By Michael Brendan Dougherty
Monday, July 24, 2017
The alert came across my phone, with a buzz. “White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has resigned.” I don’t know Sean Spicer; I’ve only shared a room with him once. But I laughed at the alert. I noticed my own reaction to the news was little different from hearing an item about a coal miner being rescued from a disaster. Finally! Sean Spicer has reached safety. I imagined him emerging from the little press office on the side of the White House, covered in soot and looking like a man who newly appreciates freedom.
Donald Trump is a nightmare of a boss. His inability to command loyalty from his political hirelings through insults and threats is not only degrading the functioning of his White House; it is threatening the very legitimacy of his administration.
Consider the case of Senator Jeff Sessions this week. Jeff Sessions was Trump’s most important and earliest supporter among elected Republicans. He gave Trump’s campaign credibility and some depth on signature issues such as immigration. But when Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump vented his anger publicly. He then called up the New York Times weeks later to vent again and to say that he wouldn’t have hired Sessions if he’d known that Sessions was likely to recuse himself. This is the reward Sessions gets for sticking with Trump through every controversy and embarrassment, from the disaster of attacking judges for their ethnicity to the tape with Billy Bush.
As for the job of press secretary, anyone who serves the Trump White House in a public-facing job is going to become a punching bag for satirists and most of the media. But Donald Trump made the job worse because he adds extra humiliations to the job. Spicer’s performances and his personal style — a preference for lighter suits — were derided by Trump and then leaked out into the media. Why was the president even watching the daily briefings? It’s not the president’s job to micromanage the people micromanaging his message and his image.
The only people who seem to benefit from Donald Trump as a boss are Donald Trump’s relations. Son-in-law Jared Kushner has been promoted from real-estate scion with a side job in vanity publishing to the teen-comedy version of Brent Scowcroft; he has a major diplomatic post with a portfolio that includes most of America’s threats and brokering Middle East peace. Ivanka Trump sat in on a G-20 meeting when her father left the room.
Trump’s “leadership” as a boss has created a White House that is notorious for its leaks, and for the way it constantly emits the stink of demoralization. Almost every story about dysfunction in the White House in the New York Times or the Washington Post is verified by so many anonymous sources close to the president that reporters are counting them by “dozens” now. Perhaps soon we’ll move on to “scores” of White House stool pigeons.
But the really dangerous effect of Trump’s mismanagement is that it further degrades his administration’s already compromised efforts at hiring staff for senior and sub-cabinet positions. It is literally preventing his administration from taking full possession of the executive branch of government Trump is supposed to lead.
Why would you go to work for him unless you were hard-up for work or needing to take a high-risk gamble with your career? No one in his right mind would respond to a Help Wanted ad that advertised the boss’s propensity to be angered by the trivial and the everyday, leading him to tweet angrily at colleagues or to say damaging things about his employees to the newspaper of record. No one would respond to that ad if it also mentioned that the boss would redirect all the blame below and spread most of the credit to himself and his family members. But this is the Help Wanted ad the executive branch of the United States has now.
Trump was always going to have more trouble than usual in this regard because he was a newcomer to elective politics and because he was an ideological insurgent in his own party. He had neither the list of long-term political allies that needed to be rewarded nor the full loyalty and trust of the expert class that has attached itself to the Republican party.
And so the Trump White House lacks the “best people” and the best minds working on the problems of government. It lacks expertise while it undertakes a job that desperately needs expertise. That means more mistakes, from simple diplomatic goofs to major strategic and governing decisions.
But worse than that is that the inability to fully staff an administration adds to a sense of illegitimacy that is settling over his presidency, one compounded by his scandals and eagerly fed by a media that believes it can tweet almost anyone, even a president, out of a job.
Trump has won the votes. With those and a modicum of sense, he should have been able to win over a sufficient portion of the political and governing class of his country. But he hasn’t. And it puts his foreign counterparts in the awkward position of having to deal with a president who is in charge but not really in control.
Trump is a third-rate boss, and he’s increasingly running a third-rate administration. How long until it changes the United States itself into a third-rate power?