Trump's careening presidency
On the deteriorating situation in the White House
We've been told many times that "President Trump thrives on chaos." He likes things unpredictable, freewheeling, fast and loose. You never know what will happen, it's a crazy ride, but in the end everybody gets rich.
Except there's one person who doesn't want people to believe it. "So much Fake News about what is going on in the White House," the president tweeted at 6:38 a.m. Wednesday morning. "Very calm and calculated with a big focus on open and fair trade with China, the coming North Korea meeting and, of course, the vicious gas attack in Syria." Yes, if there's anything that characterizes this White House, it's that it's "Very calm and calculated." It may have sounded familiar, because a month ago Trump tweeted, "The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!"
If that's the case, there is some seriously great "Energy" coming out of the White House right now. Recent departures include Trump's communications director, his national security adviser, his secretary of veterans affairs, his homeland security adviser, and probably a few more people nobody ever heard of. Meanwhile, his personal lawyer just had his home and office raided by federal agents, Trump's starting a trade war almost everybody thinks is a terrible idea, he's about to bomb Syria, and he's trying to figure out how to fire the special counsel while members of his own party tell him doing so would be "suicide" and "the beginning of the end of his presidency."
Funny how this pattern keeps repeating itself: Stories portraying the White House as a cauldron of backstabbing, resentment, and incompetence, where barely a week goes by without the departure of one or more senior aides, followed by the president's insistence that in fact everything is going great.
If the president is right, and as he once said, "This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine," he may be the only person who realizes it. Here's how an anonymous Republican congressman described Trump to conservative pundit Erick Erickson:
"It's like Forrest Gump won the presidency, but an evil, really f---ing stupid Forrest Gump. He can't help himself. He's just a f---ing idiot who thinks he's winning when people are bitching about him. He really does see the world as ratings and attention." [The Maven]
To repeat, that's a Republican member of Congress, who added, "I say a lot of sh*t on TV defending him, even over [the Mueller investigation]. But honestly, I wish the motherf---er would just go away. We're going to lose the House, lose the Senate, and lose a bunch of states because of him." Now I'm sure most elected Republicans don't feel quite as angry or contemptuous of Trump, although we shouldn't forget that his own secretary of state did call him a "f---ing moron." Something about him just seems to inspire profanity among his putative allies.
Questions about the president's intellectual firepower aside, eventually someone will write a book about managements lessons of the Trump White House, and it will be mostly about how to avoid doing everything Trump did.
There are many reasons, but if we're lucky, our first real businessman president should forever kill the pernicious idea that what we need in politics is more businessmen. In fact, many of the management problems Trump has created can be directly traced to his business experience, combined with his lack of political experience, and of course his personality. As the CEO of a private company, not to mention someone who grew up rich, Trump was not used to being told "no." And if there's one thing that makes an effective president, it's the ability to understand and navigate the constraints placed on the one who occupies that office.
That may seem odd, given that the president of the United States is in many ways the most powerful person on earth. But as George W. Bush said, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." In fact, he said it just before he was inaugurated; perhaps he understood from his father what the office held in store.
The president is surrounded by people, forces, and institutions that limit his power and attempt to push him where he might not want to go. There are 535 members of Congress, each with their own agendas. There are laws and regulations that keep him from doing what he wants to do. There's a career bureaucracy that can work against him. There's a news media that criticizes him and focuses on conflict. There are state governments and foreign governments and intractable social problems and unexpected crises, all hemming him in.
And in Donald Trump's case, there's also a special prosecutor poking around in his business, which makes him angriest of all.
While it's still early in the Trump presidency — though yes, these last 15 months have felt like 15 years — there isn't much evidence that Trump is learning to deal with all those constraints and challenges. If anything, as time has gone on the White House has become more chaotic, the president more erratic, and the possibility of real catastrophe more acute. So don't fool yourself: Things can get worse, and probably will.