by TARA PALMERI and JOSH DAWSEY · September 8, 2017
President Donald Trump gestures as he makes his way across the South Lawn of the White House to board Marine One, bound for Camp David, on Sep. 8. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
The president is taking his agency heads to the Maryland retreat to talk taxes, North Korea and regulatory reform.
Since joining the White House earlier this summer, Chief of Staff John Kelly has told others that the president’s cabinet is underutilized. In a retreat this weekend at rustic Camp David, he is trying to change that.
President Donald Trump and his agency heads will meet this weekend as a monster hurricane crashes into Florida, aides fret over how to deal with new missile launches by North Korea and members of Congress try to figure out how this week’s surprise vote for a debt ceiling extension affects their agenda going forward.
The Camp David meeting is part team-building after a bruising stretch for the administration, part strategy session on giving the cabinet more sway and part optics for an image-obsessed president during a natural disaster — giving him the look, and reality, of having an entire government at his fingertips.
“I don’t think he has utilized his cabinet well. Many of these departments have done zilch that really matters to the president’s agenda,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.
The cabinet will meet for 90 minutes on Saturday. There will also be a brainstorming session on how each cabinet secretary can be involved in the push for tax reform. There will also be a session on regulatory reform, ahead of an update by the administration scheduled for Sept. 25 on the progress each agency has taken to deregulate, the fall legislative agenda and how to manage North Korea.
The White House is expected to keep the meeting out of the reach of cameras, and the two-day confab with the president is seen by some cabinet members as an opportunity for some face time with the president now that their free-wheeling access to the Oval Office has been curtailed by Kelly.
The secretaries will attend in two phases — half leaving on helicopters from Fort McNair to stay at the Maryland retreat on Friday night and the rest arriving Saturday morning and then leaving on Sunday night with Trump. The schedule, which includes plenty of down time, was split in two because of limited accommodations.
Spouses were invited, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the husband of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, will not be attending because of a scheduling conflict, according to his spokesperson. McConnell and Trump’s relationship, already rocky after the failure of the Senate to pass the president’s health care reform over the summer, hit a new low this week after Trump unexpectedly sided with Democrats to strike a deal on the debt ceiling.
Trump often speaks affectionately of his cabinet members, occasionally referring to them “my killers,” because of their impressive resumes in the public and private sectors. He often brags about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ success on Wall Street and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s leadership at ExxonMobil.
Yet Trump also dislikes others’ having the spotlight, and though his administration initially promised cabinet secretaries wide leeway, that has been reduced. And his White House has sometimes struggled to communicate or give clear direction to secretaries, making decisions on the fly that leave them rattled.
Kelly wants cabinet secretaries to have more authority — and wants to hear more about what the secretaries view as the administration’s problems, according to a person familiar with the weekend planning.
“It’s tough to be a cabinet member because his right hand sometimes doesn’t know what his left hand is doing,” Brinkley said. “What Trump says one day may be something totally different a tweet later. That’s kind of difficult for cabinet secretaries because he is a total instinctual player.”
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Friday night: “The president routinely meets with members of his cabinet and is in communication with them as it’s appropriate. This weekend is a working weekend.”
With still a vast number of vacancies in the agencies, cabinet officials plan to bring up the slow hiring process coming from the White House office of personnel, according to a senior administration official.
“You need more people to carry out the president’s agenda,” the official said.
There will also be an element of “getting to know you” between the cabinet secretaries, who come from a diverse array of backgrounds. There will be time for cabinet members to have personal chats with Trump, and larger chats about how the first nine months of the administration has been going and what can be done differently.
Under former chief of staff Reince Priebus, cabinet members like Ross and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt could roam in and out of the Oval Office without an appointment. Now, under Kelly, there’s a five-minute-meeting policy, which has made the weekend more critical for cabinet secretaries with less frequent Oval Office interaction, according to the official.
“It’s really an opportunity to really get together in a less formal setting,” the senior administration official said. “It’s an opportunity to get everyone focused.”