Trump staff in the firing line


Washington (AFP)

President Donald Trump has hinted he may make yet more personnel changes after he summarily disposed of his secretary of state Rex Tillerson via Twitter. AFP looks at who else is in the firing line:

- A general in his labyrinth -

A three star army general, HR McMaster has appeared to be on the chopping block almost since he took up the job just over a year ago.

Playing referee between the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and other sharp-elbowed departments is fraught in any administration, but McMaster has, from the start, lacked Trump's support, so he's been doing the job without a whistle.

His tough positions on the use of military force against Iran and North Korea have made him few friends among the other generals in Trump's inner circle -- chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford -- and White House insiders say he is not long for the West Wing.

But first this old soldier needs to find a landing zone, and one that would bump his rank to four stars. One position floated is commander of US Forces Korea, but the timing -- during a nuclear standoff and as talks are pending between Trump and Kim Jong Un -- appears less than opportune. A delay is seen as possible.

- The gatekeeper -

Kelly's position looks similarly uncertain.

Brought in to impose order on a dysfunctional White House, the chief of staff has bumped up against Trump's desire to make world-changing decisions on the fly.

He has also struggled to keep staff motivated as they wonder about possible indictments in connection with Russian election meddling.

But Trump has lost one chief of staff already. That may look like misfortune, to lose two in less than 18 months could look like carelessness.

- 'Mr Magoo' -

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was an early target of Trump's ire over his recusal last year from the Russia investigation, a decision that paved the way for the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The former prosecutor reportedly offered to resign at least once after the president publicly insulted him -- but has more recently indicated a desire to resist, firing back over Twitter after his boss's latest broadside calling his handling of illegal wiretapping allegations "disgraceful."

A faithful enforcer of key administration policies like cracking down on illegal immigration and appointing conservative judges, Trump is said nevertheless to hold the septuagenarian in low-esteem, referring to him privately as "Mr Magoo" -- a doddering and crotchety cartoon character of yore.

Trump's frustration could reflect his mounting fears or frustration with Mueller's investigation, focusing increasingly on the president's inner circle.

- The cowboy and the cabinet maker -

"As a teenager," soft spoken Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson once said, "I would go after people with rocks, and bricks, and baseball bats, and hammers. And, of course, many people know the story when I was 14 and I tried to stab someone."

Today he is getting into trouble by way of chisel, rasp and plane. He stands accused of spending $31,000 of taxpayer cash on a dining set for his office -- a refreshingly old fashioned political scandal in an administration where allegations of wife beating, foreign collusion or financial fraud are more common.

Horse-riding Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has similarly got his feet caught in the stirrups. He tried to spend $139,000 of taxpayer money on office doors, only months after being embroiled in a scandal over his use of a private jet.

The case of both men is said to have annoyed Trump. But as much as the president may hate the bad press, he has yet to foreshadow either Carson or Zinke's departure. Trump's aides have little desire to spend the months before November's Congressional elections trying to get two cabinet secretaries confirmed.

- Game, set, and match? -

Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin may have less luck. He is accused of spending $122,000 on a trip to Europe that included a visit to watch Wimbledon tennis matches and sightseeing at castles. An inspector general found the department improperly paid for his wife to tag along.

When he's on the job Shulkin runs a department with a reputation for deep dysfunction and one Trump -- who has closely courted military votes -- has promised to reform.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday appeared to hint that Shulkin's tour of duty would soon come to an end. "The President has a large number of individuals that are working hard to make sure that the VA is helping veterans at the best level possible," she said. "As we make changes, we'll let you know."