Amateur hour at the Trump White HouseOctober 12, 2020
Nearly everyone remembers the old cliché: If you can’t trust someone to get the little things right, how can you ever count on them to do the big things?
President Donald Trump had better hope that bromide, invoked everywhere from youth sports teams to sales training sessions, doesn’t apply to him.
As his presidency lurches toward a climactic judgment on Nov. 3, the little things lately have rarely gone more pervasively or embarrassingly wrong — at a time when public confidence in Trump’s handling of the big things is hardly robust.
The initial reaction might be, So what’s new here? But recent days, in the wake of Trump being stricken with coronavirus, have highlighted just how the lurching improvisation that is a familiar phenomenon around Trump has entered a different phase. The professionals around the president aren’t merely laboring to contain and channel the disruptive politician they work for. Very often they are amplifying the chaos.
That’s in part because, as his first term comes to a close, the professionals around Trump are not all that professional. It is now the exception in key staff and Cabinet posts to have people whose experience would be commensurate with that of people who have typically held those jobs in previous administrations of both parties. This major weakness has been revealing itself in a barrage of minor errors that summon Casey Stengel’s incredulous question about the 1962 New York Mets: Can’t anybody here play this game?
There have been prominent misspellings in official White House statements (the pharmaceutical company whose treatment Trump took is Regeneron, not Regeron). Trump bungled the name of a well-known Republican senator (that’s James Inhofe, not Imhofe) in a video message. Communications Director Alyssa Farah did much the same in a television interview, repeatedly mispronouncing the name of Trump’s physician (it’s Dr. Sean Conley, with two syllables, not Connelly with three).
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow on Wednesday contradicted each other in public remarks on whether a recuperating, but still possibly infectious, Trump had been in the Oval Office the day before. (Kudlow thought he had, Meadows was apparently right that on that day Trump hadn’t.)
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s briefings are largely dismissed as mere entertainment by reporters, not a source of reliable information or, on frequent occasions, any information at all. Earlier this month, she didn’t know at her own briefing that presidential counselor Hope Hicks, to whom she had been exposed, had tested positive for the virus. After Farah publicly promised to release the numbers of White House aides infected with coronavirus, a few hours later McEnany said they wouldn’t provide those numbers for “privacy” reasons.
It’s easy to dismiss these flubs as minor communications errors, but communicating with the public is one of the most important things White Houses do. And this one has made such a hash of things that it has compounded the very real substantive problems confronting an administration that has more of its fair share of those as well.
This phenomenon goes beyond matters relating to Trump’s personal health or politics to matters of foreign policy on which previous administrations have previously operated on the assumption that, when the world is watching, it is critical to speak with precision and clear purpose.
Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told a university audience on Wednesday that the U.S. would draw down troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 by “early next year,” only to be contradicted by Trump a few hours later in a tweet that the U.S. would have all troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas.
What’s been going on in recent days is not an anomaly, but it does represent a new apogee in a trend that has been building for nearly four years. Trump has been waging an internal war within his administration since his first days in office. Often the targets have been people with independent judgment or significant records of achievement before joining the administration.
With few exceptions, Trump has won this war, and now has the team he wants. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory: He finds himself surrounded by people whose résumés typically would not land them in jobs at senior levels of the White House or Cabinet. Never mind the A Team. At this point, even the B Team would represent a significant upgrade.
Carlos Gutierrez, who was secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush administration and had been chairman and CEO of Kellogg prior to his government service, said political appointees in the Trump administration have to “show absolute loyalty,” and such a loyalty oath has enacted a cost in terms of other qualities one looks for in potential staffers.
“Policy experience, knowledge, competence is not at the top of the list,” said Gutierrez, who is among the seven former Bush Cabinet members to have endorsed Joe Biden. “At the top of the list is: Who will be loyal to the president and [show] a blind loyalty?”
A situation like this does not just happen — Trump has had to work at it. As a rule, senior administration jobs are usually attractive enough that any president has the pick of people with extensive policy or political experience, or outstanding success in other highly competitive arenas.
This was true of the Trump White House initially, and Trump promised years ago to hire “only the best and most serious people.” Whatever one thinks of former White House chief of staff John Kelly or former Defense Secretary James Mattis, both are retired four-star generals. It simply isn’t possible to reach that level without formidable intelligence and a demonstrable leadership record. Whatever one thinks of Wall Street, no one gets to the top ranks of Goldman Sachs — as former Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn did earlier in his career — by being a nincompoop.
