Off-Message and On Substance

President Trump has been a strategic success and a tactical failure. That’s the genteel way of putting it. The blunt way is that he’s pushed ahead relentlessly on big conservative issues. But more than Democrats or the media, he’s been his own worst enemy, a tactical bull in a china shop.

Trump has a habit of stepping on his own success. He stuffs America’s news hole with tweets, personal attacks on those who cross him, and comments bound to stir the fury of the press. He seems quite comfortable with this approach, even when it means his legitimate accomplishments are overshadowed.

Then there’s the chaos at the White House. Trump is not only comfortable with that, he seems to like it. He thinks it creates a path to success. Meanwhile, his aides are going crazy. They come to work each day not knowing what they’ll be focusing on. That often depends on what he’s tweeted that morning.

At a marathon press conference on February 16, Trump denied there is chaos. “It’s the exact opposite,” he said. “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” Giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, this suggests what others see as chaos, he sees as a clever way of doing business in Washington.

Trump has been advised to calm down by Republican leaders, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. He’s listened but hasn’t changed his style even slightly. McCon­nell and Gingrich have expressed their frustration in public. That hasn’t worked either, at least so far.

In an interview last week, McCon­nell said Trump’s approval rating would be “10 to 15 points higher if he allowed himself to stay on message.” McConnell said he likes “what the president is doing” but “what he’s saying makes everything harder.” Trump’s tweets, comments, jibes, and complaints make it “harder to achieve what you want to achieve.”

Not only that, but McConnell said there’s a theatrical aspect to some of Trump’s comments that cause them to become multi-day stories. When that happens, as it does when Trump responds to criticism, it smothers serious issues.

Part of the problem is the absence of a strong White House chief of staff. Aides insist Trump wants Reince Priebus to be just that. But neither Trump nor his staff appears to know how a real chief of staff would operate. Or if they do, it scares them.

No doubt someone like James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s chief, does. He was tough, demanding, and effective. He ran the White House with an iron hand. He dealt with the press masterfully, always giving reporters a tidbit or more to brag about. Those who defied Baker were punished, and at least one who leaked without permission was exiled to an obscure post in Europe.

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were strong chiefs for Gerald Ford and managed to get him to do things he didn’t want to do. Rahm Emanuel wasn’t quite as effective, but he did a good job in running Barack Obama’s White House.

Trump wouldn’t like the management style of any of those four. It would force him to accept the advice of his top aide. That’s what Ford and Reagan did, less so Obama. But it worked in those cases, spectacularly during the Reagan presidency. Reagan was willing to be managed by handlers. He had bigger things to think about than his schedule or political chores.

“Mr. Trump’s preferred theory of management .  .  . is to encourage multiple competing views and a walk-in-anytime Oval Office policy,” the Wall Street Journal noted last week. “The White House has at least six different power centers, by our conservative count, and they compete for influence, which often means being the last person to speak to the president on an issue.”

Rumsfeld created a similar system for Ford, calling it “spokes of the wheel.” It worked in Ford’s day because Rumsfeld controlled it. Aides had drop-in rights, but Rumsfeld was always looking over their shoulder. He didn’t like surprises. He was in charge.

Everyone—not just McConnell and Gingrich—knows the problem with the Trump administration isn’t the agenda but the president’s untamed style. “It’s pretty clear that Trump is not going to be managed by anyone,” says Tom DeFrank of National Journal, an expert on White House operations after covering presidents since LBJ.

“But Trump has to allow a strong chief of staff to discipline the rest of the staff,” DeFrank says. “It’s impossible for any White House staff with as many power centers as Trump has allowed to operate”—that is, unless someone besides Trump can pull rank on them.

A month into the Trump presidency, the power centers have split into two camps, the regulars who would fit into any Republican White House and the irregulars who wouldn’t. Irregulars Steve Bannon and sidekick Stephen Miller favor what the Journal calls “shock and awe politics.” Priebus, economic chief Gary Cohn, and son-in-law Jared Kushner prefer a more conventional approach. Kellyanne Conway is in between.

Trump may yet learn that it’s not safe to let his top advisers run around without a leash. That’s what Mike Flynn did and we know the result, a full-blown scandal that’s far from fading.

As luck would have it, there’s an example of a Trump initiative that has been widely praised and rightly so. It was the selection of Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court nominee.

The process that led to Gorsuch started last March and ended last month. It was tightly managed. Trump wanted a list of potential conservative nominees. McConnell recommended the Federalist Society and its executive vice president Leonard Leo to provide it. Then Leo and White House counsel Donald McGahn ran things. Trump said next to nothing besides promising to choose from the list. The process ended with a dazzling White House announcement.

It was a strategic and tactical success. More like that and Trump could climb out of the ditch he’s digging for himself.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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