Trump's unwinnable war against his own administration

What happens when the president goes to war against his own staff?

Trump's war on his administration.
(Image credit: Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy iStock)

If you're like most people, you've had a boss you couldn't stand. But what if your boss couldn't stand you either? And what if he felt the same way about lots of your coworkers? And if he seemed to be trying to destroy your organization from the inside, not merely through incompetence but through genuine malice? How weird would that be?

Pretty darn weird, as those in the executive branch of the United States government could tell you. Because right now it appears as though President Trump has practically gone to war against his own administration.

Even at the best of times, working for Trump is no picnic. "He likes to pit advisers against each other," a former campaign aide told McKay Coppins of The Atlantic. "He likes the infighting." In theory a healthy spirit of friendly competition could produce better results, as everyone vies to get that "Employee of the Month" mug to put on their desk and win the admiring glances of their colleagues. On the other hand, it could devolve into an endless demolition derby of schemes, recriminations, and leaks to the press about how the other factions are a bunch of idiots. Which is what the White House is like right now.

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But the real problem is less the staff's conflicts with each other than the fact that the president seems terribly unhappy with the people who toil in his employ, particularly when they're trying to restrain him from making a fool of himself or creating policy nightmares.

Consider this shocking report from Susan Glasser of Politico about the speech President Trump recently gave to our NATO allies. When Trump neglected in the speech to reaffirm the United States' commitment to Article 5 of the NATO agreement, which obligates all member states to come to the defense of any state that is attacked — the very heart of the alliance — many journalists and foreign policy experts were alarmed. But Press Secretary Sean Spicer brushed off questions as quibbling about nothing. "We're not playing cutesy with this," he said. "He's fully committed." But that's not what Glasser learned:

The president also disappointed — and surprised — his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO's new Brussels headquarters, that the president's national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences — without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change. [Politico]

If that's not the way to inspire loyalty in your aides, I don't know what is.

Now imagine you're a Justice Department attorney who has worked on the administration's travel ban. Maybe you thought it wasn't the greatest idea in the first place, but you've done your job and come up with the best rationale you can think of — even though it keeps getting struck down by the courts, who call it unconstitutionally discriminatory. Then you wake up Monday morning to read this:

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Provided you didn't hurl your phone across the room, you'd probably yell into it, "Oh really? Is that what we should have done? The original travel ban got struck down! And do you remember who signed the 'watered down' ban that we had to write? Do you? It was you!" That's not to mention the fact that by calling it a "travel ban" Trump directly undercut the Justice Department lawyers who had been arguing in court that it isn't actually a ban.

Morale must be sky high over at Justice right now.

And that's not all. Trump has further undermined the functioning of his own government by not bothering to appoint people to most high-level posts: Of the 559 executive branch positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump has made only 102 nominations; another 15 names have been announced but not formally nominated. For the other 442 positions, no one has even been named. Six Cabinet departments have no one nominated to be deputy secretary, the person who usually acts as chief operating officer for the department. Seven have no nominee for general counsel, the chief legal officer for the department. Eleven departments have no nominee for chief financial officer. You may have also heard that there's no nominee for FBI director.

That doesn't mean the halls are empty — critical positions are filled by acting secretaries, officers, or directors. But either the White House feels no particular sense of urgency in hiring people to carry out the administration's agenda, or they can't find anyone who wants to come work for Trump.

It's hard to blame those who are declining. It probably wouldn't be that much fun, what with the boss potentially undermining you and faulting you for his own failures. Even more importantly, you'd be forever stained by having worked for Trump, his corruption and incompetence rubbing off on your reputation. You could wind up like an ex-convict, hiding your shameful history away and hoping prospective employers don't ask about that gap in your résumé.

"What was I doing between 2017 and 2020? Oh, um ... well …"

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