General McMaster has often been at odds with Mr. Trump on policy. But unlike last year, when General McMaster tried to conform to please the president, he is now ready to leave and is merely waiting for Mr. Trump to ask, two people familiar with the adviser’s thinking said.
Among those strongly pushing for him to go is John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, according to four officials familiar with West Wing staffing discussions. Mr. Kelly, who is a former four-star Marine general, also feuded frequently with General McMaster.
The four officials said that Mr. Kelly had become increasingly angry at what he viewed as General McMaster’s prolonged effort to undermine Rex W. Tillerson, whom Mr. Trump fired as secretary of state this week.
Mr. Kelly repeatedly staved off efforts to get rid of Mr. Tillerson. After Mr. Tillerson was ousted, Mr. Kelly loudly criticized the decision to colleagues and accelerated his efforts to remove General McMaster, the officials said, adding that Mr. Kelly appeared more eager to act swiftly than the president.
One person close to the president said General McMaster, whom officials have described as never having clicked with the president personally, could be replaced as early as Friday.
“Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster – contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC,” she wrote on Twitter.
If General McMaster does depart the White House, the name most often mentioned as a replacement has been John R. Bolton, a hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations whom Mr. Trump likes seeing on television.
But another option is Keith Kellogg, a retired Army lieutenant general who is currently the chief of staff at the National Security Council, according to two people briefed on the discussions. Mr. Kellogg is a favorite of Mr. Trump’s from the 2016 campaign, but there has been resistance to him among White House staff, those briefed on the discussions said.
Mr. Kelly himself is also on thin ice, according to officials in the White House. He is said to have angered the president by privately saying “no” to the boss too often.
Mr. Trump grew frustrated with Mr. Kelly, in part for stalling on the president’s desire for tariffs. The president finally forced the issue a few weeks ago, announcing tariffs on steel and aluminum, which prompted Gary D. Cohn, his top economic adviser, who had opposed the policy, to announce his resignation.
Others are at risk, as well.
Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, and David J. Shulkin, the secretary of veterans affairs, have both embarrassed the president by generating scandalous headlines. Mr. Carson could be cut over an eye-popping $31,000 dining set, and Mr. Shulkin might be replaced over a 10-day, $122,000 European trip with his wife.
And then there is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose original sin — the decision to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia investigation — made him the regular target of presidential ire. The attorney general has threatened to resign at least once, but has more recently indicated his determination to resist Mr. Trump’s obvious desire for him to leave his post at the Justice Department.
Mr. Trump could act as early as Friday to remove one or more of them, though the president is known to enjoy keeping people off kilter.
In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Trump assailed predictions of further staff shake-ups by saying such reports were “a very exaggerated and false story.” But he hinted that his choices for a cabinet might have been different had he known then what he knows now.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the last year,” Mr. Trump said.
Whether that means the president is about to exercise his option to find new people for his White House is unclear.
Mr. Trump has a long habit of musing about staff changes that he does not enact. He does his own version of poll-testing different possibilities, asking aides what they think of one another and asking outside friends and top advisers whether different people would be better in specific jobs, but he often drops the topic without acting.
That was certainly the case with Mr. Tillerson, whom he needled for months before finally firing him in a tweet on Tuesday. It has also been true of Mr. Sessions, who has had to endure a series of Twitter attacks from the president, each of which prompts new reports about whether Mr. Trump is about to dump his top law enforcement official.
“It’s devastating,” said William M. Daley, who served as former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff for about a year. “No business could handle this, much less the government. It’s supposed to be about stability and continuity. That’s just not in his lexicon.”
Just last month, Mr. Trump lamented that Mr. Sessions had failed to investigate the Obama administration’s handling of Russian election meddling, and later called it “DISGRACEFUL!” that Mr. Sessions was not investigating surveillance abuse.
“How Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre Might Start With Jeff Sessions,” blared a headline this month in New York magazine. Some White House officials believe that Scott Pruitt, an ambitious lawyer who is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is behind rumors that he is in line to replace Mr. Sessions.
And yet, Mr. Sessions remains in his job, at least for now. Some associates speculate that Mr. Trump realizes that firing his attorney general would cross a red line for many in his own party, including Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader.
“When the shoe drops on Sessions or Kelly, no one is going to be surprised,” Mr. Daley said. “But the long goodbye totally deflates their ability to be effective.”
At times, when Mr. Trump is focused on a specific person, he has taken action — hiring Mr. Kelly to replace Reince Priebus, for instance, or empowering Mr. Kelly to expedite the departure of Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s onetime chief strategist.
Recently, people close to Mr. Trump say that he has begun to feel more confident that he understands the job of president. He is relying more on his own instincts, putting a premium on his personal chemistry with people and their willingness to acknowledge that his positions are ultimately administration policy, rather than on their résumé or qualifications for the job.
That could explain the president’s decision to replace Mr. Tillerson and his choice of successor for Mr. Cohn. If people are unwilling to do what he wants, one adviser said, Mr. Trump now believes that he can get things done himself.
Right now, Mr. Trump is surrounded by cabinet officials and a chief of staff who either have caused him negative headlines, such as Mr. Carson and Mr. Shulkin, or have declined to do what he wants, such as Mr. McMaster, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Sessions.
Contrary to the notion that Mr. Trump is surrounded by sycophants, the president has aides who are willing to say “no.” But he has increasingly grown frustrated when they do.
Mr. Trump also grew frustrated last year with Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, for refusing to enact a ban on transgender members of the military. Mr. Mattis essentially ignored Mr. Trump for several weeks, White House officials said, until the president finally went around him and tweeted it. But Mr. Mattis appears to be safe, even when he ignores the president, in part because he is a general who in Mr. Trump’s mind “looks the part” of a military leader.
Mr. Kelly has not fared as well.
A few weeks ago, when the scandal surrounding Rob Porter, the staff secretary, exploded into view, Mr. Trump began working the phones to old friends, telling them that he needed his former advisers back and complaining that he was surrounded by people he did not know. He told them that Mr. Kelly had badly botched the Porter issue. (His language was saltier and unfit for publication, according to several people with knowledge of the calls.)
This week, he was not in the loop for some of Mr. Trump’s decisions, people briefed on the discussions said, including that he was not immediately aware that Mr. Trump was seriously considering Larry Kudlow for the director of the National Economic Council.
Since the Porter scandal, the president has mulled over a number of potential replacements for Mr. Kelly, but he has kept his own counsel about his plans, according to several people close to him.
In remarks on Tuesday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Kelly, calling him a “four star” general who is “doing a great job in Washington.”
But in a bit of potential foreshadowing, the president also told the Marines in the audience: “I think he likes what you do better than what he does, but he’s doing a great job. He misses you.”
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