President Trump announced at the 2016 Republican convention what sort of executive he would be: “I alone can fix it.” It wasn’t obvious then that this could mean “fixing” a weather forecast with a Sharpie, but in some ways that incident was simply Trump exercising an extreme form of the micromanagement he’d promised.
Other presidents have interfered on small-bore issues that distracted them from the big picture. But Trump has done so on a greater scale, and often with uglier motives — wielding the vast powers of the chief executive to settle grievances, burnish his ego and enrich himself. Never has the Oval Office seen such awesome authority deployed with such manic persistence on minute matters miles beneath it.
The forecast incident offered a tutorial: Trump tweeted misinformation about the path of Hurricane Dorian, found himself contradicted by federal weather officials, then doctored a storm map to support his error and insisted that officials corroborate his mistake. But the episode was hardly the solitary example of micromanagement gone haywire. Trump sent military brass scrambling to keep up after he announced a ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces; pushed the National Park Service to produce photographic evidence inflating the size of his inaugural crowd; threatened individual companies with tax hikes; obsessed over steel slats as the best design for his border wall; criticized the price of an Air Force One upgrade and then selected its paint colors; sought to block business mergers; oversaw the details of a military pageant he’d ordered up for the Fourth of July; inserted himself into the business of the Swedish justice system to try to free a jailed American hip-hop star; directed the military to strip four of its attorneys of their medals because he didn’t like the case they had prosecuted; and allowed Mar-a-Lago club members to send feedback about the Department of Veterans Affairs directly to its managers. And that’s a partial list.
Micromanagement is usually a sign of a presidency in distress, a reflection of an insecure occupant in the Oval Office desperate to control events that can’t be controlled and fearing for his political fate. And it’s true that the trade war with China has gotten away from him and that his approval rating is just 38 percent. But Trump doesn’t micromanage policy details quite the way prior struggling presidents have. Where his predecessors sometimes knew so much that they got obsessed with the details, Trump knows so little that microscopic concerns seem almost to be ends in and of themselves. The result allows him to breed corruption at the highest levels, damages faith in democracy and governance (which redounds to his benefit), tramples norms of presidential conduct and produces incoherent, unsustainable policies.
It would be fruitless to search for a surefire formula for how much presidents should involve themselves in policy decisions and personnel details. Some of Trump’s predecessors were so disengaged that they skirted the law (Ronald Reagan’s hands-off approach opened the door to the Iran-contra scandal) or faltered in a crisis (George W. Bush’s detachment during Hurricane Katrina was a contributing factor in the terrible federal response to the disaster).
Other presidents were so immersed in particulars that they believed they knew more than anyone else. Sometimes, this approach worked. George H.W. Bush was careful to tell administration officials that any triumphal declaration after the Berlin Wall fell would probably weaken Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and was unacceptable — a level of personal foreign policy involvement that was responsible and prudent. Franklin Roosevelt’s obsession with building more and more airplanes as the answer to Nazi militarism was animated by his detailed knowledge of advances in aviation technology and German air strength.
At other times, the value of presidential contributions was less clear. Fearing that the U.S. military would put bombs in places that would trigger Chinese or Russian intervention in the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson identified bridges, airfields, factories and military convoys that he told his commanders were acceptable targets. “If we choose these army barracks 15 miles from Haiphong, how can we be certain of the accuracy of our aim?” Johnson pressed.
Yet presidential micromanagement has also been a mask for something darker. Richard Nixon used his powers to get back at his opponents (particularly in the White House press corps), a method Trump would later find useful. Nixon’s desire to employ “the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies,” as John Dean wrote in a White House memo, spurred the creation of an “enemies list,” with derogatory information that could be used to discredit the president’s critics. (Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., for instance, was cast as an African American rising star with a “known weakness for white females.”)
A focus on minutiae that shouldn’t really take up a president’s energy above all signals ineffective leadership of the vast federal government. Former White House chief speechwriter James Fallows revealed in 1979 that President Jimmy Carter, in some ways the antithesis of Trump, obsessed over details. “Carter came into office determined to set a rational plan for his time, but soon showed in practice that he was still the detail-man used to running his own warehouse, the perfectionist accustomed to thinking that to do a job right you must do it yourself,” Fallows wrote. “He would leave for a weekend at Camp David laden with thick briefing books, would pore over budget tables to check the arithmetic, and, during his first six months in office, would personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court.”
