Editor’s Note: Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. The views expressed in this commentary are hers.
What some view as chaos in the White House is actually a streamlining and synchronization of President Donald Trump’s senior team. Much like the drama of a season finale of “The Apprentice,” Trump is taking bold steps to shape a staff with strong adherence to his policies and stronger allegiance to him.
At his first cabinet meeting in October of last year, Trump said he had the “finest group of people ever assembled in a cabinet.” Five months and nearly two dozen high-level staff departures later, the President said he’s “getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”
The bottom line is that no one in the White House is indispensable. Everyone works at the pleasure of the President – and is there to further his agenda.
It’s often said that personnel is policy. And Trump is clearly selecting people whom he believes will achieve his objectives rather than undermine them.
Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson due to differing views on North Korea, the Iran deal and diplomatic relations. The President chose the like-minded, hawkish, director of the Central Intelligence Agency Director, Mike Pompeo, as Tillerson’s replacement.
National Economic Advisor Gary Cohn resigned after a disagreement with Trump on steel tariffs. Trump is now bringing on longtime loyalist, former CNBC Economic Analyst Larry Kudlow. While Kudlow shares Cohn’s views on trade and has been critical of Trump’s steel tariffs, he’s a better fit due to his loyalty to Trump.
That said, the rough and tumble nature of the restructuring seems to overshadow the need for it. And whether I was working for a presidential campaign or in an administration, I’ve noticed that, traditionally, the person at the top would surround himself with like-minded senior staffers – but also ones who would hold his feet to the fire when needed. The President says he likes to hear opposing views, but I’m not convinced he does – or that his new cabinet members will feel empowered to be a voice of dissent.
When I worked as Communications Director on Governor Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, he would always tell us: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Meaning, if any team member had information vital to the task at hand, they were encouraged to share it with the governor. He wanted a clear line of unfiltered communication. When it came to major decisions, he would take input from top advisors, discuss solutions and make the best decision regardless of the potential backlash.
Senator Rick Santorum built his Senate staff and presidential campaign team with people who shared his world view, but that didn’t mean he wanted “yes men.” While working on his 2012 presidential campaign, he encouraged us to challenge him on issues because ultimately our argument had to stand up to the opposition. In the end, his decisions were personal, and he would do what he felt was right, regardless of the consequences.
On the 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Ted Cruz was always better versed on the issues than others. However, when it came time for important decisions, he would gather top advisers, hear us out, ask probing questions and make a decision. He valued diverse counsel.
Jen Psaki, who served as President Obama’s communications director, tells me her boss had a “good BS barometer.” She said if everyone at the table was in agreement on an issue, he would ask a junior member his or her opinion just to get a dissenting viewpoint.
Former President Bill Clinton Adviser Paul Begala shared with me that Clinton couldn’t stand a “yes man,” and if someone sucked up to him all the time, he would exclude them. Clinton wanted to know what he didn’t know and encouraged a spirited debate on major decisions, often saying, “I never learned anything from a vigorous agreement.”
Former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Regan and Clinton, David Gergen writes about former President George W. Bush as a top-down, no-nonsense president who engaged in “360-degree leadership.” Facing big decisions, President Bush would listen to views of everyone in the full circle of public dialogue and make a decision.
President Trump is free to build his staff with a Band of Brothers or a Team of Rivals. The problem is that the method and mayhem of his team-building doesn’t rise to the decorum and dignity of the office. But we knew that when he ran for the job. Past is prologue. For this moment, every job is safe in the White House –until it’s not.