In the last 48 hours, two major stories have startled White House watchers. First, a preview of Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book showed once again how dismayed President Trump’s advisers are about his behavior. Second, a “senior official in the Trump administration” published an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that he or she is “part of the resistance” and that “many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
It’s true, as some observers have pointed out, that people inside an administration often resist the president’s views and preferences. It’s also true that all administrations leak. Indeed, members of all recent administrations have apparently leaked to Woodward in particular.
But what’s happening in the Trump administration is very different. My research, and that of others who study presidential advisers, suggests that what we’re seeing is essentially unprecedented.
Advising has always been political … to a point
First, the stories of the past 48 hours are not about civil servants in the bureaucracy — whom Trump characterizes as a shadowy “deep state” working against him. Rather, they are about presidential advisers and Cabinet officials, who are by nature political actors.
Presidential advising is always political. Although presidents choose who serves them, they often have to compromise. Key advisers and Cabinet officials may be selected to represent particular views, to placate wings of a party, or because they are experienced at ushering policies through the political process or the executive agencies. As a result, on at least some issues, advisers may disagree with the president, or with one another.
And that can be a good thing. Research on presidential advising suggests that hearing several viewpoints can help leaders make better decisions. Even advisers who are “biased” in favor of a particular policy position can be useful — precisely because if they end up making arguments against that position, their voices will be very credible. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is plenty of politicking inside the White House, even in well-functioning administrations.
The politics inside the Trump White House are different
But today’s insider politics are not normal. Take Woodward’s report that Trump’s former top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” to prevent him from withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea — and that, as Cohn apparently told someone else later, Trump never noticed the letter had gone missing. Woodward reports that Cohn played a similar trick after Trump ordered his staff to draft a notification letter withdrawing from NAFTA.
We know from research on the politics of advising that controlling and even manipulating information is part of what advisers do. They set agendas, formulate and vet options, and process and distill information for leaders whose time is severely limited.
But once a decision is made, presidents can expect advisers to fall in line, even if they may slow-roll implementation. Channeling information during an ongoing policy debate is one thing. Presidents can still make decisions, or ask for more information. If they have substantive experience, they may spot missing information or poorly thought-out options, as my research described as having happened while George H.W. Bush was conducting the Gulf War.
But removing a paper that, if signed, would carry out the president’s preferred policy is quite different.
What’s even more striking, if Woodward has the story right, is that Trump did not notice the paper had disappeared — even though it would have undone a trade agreement. Antipathy to trade agreements is one of the few fixed beliefs that Trump has held for decades. That reveals an inexperienced leader failing to oversee policy execution and implementation on one of his core issues. All presidents struggle to get their policies implemented, even by top advisers they’ve appointed. But this episode suggests a major breakdown in presidential ability to make and carry out decisions.
A two-track presidency is not a good thing.
The anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed argued that we now have a “two-track presidency,” in which the president states one set of policies while “the rest of the administration is operating on another track.” For example, while the president has treated Vladimir Putin favorably, his administration has moved forward in punishing Russia for meddling in the U.S. election.
This is not reassuring. A dual-track presidency is much riskier than a single one. When inexperienced presidents effectively delegate to advisers, they increase the chances that even experienced advisers will take risks or choose policies that are half-baked or poorly planned, perhaps out of overconfidence untempered by an experienced leader’s oversight. Even worse, many of Trump’s advisers are clearly not experienced. Senior foreign policy advisers are usually drawn from those who had experience in the previous administration of the same party. But in this administration, the president has deliberately appointed some advisers with little to no substantive experience — increasing the risk of incompetence.
Cohn at least had some experience in his policy domain. He may have thought he was reducing risk by preventing a U.S. withdrawal from trade pacts, and most trade experts would likely agree.
But the range and quality of policy options will vary dramatically in a “two-track” presidency, when advisers operate independently from the chief executive — and from one another. Other countries will have much more difficulty assessing what U.S. policy really is, and gauging which policies will stick.
Leaks are perennial … but not at this level.
But while it’s to easy to focus on what does leak — because we’ve heard about it — most secrets hold. In new research, Andrew Kydd and I find that leaks occur only under certain conditions, such as when the political and personal costs of leaking are reasonably low, and when a receptive audience could be mobilized to oppose a policy. Both have been true under Trump.
And these leaks may further undermine support for Trump policies. In forthcoming research on the use of force, I find that that public approval is lower when leaders deploy force after advisers have publicly opposed that approach. When Trump acts without the approval of his own team, he may be hurting his political support, even if the consequences are less dramatic than a resignation in protest.
Neither the Woodward revelations nor the anonymous op-ed tells us much that is new about the Trump presidency. But they do emphatically remind us that even if presidential advising is always a highly politicized game, the Trump administration is in a league of its own.