Trump’s personnel instincts have been faulty or deliberately designed to generate instability. His word as a dealmaker has not always been reliable. His relationships with his own Cabinet members have been fraught — playing out again Wednesday with a sharp jab at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. His tweets may be the least of the problems that have afflicted his management of the government.
For Republicans, the disorder has been a source of constant distraction and worry, though the president has proved more agreeable to advancing conservative policies than some of them might have imagined. That he has been more conventionally conservative than his campaign suggested has kept them from rebelling — that and the fact that he has bent the party to his will and enjoys strong support among the GOP base.
Trump’s learning curve has been steep, and it still exists. Mistakes began in the weeks after his election with personnel decisions during the transition that have haunted his presidency ever since. He stacked the White House in a way that guaranteed constant tension. He brought others into his administration who have proved to be ethically challenged. Infighting and volatility have been defining features of the presidency to date.
The announced resignation Wednesday of White House communications director Hope Hicks, stunning as it was, hardly qualifies as out of the ordinary in an administration in which chaos is a constant. And yet her departure seems more significant than some others. She was one of the president’s closest confidants and most trusted advisers, a political novice who nonetheless had earned his trust. Hicks’s resignation came the day after she spent hours testifying on Capitol Hill about Russian interference in the 2016 election, though there was no indication that the two are related.
Her departure comes instead at a time of new turmoil in the White House. She is the kind of stalwart who might have been expected to stay through a full term or even beyond. With her gone, the president will be surrounded by only a few genuine loyalists outside of his family. And the controversies surrounding son-in-law Jared Kushner, who just lost his top-secret clearance, leave him in a weakened position to do the jobs he was assigned.
The upheaval is without precedent in a modern White House, and there is no assurance that it is over. In just a year, the upper-level team that came in with the president has been shredded.
Among top-level appointees, Trump has now turned over a chief of staff, a chief strategist, two deputy chiefs of staff, a national security adviser, two deputy national security advisers, a staff secretary, a longtime personal aide and a deputy assistant to the president who was a foreign policy adviser. He also fired an FBI director and an acting attorney general and saw a Cabinet officer resign in scandal.
The wreckage has been especially notable in the communications operation. Five people who were tapped for the job or have held the title of communications director have come and gone. Two others with communications responsibilities in other White House offices have or are departing. When the president is the chief and most unpredictable communicator in the White House, the role of communications director has become the most unrewarding job in the White House.
That’s not to say the president hasn’t had successes or made progress in changing the course of policy in the aftermath of the administration of President Barack Obama. He signed a huge tax cut. The economy is in good shape, unemployment is at a low level, and the stock market, despite some recent downs and ups, is well above what it was when he came into office.
He has changed the enforcement of immigration laws, as he promised during the campaign. He has softened or reduced regulations on businesses. He has facilitated a conservative shift in the makeup of the federal judiciary. He has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and sought to shift U.S. trade policy away from the free-trade consensus of past administrations.
Those changes cannot be underestimated, and to the degree that he has been stymied or unsuccessful elsewhere, many of his supporters blame the Democrats, congressional Republicans or the federal bureaucracy, a.k.a. the deep state. The core of his support remains intact, and he is the most popular person in his party by a mile.
But the roller-coaster ride he has led continues to take a toll. Beyond the changes in personnel, he has been a frustrating and perhaps frustrated dealmaker. He was not able to find a formula with congressional Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and remains bitter at Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for sinking a Senate bill that was on the brink of passage.
He moved toward Democrats on a deal to protect the dreamers, proposing a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. He appeared interested in a bipartisan plan put together in the Senate until his advisers reeled him back from the brink of a deal they thought was unwise. Eventually all proposed compromises collapsed, leaving Senate Democrats and the administration pointing fingers at each other as responsible.
Now he is engaged in the issue of guns and school safety in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting that left 17 people dead. On Wednesday, he shocked Democrats and Republicans alike by asserting that he will consider raising the age limit for purchasing a long gun from 18 to 21, among other changes he supports.
This is potentially a Nixon-goes-to-China issue for the president, who has said it’s sometimes necessary to take on the National Rifle Association. But an NRA spokeswoman said over the weekend that here is no daylight between the organization and the president. No one is certain what his effectiveness will be in striking a deal. Stay tuned on this one.
Hovering over all this remains the Russia investigation headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The president remains unhappy, as his blast at Sessions underscored on Wednesday. Where this is heading and whether others are in legal jeopardy remains unclear to all except Mueller and his team. But the investigation adds something especially unsettling to the atmosphere of a White House that has been reeling from the start, under the leadership of a president who seems to thrive on it.