It turns out that studying the workings of the presidency for a living does not prepare you for a world in which a senior White House staffer takes to the media anonymously, without resigning, to publicly denounce the president and declare that senior officials are openly undermining his orders. My first reaction, like that of many, was, “wow.” After careful deliberation, supported by a career’s worth of research into the U.S. presidency, I offer a more measured response: “Wow.” Or as my colleague Elizabeth Saunders wrote, “what we’re seeing is essentially unprecedented.”
What is so unprecedented about this public declaration of, as the author put it, internal “resistance”? Let me explain.
It’s not that every member of every administration has been loyal to the president.
Some have been betting that Mike “Lodestar” Pence wrote the op-ed. It’s certainly true that past vice presidents have worked against their bosses. Andrew Jackson cut off communication with his vice president, John C. Calhoun, over the latter’s machinations; much later, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, lobbied Congress against administration priorities. (This is why he was not FDR’s last VP.)
And past presidential aides have also believed they should save the country from the president. Many (but not all) observers believe that President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, fearing Nixon’s state of mind as he lurched toward resignation in August 1974, ordered the military to get confirmation from him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before obeying any of Nixon’s orders. John F. Kennedy responded to obstructionism by remarking that “I now understand that for a President to get something done … he’s got to say it three times.”
Further, the White House is often full of infighting. The 1,500-person strong Executive Office of the President can serve as what Richard Nathan called a “counterbureaucracy,” insulating the president from relying on the far more diverse 3 million-plus-person executive branch bureaucracy, which can try to shirk the West Wing’s directives.
But having grown steadily since it was founded in 1939, the EOP itself has numerous sub-units that often fiercely disagree with each other. On economic policy alone, the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Economic Council, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Domestic Policy Council, the National Security Council and others all have their own staffs and vantage points on policy — and that’s before President Trump added a National Trade Council, now called the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. Journalist Chris Whipple’s account of White House chiefs of staff since Nixon details factional battles in nearly every chapter. A 1985 Ronald Reagan Library memo I unearthed has an aide to new White House chief of staff Donald Regan urging Reagan to fix “the internecine warfare that [has become] part of the public domain of this administration.”
And sure, leaking is the D.C. way.
Many of these people have been talking to Bob Woodward since approximately 1972. More broadly, leaking is a bespoke Washington currency. President Lyndon Johnson once noted that “Washington leaks like a worn-out boot,” while Reagan considered lie detector tests across the executive branch, having “had it up to my keister” with unauthorized press reports.
But leaking is normally a means of bargaining, either to set the agenda or to gain an audience for a view the leaker thinks has not been properly considered. It is a way to change the venue for a policy argument, expanding what E.E. Schattschneider called the “scope of conflict.”
As a result, bad management provokes more leaks. But they often occur because a staffer thinks the president is being poorly served: The leak isn’t meant as an attack on the president but rather embodies enthusiasm for what the aide believes the president would prefer. As David Lewis puts it, “all appointees doing their job well will try and prevent the president from doing things a fully informed president would not want to do.”
Then what’s so shocking in this week’s revelations?
First, these attacks are exceptionally personal. The anonymous op-ed and the comments to Woodward aim to undermine the very person of the president. Criticism by former staffers is hardly new, but most often it centers on how other aides failed to help the president make better decisions. In 1979, James Fallows wrote an essay critiquing the presidency of his former boss, Jimmy Carter — but made clear that “With his moral virtues and his intellectual skills, [Carter] is perhaps as admirable a human being as has ever held the job.”
By contrast, while Trump is given credit for some policy achievements, he is described as “petty and ineffective,” “erratic,” “ill-informed,” prone to “repetitive rants.” Other Trump officials’ insults are more biting still. On Thursday, Axios quoted other Trump officials confirming the picture “Anonymous” painted — which is wholly consistent with Bob Woodward’s new book, and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s, and Michael Wolff’s. Wolff’s account prompted Trump to kick off January by declaring himself a “very stable genius.” Many of the president’s men, and women, have a different assessment — and aren’t shy about saying so. As Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Thursday about the op-ed, “It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.”
All this hurts the president’s “professional reputation” — which Richard Neustadt’s classic book “Presidential Power” argued was one of the key resources presidents have for shaping policy. That reputation for “skill and will” builds into a pattern over time, persuading others that the president knows how to operate the levers of government, will stick by his commitments and has a firm grasp on policy and process. Neustadt could only have dreamed of a case study in which White House officials attack the president’s morality and even sanity — and few come to his defense.
Just as startling are the revelations that Trump insiders are directly undermining the president’s formal powers. To be sure, the Republican Party has given Trump some leeway where he has used his powers to fulfill his party’s wish list — as with Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination and the use of executive privilege to speed it along. Nevertheless, his highest-ranking aides now actively seek to block or constrain presidential directives, from refusing to implement his stated preferences to — quite literally — removing options from the table.
But this is a national security concern, if not the one Trump claims. A weak president can still command. And if he doesn’t trust his staff, the chances that those commands will be well-informed diminish accordingly.