On an organizational level, Trump’s chief of staff is not empowered to act as chief of staff and lacks the government experience to create order out of chaos. Not unlike Mack McLarty, who was President Clinton’s chief of staff but lacked the requisite skill sets, Reince Priebus has neither the skill set nor the know-how to structure the White House in a way that serves the president. McLarty lasted about a year and a half, dragging out a period of turmoil, until veteran insider Leon Panetta came in to set up an effective organization for the president. Trump, if he is the astute operator he claims to be, should not wait that long before finding his own Panetta.
The National Security Council post-Michael Flynn requires a grown-up director who can facilitate staffing throughout the national security apparatus and leverage the talent that Trump does have in the Cabinet at the Defense and State departments. Neither secretary has deputies, let alone the rest of an organization. While the media has highlighted Stephen K. Bannon’s inclusion in the principals’ meeting, the problem is more substantial. There can be no deputies’ meeting without confirmed deputies, and right now there are not any at the State Department, Defense Department, Office of the Director of National Intelligence or almost any other relevant department. Once a competent NSC director can be found and Flynn loyalists are cleared out, the NSC can do the job it is supposed to as an honest broker and implementer of policy. (A new national security adviser should insist on banishing Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group, which intrudes on the workings of the NSC with its own national security function under the auspices of Sebastian Gorka, an eccentric, radical character.)
Because of the total dysfunction at the NSC and the lack of staffing at the State and Defense departments, Trump has been consumed by drama in the foreign policy realm with nothing to show for it but turmoil and blunders. Meanwhile, his domestic policy — the core of his agenda and the central concern of his base — has been in drift. There is so far no clear direction on health-care reform nor a tax plan that will reflect his populist viewpoints and be politically viable. Congress, left to its own devices, will spin its wheels endlessly, leaving the president without a single significant achievement going into the midterm elections.
One could see either of two scenarios playing out before the midterm elections, which — if things do not turn around and Trump does not produce results on significant domestic policy initiatives (e.g. Obamacare replacement) — may be a political train wreck for the Republicans.
In the first scenario, Trump finds a top-notch national security adviser and allows him to run proper policy development and oversee the critical inter-agency function. Trump should stop micro-managing his Cabinet secretaries’ hiring and delegate to them the hard work of developing and implementing policy. The good news is that Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence nominee Dan Coats and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly can work collaboratively and without the usual inter-agency conflict.
That allows Trump to work on his domestic agenda, delegating to Vice President Pence the heavy lifting and empowering him to devise — along with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — health-care and tax reform schemes that his base will like and that have a reasonable chance of passage. Pence should be invested with the experience to speak on behalf of the president, not White House staffers (e.g. Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller) who have no policy expertise and who lack credibility outside the Oval Office.
Along with all this, the White House needs a sober, respected communications operation in which the White House press secretary is not the object of derision but an authoritative voice for the administration.
The other scenario? Trump continues pitting staffers against one another, allows Bannon to muck around in foreign policy, hires a Flynn 2.0 at NSC, perpetuates the impression that he and his staff are allergic to reality — and becomes a spectacularly failed president.
It’s up to him. For the sake of the country, let’s hope he surprises us and chooses the first scenario.