Gloria Borger: Trump's White House is a combustible combination
It's a staff searching for defined roles and a deliberative policy process and a president who likes to freelance, she says
When Abraham Lincoln envisaged a productive “team of rivals,” the Trumpian incarnation is probably not what he had in mind.
Donald Trump’s version of the Lincoln model: less team and more rivals. “He manages by conflict,” says one source close to the White House who is familiar with Trump’s management style. “And in the end, if there’s conflict, he likes it because he can steer the point of view himself.”
In business, it often worked. In the campaign, it clearly worked. But inside the new White House — and with a new team of Cabinet members — not so much. It’s a combustible combination: a staff searching for defined roles and a more deliberative policy process and a president who likes to freelance.
Poking Australia’s Prime Minister and Mexico’s President in the eye, issuing an executive action on immigration without reaching out to GOP leaders, is part of the new normal. So is a President who tweets furiously at whim, even deriding the federal judge who reversed his travel ban as a “so-called judge.”
The staff is already spent, just two weeks in. At the President’s direction they’re trying to wrestle control of the policy process through the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, as first reported by CNN’S Dana Bash. But the real staff problem may be trying to figure out how to deal with an often impetuous and off-script President they also aim to please. (See: Trump’s generous comments on Putin’s Russia.) “He just needs some managing,” according to one source close to the White House. “It’s not a healthy thing having nobody tell you the truth.” Or worse yet, getting blind affirmation.
Despite the flurry of controversy, sources who have spoken with the President say he’s happy living in the White House. His wife, Melania, remains in New York, at least for now. The official line is that she will move to DC at the end of the school year, but sources caution that while that is likely, it is not set in stone. In the meantime, daughter Ivanka accompanied Trump to Dover Air Force Base as the commander in chief paid his respects to a soldier killed in action, the first on his watch. It was a reminder that the first lady is not in town.
And that the President is literally home alone. “When you’re there by yourself, you don’t really settle into a regular family life, so it’s easier to think — and govern — like it’s still the campaign,” worries one Trump ally. “And you grow isolated.” So the new President lives upstairs by himself, keeps long hours, watches TV, and, of course, tweets. Then it’s rinse and repeat.
But keeping the pace of a whirling dervish is exactly what Trump wanted and continues to crave, which is why executive orders have been so appealing, despite past GOP complaints that Barack Obama used them too much. He’s thrilled with his Supreme Court pick, his multiple photo ops and with his congressional call to action on numerous fronts. “The American people wanted to see action,” says one senior White House adviser. “And they got it.” Sure, Trump was critical of the immigration order rollout and the communications shop in general, but he asked for early action — early “wins,” one administration source says — and governing by signature seems to provide that.
The world is paying attention. So is the American public, but with negative reviews. In a CNN/ORC International Poll released Friday, Americans gave Trump the highest disapproval rating for any newly elected president since pollsters began tracking that data.
All of which raises the question: When making decisions, where does he get his advice? According to sources within and outside the White House, the President has set up a hydra-headed structure that needs work. After a rough start, staffers have recently gone out of their way to say they’re working well together. But there’s no denying history: Priebus, who chose Sean Spicer to be the administration’s public voice, has had to make some adjustment. To begin with, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee is not used to saluting a boss. “Reince has never been a staffer,” says one knowledgeable source. “Everybody is still trying to feel each other out.”
And learning how to run a government has exposed fissures. “Reince should be the logical person, along with the vice president, to create a simpler path for information and decisions to flow,” says one Trump ally, who also cautions that, during the campaign, Priebus and Trump did not have a “perfect relationship.”
Then again, who does? Consolidating trust and power for Priebus may be a tad easier after the immigration order fiasco and the President’s designation of him as his chief conduit. Senior adviser Kellyanne Conway is likely to coordinate communications. She “has endeared herself to Trump by being the pit bull, by going out there and doing the unthinkable,” says one source close to the White House. Of course, Conway’s “Bowling Green massacre” mistake last week was a reminder that misstatements, when coming from a White House mouthpiece, are magnified.
All of which leads to the missing ingredient in the West Wing: experience. The refrain that “he needs a Jim Baker (Ronald Reagan’s ex-chief of staff)” is common among both Republicans and Democrats these days. A person Trump regards as a peer would go a long way toward focusing him on governing and away from campaign mode. The problem, says one ally, is that Trump thinks he is his own Jim Baker.
And, to state the obvious, Steve Bannon is no Jim Baker, nor does he want to be. After a smartly executed campaign, Chief White House Strategist Bannon no longer needs any introduction, especially after appearing on the cover of Time magazine, a perch previously reserved just for the President himself. If Trump sees himself as the leader of a movement, Bannon is the movement’s architect. It’s no secret he believes that real change comes through complete disruption.
His appointment, as a political adviser, to become a principal sitting on the President’s National Security Council raised eyebrows, and ire. “It’s unprecedented,” says a former senior Obama national security adviser. “Steve Bannon is not the equivalent of the secretary of the defense. The President can get his political advice in another forum. It’s dangerous and insulting to the rest of the national security team.” Insulting, maybe, but the President doesn’t care.
If Trump sees a forceful intellect in Bannon, the senior adviser also has a forceful ally: Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner, who is 36 and married to Ivanka Trump, has no government experience, but became close to Bannon during the campaign. “Jared realizes that Bannon has the floor on explaining the administration’s revolution,” says one knowledgeable source. “And he may be able to help by taking some of the edges off.”
But Kushner’s portfolio is much larger than that: He’s at the helm of a small group that wants to do nothing less than overhaul Washington’s calcified bureaucracy. And Trump himself has said he wants his son-in-law to be at the center of negotiating Mideast peace, and Kushner hasn’t been shy at getting that message out. “The fact that he tells everybody ‘I’m the guy’ shows bad judgment,” says a former high-ranking Obama administration official. But he’s the President’s son-in-law, and becomes a first among equals, another tricky personnel matter.
In all of this, there is the question of the role of Vice President Mike Pence. He has made a point of sticking closely by the President these days, standing alongside him at multiple photo ops, taking the Presidential Daily Brief (even when Trump does not), serving as the President’s liaison to Capitol Hill.
After the controversial immigration executive order, Pence played the role of sounding board at his old haunt in Congress. “On the one hand, we keep hearing publicly of complaints that Congress wasn’t consulted,” says one senior administration official. “But privately, we’re hearing ‘keep it up, things are great. There’s more energy in our conference than ever before.’ ”
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Pence, a relative newbie in Trumpworld, is sticking to his job description: making sure Cabinet members get confirmed, smoothing the way for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, trying to figure out the “repeal and replace Obamacare” conundrum. And most of all, not allowing any daylight between himself and the President.
There’s a hope among both the President’s detractors and allies that, with the confirmation of Gen. James Mattis at Defense, Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at State, the circle of advice-givers will be broader and deeper, and powerful enough to keep the most aggressive advisers from wading onto their turf. On Tillerson’s first full day as secretary of state, the White House released a statement saying that new Israeli settlements “may not be helpful” in achieving peace. And UN ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a stern warning to Russia on its aggression in Ukraine. Not the usual Trump messages.
Now all the White House has to do is figure out who is actually speaking for the President.