Trump’s scattershot management style checks all the boxes. His peculiar brand of leadership calls attention to his businesses, punishes his perceived enemies and reinforces his notion of himself as a “genius.” And his fascinations often have little to do with policymaking or other presidential functions.
By using his position to tell the world about the virtues of his various resorts, he has not-so-subtly implied that staying at a Trump property (as Vice President Pence did in Ireland this month; as Air Force crews have done in Scotland) is a way to stay in the administration’s good graces. During the recent Group of Seven meeting, Trump said outright that his Doral resort in Florida would be a great venue for hosting the next G-7 summit. Reagan held the meeting in Williamsburg, Va., to highlight America’s colonial heritage. Bill Clinton’s was in Denver to show off the American West and Native American traditions. George W. Bush hosted it in Sea Island, Ga., an upscale resort that could be walled off from post-9/11 threats. These earlier presidents had a purpose beyond self-enrichment (or personal aggrandizement) when selecting the sites.
When grievances are the animating factor behind Trump’s micromanagement, they often concern businesses that have run afoul of him. He orders federal agencies (sometimes explicitly, at other times implicitly, via Twitter) to go after or defend specific companies and industries. Recently, his Justice Department announced an antitrust investigation into four automakers that had reached a deal with California to maintain emissions standards and reject Trump’s desire to lower them. Shortly before taking office, Trump warned Milwaukee-based manufacturer Rexnord and other firms that if they shipped some of their operations overseas, he would tax them as a penalty. (He does not have the legal authority to follow through.) He ordered his adviser Gary Cohn and Justice officials to block a merger of AT&T and Time Warner because he despises CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. (Officials did nothing.)
Some instances of Trump’s meddling are born of his desire to cover up ineptitude, so he can preserve his image of himself as infallibly in charge — of everything. Witness the Alabama hurricane tweets, or his command that the military display tanks and planes for him on and over the Mall. Trump’s self-focus as a “genius” who knows more than anyone around him, and can do it better than the people who are supposed to do it, led to his promotion of the border wall’s raw materials and the Air Force One designs. He has also publicly pressured Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to lower interest rates, citing his own superior knowledge and calling Powell and his Fed colleagues “boneheads.”
But other instances of micromanaging offer Trump a way to demonstrate to his hard-right base that he is delivering on his implicit campaign promise to attack pluralism and racial, ethnic and gender diversity. In July 2017, Trump announced his military transgender ban on Twitter — defying the views of his own military leaders, yet cheering his evangelical supporters. (The decision, former Navy secretary Raymond Mabus Jr. said, was the most “stark and unfounded reversal of policy” in military history.) Trump also contradicted his Customs and Border Protection chief over whether Bahamians displaced by Dorian could seek refuge in the United States. Yes, said Mark Morgan, “this is a humanitarian mission.” But wait, not so fast, said Trump, there could be some “very bad people.”
Trump’s micromanagement covers the trifling and the consequential — and if it feels endless, that’s because it’s core to his leadership.
Finally, his style also leads to policy confusion. On topics from refugees to family separations to Syria, gun safety, tax cuts and tariffs, Trump’s micromanagement yields incoherence and whiplash. His positions are overturned in a flash, and orders are made without vetting and with no chance of being implemented effectively. His travel bans, for example, have faced constant court challenges and pushback in Congress.
Toward the end of his first term, President Barack Obama told journalist Michael Lewis that he was “trying to pare down decisions” because there were too many. He didn’t want to decide what to wear or what to eat. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he said, and not be “distracted by trivia.” He wanted only the big decisions to make it to his desk.
Perhaps there is a middle ground that Trump could stake between Obama’s big-picture approach and Carter’s budget arithmetic. Between 7 million and 9 million people make up the federal workforce, depending on how you count. The president would do well to let some of them do their jobs.