Amateur hour at the Trump White House
Almost everyone remembers the old stereotype: if you can't trust someone to do the little things right, how can you ever trust them to do the big things?
President Donald Trump had better hope that bromide, used everywhere from youth sports teams to training for salespeople, doesn't apply to him.
As his presidency heads for a climatic judgment on Nov. 3, the little things have rarely gone more piercingly or embarrassingly wrong lately - at a time when public confidence in Trump's handling of the big things is barely robust.
The first reaction might be: what's new here? But the last few days of coronavirus struck Trump have shown how the staggering improvisation that is a familiar phenomenon with Trump has entered another phase. The professionals around the president don't just work to contain and channel the disruptive politician they work for. Very often they add to the chaos.
This is partly because the pros around Trump are not all that professional at the end of his first term. It is now the exception in key and cabinet positions to have people whose experience matches that of people who have normally held these jobs in previous administrations of both parties. That great weakness has manifested itself in a spate of minor mistakes that raise Casey Stengel's incredulous question about the 1962 New York Mets: Can't anyone here play this game?
There were prominent misspellings in official White House statements (the drug company Trump handled is Regeneron, not Regeron). Trump botched the name of a well-known Republican senator (that's James Inhofe, not Imhofe) in a video message. Communications director Alyssa Farah did the same thing in a television interview, repeatedly mispronouncing Trump's doctor's name (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 contradicted each other in public statements Wednesday about whether a restful, but possibly still contagious, Trump had been in the Oval Office the day before. (Kudlow believed he did, Meadows apparently was right that Trump hadn't done it that day.)
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany calls out to a reporter during a press conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.
For the most part, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany's briefings are dismissed by reporters as entertainment, not as a source of reliable information or, on frequent occasions, information at all. Little did she know at her own briefing last week that Presidential Advisor Hope Hicks she was exposed to had tested positive for the virus the night before. Hours later, after Farah publicly promised to release the number of White House aides infected with coronavirus, McEnany said they would not provide those numbers for privacy reasons.
It is easy to dismiss these mistakes as minor communication errors, but communicating with the public is one of the most important things White Houses do. And this has mixed up so many things that it has exacerbated the very real substantive problems that a government faces that has more of its fair share of it.
This phenomenon goes beyond questions of personal health or Trump's politics to include foreign policy issues where previous governments previously believed it was important to speak with clear intent and precision when the world is watching.
Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security advisor, told a university on Wednesday that the US would withdraw up to 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan by "early next year" only to contradict Trump a few hours later in a tweet that the US had all Troops from Afghanistan by Christmas.
What has happened in the past few days is not an anomaly, but rather marks a new high point in a trend that has been developing for nearly four years. Trump has waged an internal war within his administration since his early days in office. Often times, the targets were people with independent judgment or significant track records prior to entering the administration.
With a few exceptions, Trump won this war and now has the team he wants. But it's a Pyrrhic victory: he's surrounded by people whose resumes wouldn't normally get them into jobs at higher levels of the White House or Cabinet. Anyway, the A-Team. At this point, even the B-Team would be a major upgrade.
Carlos Gutierrez, Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush administration and prior to his government service chairman and CEO of Kellogg, said the Trump administration's "total loyalty" and oath of allegiance to political leaders has incurred costs in other attributes that one looks for in potential employees.
"Political experience, knowledge and competence are not high on the list," said Gutierrez, who is one of the seven former Bush cabinet members who have endorsed Joe Biden. "At the top of the list is: Who will remain loyal to the President and show blind loyalty?"
Such a situation doesn't just happen - Trump had to work on it. As a rule, senior administrations are attractive enough that each president has a choice between individuals with extensive political or political experience or outstanding success in other highly competitive areas.
This was originally true of Trump's White House, and Trump promised years ago that he would hire "only the best and most serious people." Whatever you think of former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly or former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, both are former four-star generals. It is simply not possible to reach this level without impressive intelligence and a demonstrable leadership record. Whatever you think of Wall Street, nobody reaches the top positions at Goldman Sachs - as former Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn did earlier in his career - by being a sucker.
