When Donald Trump ran for president, he brushed off concerns about his own lack of governing experience by repeatedly promising to hire “only with the best and most serious people,” as he said in 2015, adding, “We want top-of-the-line professionals.” When asked, just weeks before Election Day 2016, what his criteria would be for choosing senior staff, he answered: “Track record. Great competence, love of what they’re doing, how they’re getting along with people, references” and, the candidate added a bit later, “you need people that are truly, truly capable.”
Last week, just over two years later, Trump tweeted that his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was “dumb as a rock” after Tillerson said Trump “doesn’t like to read”; Trump announced that former Fox News personality Heather Nauert will succeed former governor Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Sunday, Vice President Pence’s highly touted aide, Nick Ayers, announced via tweet that he is turning down Trump’s offer to make him White House chief of staff.
Despite early assurances that he would have an all-star administration, Trump now faces the most difficult part of his presidency increasingly cut off from first-rate talent. Notwithstanding a few obvious exceptions, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and senior National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill, Trump is pulling a cabinet and White House staff behind him that is replete with benchwarmers and third-stringers. He wound up that way, in part, by vilifying “elites” and mocking expertise.
Along with his best-people-only promise, among Trump’s frequent campaign riffs were his broadsides against the permanent Washington class — an extension of his lifelong love-hate relationship with the Manhattan elite who never fully embraced him. At a 2016 rally in Iowa, candidate Trump said, “I think nobody knows the system better than I do.” As recently as this summer, at a rally in North Dakota, President Trump told supporters:
“I meet these people, they call them ‘the elite.’ These people. I look at them, I say, ‘That’s elite?’ We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses, apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are, and they say, ‘the elite!’ We’re the elite. You’re the elite. We’re the elite.”
Whoever he’s referring to, it’s almost certainly not his top advisers.
His inability to recruit, or to even to listen to, top people has hampered everything from Trump’s foreign policy to his own legal defense. His hostility to sound advice, coupled with reliance on his frequently terrible instincts, has produced a kind of synergy (to use a newly infamous word) of incompetence in the White House and beyond: Things go wrong on the world stage, Capitol Hill or with the media. Trump never blames himself, instead blaming everyone else, including the people who work for him. Experts — also known as people who know what they’re doing — have had two years to observe this and have understandably become less willing to work for him. Their numbers inside the administration dwindle, lesser lights take over, more mistakes are made; lather, rinse, repeat.
Tillerson, for example, found it “challenging” to work with Trump after “coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil Corporation.” No surprise there, and Tillerson should have seen it coming. As an engineer who has been the steward of a major multinational company, Tillerson must have found it jarring to take orders from someone who makes most decisions by putting his finger to the wind.
Haley, the outgoing U.N. ambassador, was a bright spot on the administration’s early foreign policy team. Despite her lack of formal experience in foreign affairs, she showed a knack for a kind of domestic shuttle diplomacy: as governor, she brokered the compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s Capitol. Her skills served her well in a posting that requires the ability to clearly articulate the administration’s foreign policy, the resiliency to take shots from American adversaries and an ability to think quickly in heady circumstances. When she disagreed with others in the administration, she did it deftly: After Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, himself a second-stringer, publicly suggested Haley was confused about Russia sanctions policy, she calmly shot back: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused."
Nauert, Haley’s replacement, has done a creditable job as the State Department’s spokeswoman, a plausible role for someone with a television background. And in this White House, having TV chops — as former press secretary Sean Spicer learned the hard way — is a key metric. But unlike Haley or, let’s say, the recently departed George H.W. Bush, who held the U.N. post in the early 1970s, Nauert has no significant experience in politics. Unlike former U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright, she has no academic background to provide her what she’ll need to know off the cuff, rather than what she’ll get in prepared briefings. If she did, she might have avoided this statement: “Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government.”
As the president’s legal perils have grown, he has burned through top-tier legal talent while other lawyers have simply declined to work with him. But his team somehow has room for former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the public face of the president’s legal defense, who has become known for his inchoate, on-camera interpretations of everything from Trump’s alleged dealings with mistresses to allegations of Russian collusion.
According to reports, Trump’s lawyers all but admit they have no comprehensive strategy to deal with the final report from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. White House insiders instead hope that Trump can just bluff away its findings, betting that “most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.”
It’s hard to see how this chaos has not undermined the president’s search for a chief of staff, a position that requires (or should) serious managerial ability, broad policy knowledge and sound political judgment. The less said about the brief tenure of former chief of staff Reince Priebus, the better. But even outgoing chief of staff John F. Kelly, a four-star general who shared several of Trump’s basic views and who spent a career commanding thousands, has had limited success in imposing Oval Office discipline. Accordingly, the list of people who won’t take a job that was once among the most sought-after posts in Washington is likely as long as the list of those who still want it.
Ayers surely saw the writing on the wall: Taking the chief of staff gig would have meant the worst of both worlds. Maximum exposure with minimum ability to control a president who has proven unwilling to let advisers restrain his worst impulses. That Ayers has risen to such prominence at the age of 36 suggests he is enough of a political pro to know when to say no.
Tuesday, Trump pushed back on reports that he is “super pissed” about Ayers by tweeting that the position is oversubscribed:
Unfortunately, there’s a nonzero chance that someone cartoonishly ill-suited to be White House chief of staff will wind up in the role, just as finance guy/gadfly Anthony Scaramucci signed on for an 11-day stint as White House communications director, neurosurgeon Ben Carson took the Housing and Urban Development secretary position and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner (like Trump, heir to a fortune built by someone else) became Trump’s minister without portfolio.
Trump has taken a nebulous resentment — that the experts are the source of ordinary Americans’ woes — and etched it into the minds of his supporters. He has succeeded in this largely by writing off his worst failures either as temporary blips or as someone else’s fault. Shifting blame might work, at least for a while, in politics. It is a far riskier strategy in front of a prosecutor, and it is positively dangerous during a national security or economic crisis. The president’s voters have cheered as he has smeared capable public servants and denigrated the very idea of competence. The whole country might ultimately pay the price.