The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We are entering a period of high stakes. Is the White House ready?

President Trump at the State Department on Wednesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Since President Trump’s first day in office, the White House has been confronted by multiple challenges that would exhaust the resources of even the most tested and experienced administrations. Trump made many of these problems for himself with torturous and inexplicable personnel decisions, nerve-racking and morale-sapping firings and replacements, and an unending need to launch tweets with little regard for their impact.

But the next several weeks are likely to produce an unprecedented amount of stress and strain for the president and his staff. The White House is entering a high stakes period, as events in Washington and around the world pile up on the president’s plate. Are Trump and his team ready?

I’ve never figured out whether Trump won the 2016 presidential race because of his management style, or in spite of it. And I am almost always wrong whenever I try to make a prediction about the president, so I have come to be more careful. I have said before that it is not that he has a bad management style, rather he has no management style at all. Well, maybe I am wrong. What happens in the next few weeks and months will either give the president and his administration the chance to prove their critics wrong, or America’s problems and dysfunction will only get worse.

For starters, Trump is expected to soon meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He still has to make a decision on the Iran nuclear deal — either renegotiating and recertifying, or pulling out altogether. He may sit down for a high stakes “interview” with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — which I think he would be crazy to even consider. He will decide whether to impose steel and aluminum tariffs which could affect large swaths of the U.S. economy, all the while continuing to work on NAFTA negotiations.

Meanwhile, the president has to find a nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of the Ronny L. Jackson fiasco, and he might even need to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. And, oh by the way, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is hanging on by a thread.

All of this is occurring amid regular gossip that Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — one of the original four Guardrails of the Galaxy along with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster — is on thin ice. And though it doesn’t get much media attention, Congress is grinding away on important judicial nominations and must-pass legislation such as the defense authorization and farm bills, in which the White House plays important roles.

Any three or four of these issues would absorb most if not all the energy, time and focus of a president and his staff — no matter the administration. But for Trump, this confluence of events will be his biggest test ever.

To put it mildly, there is a lot going on. I can’t remember a more complicated, consequential and congested time for any White House. And, by its very nature, the White House isn’t a very efficient place. When I worked there, I often thought I didn’t get much work done past 10 o’clock in the morning. By that hour, the day’s urgent matter or downright crisis had taken over and my day was shot. I’m not sure members of Trump’s White House staff have the luxury of a few productive hours in the morning before the curveballs start to arrive.

Good planning requires time and coordination. Frequently, however, administrations fail to do sufficient planning, and often don’t include everyone who needs to be included out of neglect or fear that something will leak. Poor planning hurts worse than leaks. This White House leaks everything anyway — but do they really plan? We are about to find out.

The next several weeks are going to be intense, and we are going to see if there is any method to Trump’s madness. We will see if there is some sort of new management approach to handling our nation’s business, or if much of Washington’s suspicion that Trump lacks any real management skills was right all along.

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