If President Trump wins re-election, he’ll move to immediately fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and also expects to replace CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, two people who’ve discussed these officials’ fates with the president tell Axios.
The big picture: The list of planned replacements is much longer, but these are Trump’s priorities, starting with Wray.
Wray and Haspel are despised and distrusted almost universally in Trump’s inner circle. He would have fired both already, one official said, if not for the political headaches of acting before Nov. 3.
Why it matters: A win, no matter the margin, will embolden Trump to ax anyone he sees as constraining him from enacting desired policies or going after perceived enemies.
Trump last week signed an executive order that set off alarm bells as a means to politicize the civil service. An administration official said the order “is a really big deal” that would make it easier for presidents to get rid of career government officials.
There could be shake-ups across other departments. The president has never been impressed with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for example. But that doesn’t carry the urgency of replacing Wray or Haspel.
The nature of top intelligence and law enforcement posts has traditionally carried an expectation for a higher degree of independence and separation from politics.
Be smart: While Trump has also privately vented about Attorney General Bill Barr, he hasn’t made any formal plans to replace him, an official said.
Trump is furious that Barr isn’t releasing before the election what Trump hoped would be a bombshell report by U.S. Attorney John Durham on the Obama administration’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.
Durham’s investigation has yet to produce any high-profile indictments of Obama-era officials as Trump had hoped.
“The attorney general wants to finish the work that he’s been involved in since day one,” a senior administration official told Axios.
Behind the scenes: “The view of Haspel in the West Wing is that she still sees her job as manipulating people and outcomes, the way she must have when she was working assets in the field,” one source with direct knowledge of the internal conversations told Axios. “It’s bred a lot of suspicion of her motives.”
Trump is also increasingly frustrated with Haspel for opposing the declassification of documents that would help the Justice Department’s Durham report.
A source familiar with conversations at the CIA says, “Since the beginning of DNI’s push to declassify documents, and how strongly she feels about protecting sources connected to those materials, there have been rumblings around the agency that the director plans to depart the CIA regardless of who wins the election.”
As for Wray, whose expected firing was first reported by The Daily Beast, Trump is angry his second FBI chief didn’t launch a formal investigation into Hunter Biden’s foreign business connections — and didn’t purge more officials Trump believes abused power to investigate his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia.
Trump also grew incensed when Wray testified in September that the FBI has not seen widespread election fraud, including with mail-in ballots.
A senior FBI official tells Axios: “Major law enforcement associations representing current and former FBI agents as well as police and sheriff’s departments across the country have consistently expressed their full support of Director Wray’s leadership of the Bureau.”
Trump soured on Esper over the summer when the Defense secretary rebuffed the idea of sending active-duty military into the streets to deal with racial justice protests and distanced himself from the clearing of Lafayette Square for a photo op at St. John’s church.
Trump indicated to Axios then that he “really wasn’t focused on” firing Esper. One senior official cautioned that others who want the Pentagon job could be driving speculation to undercut Esper. But one source, who discussed options with Trump, told Axios he urged the president to wait until post-election to replace him.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement that Esper “has always been and remains committed to doing what is best for the military and the Nation.”
Trump 2.0 would bring more loyalty tests
Chris Liddell, Trump’s deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, is heading the White House’s transition effort, including vetting potential new Cabinet officials, two White House officials told Axios.
He’s working closely with White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Johnny McEntee, who runs the Office of Presidential Personnel and has been conducting “loyalty tests” to weed out “Never Trumpers” from the administration.
In 2016, Trump famously blew up his own transition process. The officials said Liddell is determined to avoid a repeat. Liddell declined to comment.
Politico first reported on Trump’s transition team.
Don’t forget: The transition between first and second terms is traditionally a time when presidents who win re-election accept resignations and switch out their teams.
Former chiefs of staff to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, speaking on David Marchick’s “Transition Lab” podcast, said their administrations didn’t prepare enough for a “robust transition” between terms.
Bush’s former chief Josh Bolten said he’d advise Trump to “rethink all of your personnel and know what your priorities are.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere told Axios: “We have no personnel announcements at this time nor would it be appropriate to speculate about changes after the election or in a 2nd term.”