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The Worst Boss in America

Donald Trump isn't a shrewd executive. He's a workplace bully—and it's undermining his policy agenda.

Pool/Getty Images

The president wants to make sure you understand that everything is going just fine in the White House. “Don’t let the FAKE NEWS tell you that there is big infighting in the Trump Admin,” Trump tweeted this morning. “We are getting along great, and getting major things done!” This unconvincing denial was designed to rebut multiple reports of a shambolic White House, notably an in-depth Washington Post report on the emotional rollercoaster ride that took Trump from the high of a much-praised address to Congress to the low of a weekend where he blindsided his own staff with a series of evidence-free tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him during the election.

It’s understandable that Trump is upset by news stories about his management style, since they hit him on one of his supposed strengths. On the campaign trail, he sold himself as his Celebrity Apprentice character: a tough but shrewd boss who could quickly apprise the skills of his employees. He claimed that, as a businessman, he had the skills to get things done in a Washington gridlocked by professional politicians. But we knew little about Trump’s management skills prior to his assuming the presidency. The Trump Organization is a private firm, hence its inner workings are opaque, especially since Trump habitually made his employees sign non-disclosure agreements.

Last year, Politico’s Michael Kruse delivered perhaps the most fruitful investigation into Trump’s executive style:

Rather than magisterial and decisive, Trump the actual boss swings wildly between micromanaging meddler and can’t-be-bothered, broad-brush, big-picture thinker. He is both impulsive and intuitive, for better and for worse. He hires on gut instinct rather than qualifications; he listens to others, but not as much or as often as he listens to himself. He’s loyal—“like, this great loyalty freak,” as he once put it—except when he’s not.

His unpredictability in the boardroom is not a quirk but a hallmark, according to those who’ve worked with him for years. He is on the job around the clock, and expects those on his payroll to be the same way, but also resists a rigid schedule—he is, in other words, an unstructured workaholic. The way he manages his people and properties, too, is a reflection of his abiding conviction in the value of unfettered competition—between his own staffers, between himself and his staffers and vendors and contractors, and ultimately between himself and the rest of the world.

Now that Trump is president, the most public job in America, his managerial skills are much easier to gauge. Kruse’s damning portrait largely holds true. Trump is a workplace bully—capricious, temperamental, quick to blame underlings for his own failures, endlessly hungry for praise, and prone to making rash decisions that create more work for his staff.

We got a vivid picture of Trump’s behavior after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from an investigation into Russian interference in the election. There were “a lot of expletives” when Trump arrived at the White House on Thursday night, according to CNN. “Nobody has seen him that upset,” a source told the network. The following morning, by The Washington Post’s account, Trump “simmered with rage” and “upbraided” his staff “over Sessions’s decision to recuse himself, believing that Sessions had succumbed to pressure from the media and other critics instead of fighting with the full defenses of the White House.” Trump returned to Florida and, on Saturday morning, surprised his staff with the anti-Obama tweets, scrambling his press office to cobble together a response.

Blowing off steam in this way gave Trump only temporary relief.

“Trump was brighter Sunday morning as he read several newspapers, pleased that his allegations against Obama were the dominant story,” the Post reported. “But he found reason to be mad again: Few Republicans were defending him on the Sunday political talk shows.”

On a day-to-day basis, Trump’s helter-skelter approach as a boss has deleterious effects on those who have to work with him. They have to attend to his mood shifts and soothe him; they also have to clean up his myriad messes. But as the nation’s chief executive, Trump presides over a vast government that has to deal not with his shifting emotions, but the policy implications of his unpredictable statements and decisions.

The consequences of Trump’s management style are hard to predict. Some agencies, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection, have been empowered by the chaos. After Trump issued his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations, for instance, it was unclear who was supposed to implement it. Vox’s Dara Lind reported:

Customs and Border Protection agents implemented it themselves. Given a great deal of authority to enforce the order — with little or no training on how, precisely, to do that — and the implicit blessing of the president himself, they’ve stepped into the vacuum of authority to enforce the order as broadly and harshly as possible.

Reports are rampant of agents detaining people trying to enter the US, depriving them of food and medicine; ignoring (if not outright resisting) federal court orders to release detainees or at least grant them access to lawyers; and asking green card holders intrusive questions about their politics that could be seen as a loyalty test.

These aren’t powers that the executive order, per se, gave to CBP agents. They’re powers the Trump administration has granted them.

Conversely, agencies that feel under attack by the president, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency, are likely to become demoralized—and to spring leaks that will only further enrage the president.

Beyond its impact on individual agencies, Trump’s tumultuous managerial approach is likely to undermine his policy agenda, as he and his staff get bogged down in petty public-relations battles. This is a mixed blessing for Trump’s opponents: a presidency with a weak policy legacy, but at the cost of government in constant turmoil. But we still don’t how Trump will react to a crisis not of his own making. If he flies off the handle over unfavorable news coverage of his administration, how will he handle a terrorist attack or Katrina-level natural disaster?

The good news is that Trump is such a bad boss that he’s destroying his own presidency. The bad news is that he could take America down with him.