How 'chaos theory' puts strain on White House
From the day Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign nearly two years ago, disruption has been his constant companion.
This week, the turmoil reached new heights. One of President Trump’s longest-serving and closest aides, communications director Hope Hicks, announced her resignation. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and another senior aide, lost his top-secret security clearance amid complications over his FBI background check – a major blow to Mr. Kushner’s ability to oversee key policy areas.
It was White House chief of staff John Kelly who knee-capped Kushner, amid a broader effort to rein in temporary security clearances. But it was Mr. Trump himself who turned those headwinds into a full-force hurricane: He revived his bitter public feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over alleged FBI surveillance abuse. He shockingly bucked the National Rifle Association on gun control, only to make nice with the powerful lobby group the next day. And he raised the possibility of a trade war – and even more resignations of top aides – with a surprise announcement of sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs, news that sent the stock market plummeting.
At heart, it was a week of essential Trump – showcasing a leadership style that thrives on norm-busting, pitting opposing sides against one another, and breeding turmoil. It’s a tactic he regularly employed in business, says Trump biographer Gwenda Blair.
“His grandfather, his father, and him – it’s part of their family culture,” says Ms. Blair. “Push the envelope.”
President Lincoln famously put in place a “team of rivals,” a technique other presidents have emulated as a way to keep opponents inside the tent rather than allowing them to disrupt from without. The idea, also, is to craft solutions amid healthy debate.
But Trump has turned the team of rivals concept into a “chaos theory” of government, in which even some of his most loyal aides give up and leave – or find themselves on the losing end of a power struggle and are fired.
Barely 13 months into his presidency, Trump has left Washington and many longtime students of government at a loss for how this scenario plays out long term.
“I think we are in uncharted territory,” says Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. “There comes a point where it’s not just an increase in speed or turnover. We ought to be calling in Stephen Hawking for advice. We seem to be in some kind of parallel world.”
‘Let Trump be Trump’
Anthony Scaramucci, a Trump friend who briefly served as White House communications director last year, says the answer is simply to “let Trump be Trump.”
“I think the president is being well-served by people that allow him to be the president,” Mr. Scaramucci said Thursday on Fox News. “If the president watches your show, I would say, ‘Go back to being Trump. You don't have to be President Trump. Go back to being Trump.’ "
Scaramucci’s operatic tenure in the communications chair set a land-speed record for brevity when Kelly came in and fired him after just 11 days on the job. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, instituted processes that restricted access to the president, including the information that would reach his desk.
Within weeks Ms. Hicks assumed the top communications job, but that title belied her role as the closest non-family member to the president in the West Wing. She was dubbed “the Trump whisperer,” almost like another daughter. She knew how to read Trump’s moods and could help steer the president away from unwise tweets, say people familiar with the inner workings of the White House.
Unlike most White House communications directors, Hicks was not a highly visible figure, and did not appear on television as a White House surrogate. Instead, she worked messaging strategy from the inside, leaving more outward-facing communications to others. She was also known not to like Washington, and when her relationship with former staff secretary Rob Porter became tabloid fodder, it seemed only a matter of time before she would leave. Mr. Porter’s resignation, amid allegations of domestic abuse of his ex-wives, only made the optics more toxic.
The Trump White House, post-Hicks, will test all who remain. Few of Trump’s original top aides are still there, in an administration that has set records for turnover. Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, identifies 12 “tier one” positions in the White House – the most senior of senior staff. In Trump’s first year, half of those positions turned over, including his national security adviser, chief of staff, and spokesman. With the departure of Porter, the number is up to seven. (Notably, that doesn't even reflect those positions that have turned over more than once – such as communications director, where Trump is now looking to hire his fifth.)
“No president has even come close to that,” says Ms. Tenpas, referring to her comparison of Trump with his five immediate predecessors.
President Barack Obama in his first year lost one tier-one aide, White House counsel Greg Craig, and President George W. Bush lost zero, she reports. Typically, it’s the second year of a presidency when the turnovers begin in earnest, as staff jobs can be highly stressful on aides and their families.
Finding replacements a growing challenge
Filling those openings with top-notch replacements may be a challenge. Many experienced Republicans have not been willing to serve in the Trump administration, or have been rejected by Trump over critical comments made during the campaign or since.
“With each day the turmoil continues, it will be more and more difficult to attract sound, qualified replacements,” says presidential historian David Pietrusza.
What about Republicans who may be willing to serve, for the good of the country, despite reservations about Trump?
“That would be great, if you can find people willing to do that,” says Dr. Tenpas. “But you know, those jobs are really difficult, and they don’t pay the same as the jobs people are in already. Look at all those in the executive branch, with long service in government, taking early retirement and leaving because they are just so frustrated.”
“We’re losing all kinds of expertise,” she adds, “not just in the White House.”