Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Image courtesy iStock
It’s three whole weeks into the Trump administration, and this is already looking like the most dysfunctional White House in memory. While we had plenty of other things to worry about when contemplating a Donald Trump victory during the campaign, this should have been utterly predictable.
White House jobs are famously stressful — long hours, high stakes, and public scrutiny combine to exact a toll on everyone working there. That’s why it’s rare for high-ranking staff to last a full eight years; even four is a marathon, and many people leave after a year or two. But we’d normally expect people to last more than a month. For at least one of Trump’s key advisers, this hasn’t happened.
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn got the boot first. He had conversations with the Russian ambassador on the day the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia for interfering in the election, yet claimed that the sanctions never came up; among other people, he told this to Vice President Mike Pence, who went out and defended him publicly. Nine separate officials told The Washington Post that Flynn lied; apparently he wasn’t aware that the ambassador’s phone was being monitored, despite the fact that as the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, it might have occurred to him. On Monday, Kellyanne Conway said that Flynn has “the full confidence of the president,” but still: If you have the VP lie on your behalf, you probably aren’t going to be around for too long. And indeed, on Monday night, Flynn resigned.
Some of Trump’s other advisers are surely looking over their shoulders, as well. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has often earned Trump’s displeasure (much as he has proven his loyalty by backing up every one of Trump’s absurd falsehoods to an angry press corps), and seems perpetually on thin ice. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — the one charged with keeping the whole ship moving forward — has been a frequent target of rumors and backbiting. After meeting with the president, Trump friend and conservative publisher Christopher Ruddy went on CNN and called for Priebus’ ouster, then told Politico that Trump has “always been successful and had strong people around him, and he’s in the process of figuring out who those people are.” Ruddy later said Priebus convinced him things might improve, but it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the staff.
It’s true that Trump has been successful in his business of real estate and brand licensing — which he’ll remind you, again and again and again. But the Trump Organization, whatever its merits as a business, is not the federal government. Voters often assume that someone with a business background “knows how to get things done” and can therefore “make government run like a business,” meaning, operate with an efficiency and effectiveness that far exceeds the ability of ordinary pencil-pushing bureaucrats. The trouble is that government is nothing like a business.
Its systems work in very different ways. Its fundamental goal is different — not making a profit, which is straightforward, but serving the public interest, which is enormously complex and requires meeting hundreds or even thousands of subsidiary goals. And perhaps most importantly, the president may be the most powerful person in the world, but he has to deal with an array of competing nodes of power, each of which has its own goals. There are 535 members of Congress, interest groups of varying stripes, the court system, entrenched bureaucracies, even members of his own staff, all of whom will be acting in their own interests, sometimes in direct opposition to his.
Trump seemed to be completely unprepared for this fact, and it’s part of the reason why he’s having such a hard time. As a businessman, when he says, “Put more gold leaf on the walls in that foyer,” that’s what his underlings do. But the orders a president gives aren’t necessarily followed. He can try to keep out Muslim immigrants, only to find that some “so-called judge” can overrule him. It’s no doubt a disorienting experience.
And since it was a core part not just of Trump’s campaign but his genuine feeling that the people who have been running the government in recent decades are incompetent and stupid, it’s no surprise that he has stocked his administration with people who have never worked in government before — and therefore don’t really know how it works. This is particularly true of his inner circle. Their bungles infuriate him, which leads to distrust, which makes them ready to undermine him. The White House at the moment, reports Mike Allen, is characterized by “insecurity, ass-covering, and endless leaking. Those who don’t fear for their hide are busy gaming out how they rise when someone falls. Trump feeds all of this. It’s why an insider describes the White House hierarchy as ‘fragile.'”