Current White House chief of staff Mark Meadows follows a tradition of White House chiefs of staff who come from Capitol Hill. But Meadows, elected to Congress as a tea party Republican in 2012, had never been Senate majority leader, like Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker, or a prominent committee chairman, like Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, or even a key player in a successful campaign to win majority status, like Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. He earned his stripes by leading the House Freedom Caucus, whose hallmark has been torpedoing legislation it doesn’t like, rather than spearheading major initiatives.
The same trend is pervasive, though not universal, in the Cabinet and sub-cabinet. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not have previous government experience, but he did fashion an impressive career on Wall Street, similar to previous occupants of the job, like Robert Rubin in the Clinton years. But at the Pentagon, Trump has gone from Mattis, one of the most respected figures in the national security establishment, to Mark Esper, a West Point graduate whose post-Army, pre-Trump career as a think tank veteran and lobbyist is respectable but not in line with the high-level government experience of most defense secretaries. At Homeland Security, Chad Wolf is acting secretary, not even confirmed, although he recently had his confirmation hearing after holding the job for 11 months. He previously was a lobbyist and the chief of staff to a predecessor. At Health and Human Services, Secretary Alex Azar does have previous high-level experience in that department but — both before the pandemic and during — has struggled for an effective working relationship with Trump and his West Wing.
Another issue many current White House aides face is a lack of knowledge of internal processes that are there for a reason: to ensure good outcomes and avoid making everyone look bad.
“They don’t have as full an understanding internally how the White House works, and they don’t have a full understanding of how the White House and the press work together during these sorts of crisis moments, which is different from during normal times in the White House when the relationships are more normalized,” said one former administration official.
“It’s been kind of an open secret that the administration had a very hard time finding qualified people to serve in government and that was from the beginning,” added one current administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to not jeopardize their job.
A White House official said the charge that there are incompetent people at the White House is “ridiculous.”
“The best people are hired for these positions who are qualified regardless of experience or age or what have you,” the official said. “For every person who doesn’t want to work at the White House for some reason, there are like 10 other people in line who would kill for that job,” although the official did admit it wasn’t an “easy administration to work in.”
The source of much of the poor staffing in the White House and the administration that comes up time and time again in conversations with folks inside and outside the administration is the problematic role played by the Presidential Personnel Office, now headed up by 30-year-old former Trump body man Johnny McEntee, who’s viewed as the “keeper of the flame” in parts of Trump world, but despised in other corners for foisting unqualified, but sycophantic, young appointees — some even without college degrees — onto their agencies.
“I was initially dinged by the White House PPO because I wasn’t sufficiently groveling at the feet of Trump, and they had to take another look at me after apparently the secretary complained,” said the current administration official. “And I’m not alone. I know there are a lot of other people who are like that.”
The official slammed the “loyalty” interviews that PPO’s powerful White House liaisons conducted earlier this year of almost every administration appointee and called them an “inquisition.”
He recalled some of the questions: “Do you support the president? Are you going to stick around this term? Are you going to stick around for the next term? Blah, blah, blah. That kind of stuff. What has the president done that you’ve been so proud of? What is his biggest accomplishment? You know, crap like that.”
Meadows recently announced internally that many of the White House liaisons at the agencies were going to be replaced, leading to chatter in the administration about why McEntee didn’t make the announcement himself. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson also publicly embarrassed McEntee by inadvertently letting reporters see his notes at a speech in late September, which revealed that he was “not happy” with how PPO was handling his department.
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” said a hobbled White House staff at the end of Trump’s first term is not surprising.
“This was a White House that was totally broken and dysfunctional long before the pandemic came along, and this was inevitable,” he said. “And it would be hard under Donald Trump to get high-caliber White House staffers prepandemic but during a pandemic, it’s mission impossible — especially when they basically abandon any protocols to keep people safe.”
Another obstacle to having good staff in the White House and administration is that in the last few months of the president’s term, it’s hard to recruit top-level talent for such a potentially short stint of public service.
“Obviously at the end of any term, it’s hard to attract people from the private sector to come in, because you have to impoverish yourself, you have to go through a huge long background check, and there’s a potential that you’ll only be here for a month,” one current White House official said.
Constant staff turmoil means it’s hard for officials in the administration to build trust among one another and establish professional relationships that make it easier to cooperate.
“Of course it does hurt decision-making,” acknowledged Fiona Hill, who served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council earlier in the Trump administration. “There’s been so much churn.”
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.