That the current White House administration is a dysfunctional basket case is a topic of raging discussion in Washington, D.C. Now, a lengthy piece in Vanity Fair pulls back the curtain and makes it clear that behind closed doors a Game of Thrones (or for older readers, mix of Dallas and Dynasty) is unfolding on a daily basis. The problem, of course, is that the White House is not some fictional monarchy or some fictional oil company based in Dallas or Denver. What is most worrying is that more time seems to be spent on palace intrigues than is spent on running the country. One is left yet again wondering, WTF were Trump voters thinking? Was white rage so strong that all thoughts of whether a functioning administration would be possible were thrown to the wind? Here are article highlights:
[N]ow, in full view of the country and the world, we are watching what happens when a president is elected on the basis of an incoherent and crowd-sourced agenda, one that pandered to white nationalists and stoked economic anxiety. When that same president is someone who has never managed a large bureaucracy and brings almost no close associates who have. And when some of the aides he haphazardly acquired a few months before taking office care more about their own ambitions than his own—whatever they are.
When Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office, he redecorated decisively, replacing his predecessor’s maroon drapes with heavy gold ones. He also brought with him a collection of advisers who, according to another senior administration official, not only have “breathtaking personal agendas” and are willing to “malign the people around him” but are also prepared to say, “We are going to do it our way and push through what we want whether it is right for him or not.” The two former presidents Trump is most often compared to are Reagan (for the unserious image that Reagan had as a B-list movie actor) and Richard Nixon (for his authoritarian tendencies, his paranoia, and his antipathy toward the press). But those presidents, this senior administration official explained, had “a real ideology and a real set of issues, and that doesn’t exist here.”
Unlike previous presidents, Trump has also neglected to appoint a professional staff with a high-level governing or White House background. This is due in part to ignorance.
The West Wing right now is a place where the ground is always shifting. With the exception of two family members—Trump’s daughter Ivanka, an unpaid assistant to the president, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president—no one on Trump’s topmost White House staff has been with the new president for very long. That presents a sharp contrast with the teams around Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump’s staff is as unbridled as the president himself. His advisers came together almost by accident and by default. They exhibit loyalty to their boss in front of the camera, only to whisper about him (and about their rivals, often in vicious terms) when the camera is gone.
Before they joined the campaign, many of the current staffers had shown no allegiance to Trump. Steve Bannon, at the moment still the chief strategist, and the self-styled intellectual leader of Trump’s base of “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called them, had tried on several other politicians—Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz—before settling on Trump, whom Bannon referred to last year in Vanity Fair as a “blunt instrument” for his own cause. Reince Priebus, Trump’s current chief of staff, is hardly a longtime loyalist.
The Priebus-Conway story circulates inside the Ivanka camp as a way of reminding everyone who Trump’s real allies are. But even Ivanka has told friends, almost by way of apology, “I didn’t ask for this.” Senior administration officials told me that both Bannon and Priebus partisans have spent hours on the phone with reporters, planting stories about each other and their colleagues.
Trump’s West Wing is beginning to resemble the family real-estate business Trump grew up in, which has always had more in common with The Godfather than with The Organization Man. Trump has pulled family close. Kushner now occupies the office that is physically closest to the Oval Office. Ivanka Trump has taken on an official role despite her initial intention to simply be “a daughter.” The appointees who have been championed by Ivanka and Jared seem at the moment to be on the rise—no surprise to some. . . . . A close associate of Trump’s narrowed that safe zone even further: “Everyone is dispensable, except one person: Ivanka.” But, this person warned, speaking of Jared and Ivanka, “at some point you get them out of this,” because otherwise they are going to get destroyed.
No one has been secure in his or her position. Trump’s initial selection for national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after misleading White House officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Six weeks after his departure, he offered to testify before Congress, possibly about his former colleagues, in exchange for immunity. Next up was Kellyanne Conway, who was effectively sidelined. Then it was Bannon’s turn. “I’m not sure Steve does a lot of actual work,” said one person in the Trump circle shortly before Bannon was removed from the National Security Council, a position he had enjoyed for fewer than 10 weeks. Prior to his removal, Bannon had repeatedly threatened to quit the administration if he were ousted from the N.S.C., according to two people familiar with the matter.
