It has been a very difficult first month for the fledgling Trump administration. To describe the situation as chaos, bedlam, dysfunction — whatever term you want to use to describe the situation in the White House — is not hyperbole, alternative facts, or fake news. It is reality.
The level and intensity of the chaos within the West Wing is unprecedented in the modern era. Unfortunately for Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, much of the responsibility for bringing order to the West Wing rests with him — the administrative equivalent of taming a pride of circus lions with neither chair nor whip.
The White House chief of staff position is perhaps the most difficult in the US government and often viewed by those who have served as thankless. James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s first chief who is heralded by most of his contemporaries as the most effective chief of staff in history, calls the position “the worst job in Washington.”
Complicating matters is the fact that the chief’s responsibilities change at the mercy of the boss — the president. As John Sununu, chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, counsels: “the role of a Chief of Staff is whatever the President wants that role to be.”
Adapting to the president’s wishes and sometimes shifting set of parameters would be hard enough when working for a typical president — and Donald Trump is hardly typical. His notoriously undisciplined behavior (and social media habits), famously thin-skinned reactions, ignorance of the basics of public policy and unwillingness to be handled by subordinates, make Reince Priebus’ job that much more challenging.
Even more frustrating for Priebus, President Trump appears to prefer an open organization with competing power centers run by a weak chief of staff. And that is a sharp break from the recent past. In the modern era and with few exceptions, a strong chief of staff sitting at the top of the White House organization chart has become the “standard model” of organization. From this perch, information and personnel funnel through the office of chief of staff before traversing, if ever, to the Oval.
Not so in the Trump West Wing. In a style reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Trump seems to prefer the “creative tension” that a competitive style of management brings, with himself in the center, and rival hubs of power fighting for attention and influence.
Besides the chief of staff, numerous aides such as counselor Kellyanne Conway and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, have “walk-in” privileges to the Oval Office. So do chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller, the so-called Breitbart Wing of the White House and perhaps the West Wing’s most powerful center of power.
Not only is this wide array of direct access to the President an inefficient use of Trump’s time, the spasmodic and confusing decision-making process results in decisions that are poorly vetted and clumsily executed. The executive order temporarily curtailing entry to the United States by foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations is perhaps the best example of this so far, and it will likely not be the last.
This instability and inefficiency also has the potential to scuttle President Trump’s agenda.
The last time the country witnessed a White House fraught with significant management problems was the first 18 months of the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton also consciously chose to grant many aides direct access to the Oval Office with an irregular policy making process overseen by a weak chief of staff. This was the kind of system Clinton used as Arkansas governor and he wanted to bring that style to the White House.
But as Clinton discovered quickly, the White House is not the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and Washington is not Little Rock. The ensuing bedlam nearly sank the Clinton presidency and surely helped lead to an historic loss in the 1994 midterm elections. To his benefit, Clinton realized the White House system was fatally flawed and wanted to make a change. In July 1994, Clinton convinced Leon Panetta, his director of Office of Management and Budget, to become chief of staff and granted him full authority to make the necessary staff and organizational changes that brought more discipline and efficiency to a White House that had previously had little.
Former President George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has observed aptly about the Trump White House that “the president may thrive in chaos, but the presidency does not.” Gerson is exactly right and Reince Priebus has been criticized for his inability to bring more order out of that chaos.
Some of that criticism appears to be coming from within the White House itself from rival factions. But it is also being leveled from outside, as the chaos troubling the Trump administration is clearly visible to even the most untrained eye.
Those who believe that replacing Priebus as chief of staff will fix the situation miss an important point — this is a system installed and promulgated by President Trump himself. Unless Trump is willing to employ a strong chief of staff who will instill discipline and clear lines of authority that run through the office of chief of staff, it will not matter who is chief. And that discipline must start with the President himself.
Only Donald Trump can clean up this mess — a mess he is responsible for. But since he believes that his “administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” the pandemonium will continue for the foreseeable future and perhaps consume his entire presidency.