Even by White House standards, this scrap was reportedly a doozy.
Writes Kaitlan Collins and Jeff Zeleny: “A heated argument in the West Wing between chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton over a recent surge in border crossings turned into a shouting match Thursday, two sources familiar with the argument told CNN.”
According to Collins and Zeleny, the fight – which Trump witnessed the start of (and sided with the more hard-line Bolton) – led some aides to speculate that one of the two combatants might leave the White House following it. (The betting money is on Kelly, who is not only on the wrong side of Trump in this fight but, more generally, has been seen as likely on his way out of the job for months now.)
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders downplayed the fight in a statement later Thursday, insisting that her colleagues are “not angry at one another.” “While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another. However, we are furious at the failure of Congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis,” she said.
The tendency when reading a story of infighting in the White House is to assume that this sort of thing might irk the President. After all, internal dissension would, theoretically, be the sort of thing that would bother a president – particularly given that it leaked to the media.
This is, of course, not a normal White House or a normal president. And this President doesn’t mind fighting among his aides. In fact, he encourages it.
“They all want a piece of that Oval Office, they want a piece of the West Wing,” Trump said in March amid one of the unending bevies of stories about chaos and dissension in the West Wing. “It’s tough. I like conflict, I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that. And then I make a decision. But I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.”
“I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.” So, yeah.
This desire to watch people who work for him fight it out for his attention and approval is not a new character trait for Trump. Remember that he created a reality TV show that was literally built around this idea: He, the big boss, would assign a task to people desperate to have a chance to work for and learn under him. They would complete the task, at which point he would assess how well they performed. Then he would bring three of the lowest performers into a boardroom where they would savage one another in front of him, all vying to avoid being fired.
People forget that Trump wasn’t just the star of “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” He was also the co-executive producer, alongside Mark Burnett. This is Trump’s platonic ideal of how a workplace functions. He believes, deeply, in the idea that conflict produces results.
And then there is this: Trump doesn’t believe there is anyone in his world who isn’t replaceable – except him. When asked about the number of vacancies in senior jobs within the State Department in late 2017, Trump – in a moment of absolute candor – responded:
“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”
That pretty much sums up Trump. He has created an environment in his White House in which aides who are able to win the internal knife-fights he foments prosper – and one in which he is the only indispensable piece. He plays aides off one another, taking sides – in often unpredictable ways – and always, always, always reminding them that anyone can be gone at any time.
None of the above is to say that the White House world Trump has created is functioning on all cylinders. It’s not. Any administration that fights this much with itself – and in often public ways – is not moving the policy ball down the field as effectively as it might.
What it is to say is that Trump has the exact White House he wants.