Bannon seems to have felt betrayed by Kushner and has retaliated by planting negative stories about him. Kushner sees Bannon as an ideologue whose approach has stymied the president’s effectiveness. . . . . Bannon, who has denied that he ever threatened to resign or that he ever insulted Kushner, has been pushing back. “There is a concerted effort to paint Jared and Ivanka as anti-movement” among the Bannon faction of the staff, said one senior administration official.
Who will be next to fall from grace is a daily parlor game of the Washington press corps. What seems clear is that each member of the staff operates with the knowledge that there will always be someone who seems about to fall next, and that that person may well be him or her. This uncertainty is frozen in place by a peculiar trait of the boss: as one West Wing official told me, “For a person who has made a very successful TV career off ‘You’re fired,’ he’s not someone who likes to fire people.”
Bannon had been viewed as one of the two (with Kushner) most powerful members of the West Wing team, and for a time was referred to (reportedly with his own tacit encouragement) as President Bannon—a joke that isn’t a joke. He keeps a personal publicist and is the self-appointed guardian of the issues that matter to the base that got Trump elected. But, according to a senior administration official, Bannon’s effort to put himself on the National Security Council, without Trump having been fully briefed, made Ivanka and Jared suspicious of his motives. “This was honestly a dark-of-night operation,” this official told me.
But Bannon’s real undoing in the eyes of his boss, according to three people familiar with the situation, involves his perceived attacks through the media against Kushner and Ivanka as liberal Democrats seeking to undermine a more conservative agenda. Bannon’s other big mistake has been taking credit for Trump’s own popularity, such as it is. Referring to the Time cover, a senior administration official told me, “He is very talented at making himself seem the hero of the conservatives who elected Donald Trump”—the implication being that if you lose Bannon, you lose them. “It’s a very smart thing to do on his part,” this official added, “but ultimately it’s not a sustainable strategy for him. The president sees through that kind of thing, and he’s aware of what’s happening.” The official went on: “The reality is, if he keeps this up he’s not going to be here.”
Skepticism about Bannon drips from West Wing tongues, making it understandable why he might feel vulnerable. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and a former president of Goldman Sachs, is temperamentally a key Bannon foe. And no matter how many hugs Reince Priebus may exchange with Bannon in front of conservative audiences, so is Priebus.
Ivanka Trump, who could play the No-BS Heiress in our reality show, and her husband, Jared, the Crafty In-Law, are both children of privilege and are both extraordinarily loyal to their fathers. The senior administration official told me that, with this president, it is “family above all else. That’s how he has lived his life. Anybody thinking they are going to win a fight against the family is not very smart.” Kushner has reportedly described himself as a “first among equals” among White House staffers—not an endearing self-assessment, but probably an accurate one—and has been given an almost laughable assortment of responsibilities.
The Kushners were a prominent Democratic real-estate family in New Jersey. Their relationship to politics was mostly as members of the donor class. A person close to Jared told me that growing up in New Jersey taught him the utterly transactional nature of politics. His ability to move with ease from one political ideology to another, depending on what seems useful at the moment, comes naturally.
In every White House, there are competing loyalties and rivalries. That dynamic is normal. What is unusual about this presidency is that Trump himself is not a stable center of gravity and may be incapable of becoming one. He knows little, believes in little, and shows signs of regretting what has happened to him. Governing requires saying no to one’s strongest supporters and yes to one’s fiercest opponents. To have that presence of mind requires a clear and unified vision from the president. “Without an ideology or a worldview, all you have is a scramble for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement,” a former West Wing aide told me.
And it is a scramble without boundaries. What has been seen in the West Wing is now playing out in every Cabinet department and government agency: the competing agendas of a jockeying staff are being transplanted to the upper reaches throughout the executive branch as now Bannon, now Kushner, now Priebus, now Pence push their acolytes and protégés into hundreds of senior positions. The White House mess may soon be everywhere.