Saturday, July 7, 2018

Trump's legacy - 'the worst-run White House of modern times'

When history is written about the Trump presidency, assuming any of us survive it to write and read, there are many features of the Trump years that scholars will note. Here are a few.

  • ripping children from their mothers (and with no way to get them reunited)
  • unilateral trashing our allies and embracing our enemies
  • an astounding arrogance in foreign policy (North Korea accused the U.S. of a “gangster-like demand for denuclearization,” even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called talks productive headlines the NY Times)
  • a tax bill that makes the rich richer at the expense of the working and a ballooning national debt
  • waging a political war against our law enforcement agencies
  • slandering journalists almost to the point of incitement to violence
  • grabbing women by the … well, you know that one
  • getting sued by a porn star over a tryst during his third marriage

But Susan B. Glasser (The New Yorker) has another nomination for how Trump will be remembered in John Kelly, Scott Pruitt, and the Epic Turnover of the Trump Administration. What does the endless death watch for the President’s chief of staff tell us about the worst-run White House of modern times?

If you like numbers, try these.

…. Late last month, Martha Joynt Kumar, a scholar who has tracked White House staff during the past six Presidencies, reported that *the Trump White House has an astonishing turnover rate of sixty-one per cent so far among its top-level advisers. No other Administration she has tracked comes close*: Trump’s two immediate predecessors were at fourteen per cent (Barack Obama) and five percent (George W. Bush) at this point in their Presidencies. Bill Clinton, the highest after Trump, was at forty-two per cent, and that number was mostly made up of advisers who were reassigned to other senior White House roles, not fired or pushed out, according to Kumar.

When we look back at the Trump Administration, this will be one of its most distinguishing characteristics: West Wing comings and goings without precedent, leaving policies muddled and the entire political world uncertain of whom to deal with aside from the President himself. Kelly used to leave the office every day joking bleakly that he’d never come back. Just in the past few weeks, as Kelly’s fate has hung in limbo, two other key White House advisers have announced their exits: Joe Hagin, a deputy chief of staff and an organizational specialist who brought rare institutional knowledge of how White Houses are supposed to function, from stints working for Reagan and both Bushes; and Marc Short, Trump’s chief legislative liaison and congressional-vote counter, who reportedly told colleagues in June of his plans to leave a job that could become even more crucial if the G.O.P. majorities on Capitol Hill are diminished or wiped out in November. Many others are also reportedly considering leaving, including Dan Scavino, who is one of the last of the Trump’s early campaign advisers still working for the President, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and her deputy, Raj Shah. On Thursday, the White House formally announced the appointment of a new deputy chief of staff, the former Fox News executive Bill Shine, to oversee communications, making him the sixth person assigned that responsibility.

This, to say the least, is not normal. It might seem self-evident, but it bears repeating: Trump, whatever else he accomplishes, will certainly go down in the record books as the worst manager of the White House in modern times. And not only is this state of affairs not normal, it’s no way to run even a small organization, never mind a country. A senior European official recently told me that every time he shows up at the White House there is a new aide to meet with him, because the last one he sat down with has since been cashiered or fled. As each successive wave of aides comes and goes, what little institutional knowledge remains in the White House is further diminished.

… [Chief of Staff John] Kelly continues to suffer the fate of the hung-out-there aide, a uniquely Washingtonian sort of humiliation.

[Former Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus also was subjected to this treatment … Former Secretary of State Tillerson and the former national-security adviser H. R. McMaster underwent their own versions of Trumpian purgatory for months as well, during which the President would undercut and contradict statements they had made in an official capacity, leading their interlocutors around the world, as well as in Washington, to conclude that they did not, in fact, speak for the President whom they were supposed to represent. This untenable situation then made it much easier for the President to fire them, since they did not speak for him.

In such circumstances, of course, nobody knows who’s in charge or what the policy is. Staffers come in every day not knowing if they—or their bosses, for that matter—might lose their jobs by the end of the day. Everyone is looking for a way out. Gallows humor seems to rule the day, and aides from the top down are utterly consumed by their own fate and that of those around them. In that sense, Trump may well have created a West Wing in his own image, one more self-absorbed and beset by gnawing doubts than perhaps any that came before it.

The news here is not that all this is happening; it’s long since been clear that the Trump-staff death watch is one of the signature story lines of this Presidential reality show. In many ways, given Trump’s equally volatile history in the private sector, I find the more interesting question to be why anyone ever thought it would be any other way.

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