Published August 25, 2017
Yesterday, Politico reported on two internal memos recently circulated among senior White House staffers that announced a new information-management process around presidential decisions.
On the face of things, these memos seem to describe what should always have been the process and something generally resembling what (in my experience) has been how the modern White House manages paper flow: The staff secretary is to oversee an organized system of pre-decision-memo development in which key facts and the views of different officials are represented, and this system is to be the only way by which documents reach the president. And then the staff secretary is to oversee an organized system of post-decision-memo distribution by which the president’s decisions are recorded and formalized.
The Trump White House has certainly tried to work this way from the start, but has fallen prey again and again to a destructive chaos, and these new memos are evidence of another attempt, and the most aggressive yet, to combat that chaos.
But the memos also suggest that the senior team, and especially the new chief of staff, understand the source of the problem they confront, and how different that problem is from what past White Houses have generally had to deal with. While the two memos describe something related to the familiar information flow of the modern White House, they actually imply a concern about information that is roughly the opposite of how most presidential staffs have had to think: In the past, the White House information flow has been designed to make sure the president hears from the full breadth of advisors available to him and that decisions he reaches are made clearly known. But Trump’s team is worried less about making sure their boss has all the information he requires than about making sure he’s not exposed to extraneous information which may not be true but which he is powerfully inclined to believe and accept. And they are worried less about making sure everyone knows what the boss has to say than about drawing clear distinctions between his formal, binding decisions and things he says that are just things he says.
They are engaged in a narrowing of the information flow. They are working to carefully manage the content of what comes before his eyes and then to carefully control the implications of what comes out of his mouth. This suggests they grasp that the problem they confront is located between the president’s eyes and his mouth: The problem they have is the president’s mind.
On November 9 of last year, the morning after the election, I offered around here some rough first impressions of the new reality created by that vote. I wrote then, in part:
It is in those parts of the job where he is least constrained by his entanglement with the other branches—as a leader in crisis, as a head of state, as an administrator—that Donald Trump seems most terribly ill-suited to the work and pressures he will face. This will require, from those in a position to guide and restrain him, grave and unusual efforts. And it is far from clear if such efforts can really succeed. His having been elected does not alter the reasons for which many of us deemed him unfit for the job, and his now becoming president likely means the executive branch will be lodged in something of a standing crisis that will require new thinking.
Seven months into this presidency, I think it is fair to say that a standing crisis is just what we have so far witnessed.
A standing crisis does not mean constant mortal danger, but a failure to find a stable, functional state. The sense of crisis has certainly been intense at times. When the president carelessly revealed to high Russian officials some deeply sensitive classified material gathered by an ally, or when he fired the FBI director without taking care even to avoid the impression he was trying to undermine an investigation of his own campaign, or when a fit of pique left him effectively giving aid and comfort to a murderous neo-Nazi rally he created moments when it seemed like the crisis could not go on. But these moments were mostly manifestations of the same lower-grade distemper that has been a constant feature of this administration. The standing crisis has consisted of something like a permanent pandemonium—an unceasing chaos that has made it impossible for the administration to find any state of balance in which it can steadfastly pursue any clear goals. The more extreme problems the White House has faced and the more mundane dysfunction that has become its routine are rooted in the same source, though they can differ a lot in their effects on the larger world.
The source is President Trump’s own disordered character, which apparently leaves him incapable of self-discipline and in turn makes him unfit for complex executive functions. That’s not some sort of medical diagnosis. It’s just an observation about how he has been handling a very difficult job. It would not be enough even to say that the president constantly cracks under the pressure of that job. He appears, rather, permanently cracked under that pressure, and maybe just permanently cracked even before and without that pressure.
The question from the start has been whether the staff and system arrayed around him might mitigate this problem some, or whether they would instead exacerbate it. On that front, there has been some progress. A series of firings has removed from Trump’s internal White House orbit (though probably not from his broader personal orbit) some of the people most inclined to exacerbate the chaos he creates, and some of those least able or willing to combat it. Some of the replacements hired for those individuals appear to be people willing to actively push against that chaos.
As citizens of a republic, we should worry about how reassured we are by the fact that these most effective replacements have been current or active military generals. But it is reassuring. And there are signs that they (and especially the new chief of staff) recognize the nature of the problem.
Chaos is the essence of that problem. It is that chaos, much more than any substantive views the president holds—some of which I agree with and some not, as I’m sure is the case for you. It is that chaos even more than his failure to quite grasp the role of the president in our system of government, or his petty malevolence, or his nasty inclination to punch downward, or whatever in the world the Russia madness is about. It is the simple inability to keep his attention focused, to be disciplined and ordered in a persistent way, to resist even the smallest provocations and insults, and to see decisions through, that has been undermining his administration.
That sheer disorder has been paralyzing. It has played a part in Congress’s dysfunction, though to be fair the Congress has plenty of institutional problems of its own. It has meant that Trump’s cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees, who have largely been quite good, have not been empowered to act effectively and have been hindered by the concern that anything they do on their own could be undermined by the president at any moment. It has also meant that there have not been enough of these appointees, since the process of staffing the government has been uneven and chaotic. And above all it has meant that the White House itself has just not been able to find a sustainable tempo and structure of activity and has found itself reeling unceasingly with barely time to breathe between one absurd, self-created crisis and another. If the president himself actually has substantive goals other than just being on everyone’s minds all the time, you would have to say he is largely failing to achieve them.
The exception to this pattern has been the president’s judicial appointments, and it only tends to prove the rule. Appointing judges is the one presidential prerogative that can be effectively exercised without real focus and sustained attention. Provided candidates have been screened for him in advance, the president can just nominate judges and then leave them be: They don’t work for him after they’re confirmed, they don’t need anything from him, and his ability to get in their way is very limited. They just work on their own for the rest of their careers. No other exercise of presidential power is like that—not even appointing people to his own administration, let alone advancing a policy agenda. The president has nominated some very good men and women to the bench, and although only a small number of them have so far been confirmed by the Senate, he stands through them (and especially his Supreme Court appointment and any future ones he might make) to leave behind a constructive and important legacy in the judiciary. That so far can’t be said about much else he’s been doing.
I know we are also supposed to say that deregulation has been going well in this administration. Judges and deregulation are the dynamic duo that lets us conservatives sleep at night. But I think that claim misunderstands the nature of deregulatory policy action. Deregulation, even more than a lot of other domestic policy implementation, actually requires sustained focus and consistent, unremitting efforts against both heavy inertia and staunch resistance from the system being reformed. Above all it calls for changes to the structure of the process of regulation, not just a haphazard undoing of specific rules. It is far too soon to say if the administration’s deregulatory efforts are succeeding, and there is real reason to worry they will fail for the same reason all its other efforts have so far been failing.
That reason cuts to the core of the president’s job, which is executive and administrative. Quite apart from debates about nationalism and populism and trade and the swamp, all of which matter a lot, and indeed quite apart from the question of what the president wants to do at all, is the problem of the president’s inability to act effectively.
“A government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 70. The standing crisis in the executive these seven months has so far yielded a bad government. It is good that some senior officials seem to understand that fact and its causes. But it is very far from clear that they will be able to do much about it.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.