Sometimes it seems like Donald Trump never met a number he didn’t want to exaggerate, from his inauguration crowd to his net worth to his own height. But there’s one area in his administration that he doesn’t need to embellish: staff turnover.
According to PolitiFact, by mid-March of this year, 43 percent of his most senior staff had quit, been reassigned, or been pushed out. Although that included the summary sacking of Rex Tillerson on March 13, it didn’t take into account the subsequent tweet-firings that ushered out H.R. McMaster and David Shulkin. Notably, all three of them, at least early on, were praised for their relevant experience, and in McMaster’s case for his record of speaking truth to power.
This dizzying rate of roster moves is seen by many as disruptive and destabilizing, incompatible with the function of the highest political office in the nation. Maybe so, but it’s the way Trump likes it. As I learned when writing a Trump family biography, this behavior is yet another indication of Trump’s preferred management style. What looks like an HR department nightmare is actually a calculated and deliberate strategy by Trump to restyle his new business address to resemble the one where he has spent most of his work life—the executive suite on the 26th floor of Trump Tower.
No doubt Trump saw his share of standard pyramid-style organizational charts during his two years at Wharton, but he has always preferred what anthropologists call “a circular hierarchy”—or, in plain English, a wheel. A work-flow diagram at the Trump Organization would have put Donald Trump at the hub and connected him by spokes to his small number of top staff. They numbered about a dozen, and he hired them with the same kind of gut instinct that propelled his political rise—he didn’t value traditional expertise as much as a willingness to give him undisputed loyalty and unlimited energy. Trump spotted Matthew Calamari, a former college linebacker, at the 1981 U.S. Open tennis tournament when Calamari, working security, tackled a pair of hecklers. Trump hired him as a bodyguard. Today, he’s the Trump Organization’s chief operating officer and executive vice president.
There was no business plan, no development strategy, no layers of authority; instead, Trump would come up with an idea, work it up in his head, and tell one of his hand-picked diamonds in the rough to get moving on it. “It didn’t make any difference that you had never done something before,” Jeff Walker, a military school classmate who worked for the Trump Organization for more than a decade, told me. “He thought you could figure it out. That’s what made him exciting to work for—no bureaucratic red tape. You got an assignment, you went off and did it, didn’t let anything stand in your way. Move it, knock it down. He wouldn’t tolerate it, neither should you.”
What Trump wanted most were soldiers, not subject-matter experts. And this created a kind of stability; some of his most loyal employees have stayed with him for decades. But it was people he hired for their knowledge that lasted the shortest time. In fact, a number of his more celebrated business flops happened when he ignored the industry veterans he had hired and plowed forward with his own ideas. When he acquired the Eastern Airlines shuttle in 1988, he hired airline executive Bruce Nobles but disregarded his advice to be frugal. He splurged on bird’s-eye maple veneer and gold-plated bathroom fixtures, losing critical market share to tackier but cheaper rivals. Two years later, he ignored warnings from his own executives, including Jack O’Donnell, then president and COO of Trump Plaza, one of the two profitable casinos Trump already had in Atlantic City, about the danger of opening a third casino in an overcrowded market. Instead, Trump bulled ahead, opened the Trump Taj- Mahal, and caused profits at all three to crater. He ended up firing Nobles and O’Donnell resigned, though Trump claimed he had fired him too.