When Donald Trump takes office on Friday, he will bring to the White House a senior leadership structure that looks a lot like that of his historically unconventional presidential campaign: muddled, top-heavy, and ripe for manipulation.
Joining Trump in the West Wing will be Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; "chief White House strategist and senior counselor" Steve Bannon; "counselor to the president" Kellyanne Conway; "senior White House adviser" Jared Kushner; and "senior White house adviser for policy" Stephen Miller. Lurking near, or above, or below this node of competing influence will be Vice President Mike Pence.
To borrow a quote from Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, I've spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys will do, and I still can't figure it out.
A White House with no clear lines of authority, a flat hierarchy, and multiple points of entry poses a myriad of problems. It may confuse legislators and those outside of government who seek to negotiate with the president. It may paralyze the federal bureaucracy that can't discern which orders to follow. And it may overwhelm the White House staff itself when crises arise, as crises always do.
Imagine, if you will, that you're House Speaker Paul Ryan, who recently met with a bevy of Trump advisers on the issue of tax reform. Present, reports The Hill newspaper, were Priebus, Bannon, Kushner, incoming Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and legislative liaison Rick Dearborn. All of these people can claim ownership of tax reform. Must Ryan negotiate with all of them together or each of them individually — or just choose one based on intuition or perception? It's a mystery!
In dealing with too many cooks on the Hill, President Obama got a taste of spoiled soup when, at a seeming impasse during the "grand bargain" negotiations of July 2011, the president sharply asked the scheming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor if he or House Speaker John Boehner was calling the shots: "Am I dealing with him, or am I dealing with you?" It didn't end well.
The pat response to such concerns about Trump's White House is that the boss likes to hear competing voices, or that he wants his very own "team of rivals." Maybe that's true. For a "team of rivals" (an overrated management concept if ever there was one) to work, however, the president must either be physically present himself as his chosen rivals debate, or he must have one trusted aide to bring him an honest consensus. Can anyone seriously identify who that final deliverer of consensus will be for Trump — a man himself given to schizophrenic rivalry inside his own mind?
A muddled organizational structure with a malleable, detail-allergic figure at its head creates a double-edged dynamic of dysfunction. First, the bureaucracy tasked with carrying out the orders of the executive branch must have certainty about where it's supposed to march. If one day they're told to march in one direction, and the next day — because Trump changed his mind or, say, spoke to his friend Carl Icahn and forgot to tell anyone — they are told to march in a different direction, they will eventually decide it's in their best interest not to move at all.
Alternatively, the hydra-headed Trump leadership team may create an atmosphere of sycophancy on the one hand and devil-may-care cynicism on the other. If everyone is charge, then no one is in charge, thus inspiring the kind of manipulative side-hustling that led Cantor to attempt to undermine Boehner.
Finally, there's the risk of simply being overtaken by events. National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, a veteran of the Bush administration's domestic policy staff, offers this assessment: "The president, any president, is basically subject to an intense, unending torrent of pressures and events, like a huge rush of water that never stops. The structure of the White House staff is designed to channel the rush away from the president so it doesn't overwhelm him. That requires a clear, defined structure that holds together and works. And if it's too flat, if everyone is on the same level, that structure can't channel the flow and everybody drowns."
I'm not particularly moved by Trump's business experience, checkered as it is with examples of extravagance and mismanagement. Nor am I moved by his narrowly won fluke of a successful campaign. But even if you're impressed by those operations, you have to concede that Trump has never faced a task like the one that begins Friday.
And so far, we have every reason to suspect he'll be ill-served in performing it.