On November 9, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump began to staff his administration. Because he never truly expected to win, he was unprepared. Trump prioritized loyalty above all, and so, instinctively, he and his family knew whom to knight first: Michael Flynn.
Flynn was a retired lieutenant general and had been a respected intelligence officer. Yet his former colleagues had shunned him for a bill of particulars that included Islamophobic rhetoric, coziness with Russia and other foreign adversaries, and a reliance on flimsy facts and dubious assertions. None of that mattered to Trump.
During the campaign, Flynn was one of the few men who had ever worn stars on their shoulders willing to promote Trump. His allegiance was so intense that he had led an anti-Hillary Clinton chant of "Lock her up" at the Republican National Convention, which mortified his military and intelligence brethren, who believed he was leveraging his status as a decorated former military officer to fuel society's more dangerous elements. Yet this endeared him to Trump. Flynn made himself indispensable to Trump, whispering in his ear that he couldn't trust most intelligence officials but could trust Flynn. He was crafty enough to ingratiate himself with Trump's family, too-including Jared Kushner, the candidate's ambitious son-in-law who had no experience in politics or foreign affairs, yet styled himself as Trump's political strategist and interlocutor with foreign governments.
The day after the election, the flattering consigliere got his reward at a transition meeting on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower. Ivanka Trump, the president-elect's elder daughter, and her husband, Kushner, who together helped oversee some of the high-level appointments in the new administration, made clear to Flynn that he could choose any job he wanted.
"Oh, General Flynn, how loyal you've been to my father," Ivanka said in her distinctive breathy voice, adding something to the effect of "What do you want to do?"
Don McGahn frowned with some surprise. He had been the Trump campaign's lawyer and was now in line to become White House counsel. He had nothing personal against Flynn. He didn't really know him. But others in the room noticed McGahn's displeasure, which seemed to say, "Is this really how we're going to do this?"
Some in the room could hardly believe people were being appointed to key jobs so indiscriminately and irresponsibly. As Steve Bannon, the campaign's chief executive officer who also was joining the administration, saw it, Ivanka was the princess with the sword, just tapping Flynn on the shoulder. McGahn and Bannon, hardly allies, shared the belief that this was a recipe for missteps and, quite possibly, disaster.
The haphazard and dysfunctional transition was a harbinger for the administration. Trump placed a premium on branding and image at the expense of fundamental competence. He and many of his advisers had no experience with public service, and therefore little regard for its ethics or norms. Rather than hewing to an ideological agenda, the entire operation was guided by Trump's instincts and whims.
Flynn's dream was to be national security adviser. Kushner, who was envisioning for himself a West Wing role as a shadow secretary of state-interacting with foreign leaders, negotiating Middle East peace, and running point on such key relationships as China and Mexico-calculated that installing Flynn as national security adviser would create for himself the freedom to maneuver as he pleased. Just like that, Flynn's wish was granted. It would take another eight days for his appointment to be announced, but everything was set in motion on November 9.
Nobody bothered to vet Flynn. There was no review of his tenure as a U.S. military intelligence chief in Afghanistan, which had been the subject of a misconduct investigation. Nor of his time as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which President Obama had cut short. Nor of his international consulting firm and his contracts with Kremlin-aligned companies. Nor of his attendance at a 2015 Moscow gala as a guest of Russia, seated at the table of President Vladimir Putin.
Flynn had used the Trump campaign as a gravy train, hoping to better his lifestyle after thirty-three years of relatively low military wages. At the same time he was advising candidate Trump, Flynn was working for the Turkish government and, according to federal investigators, concealing the nature of that arrangement. On Election Day, Flynn published an op-ed in The Hill in which he trumpeted Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's cause by comparing his political opponent, Fethullah Gulen, who was living in exile in the United States, to Osama bin Laden. Flynn called for the United States to force Gulen out of the country, stunning his former colleagues in the intelligence and national security communities.
Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who had endorsed Trump and was the chairman of the presidential transition, was flabbergasted when the president-elect told him he would name Flynn his national security adviser.
"You can't do that," said Christie. "First, you have to have a chief of staff in place and let your chief of staff have input on that because the security adviser's going to be reporting to the chief of staff. And Flynn's just the wrong choice. He's just a horrific choice."
