Trump on White House chaos: 'I like conflict'

WASHINGTON — Amid unusually high staff turnover, confusion over major policies, and unexpected salvos from the tweeter-in-chief, President Trump on Tuesday portrayed the White House as a dream place to work but admitted: “I like conflict.”

“It’s tough, I like conflict, I like having two people with different points of view – and I certainly have that – and then I make a decision,” he said at a joint press conference with visiting Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. “But I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had denied that his West Wing was in “chaos,” but cryptically added “I still have some people that I want to change.” That poured fuel on speculation that he could part ways with troubled Cabinet officials, like Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or senior aides like national security advisor H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly.

Asked at the press conference whether his comment might have referred to Sessions, Trump told reporters “I don’t really want to talk about that” before going on an extended riff praising his own West Wing.

“The White House has tremendous energy, it has tremendous spirit. It is a great place to be working. Many, many people want every single job,” he said.

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Jeff Sessions through the years
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Jeff Sessions through the years

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2017.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama arrives at Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump works from home November 15, 2016. Making the vital choices for President-elect Donald Trump's White House cabinet has sparked intense infighting, CNN reported Monday, with one source calling it a 'knife fight.' The jobs to be filled include national security positions and West Wing posts, the television news network said, as Trump gathered with transition team members in New York.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump greets Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's picks for attorney general, during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election.

(Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., nominee for attorney general, talk near the Ohio Clock after a meeting in the Capitol, November 30, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks during a 'USA Thank You Tour 2016' event at the LaddPeebles Stadium in Mobile, AL on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Senator Jeff Sessions, attorney general pick for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, right, listens as Senator Charles 'Chuck' Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, speaks during a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Sessions, the 69-year-old, four-term Alabama Republican is a hard-liner on free trade and immigration, arguing that prospective immigrants don't have constitutional protections.

(Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

US President-elect Donald Trump (C) talks with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (2nd L) and US Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (L) as he arrives in Mobile, Alabama, for a 'Thank You Tour 2016' rally on December 17, 2016.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Mike Pence, 2016 Republican vice presidential nominee, left, and Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, gesture during a campaign event for Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, not pictured, in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Trump returned to form in Phoenix Wednesday night with a nativist immigration plan definitively ruling out legal status for undocumented immigrants, as well as proposing to build a wall on the southern border of the United States and forcing Mexico to cover the cost.

(Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

MADISON, AL - FEBRUARY 28: United States Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, beomes the first Senator to endorse Donald Trump for President of the United States at Madison City Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)(L) speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan on President Obamas FY2016 budget request. Also pitcured are (L-R), Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sen. Rob Poertman (R-OH).

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (2nd L) speaks as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L), and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) (R) listen during a news conference September 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The legislators discussed on immigration reform during the news conference.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House Budget Chairman, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL., and members of the House Budget Committee during the House Budget Committee's news conference on the 'Introduction of the FY2013 Budget - Pathway to Prosperity.'

(Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call)

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, leave the Capitol en route to a news conference to oppose the immigration reform bill in the Senate.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performs during the National Prayer Breakfast as First Lady Michelle Obama (L), US President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Senator Jeff Sessions (3rd L), R-AL, watch on February 7, 2013 at a hotel in Washington, DC.

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Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL., talks with Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA., as they make their way to the Senate policy luncheons through the Senate subway in the U.S. Capitol on September 17, 2013.

(Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is interviewed by the press during the weekly Senate policy luncheons. The Senate vote will this afternoon on Obama's small-business tax relief legislation.

(Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks at the 'Iran Democratic Transition Conference,' hosted by the Institute of World Politics in Capitol Visitor Center. The conference explored the prospects of political change in Iran.

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)

US President Barack Obama (C) signs the Fair Sentencing Act in the Oval Office of the White House, on August 3, 2010 in Washington, DC. The law will aim to correct the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Also in the picture (L to R); Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democratic Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas. Previously, people in possession of powder cocaine could carry up to one hundred times more grams than crack offenders and receive the same sentence.

(Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan (L) shakes hands with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (R), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) looks on, after she arrived for the first day of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill June 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Kagan is U.S. President Barack Obama's second Supreme Court nominee since taking office.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The new co chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Jeff Sessions (D-AL) works in his office on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning May 02, 2009. Sen. Sessions speaks to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) before visiting with US Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

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US President Barack Obama (3rd-R) and Vice President Joe Biden (3rd-L) meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2nd-R) ,D-NV, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd-L),R-KY, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (R) ,D-VT, and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (L),R-AL, about the upcoming Supreme Court nomination on May 13, 2009 at the White House in Washington, DC.  

(TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (R) listens as ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor during the second day of her confirmation hearings July 14, 2009 in Washington, DC. Sotomayor faces a full day of questioning from Senators on the committee today. Sotomayor, an appeals court judge and U.S. President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, will become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court if confirmed.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

US President George W. Bush (L) listens as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R) speaks during a Republican fundraiser for Sessions at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama, 21 June 2007.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

US President George W. Bush (2R) waves as he stands with First Lady Laura Bush (R), Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (2L) and his wife Mary (L) after a Republican fundraiser for Sessions at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama, 21 June 2007.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad, IRAQ: US Senators Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, (L) and Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, speak to the media after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, 28 April 2007. Maliki told a delegation of visiting US lawmakers today that foreign powers should not try to influence the Iraqi political process. He also resisted calls for his Shiite-led government to rehabilitate former members of ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein's regime. Maliki met a group of US congressmen shortly after their chamber voted for a law calling for a timetable for American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

(KHALID MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL, (C) speaks with the media as (L-R) U.S. Senator George Allen (R-VA), U.S. Representative David Dreier (R-CA) and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) listen at the White House after participating in a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on March 16, 2006 in Washington, DC. Senators from various states, including U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), participated in a line item veto legislation meeting.

(Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during a news conference after the Senate took a step Wednesday toward the 'security first' approach to immigration control promoted in the House, paving the way for action on legislation that would require construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing along segments of the U.S. border with Mexico. Despite Democratic charges that Republicans were moving the bill (HR 6061) to score political points seven weeks before Election Day, the Senate voted 94-0 to limit debate on a motion to proceed to formal consideration of the measure. The bill (HR 6061), which would also authorize a 'virtual fence' of sensors, cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance technology along the entire southwest border, was passed by the House last week. Three more targeted border security and internal immigration enforcement measures are set for House action, possibly as early as Thursday. Frist supported an earlier Senate comprehensive bill that would offer a path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants. Sessions did not; he considers that aspect of the bill amnesty.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (L), speaks with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Alberto R. Gonzales January 6, 2005 in Washington, DC. U.S. President George W. Bush has nominated Gonzales to be the U.S. Attorney General.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Senator-elect Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., talk in the Ohio Clock Corridor during the election meeting for Senate Republican leadership.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions at a hearing to examine 'President Clinton's Eleventh Hour Pardons.'

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

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“You know, I read where, ‘Oh, gee, maybe people don’t want to work for Trump.’ And believe me, everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump declared. “They all want a piece of that Oval Office they want a piece of the West Wing. Not only in terms of it looks great on their résumé, it’s just a great place to work.”

But he again alluded to possible staffing changes.

“There’ll be people — I’m not going to be specific — but there’ll be people that change,” he said. “Sometimes they want to go out and do something else. But they all want to be in the White House. So many people want to come in. I have a choice of anybody. I could take any position in the West Wing and I’ll have a choice of the 10 top people having to do with that position.”

In fact, however, the administration has approached Republicans in Congress, at trade associations and think tanks, and in the private sector for various executive branch jobs, only to be rebuffed, according to people who have turned down White House overtures.

And the Trump administration has been slow to nominate candidates to fill important positions — of 638 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, 218 have no nominee, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. (To the delight of conservatives, judges have been the exception).

Trump has seen remarkable turnover. According to data from a Brookings Institution report cited by the New York Times, the turnover rate of Trump’s staff in his first year — 34 percent — was higher than any White House in decades. He is on his second national security adviser – his third if you count a placeholder early last year – his second chief of staff, and will be hiring his fifth communications director after the sudden resignation of Hope Hicks.

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Everything you need to know about Hope Hicks
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Everything you need to know about Hope Hicks

Hicks and her sister, Mary Grace, were successful teen models. Hicks posed for Ralph Lauren and appeared on the cover of "It Girl," a spin-off of the best-selling "Gossip Girl" book and TV series.

