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McMaster firing upends plan to oust other top Trump officials

President Donald Trump’s decision to abruptly fire national security adviser H.R. McMaster surprised senior White House aides who had been preparing a single statement announcing the departure of multiple top Trump officials, according to two senior administration officials.

White House chief of staff John Kelly and other top aides were waiting for inspector general reports that they believed would deliver devastating verdicts on Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who have both been accused of racking up extravagant expenses. They were also debating whether several senior White House aides, including McMaster, should go with them.

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It’s unclear which other West Wing officials were possibly set to depart with McMaster, but the two senior administration officials said they believed it would be easier to manage the optics if multiple firings were made public in a single statement instead of drawn out. The announcement, though, was not expected for at least another week.

Trump, however, upended those plans late Thursday, firing McMaster and offering his job to former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in a move that surprised not only his top advisers — but also Bolton himself.

Though the hawkish conservative has spoken with the president several times in recent weeks, those close to him say he had no indication the president would offer him the job when he went to the White House for a meeting on Thursday. Bolton also was passed over for a top State Department job last year, reportedly because Trump was turned off by his bristly, full mustache.

And while McMaster has been the subject of multiple news reports in recent weeks predicting his imminent departure, Trump was said to be slow-walking the final decision, waiting for a strong replacement and appropriate landing spot for McMaster. White House aides, however, said the onslaught of news reports about McMaster’s inevitable demise had made it difficult for him to continue in the job.

A senior White House official said Thursday evening that Trump made clear earlier in the day that he had made the call to fire McMaster but did not indicate when. “Trump upends whatever he wants to upend,” a second White House official said.

The exact trigger for the timing of the ouster is unclear, but it comes on the heels of another damaging leak involving national security matters. The Washington Post late Tuesday revealed that briefing materials had instructed Trump “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” during his call with newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin — guidance that Trump ignored.

The unexpectedly quick personnel change is the latest example of Trump’s mercurial nature and his newfound confidence to follow his gut instincts. Earlier this month, Trump pulled the trigger on firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after flirting with the decision for months but being advised against the move by some of his senior aides.

Bolton says he "didn't expect" Trump tweet on replacing McMaster

The ouster of McMaster also throws into disarray the still-forming plans to oust multiple top officials in one swoop. Shulkin has long been viewed negatively by senior West Wing aides because he has repeatedly said he has been given the blessing of the White House to purge insolent VA staffers, even though he’s been given no such approval, according to one administration official. Carson, meanwhile, has been seen as largely ineffective at running a large federal agency, but senior administration officials and others close to the White House say Trump aides harbor reservations about ousting him because he is the only black Cabinet member.

Both have been accused of excessive spending, with Shulkin facing accusations of racking up extravagant travel expenses with his wife during government trips and Carson defending the decision to install a $ 31,000 dining room set in his office.

Representatives for Shulkin and Carson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Several people over there that did not want this to happen before they were ready to do the others,” said a separate senior administration official. “There was definitely a consensus view in the building that they were going to do all these at once.”

Though the timing was unexpected, Trump’s decision to dismiss McMaster, a three-star Army general who has never meshed with the president personally, was not.

McMaster, who replaced Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a little over a year ago, is an intensely focused intellectual whose detailed briefings, by all accounts, drove the president crazy. Trump took to mocking him openly in the Oval Office, asking other White House aides why McMaster was so serious.

“Everyone knew he’d be out eventually,” said a second senior administration official.

White House aides expressed mixed feelings about Bolton’s impending arrival, which will take place as Trump negotiates a historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and as he weighs a decision, in early May, about whether to scuttle the Iran deal.

Trump’s decision to bring in Bolton comes after rumors of an administration post for him last year shook many in the Senate and foreign policy establishment. The former ambassador has riled up critics by arguing that the U.S. should bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program, dismissing the idea of a Palestinian state, and taking a proactive stance toward international military conflicts.

McMaster’s tenure at the White House was an uphill battle virtually from the outset because he butted heads not only with the president, but with Kelly and with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Both were also agitating for his ouster.

McMaster clashed frequently with Mattis and also with Tillerson on policy matters. Kelly, who, like Mattis, is a retired Marine general, served under Mattis in Iraq, and the two remain close friends, and White House aides say Mattis was able to openly relay his complaints about McMaster to the chief of staff.

John Dowd is pictured. | AP Photo

Trump and Kelly both seriously considered firing McMaster in November, when they also came close to dismissing Tillerson, but held back when the two could not agree on a successor.

A White House official said Trump was ultimately drawn to Bolton, in part because he was impressed by his many appearances on Fox News.

Larry Kudlow, the economic analyst and CNBC contributor who was recently named as a replacement for former National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, also appealed to Trump because of his appearances on cable news. Trump has also developed close personal friendships with both men, the latest indication that personality plays a central role in the president’s personnel picks.

Andrew Restuccia, Matt Nussbaum, Arthur Allen and Lorraine Woellert contributed to this report.

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