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White House reporters explain why ‘palace intrigue’ actually matters

Anthony Scaramucci, who was ousted as White House communications director on Monday, and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It's the White House's go-to pejorative when dismissing reports of internal power struggles as idle gossip: “palace intrigue.”

The phrase conveys the idea that reporters covering President Trump and his advisers are more like reality TV addicts than real journalists — which is exactly how the White House wants them to be seen.

But palace intrigue actually does matter. I asked a half dozen White House reporters to help explain why.

“Clearly what happens inside the White House reflects how policy is made,” said Fox News's John Roberts.

“Whoever has the president's ear has influence over policy because he doesn't have formed views on a variety of topics,” added Politico's Tara Palmeri. “As [chief economic adviser] Gary Cohn said during the foreign trip, [Trump] is learning. His teachers are whoever has access to him. Therefore the proxy wars really do influence policy that affects everyday Americans.”

ABC's Jonathan Karl offered an example of a policy area in which palace intrigue is important to understand: “If the president is listening to Gary Cohn on trade or if he is listening to Peter Navarro or Steve Bannon on trade, it matters because it's going to impact where he goes.”

Cohn is a lifelong Democrat. Navarro, a trade adviser, and Bannon, the White House chief strategist, are conservative populists.

Karl said, “The personal conflicts, in and of themselves, are meaningless.” But in Trump's White House, personal conflicts double as ideological conflicts. Palace intrigue isn't really about who is winning; it's about which ideas are winning.

“It also matters in the sense that it's now being acknowledged by the White House — which it never was when Reince Priebus was chief of staff — that the West Wing needed more order, more discipline, more process,” said CBS News' Major Garrett.

Forgetting the particulars of whose stock is up or down, the mere fact that aides' standings can fluctuate wildly is notable because it reflects dysfunction. New Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has made enforcing a stable chain of command one of his primary goals.

Under Kelly, “I think you will start seeing a lot of these stories about who's up and who's down drying up,” Roberts predicted.

None of this is to say that all palace intrigue stories are of equal merit.

“There can be an excessive fascination in the comparative rankings of West Wing officials,” Garrett acknowledged. “That's been true in every administration. What's your proximity? How big is your office? How often do you see the president?”

“There are two kinds of so-called palace intrigue stories,” Karl said. “One, which is not so important: whether or not Sean Spicer took a refrigerator from some junior staffers. Probably doesn't matter so much. But the real conflicts between senior advisers that represent major differences in policy are extremely important.”

“Like fatty foods and beer, these stories need to be taken in moderation,” the Los Angeles Times's Noah Bierman told me. “Too much granularity for its own sake can seem like irrelevant office gossip to a lot of readers outside of Washington, and the stock of White House players can go up or down so quickly that the reporting can have a short shelf life.

“That said, it’s useful for readers to have a flavor of the administration’s internal dynamics, put in the context of other stories. The best of these stories use the inside information to illuminate the president’s leadership style, especially his history of promoting internal competition under the belief that it brings out the best in people. That has implications for his administration’s effectiveness at crafting policy and selling it to the public and Congress.”

Bloomberg's Margaret Talev put it this way: “The cliche is true, that personnel is policy. Understanding the personal dynamics inside any administration can shed light on how the West Wing responds to challenges, opportunities and crises at home and abroad.”