Hicks and her sister, Mary Grace, were successful teen models. Hicks posed for Ralph Lauren and appeared on the cover of "It Girl," a spin-off of the best-selling "Gossip Girl" book and TV series.

Hicks met patriarch Trump and quickly "earned his trust," Ivanka Trump told The New York Times for a June 2016 profile on the spokeswoman.

In January 2015, Trump called Hicks into his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower and told her she was joining his presidential campaign. "I think it’s 'the year of the outsider.' It helps to have people with outsider perspective," Hicks said Trump told her.

Hicks didn't have any political experience, but her public-relations roots run deep. Both grandfathers worked in PR, and her father, Paul, was the NFL's executive vice president for communications and public relations. He was also a town selectman from 1987 to 1991. Greenwich proclaimed April 23, 2016, as Paul B. Hicks III Day.

Hicks started working on what would become Trump's campaign five months before Trump announced his presidency, after he famously rode a golden escalator down to the lobby of his tower on June 16, 2015.

That makes Hicks the campaign staffer who has persisted in Trump's inner circle the longest. She outlasted his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and several senior advisers.

People close to her describe Hicks as a friendly, loyal fighter. Trump has called her a "natural" and "outstanding."

While reporters who have worked with Hicks say she's polite, they have expressed frustration that she was often unreachable on the campaign trail, not responding to requests for comment, or denying access to the candidate.

She said her mom, Caye, told her to write a book about her experience with Trump, like "Primary Colors," the fictional novel depicting President Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. "You don't even know," she said she told her mother.

During the campaign, Hicks spent most of her days fielding reporters' requests and questions — even reportedly taking dictation from Trump to post his tweets.

During the campaign, Hicks stayed in a free apartment in a Trump building, though she'd often go home to her parents' house in Connecticut when she could.

These days she's in DC. Trump named her his assistant to the president and director of strategic communications in December.

She still flies below the radar, directing the spotlight back on Trump. The then president-elect called her up to the microphone to speak at a "Thank You" rally in December.

It's been said she can act as a sort of Trump whisperer, understanding his many moods and professionally executing what needs to be done. She still only calls him "Sir" or "Mr. Trump."

"If the acting thing doesn’t work out, I could really see myself in politics," Hicks told Greenwich Magazine when she was 13. "Who knows."

In June, the White House released salary info for 377 top staffers. Hicks gets paid the maximum amount that any of Trump's aides receive: $179,700.

Hicks is making as much as Trump's former chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, former press secretary Sean Spicer, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, policy adviser Stephen Miller, and communications official Omarosa Manigault.

Some family members and friends have expressed concern that Hicks is so closely tied to a president whose policies and statements are unpopular with a significant number of Americans, but are confident that she'll come through unscathed.

"There is just no way that a camera or an episode or a documentary could capture what has gone on. There is nothing like it," Hicks told Marie Claire in June 2016. "It is the most unbelievable, awe-inspiring thing."

In August, Trump asked Hicks to be the new interim White House director of communications, a job that Michael Dubke, Sean Spicer, and Anthony Scaramucci held and left in Trump's first six months in office. The White House will announce who will serve in the job permanently "at the appropriate time."

The 28-year-old Hicks is the youngest communications director in history.

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Just last week, the president surprised some senior aides by announcing tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent on imports of steel and aluminum, respectively. While not shocking in terms of ideology — Trump has been vocally protectionist for decades — he short-circuited the process for announcing such a major policy. Senior aides told reporters no announcement was imminent. The White House was unable to give details of the proposal, because there none had cleared the complex legal and interagency process that typically precedes a rollout. Lawmakers allied with the administration but caught unawares reached out to reporters for any scraps of information about a decision that, critics warn, could trigger a trade war.

Former chief of staff Reince Priebus says in an upcoming book that the chaos looks worse from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus says, according to an excerpt from the book published last month.

Trump’s efforts to deny that his administration is particularly volatile are also nothing new. After a string of departures last year – press secretary Sean Spicer, Priebus, and blink-and-you-missed-his-tenure communications director Anthony Scaramucci — Trump took to Twitter.

His message? “No WH chaos!”

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