and would consider him for another Cabinet role when one opens up.
The official added that Trump has no immediate plans to remove Ross from the Commerce Department, but acknowledged that Ross, who is turning 81 later this month, is not expected to remain in his post for long.
Gabby Orr and Eliana Johnson contributed reporting.