How Donald Trump broke the White House
He broke it. We buy it.
Well that didn't take long.
Days before President Trump was inaugurated, I wrote that the incoming White House senior leadership structure was "muddled, top-heavy, and ripe for manipulation."
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.
The bungled rollout of Trump's immigration order has brought each of these risks into sharp relief.
First, the lines of authority. Who's in charge of this clown show? For the last few days, the Trump White House has been a veritable circular firing squad. Blame initially fell most heavily on chief domestic aide Stephen Miller, with Beltway inside-baseball-umpire Joe Scarborough charging that Miller was an inexperienced young man on a "power trip."
Lack of clarity about authority begets manipulation: The ultra-ambitious Miller appears to have been enabled by Stephen Bannon, the president's chief strategist, who is emerging as darkly conspiratorial shadow president. In this scheme, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reportedly feels like he's been thrown under the bus and has spiraled into paranoia. And, oh yeah, senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has already been frozen out of Trump's inner circle, and feels like he can't control his father-in-law's loose cannon!
None of us on the outside can say for sure how much of this leak-driven drama is actually true. Yet, as Bloomberg View's David Bernstein writes, "The president himself seems to have no control over his White House at all."
I noted earlier that muddled White House leadership would "confuse legislators." And how! "At least a dozen key GOP lawmakers and aides said Trump's order took them by surprise, even as the White House insisted that it collaborated with Congress," according to a report in the Washington Post. House Speaker Paul Ryan learned of the executive order "pretty much at the time it was being issued." The brazenness of brushing off allies in Congress left even those lawmakers inclined to support the substance of the order flatfooted for several days.
Then there's the federal bureaucracy. John Kelly, the Trump administration's director of homeland security, reportedly watched on television, "stunned," as Trump signed an order he believed was still under discussion. Defense Secretary James Mattis, for his part, was "incensed" by the secrecy with which the order was drafted and the clumsiness of its implementation. Down the chain of bureaucracy, reports The New York Times, "customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president's orders." The bureaucratic snafu culminated in Trump's firing Monday night of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who stated that she was not confident enough in the lawfulness of the order to defend it.
How did the White House itself respond to the crisis it generated? In a word, ineptly.
It took 48 hours — a lifetime in the Washington spin cycle — for Trump and his surrogates to cite a superficially similar act by the Obama administration slowing down the intake of Iraqi refugees in 2011. But that was in response to an actionable threat involving two men who'd been arrested in Kentucky, one of whom was tied by fingerprints to an attack on U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Trump team also couldn't keep its line straight on whether the order was a "Muslim ban" or not. Trump himself used the word "ban" in a tweet, and its justification as a defense against radical jihadists strained the notion that it did not specifically target Muslims. (After all, said the unblushing Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord, "We're not being attacked by Episcopalians.") The administration's excuse for not notifying key lawmakers and government officials — they didn't want to give terrorists a window during which they could enter the U.S. before the ban took effect — also strained credulity.
From start to finish, the Trump administration's first major initiative was a public-relations disaster and a substantive policy nightmare, to say nothing of the needless human suffering it has caused. The president's foreign-policy team has signaled that it will not allow such a fiasco to happen again. But it will happen again. As long as the Trump White House remains riven by mutually suspicious rivals with no clear boundaries of authority, it will continue to produce outcomes like this: secretive, incautious, paralyzingly confusing.
The stakes are only going to get higher, and the consequences more costly.