WASHINGTON (AP) — Though Donald Trump fashions himself a loyal boss, his inner circle has been steadily shrinking — revealing Trump's willingness to cast aside some of his most devoted advisers.
This week, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was added to the list of Trump's left-behind loyalists. He joined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and campaign managers Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort.
Flynn, Christie and Giuliani once made a trio of firebrands who were frequent travel companions, and all delivered incendiary speeches during the Republican National Convention last summer. But in the seven months since their primetime star turns in Cleveland, they have all been sidelined, leaving questions as to whether the influence of the conservative insurgents who helped drive Trump's winning campaign might be waning and the more orthodox GOP elements steering the West Wing on the rise.
And while Trump has shown a tendency to temporarily stick with embattled true believers — such as Lewandowski, who had been arrested for assaulting a female reporter — he has eventually signed off on their exits even as he laid fault for the dismissals at the feet of others.
Trump on Wednesday blamed leaks from the intelligence agencies and biased reporting from the "fake media" that led to Flynn's resignation after the national security adviser misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with a Russian official.
"Michael Flynn, Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man," said Trump during an appearance with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. "I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media."
Despite his praise for Flynn, Trump later said he himself fired the national security adviser. And just hours after Trump's blustery defense of Flynn, his administration was forced to accept the withdrawal of his choice for labor secretary, fast-food CEO Andy Puzder, amid concerns that he would have not have received Senate confirmation.
The rash of exits has also threatened to change the tenor of Trump's inner circle, which at times has simmered with tensions between populist outsiders and establishment Republicans. Some close to Trump believe that the leaks that have battered the White House in recent days are born from the president's decision to turn his back on some of his loyalists.
"I think that in the newest administration you should hire as many experienced capable people who are supporters of yours and who are loyal to Donald Trump from the beginning," Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, said Thursday on NBC's "Today." ''The leaking that is coming out of the White House is a manifestation of the fact that there are some people who are not loyal to the president."
It is hardly unusual for a president to lose key allies while making the transition from campaigning to governing, even if this may exceed the norm, said Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush.
"Presidents lose advisers, presidents lose Cabinet picks," said Fleischer. "The key is to trust your personnel and trust your institutions to get through it."
But unlike the actions of other presidents, the act of firing someone has long been central to Trump's public persona. He rocketed to national stardom on the back of the reality show "The Apprentice," which presented him in living rooms across the country as a decisive CEO, one willing to part ways with substandard employees.
While promoting that show, he suggested that he actually "didn't like" to fire people. And during the campaign, he frequently touted his reluctance to fire campaign manager Lewandowski, telling a town hall crowd last spring that he was "a loyal person" and that "it would be so easy for me to terminate this man, ruin his life, ruin his family."
While he held onto Lewandowski as he rolled through the Republican primaries, the celebrity businessman — or, rather, Trump's adult children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — did eventually fire the campaign manager once the candidate's poll numbers bogged down in the early stages of the general election.
Trump, who behind the scenes has long fostered a culture of rivalry among his aides, also later moved on from his second campaign manager, Paul Manafort, in August once reporters began questioning Manafort's contacts with Russian officials.
Christie, who provided a key early endorsement, was stripped of his job running the transition and he was passed over for an administration post. Giuliani, who was Trump's fiercest attack dog during the last weeks of the campaign, openly campaigned to be named secretary of state, a public play that alienated Trump, who had grown leery of the former mayor's consulting work for foreign governments and was concerned that Giuliani didn't have the gravitas of an international statesman. And while Flynn had become Trump's top adviser on national security and foreign policy matters and delivered daily intelligence briefings, revelations about his discussions with a Russian official led to a "gradual erosion of trust" with the president, according to press secretary Sean Spicer.
But in Trump's world, a firing doesn't always mean goodbye. He still talks regularly to Lewandowski and Stone, with whom he had parted ways early in the campaign. Giuliani was named head of a cybersecurity task force that met at the White House last month, an apparent consolation prize. And Christie was invited to lunch at the White House earlier this week to discuss efforts to battle opioid addiction.
And the departures, seemingly so unlikely seven months ago in Cleveland, may have been foreshadowed by Trump himself.
"I rely on a few key people to keep me informed," he wrote in his 2004 book "How to Get Rich" to describe his management style. "They know I trust them, and they do their best to keep that trust intact."
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This story has been corrected to reflect that Spicer's first name is Sean.