DONALD TRUMP says he will shut down part of the federal government if Congress does not provide $5 billion for his border-wall by December 21st. He may be bluffing. Meanwhile the president is already cutting the federal workforce, albeit unintentionally. White House reshuffles are usually stage-managed to suggest renewed purpose and vigour. Mr Trump’s latest redo suggests he is running short of competent people willing to work for him.
On December 8 he said his chief of staff, John Kelly, would be out to pasture by the end of the month. The next day his intended replacement, Nick Ayers, a 36-year-old aide to Vice-President Mike Pence, said he would rather go home to Georgia than be Mr Trump’s third chief of staff. Several other mooted replacements for Mr Kelly, who has been serially undermined by Mr Trump and is said to be hardly speaking to him, have also since ruled themselves out.
They include Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary; Robert Lighthizer, the trade representative; Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director; Rick Santorum, a former senator—and Randy Levine, president of the New York Yankees, who sounded startled to be included in the speculation, but wants to stay at the Yankees. Mr Trump maintains “a lot of friends of mine want it.” Indeed, he is said to be looking to ardent loyalists, including Newt Gingrich, a former Republican congressman; Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney-general; and David Bossie, co-author of the book “Let Trump be Trump”.
Mr Trump has had more luck filling other important jobs. He has nominated a former attorney-general for George H.W. Bush, William Barr, to reprise the role. A spiky partisan, who has offered criticisms of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, Mr Barr is a serious lawyer with a fair chance of winning Senate confirmation. Mr Trump’s pick to replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the UN, Heather Nauert, a former Fox News presenter who is currently the State Department’s spokeswoman, is less convincing. It suggests how highly he rates telegenic performance—and how lowly he rates the UN.
The administration’s staffing problems reflect how chaotically it has been run. Turnover in senior non-cabinet secretary roles stands at 62%, higher than that of Mr Trump’s six nearest predecessors. Several departments are undermanned, including the White House Counsel’s Office, which will soon field subpoenas from a Democratic-held House of Representatives.
Negotiations between Mr Trump and Democratic leaders over the threatened shutdown provided a teaser of what divided government may look like under Mr Trump. He invited Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, to the White House to discuss the looming spending bill. He then tried to hijack the meeting by ushering in reporters to witness him claiming, falsely, that “tremendous amounts of wall have already been built” and challenging Mr Schumer and Ms Pelosi to pay for the rest.
Ms Pelosi, who unlike most Republicans is not cowed by Mr Trump, noted that the president’s party still has a majority in both chambers and so could fund the fortification tomorrow. And if it won’t support his wall, he can hardly expect Democrats to. The second half of Mr Trump’s term could be even bumpier than the first.