In early January, House Speaker Paul Ryan met on the issue of tax reform with a delegation from the president-elect. Attending were future chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon, future Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, future senior adviser Jared Kushner, future counselor Kellyanne Conway and future senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, “Who’s in charge?”
It is still the right question. Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Donald Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. “The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,” says one experienced Republican. “This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.”
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Trump has run a family business, but never a large organization. Nor has he seen such an organization as an employee. “Trump,” says another former official, “is ill-suited to appreciate the importance of a coherent chain of command and decision-making process. On the contrary, his instincts run instead toward multiple mini power centers, which rewards competing aggressively for Trump’s favor.”
This seems to be the dynamic unfolding on the weekend political talk shows. These have traditionally been venues for an administration to communicate with media and political elites (whose religion dedicates Sunday morning to the gods of policy, scandal and pith). But Trump surrogates are clearly appealing to a different audience: An audience of one, who may well tweet them a nice pat on the back.
The goal – as Miller demonstrated last weekend – is not to persuade or even explain. It is to confidently repeat Trump’s most absurd or unsubstantiated claims from the previous week. This time it was electorally decisive voter fraud in New Hampshire (for which there is no evidence). Next weekend it could be the harm done by vaccination, or the possible murder of Justice Antonin Scalia (both of which Trump has raised in the past). It is the main function of Trump surrogates to restate Trump’s “alternative facts” in a steady voice.
It is hard for me (or anyone outside the White House) to know exactly what is going on in the West Wing. Leaks may provide a distorted picture. But, in this case, there have been an awful lot of them, clearly from the highest levels. And they uniformly reveal a management structure and culture in which the highest goal is not to display competence or to display creativity but to display loyalty, defined as sucking up.
The philosophy of competing power centers has, indeed, produced terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks. Trump’s failed and frightening executive order on immigration is exhibit A. But now the National Security Council seems to be in a full-scale crisis of purpose, thoroughly demoralized and trying to discern American policy from presidential tweets. With the real NSC badly weakened by the travails of the national security adviser, it seems that Bannon is developing a shadow NSC to serve his well-developed nationalist agenda.
The president may thrive in chaos, but the presidency does not. A president needs aides who will give him honest information and analysis, not compete for his favor. This may even involve checking a president’s mistaken instincts. There will always be competing power centers in the West Wing. But the White House runs best when there is, according to a former White House official, “a strong chief of staff, empowered by the president to exercise absolute control over all logistics, decision-making processes and execution. He can have as many advisers as he wants, but until one person has full control over the process, chaos will persist.”
What does it mean to have a president who seems so hungry for affirmation and so influenced by slights? I recall (from working in George W. Bush’s White House) the briefing material that senior staff received before international visits. It always included detailed personality profiles of foreign leaders. Surely other intelligence services prepare the same way. Might Trump’s impulsive (and perhaps compulsive) reactions be manipulated by enemies and allies, either to allay or enrage?
For whatever reason, Trump sees benefits in surrounding himself with a swarm of disorder and disruption. So far, that has helped produce relatively small, self-made crises. But what about the big ones caused by the relentless flow of events? The president will face challenges of amazing complexity that must be addressed in real time, without do-overs. Will the president be able to act swiftly, on the best information and the best advice?
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.