President Donald Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speak before Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
The current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows follows a tradition of White House Chiefs of Staff hailing from Capitol Hill. But Meadows, who was elected to Congress as a Tea Party Republican in 2012, had never been the Senate majority leader, like Reagan's Chief of Staff Howard Baker, or a prominent committee chair like Clinton's Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, or even a key player in a successful majority campaign, such as Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. He earned his streak by running the House Freedom Caucus, the hallmark of which was torpedoing laws he disliked rather than spearheading major initiatives.
The same trend is ubiquitous in the cabinet and sub-cabinet, if not universal. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had no government experience, but he has had an impressive career on Wall Street, much like previous professionals 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 Service, to Mark Esper, a West Point graduate whose career as a think tank veteran and lobbyist after the pre-Trump army is respectable but inconsistent with most senior government experience of most defense ministers. At Homeland Security, Chad Wolf is acting secretary who hasn't even been confirmed despite recently having his confirmatory hearing after holding the job for 11 months. Previously, he was a lobbyist and chief of staff of a predecessor. At Health and Human Services, Secretary Alex Azar has high-level experience in this department, but has sought to work effectively with Trump and his west wing, both before and during the pandemic.
Another problem that many current White House staff face is a lack of knowledge of internal processes that exist for a reason: to get good results and to avoid everyone looking bad.
“They do not have such a full understanding of how the White House works internally, and they do not have a full understanding of how the White House and the press work together in such times of crisis, which is different from what the White House does in normal times normalize relations, ”said a former administrative officer.
"It was an open secret that it was very difficult for the administration to find qualified employees for the government, and it was from the beginning," added a current administrative official on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their work.
A White House official said the allegation that there were incompetent people in the White House was "ridiculous."
"The best people are hired for these positions who are qualified regardless of experience or age or what you have," the official said. "For every person who for whatever reason does not want to work in the White House, there are about 10 other people in line who would kill for that job," although the official admitted that it was not a "simple administration for the job" in the US . "
The source of many of the poor White House and administration workers who keep coming up in conversations with people inside and outside the administration these days is the troubled role of the President’s Human Resources Office, which has now been in charge for 30 years - Old Former Trump- Body man Johnny McEntee, who is considered the “keeper of the flame” in parts of the Trump world, but is despised in other corners for pushing unqualified but sycophantic young candidates - some even without a college degree - into their agencies.
"I was initially betrayed by the White House PPO for not crouching at Trump's feet enough and they had to look at me again after the secretary apparently complained," the current administrator said. "And I'm not alone. I know there are many other people who are like that."
The official slammed the "loyalty" interviews that PPO's powerful White House liaison officers had conducted on almost every administrative officer earlier this year, calling them an "inquisition."
He recalled some of the questions: “Do you support the president? Will you stick with this term? Are you going to stay for the next semester? Bla bla bla. That kind of thing. What did the president do that you were so proud of? What is his greatest achievement? You know, what a bummer. "
Meadows recently announced internally that many of the White House's liaison officers with the agencies would be replaced, leading to discussions in the administration about why McEntee hadn't made the announcement himself. Housing and Urban Affairs Secretary Ben Carson also publicly embarrassed McEntee by inadvertently showing reporters his notes during a speech in late September showing that he was "dissatisfied" with the way PPO has dealt with his department.
Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Each Presidency," said that a limping White House official at the end of Trump's first term was not the least bit surprising.
"This was a white house that was completely broken and inoperable long before the pandemic and that was inevitable," he said. "And, under Donald Trump, it would be difficult to attract high-profile White House workers before the pandemic, but it is impossible during a pandemic - especially if they are basically giving up protocols to keep people safe."
Another obstacle to having good White House staff and administration is that in the final months of the president's tenure, it is difficult to attract high-level talent for what may be a short period of time in public service.
"Obviously, at the end of a semester, it's hard to get people from the private sector to work for you because you have to impoverish yourself, go through a long background exam, and there is potential that you can only be here for a month," said a current White House official.
Constant turmoil among employees means that it is difficult for officials in the administration to build trust and professional relationships that make it easier to work together.
"Of course, it hurts decision-making," admitted Fiona Hill, who previously served in the Trump administration as Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council. "There has been so much churn."
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.
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