Disarray. That’s everyone’s favorite story in any administration. And the Trump administration is providing a cornucopia of material. It is probably safe to say that process stories about in-fighting and confusion in the Trump White House made for more news this weekend than did any actual Trump action.
President Donald Trump, frustrated over his administration’s rocky start, is complaining to friends and allies about some of his most senior aides — leading to questions about whether he is mulling an early staff shakeup.
Trump has told several people that he is particularly displeased with national security adviser Michael Flynn over reports that he had top-secret discussions with Russian officials and lied about it. The president, who spent part of the weekend dealing with the Flynn controversy, has been alarmed by reports from top aides that they don’t trust Flynn. “He thinks he’s a problem,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking. “I would be worried if I was General Flynn.”
Imagine you’re Reince Priebus. Every day, you hear speculation that your days as White House chief of staff are numbered. You wake up on a Sunday and read that colleague Kellyanne Conway’s dream job is, well, yours.
Then, you flick on CNN to see Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy — a Trump pal of 10 years (and Mar-a-Lago member) who just spent time alone with him in Florida — saying this on “Reliable Sources”: “The White House is showing not the amount of order that we need to see. I think there’s a lot of weakness coming out of the chief of staff.”
But this is a problem hardly confined to Priebus: After watching Trump clean house several times during the campaign, everyone feels on thin ice. This naturally breeds 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.”
“These people are insecure because Trump does not respect them,” said a person in constant contact with the West Wing. “He does not because they have not made any money. He respects [Stephen] Bannon and Gary Cohn because they are financially successful.”
Although Mr. Trump suggested to reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday that he was unaware of the latest questions swirling around Mr. Flynn’s dealings with Russia, aides said over the weekend in Florida — where Mr. Flynn accompanied the president and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe — that Mr. Trump was closely monitoring the reaction to Mr. Flynn’s conversations. There are transcripts of a conversation in at least one phone call, recorded by American intelligence agencies that wiretap foreign diplomats, which may determine Mr. Flynn’s future.
I don’t profess to have any inside knowledge of the White House, but I’ve spent a lot of my life formally and informally troubleshooting organizations and I think I can make a few observations here.
First off, the Trump administration has been on the job for four weeks this coming Friday. That isn’t much time to take new people, form them into an organization, and obtain competent performance. A lot of this is to be expected as the flow of a new organization always follows the form (put the group together)–>storm (conflict as roles and responsibilities and processes are sorted out)–>norm (the group develops its own norms of operation)–>perform (the group performs at, hopefully, a high level of proficiency). While in the Army I took a company from cadre status, i.e. containing the officers and about 3/4s of the authorized NCOs, to being certified combat capable. That took just over five months.
It is even further hindered by the fact that much of the civil service staff in the White House, far from being “apolitical,” is actually hard core Obamanaut Democrats. That is why you have a lot of the leaking and the screw-ups. There is a hostility that is rapidly mutating to outright disloyalty. That problem will be solved in time but it is baked in right now.
So some of the stuff you’re seeing now would take place under any administration, it is simply getting put under a microscope because it is Trump in charge.
But there are going to be problems that will be difficult to solve and may not be solvable at all unless Trump changes his personal method of operation. I commented on this during the campaign and I am more confident than ever that I was correct (see here | here).
The central problem is that Trump is a weak leader who wants to be liked by everyone. During the campaign he operated by setting his various staffers against each other and then entering in as the good guy who was the peacemaker. That is a bullsh** way to operate yet you see it every day in businesses and government agencies across the nation. This can work if you have a ass-kicking Number Two who can knock heads to make people work together and the boss is the guy who makes soothing noises but remains unmoved by the plight of people who feel put upon. That is why in the military the unit executive officer or deputy commander is the total asshole that people run away from and the boss is the good guy. Sometimes it can work with the boss as the hatchet man, but that is very rare. The thing constraining this style in the White House is that Trump and Pence represent separate and competing power bases. Trump can’t fire Pence. Pence probably can’t fire folks in the Executive Office of the President and his appointees on the National Security Council. Pence, in fact, can actively undercut Trump’s staff and Pence’s people are obviously part of the campaign to get Flynn fired. So the only guy who can knock heads is either the chief of staff (who is being targeted by a whispering campaign) or Trump himself. This is why the typical White House dynamic is a Nice Guy President, a Vicious Chief of Staff, and a Vice President who is attending someone’s funeral.
Trump’s M.O. worked within certain parameters during the campaign because senior campaign types were able to curry favor directly with Trump. But now he is in the big leagues. Battles in Washington are not only fought internally, they are fought out in the press via leaks. If negative press gains critical mass, as it seems to be doing for both Priebus and Flynn, then Trump loses his ability to become the peacemaker. He is forced to either stand by the guy who has acquired the stink of incompetence, and get some of the stink on him, or he has to fire him. The “nice guy” he was able to be on the campaign trail now become portrayed as a weak, confused, and ineffectual leader, which, oddly enough, is a pretty accurate estimation.
Stir into the mix a handful of people that Trump trusts but who whose primary loyalty is to themselves and not to the presidency or the nation (Steve Bannon comes to mind) who can talk down people they don’t like and you have a potent stew of distrust, disloyalty, backbiting, and fear.
Unless Trump does something to get control of this mess… and dropkicking Bannon would take care of a lot of it… he is going to see his White House reduced to a state of catatonia. This could be a feature or a bug, depending upon you personal point of view.