Imagine you’re a member of Donald Trump’s administration, or a Republican member of Congress. What’s the most important question you’re asking yourself right now?
There’s a good chance it’s this: How can I manipulate the president into doing what I want him to do?
This may be the most important question in Washington as a whole, because this is a president like no other.
Let’s take a few news items we’ve seen just in the past day or so:
- “The broader power struggles within the Trump operation have touched everything from the new administration’s communications shop to the expansive role of the president’s son-in-law to the formation of Trump’s political organization. At the center, as always, is Trump himself, whose ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism.” (Washington Post)
- “The lack of discipline troubled even senior members of Mr. Trump’s circle, some of whom had urged him not to indulge his simmering resentment at what he saw as unfair news coverage. Instead, Mr. Trump chose to listen to other aides who shared his outrage and desire to punch back. By the end of the weekend, he and his team were scrambling to get back on script.” (New York Times)
- “The CIA’s main job overseas is to get into the mind of foreign leaders, and to recruit foreign intelligence assets to help them do that, wooing and winning them into becoming useful to the CIA and the United States. Intelligence officials current and former say that’s what they’re now doing with Donald Trump, though slightly in reverse: studying what’s important to him to learn how best to get through to him, and how the intelligence agency can be a useful tool to his presidency.” (Daily Beast)
- “With an allergy to computers and phones, he works the papers. With a black Sharpie in hand, he marks up the Times or other printed stories. When he wants action or response, he scrawls the staffers’ names on that paper and either hands the clip to them in person, or has a staffer create a PDF of it…Most mornings, Trump flicks on the TV and watches ‘Morning Joe,’ often for long periods of time, sometimes interrupted with texts to the hosts or panelists. After the 6 a.m. hour of ‘Joe,’ he’s often on to ‘Fox & Friends’ by 7 a.m., with a little CNN before or after.” (Axios.com)
- “One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.” (Politico)
The picture we’re getting is of a president spending long stretches of time watching television, consumed with anger at slights real or imagined, as aides and other political actors circle around him trying to find a way to use his capricious whims to their advantage or at least minimize the damage he can do. The agenda is liable to be seized by whatever happens to be bothering Trump that day, whether it’s the size of the crowd at his inaugural or the fact that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for him, both profound threats to his ego that he can’t seem to let go of.
Even apart from the substance of these reports is the fact that the Trump administration is already leaking like a sieve, as people within the inner circle voice their frustration, jockey for position, and use the press to discredit their rivals. Yes, in every administration there are competitions for the president’s ear and internal squabbles as people try to maximize their influence. What’s remarkable is how in this one they’re becoming public so quickly — and that even his loyalists are treating the president like a child whose disturbing behavior has to be managed.
Trump’s personal quirks and weaknesses could turn ordinary internal conflicts into outright chaos. Because he not only knows so little about policy but seems to have few fixed beliefs, his public statements are completely unpredictable. So he might say that Republicans will give “insurance for everybody,” leaving both administration spokespeople and members of Congress scrambling to explain a promise they have no intention of keeping.
It isn’t just that Trump is uninterested in policy. To take one comparison, Ronald Reagan didn’t much care about the details either. But Reagan had a clear ideological vision that guided his administration, and it wasn’t hard to predict what he’d think about any particular proposal or action. In the Trump administration, on the other hand, you have traditional Republicans who will sometimes be at odds with the nationalist/populist cohort led by Steve Bannon, and which side the president favors at a given moment could be determined by something the nincompoops on “Fox & Friends” said that morning.
That means that most of the time, no one can claim or believe that they’re carrying out Trump’s “true” wishes or agenda, since those are subject to complete revision at a moment’s notice. That’s not exactly a recipe for a smoothly efficient administration. Instead, it may wind up with dozens or even hundreds of power centers spread throughout the government, each pursuing its own agenda, sometimes in concert, sometimes in conflict.
At the moment there’s an almost comical element to all that, and Democrats might take some solace in it. After all, it’s better to face an adversary at war with itself than one that knows exactly what it wants to do and how to do it. But what happens when the Trump administration confronts a crisis, as it surely will before long? To just take one example, Trump has repeatedly said that NATO is “obsolete” and suggested that if one of its members were threatened he might not come to its defense. Yet Secretary of Defense James Mattis just told the British defense minister that America has an “unshakable commitment” to NATO. So which is it? We may not find out until Vladimir Putin invades Estonia.
So the shape of the Trump administration could be determined less by a vision the president himself is guided by than by how skillful each faction of inside players is at manipulating him. It’s not exactly reassuring.