As Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein was being ferried to the White House on Monday, where frenetic (and, apparently, premature) news reports said he would be fired or forced to resign, President Trump was in New York, ensconced in Trump Tower, where he could avoid having to look Rosenstein in the eye while delivering bad news. If Rosenstein had been fired, it’s unlikely that Trump would have done it himself. For a guy whose television brand was largely constructed around telling people “You’re fired!” in the most dramatic and direct way possible, real-life President Trump manages to studiously avoid any interaction that might be confrontational or require him to take responsibility for a bad hiring decision.
When James B. Comey was fired as FBI director, it was via letter, delivered by Trump’s then-bodyguard, Keith Schiller, while Comey was on the other side of the country. Trump couldn’t even be bothered to call Comey or can him in any way that might have exposed him to a response. (When Schiller left the White House, he reportedly got a $15,000-a-month contract from the Republican National Committee.)
For months, Trump has been bashing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, blaming his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation for the misfortune Robert S. Mueller III has visited on the White House under Rosenstein’s supervision. The abuse mostly comes on Twitter or in statements to the media, instead of in person, where Sessions could push back. Trump seems to believe that if he does this enough, Sessions will get the hint and resign of his own accord, saving him the trouble of having a tough conversation and giving him a way to claim that Sessions’s departure wasn’t his fault. So far, it hasn’t worked.
He had White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly tell Rex Tillerson that he’d be replaced as secretary of state — then announced it by tweet shortly after The Washington Post reported the news and before talking to Tillerson himself. Trump has announced other departures before they came to pass, too, as he did with White House counsel Donald McGahn (who will be leaving this fall) and his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus. The effect is to make White House aides or Cabinet officials vanish as if of their own volition, with as little involvement by Trump as possible. Trump goes to quite a lot of trouble to ensure that he never has to hand someone a pink slip himself, even when it’s clear — as it was in the case of Michael Cohen — that he needs to and that the employee is imperiling his presidency.
Trump surely knows that firing Rosenstein would not be an ordinary personnel decision and that the ramifications would be serious and vast. It would potentially be the beginning of Trump’s own Saturday Night Massacre, engineered to stop Mueller’s investigation and nearly impossible to frame as normal bureaucratic turnover. The two men are scheduled to meet Thursday. If Trump goes through with it, he’ll probably look for a way to be as hands-off as possible. If a drone strike from the safety of Mar-a-Lago seemed doable, he’d probably opt for that.
To be fair, firing people isn’t easy, and having other people do it for you is a tempting proposition. I was 25 years old the first time I had to fire someone, and before I went to meet the employee, I went to the bathroom and dry heaved because the thought of doing it made me feel ill. It has gotten easier over the years, but it’s still painful — and I believe it should be, because it gives managers an incentive to make sure they hire carefully and well. It’s also important to fully understand the consequences for people who are being fired and how it will affect them.
But compared with some of the other things presidents do — ordering troops into combat, separating children from their parents, starting pointless trade wars with the world’s second-largest economic power, deliberately alienating the United States’ closest allies — it’s not that hard. And Trump’s problem doesn’t exactly appear to be a surfeit of empathy for the people he’s firing. He can muster up some sympathy for himself in this process (What an ordeal to have to fire these people! What idiot hired them?), but once Trump has moved on, he doesn’t seem to have anything but negative thoughts about most people who used to work for him.
The rare exceptions are people he was forced to dismiss against his wishes, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn or former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. And in those cases, what appeals to Trump after they leave his employment is the same thing that appealed to him when they worked for him: They offer him personal validation and flatter his ego. They reassure him that he is competent and doing the right things, even when he’s not, and they indulge his childlike need to be liked at all costs, at least by anyone he has to see or interact with face to face.
This is, of course, at odds with Trump’s rhetoric and the image that he has constructed of himself to appeal to his base. In the story that the president tells about himself at rallies, and on Twitter, and anywhere he considers a fundamentally friendly venue, Trump is fearless — a hard-working, roll-his-sleeves-up type willing to make hard decisions and confront enemies of the United States. But what reality Trump, as opposed to reality TV Trump, does is very different. He waffles (who’s paying for the wall, again?). He avoids work only slightly less than he avoids confrontation (how much golf can one person play?). He is personally solicitous of dictators and brutal regimes that seek to undermine American interests. He may have a loud roar, but he is a paper tiger.
Or to put it more directly, a scaredy cat.