A few days ago I suggested that Trump’s NATO speech was a powerful signal that we had seen the limits of adult supervision at the White House. In response, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein suggests that an improved White House organization could make a huge difference. Going back to the days when a calming Howard Baker replaced the much-less-calming Donald Regan as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Bernstein posits the following:
A strong chief of staff would have control of the paper flow and the doors to the Oval Office, and would know how to orchestrate things so that Trump was presented with reasonable options and the information to support them. Sure, Trump would still have the options of picking up the phone late at night and of watching Fox News. But currently the highly factionalized White House staff is likely to produce at least one senior staffer willing to feed Trump nonsense. That doesn’t have to happen.
I’m not saying Trump could be a first-rate president. That’s never going to happen. And, yes, it’s possible that so much has happened already in this lawless administration that it’s just too late. But I still think it’s fairly likely he could be brought up to adequate, or at least close to it. He’s a president even more in need of a tightly structured, well-run staff operation than Reagan was, and far more likely to actively resist it (Reagan’s problem was passive acceptance). On the other hand, he’s almost certainly one of the easiest presidents to manipulate. It’s long past time serious Republicans get to doing that.
Hmm … no.
I do not mean to dismiss Bernstein’s argument out of hand. His point about the particularly chaotic nature of this White House is correct. It is possible that a strong White House chief of staff could help to bring some more order to the current clown car apparatus. And if one assumes that Donald Trump is like other politicians in that he wants to be reelected, this would be the rational course of action.
That said, there are two big honking problems with Bernstein’s argument. The first one is simple: Who would agree to the job at this point? We already know that Trump is lagging behind previous administrations in hiring. It would seem that Trump’s status as the Chaos-Muppet-in-Chief has made it harder to recruit competent people.
This week alone Trump has been not-so-privately feuding with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And despite grandiose plans to create a “war room” to handle former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony today, my intrepid Washington Post colleagues noted what actually happened:
In the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony, the White House had privately tried to erect a war room that would handle the communications and legal strategies for responding to the Russia matter. Former Trump campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie were in discussions to lead it.
But the plan was scuttled, as with so much else in Trump’s administration, because of internal disagreements, according to multiple officials. Arguments included whether the war room would be run from inside or outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; who would staff it; whether they could be trusted by the president’s high-ranking advisers, or even trust one another; and whether Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s outside counsel, would ultimately control the message.
Maybe a strong chief of staff could have been able to create a proper war room, but the larger point about not attracting competent people remains. Seeing Trump’s unconstrained id on full display has made the acute challenges of this job clear to any potential chief of staff.
But even if there was some Manic Pixie Dream Staffer just waiting in the wings to be discovered, we get to the fundamental problem with Bernstein’s proposed plan to improve the Trump administration — the president would continue to be Donald Trump. As I’ve noted previously, “The best explanation for Trump’s erratic shifts in behavior is Trump-specific.” Venues ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Vox have concluded that the president is his own worst enemy. For this new structure to exist, Donald Trump would have to sign off on it. He would have to be mature enough to recognize his own management problems. Why, after winning the presidency despite everyone telling him it was a futile quest, would he do that?
Political scientists recognize that politicians can learn. And there have been moments in the first four months — his address to the joint houses of Congress, his decision to launch missiles in Syria — when some commentators have been eager to suggest that Trump is growing into the presidency. To which I say:
For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been chronicling when Trump’s staff describes him to reporters in terms that make him seem like a truculent toddler. There’s a lot of them. The fact is, the president appears to display massive insecurities, which causes him to turn on any staffer who rises to prominence. Any competent and powerful chief of staff would be the focal point for press coverage, which is the one form of printed matter that Trump ravenously consumes.
That alone would drive Trump crazy with jealousy. The president is even jealous when his incompetent advisers get lots of press. A few months ago it was Steve Bannon. This week it was Jared Kushner. Imagine how Trump would feel about Time describing a competent staffer as the power behind the throne.
It is possible that Bernstein is correct in theory. But the only conclusion I can reach is that Trump’s very nature precludes this theoretical possibility from ever occurring in actuality.