"You just don't like him," Trump replied.
"Well, you're right," Christie said. "I don't like him. Do you want to know why?"
"Yeah," Trump said.
"Because he's going to get you in trouble," Christie replied. "Take my word for it."
Trump didn't want to hear anything else about Flynn. He told Christie to go downstairs to the fourteenth floor, where the campaign headquarters had morphed overnight into a transition command center. Christie had a government to assemble.
Later that week, Christie was canned by Trump. Technically, he was fired by Bannon, who told Christie he was acting on orders from Kushner, but Trump had allowed the termination. He was replaced as transition chairman by Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Eleven years earlier, Christie had been U.S. attorney in New Jersey and had put Kushner's father, Charles, head of the family's real estate business, behind bars for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. The case humiliated the Kushner family and left a lasting impression on young Jared.
On November 10, Trump was 230 miles south in Washington, visiting Obama at the White House. Obama was unsettled by Trump's victory, but less than forty-eight hours after the election, in accordance with America's tradition of peaceful transfers of power, he welcomed his successor into the Oval Office and offered him some advice. Two things the forty-fourth president said stuck with the forty-fifth: one, that North Korea was the biggest foreign policy challenge and security threat, and, two, that he should not hire Flynn.
Obama personally warned Trump against hiring Flynn because he found his judgment dubious and his motives untrustworthy. Obama had fired Flynn in 2014 from the Defense Intelligence Agency amid complaints in the agency that he lacked focus and an even temperament. Trump later recounted to aides that Obama had called Flynn a "flake" and a "bad guy," a critique Trump dismissed.
The president-elect approached the ten-week transition as a casting call for a new season of The Apprentice, the NBC reality show that had made him a household name. Day after day, Trump TowerÃ•s golden-framed revolving door on Fifth Avenue delivered politicians, business leaders, and celebrities, who paraded through the lobby for their appointed visits. They came to pitch themselves for jobs in the administration or to curry favor with the president-elect or simply to get a piece of the action. Ã’It was like walking into the Jabba the Hutt bar in Star Wars,Ã“ one Trump adviser said dismissively. Ã’You never knew who was going to crawl in.Ã“ The president-elect loved to gin up the ratings, and was quick to seize on how the presidency could benefit his personal brand and his businesses. He held job interviews and transition meetings not inside the federal office building in Washington that was provided for this purpose but at Trump Tower, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.
In the helter-skelter, unstructured rhythms of the transition, a trio of campaign power players jockeyed for influence: Kushner, Bannon, and Reince Priebus. Kushner had exalted status as Trump's son-in-law, while Priebus and Bannon were appointed early on as White House chief of staff and White House chief strategist-a unique arrangement in which they had coequal footing atop the organizational chart.
Trump tapped Priebus, who had been the Republican National Committee chairman, partly as a thank-you present for the foot soldiers and state-by-state organization that the RNC built for Trump to compensate for his campaign's almost-nonexistent ground game. Well connected in Washington, Priebus was considered by GOP leaders to have the most capable set of hands among Trump's aides.
Bannon, meanwhile, was impolitic, gruff, and unkempt. He had proven his loyalty in the trenches with Trump during the toughest stretch of the campaign. Bannon had previously run the conservative website Breitbart and pitched himself to Trump as the essential conduit to his indispensable base, which he affectionately referred to as "the deplorables," a reference to Clinton's infamous gaffe about Trump's "basket of deplorables. . . . The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic-you name it."
Priebus set about installing former RNC staffers and other trusted figures in key West Wing roles, while he, Bannon, and Pence focused on cabinet positions. They paid special attention early on to national security roles and had their eyes on Mike Pompeo to lead the CIA. Pompeo had been elected to Congress as a Kansas Republican in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and when he arrived in Washington, he quickly established himself as a hard-line conservative and a sharp partisan. From his perch on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Pompeo had hounded Clinton over Benghazi, making him a Breitbart favorite.
Though he had known Priebus, Bannon, and Pence for years, Pompeo was an outsider to Trump's world. In fact, he had campaigned vigorously against Trump in the primaries as a Marco Rubio surrogate. During the March 5 Kansas caucuses, Pompeo had warned that Trump would be "an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution," and he urged his fellow Kansans to "turn down the lights on the circus."
