Warring West Wing factions dismay management experts
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump rode into the White House on a promise that he’d be a strong leader who could run the government with the efficiency of a CEO. He’d hire “the best people” and manage the country with the same success that he has had running his business empire.
The reality has been much, much different.
Management experts from across the country view Trump’s tumultuous style in the White House as deeply troubling, unlikely to produce the type of helpful internal team debate that can solve difficult problems and well outside the norms of a coherent management philosophy.
“I have yet to meet an executive who says management by chaos and yelling and berating constituencies is an effective way to run a business,” said Ethan Burris, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.
In just one month, the Trump administration has seen a key Cabinet secretary sunk by bipartisan opposition, a national security adviser asked to resign after misleading the vice president and potentially lying to the FBI, and a refugee and immigration travel ban hastily written then halted by courts. Trump attempted to gain the upper hand with a rambling news conference in the East Room of the White House, where he made seemingly off-handed remarks about sinking a Russian warship and mused on the destructive power of a nuclear holocaust.
What’s confounding to close watchers of Washington politics is that each of the major disasters encountered by the administration has been completely avoidable, yet Trump’s decision-making process led him down obviously fraught paths on multiple occasions, raising very real questions about whether anyone is able to say “no” to this president and how the West Wing will be equipped to react to the many unpredictable parts of the job.
“He’s not exactly cultivating a culture where people are dissenting, where they are giving points of view that are different from what he wants to hear,” said Burris.
The president’s impulsiveness and reliance on his own gut reactions don’t appear to have any real check within the system he’s created. He continues to fire off bizarre tweets, including one that he deleted and then reposted Friday evening where he labeled the news media as “the enemy of the American people.”
The White House declined to comment for this story, though on Saturday Trump posted on Twitter his own view: “The White House is running VERY WELL.”
There’s little to suggest he is right or that the situation will change: None of the power centers in the White House has demonstrated an ability to have a deliberate, tempering effect on Trump. And, up until this point, no one knows how the West Wing will react to the many unpredictable parts of the job.
Past administrations have faced chaotic periods, usually prompting the president to bring a wise hand to calm the waters — Leon Panetta, for instance, was named Bill Clinton’s chief of staff after a particularly rocky period.
“If we had a crisis at the current time, I don’t see the mechanisms within the White House to deal with that kind of crisis and that concerns me,” Panetta said last week on CNN.
Even if he were interested in outside help, it’s unclear who Trump would bring in — he has few close ties to the GOP establishment. Indeed, he relies on a small group of aides, plus his daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Trump himself described his White House as a “fine-tuned machine.” But people familiar with the West Wing workings disagree and describe a clutch of diverse personalities jockeying for influence — a description that the White House denies.
One key power center is allied with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. The former head of the Republican National Committee, Priebus brought several of his staffers with him, including Katie Walsh, now deputy White House chief of staff. Trump press secretary Sean Spicer also held key RNC posts.
Then there’s the group led by Steve Bannon, who came after running Breitbart News and is also close with policy director Stephen Miller and his former boss Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general. Rick Dearborn, who served as chief of staff to Sessions, has also joined the White House team.
The tumultuous work environment changes minute to minute. Hours after Trump sought to tamp down the perception of chaos during his press conference, six White House staffers had to leave their West Wing jobs because they failed to pass background checks and news broke that Vice Admiral Robert Harward, the president’s pick to replace Michael Flynn to head the National Security Council, turned down the offer in part because of the difficult atmosphere on that panel.
On Tuesday, Bannon’s former news organization, Breitbart News, published an anonymously sourced piece alleging Priebus was on the outs, a story widely believed to have come from Bannon or his team.
The banner headline read: “As Flynn Resigns, Priebus Future In Doubt As Trump Allies Circulate List of Alternate Chief of Staff Candidates.”
To clean up the mess, the White House orchestrated a set of interviews with reporters to bat down the rumor. Speaking to Time Magazine on Wednesday, Bannon praised Priebus, saying: “This guy is doing an amazing job.” To The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Bannon said: “We are executing on President Trump’s agenda in record time. That’s because Reince is getting the job done.”
One person who worked closely with the Trump campaign, and has had conversations with West Wing staff, described the situation as similar to when two companies that dislike each other merge, and each group harbors a competing view of what the future should look like.
In the current dynamic, the Bannon wing supports issues like pulling out of trade deals and clamping down on immigration and a stronger nationalistic outlook. The establishment wing is represented by Priebus and also Vice President Mike Pence. They are more focused on tax relief, cutting regulations, and, in Pence’s case, reassuring foreign allies.
The person, who like many in Trump world turns to the TV industry for metaphors, acknowledged widespread chaos: “You want it to be like ‘The West Wing,’ ” said the person. “It is more like ‘The Office’ where there are some who you wonder: ‘What do you do all day?’ ”
Trump also ran his business with blocs of rivals — a method that can work, but has limits.
“Competing subgroups can be useful if they each represent a different area of expertise,” said Andrew Carton, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “In these cases, each subgroup will be likely to offer a unique perspective to a given problem.”
If the debates tend to turn nasty, and staffers become more loyal to their own faction rather than a larger mission, the arrangement doesn’t work.
“Members may become so entrenched in their own subgroup that they refuse to cooperate and share information,” he said. “Boundaries become impenetrable and subgroups become a toxic force rather than a generative one.”
Examples of the rough style abounds in areas big and small. Kellyanne Conway, a senior strategist, has triggered alarm bells by announcing that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would visit the White House before those details were completely finished (the news sent Canadian reporters scrambling, and put the United States out of step with its northern neighbor when Trudeau’s office told reporters they hadn’t confirmed a date).
Management experts also say there’s little to suggest that Trump is welcoming diverse points of view, and instead seems to be signalling he wants sycophants who are eager to tell him what he wants to hear.
“If you watch someone who disagrees with Trump get fired for that, it is not going to create an environment where you’re going to feel safe or it is worthwhile to disagree,” said Burris, the McCombs School of Business professor.
The prime example, several management experts noted, was the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who declined to defend Trump’s immigration order because she believed it was unconstitutional. Days later a panel of federal judges came to the same conclusion and halted that order.
Another more recent one came Friday, amid news that Shermichael Singleton, a new aide at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and one of the few African-American conservatives in the Trump administration, had been fired because of an op-ed critical of Trump that he’d previously written for The Hill newspaper.
Then on Saturday the White House fired a National Security Council aide who was accused of speaking ill of Trump and top aides during an off-the-record session at a Washington think tank, according to Politico, which broke the news.
For a “team of rivals” atmosphere to be productive, in a corporate office or a government office, there’s a need for mutual respect and trust that all parties are focused on the same long term goals.
“It is not about telling the leader what he wants to hear,” said Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center at the Sloan School of Management. “It is about being on an unfettered search for truth. . . . The question becomes: ‘Who sitting in that room, be it the White House or any other office, is capable of creating a safe enough space where every angle gets surfaced.’ ”
Gregersen pointed to former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote about the difficulty of pinning down the “unknown, unknowns” — those facts and developments that can take an organization or an administration completely by surprise.
“I don’t see enough data that’s saying there is a systematically productive set of actions going on to uncover those blind spots before they become dangerous to, in this case, a country.”
Rumsfeld offered the quote in February 2002, in a Pentagon briefing room when responding to a question about the heightening tensions with Iraq.
“Who is figuring out the answer to these complex, unsolvable issues our country faces?” Gregersen asked. “Who is trying to figure out the ‘unknown, unknowns’ before it is too late. All of that is where a team of rivals can make a difference, if it is done well.”