Chris Whipple is a journalist and filmmaker.
On the morning of Dec. 16, 10 former White House chiefs of staff gathered in Denis McDonough’s West Wing office for a meeting with Reince Priebus. Seated around a long table, Democratic and Republican gatekeepers — from Jimmy Carter’s Jack Watson to George W. Bush’s Andy Card — gave Donald Trump’s incoming chief of staff some advice. On one point above all, they were unanimous: The president cannot govern effectively, they said, without a chief of staff empowered to execute his agenda. Priebus dutifully took notes. Given the president he was about to serve, the former chiefs knew, he had a herculean challenge ahead of him.
The continuing, unprecedented dysfunction of the Trump presidency — the botched immigration orders, the Borgias-like intrigue in the West Wing, the inability to pass legislation through both houses of Congress, the ham-handed firings of his national security adviser and FBI director — is remarkable to behold. But it shouldn’t be surprising. As I learned researching my book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” for which I interviewed all 17 of Priebus’s living predecessors, the president cannot govern effectively without a chief of staff who is first among equals. The chief wears many hats. But he is above all the person the president counts on to turn his policies into reality and, when necessary, to tell him what he does not want to hear.
Since the days of Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, every president has learned, often the hard way, that he cannot govern effectively without empowering a chief of staff as his gatekeeper. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, tried to run the White House according to a model he called the “spokes of the wheel” — with a handful of advisers reporting directly to him, at the center. The result was chaos; after a month, Ford tapped an ambitious young disciplinarian named Donald Rumsfeld to enforce a chain of command. Carter, horrified by the Watergate scandal personified by Haldeman, chose not to appoint a chief at all; but 2½ years into his term, unable to prioritize his agenda and bogged down in minutia, he realized his mistake and named Hamilton Jordan. Bill Clinton tried to run his own White House, with his childhood friend Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty as his amiable but un-empowered chief. After a year and a half, with his agenda stalled, Clinton brought in a tough taskmaster as McLarty’s replacement. Former Office of Management and Budget director Leon Panetta was given the authority he needed to whip the White House into shape. Known for managing the West Wing with “an iron fist inside a velvet glove,” Panetta set the stage for Clinton’s reelection. He did it by telling Clinton hard truths.
Trump seems unaware of these lessons, or determined to flout them as a “disruptor.” Pitting advisers against one another may work in a family real estate empire, but modern history shows that it is a formula for failure in the presidency. Like Trump, Ronald Reagan wanted to shake up the establishment, but he intuited something Trump has yet to grasp: As a Washington outsider, he needed a consummate insider to get things done. He found that person in James A. Baker III, a smooth-as-silk 50-year-old Texas lawyer. Baker knew what was doable on Capitol Hill and was not afraid to tell the president what he did not want to hear.
It is abundantly clear that Priebus is no Baker. No competent chief would allow an executive order on immigration (a core Trump campaign promise) to be dispatched without vetting it with the departments involved. It’s also hard to imagine Baker or Panetta allowing a president to squander his political capital on an ill-fated health-care bill with almost no chance of passing the Senate. (Baker’s highly effective Legislative Strategy Group, or LSG, staffed by savvy operators such as Richard Darman and congressional liaison Kenneth Duberstein, knew how to count votes.) But Priebus’s greatest failure has been his unwillingness to confront the president with the painful truth. The habitual and flagrant lying that has become the hallmark of Trump’s presidency is unprecedented in White House history. (Not just the presidential tweets but the constantly changing falsehoods of Trump’s surrogates.) Priebus’s predecessors never would have tolerated this; though they were fiercely loyal to the president — from Ford’s Dick Cheney to Barack Obama’s Denis McDonough — their respect for the office of the presidency transcended their allegiance to the boss. Trump desperately needs a person like this as chief of staff. He cannot succeed as president if he is surrounded by sycophants.
It is time for Priebus, who has lost his authority and credibility, to go. But there will be little his successor can do unless the president makes it clear that his chief is first among equals. In the end, only Trump can give a new chief of staff the authority needed to run the White House effectively; only Trump can choose to pay attention when his chief of staff tells him unpleasant truths. Trump can continue to try to govern by himself — his gut instincts unchecked, his advisers warring, his executive orders mired in the courts and legislation dead on Capitol Hill. Or he can empower a chief of staff to take charge, advise him honestly on difficult choices and implement his agenda. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Trump’s presidency hinges on which path he chooses.