But Pompeo was eager to join the circus now. Bannon knew that it would be hard to sell a small-state congressman he regarded as "a warrior's warrior" as a potential CIA director to the elites he dubbed "the Morning Joe crowd," given Pompeo's Benghazi bludgeoning. But Pompeo wanted the job.
On November 16, Pompeo traveled to New York to meet with the president-elect. Priebus had prepped Trump on Pompeo's credentials, and Bannon had given Pompeo a pep talk, telling him something along the lines of "We're just going to go in, I'm going to reiterate you're number one in your class at West Point, number one in your class at Harvard Law School, you're the best guy intelligence ever had. I'm going to tee you up-and don't wait for him to say anything. You just rip. Do not wait for a question, because there won't be a question. He doesn't even know what intelligence is. Just rip."
The meeting went off without a hitch. After others fluffed him up before the boss, Pompeo talked about restructuring the CIA. He and Trump chewed over problems with the Iran nuclear deal. As a West Point and Harvard Law graduate, Pompeo easily checked the credentials box. The former army captain, beefy and hulking as he works a room, also had the imposing, tough-guy image Trump desired.
Before the meeting concluded, Pompeo had the job. Trump shook his hand, turned to Bannon and Priebus, and said, "I love it. Let's do it." Two days later, Pompeo was formally announced as Trump's nominee for CIA director. Pompeo would become one of the more respected members of the administration, but Trump offered him the CIA directorship based on a single interview.
Trump approached staffing the administration like a casting call and sought "the look," a fixation in keeping with the beauty pageants he had once run. For national security positions, he gravitated toward generals. For public-facing communications roles, he wanted attractive women. At the United Nations, he picked as his ambassador Nikki Haley, whom he typecast for the UN in part because she was a daughter of Indian American immigrants. To Trump, one of the most important attributes for any job candidate was the ability to present well on television.
"Don't forget, he's a showbiz guy," Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend and the chief executive of Newsmax, remarked. "He likes people who present themselves very well, and he's very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it's a very important medium for public policy." Ruddy added, "The look might not necessarily be somebody who should be on the cover of GQ magazine or Vanity Fair. It's more about the look and the demeanor and the swagger."
On December 6, Trump formally announced the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis as his nominee for defense secretary, playing up his rugged appearance and combat history. He told aides he was especially enamored with the nickname that Mattis privately disliked. "Mad Dog plays no games, right?" Trump told a roaring crowd as he announced Mattis's nomination at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He called a reluctant Mattis onto the stage and lauded him as "the closest thing to General George Patton that we have," referring to the legendary World War II commander played by the late George C. Scott in the 1970 biopic, one of Trump's favorite films.
While Trump was taken with Mattis's physical appearance and his macho moniker, his nomination was very reassuring to the national security establishment. At least there would be a seasoned and steady set of hands at the Pentagon. When Mattis later interviewed candidates for senior staff positions at the Pentagon, he would ask, "Can you ride the brand?" What he really meant was, can you support Trump, warts and all? He knew this would be a controversial presidency.
The transition's official vetting process varied from minimal to nonexistent, depending on the candidate. Most important in researching one's background was a review of news articles and social media accounts to see whether he or she had ever said anything derogatory about Trump. One senior Trump adviser recalled, "People filled in paperwork on the airplane on their way down to the inauguration. . . . Well, they might as well have. They didn't think about transition until literally the day they started the job.
"In hockey," this official added, "you can lose a knee playing with a lot of inexperienced people. That's how this has felt."
Behind the scenes, Rick Gates, who had worked on the campaign as chairman Paul Manafort's deputy, was putting together the inauguration. Gates and Manafort were longtime lobbying partners, specializing in representing foreign governments in shady plots, and when Manafort was fired from the campaign in August 2016, Trump figured his No. 2 would leave with him. Trump strongly disliked and distrusted Gates, due in part to a toxic reaction he had to a poll Gates had commissioned. Trump didn't like the survey's results, which rated his popularity as low, and felt Gates was cheating the campaign by paying the pollster for such junk. "Gates gives me the creeps," Trump told some associates.