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The Roots and Risks of Trump’s Dysfunction

The administration is consumed by paranoia and feuds. It could be the president's undoing.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Nearly two months since Inauguration Day, the Trump administration still can’t find its sea legs and is increasingly beset with internal strife and suspicion. “A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies—inside their own government,” Politico reported on Wednesday. An unending wave of leaks to the press, often in the service of factional feuds, has led to an increasingly dysfunctional White House. “Aides are going to great lengths to protect themselves. They’re turning off work-issued smartphones and putting them in drawers when they arrive home from work out of fear that they could be used to eavesdrop. They’re staying mum in meetings out of concern that their comments could be leaked to the press by foes.” 

Yet the leaks, infighting, and paranoia are merely symptomatic of a deeper problem: President Donald Trump’s failure to fill countless key positions as he presides over “the slowest transition in decades.” While he claims these jobs remain unfilled by design, the real reason is that Trump is a political neophyte and ideological outsider—neither of which are likely to change in the near term. That portends, in the longer term, a dysfunctional government and bunkered White House that lead to Trump’s undoing.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is fond of the adage that “personnel is policy.” In the Trump administration, personnel is also the problem. Trump and Bannon have a radical “America first” agenda that puts them at odds with many in their own party and also in the bureaucracy: They favor an extremely restrictionist immigration policy, a protectionist trade policy, and a foreign policy that abandons old alliances in favor of unorthodox new partnerships, notably with Russia. To fully implement this agenda, they need to staff the administration with loyalists. But their difficulty in finding enough qualified loyalists has led them to rely on more mainstream figures, while also leaving many positions unfilled.

Trump and Bannon are generals without enough lieutenants, unable to recruit the enough ideological loyalists because their network simply isn’t large enough. “Trump’s worldview is in a tiny minority within his own administration,” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institute wrote this week at Politico Magazine. “His national security team is primarily composed of people who want to maintain U.S. alliances, an open global economy and support for universal values. The reason why Trump ended up with such a team is, in part, because there are no think tanks or academic cabals that are working out how to translate his visceral beliefs into policy...Whether it was by intent or design, the effect of his choice was to voluntarily surrender the bureaucracy to ideological opponents of his America First worldview.

Although they’ve granted power to mainstream figures like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Trump and Bannon still want to control hiring at a lower level, to shore up their power with as many loyalists as possible. This has caused many clashes over personnel. When McMaster tried to remove Ezra Cohen-Watnick (a protege of Michael Flynn, the president’s short-lived national security adviser, and a perceived Trump loyalist) from a key position on the National Security Council, he was overruled by Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner. To date, Mattis is Trump’s only appointment to the Pentagon because the defense secretary has been roadblocked by Trump loyalist Mira Ricardel, who “has been a vital part of the nominee review process,” according to DefenseNews.

In much of the media analysis of Trump’s personnel problems focuses on the danger of government paralysis. “The lag [in hiring] has left critical power centers in his government devoid of leadership as he struggles to advance policy priorities on issues like health care, taxes, trade and environmental regulation,” the New York Times reported over the weekend. “Many federal agencies and offices are in states of suspended animation, their career civil servants answering to temporary bosses whose influence and staying power are unclear, and who are sometimes awaiting policy direction from appointees whose arrival may be weeks or months away.” But the greater problem might be paranoia, leading to a government that not only can’t execute policy, but is actively at war with itself. As Trump and Bannon become frustrated at their inability to execute policy, the temptation will increase to blame “Deep State”—a concept Bannon has embraced, declaring his wish for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Trump has already made a virtue of necessity by arguing that the unfilled positions are a deliberate move to shrink the government“A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” the president told Fox News last month.  “You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.” Few believe that this an intentional strategy, and anyway it would be a foolish one. The best way to shrink the government would be to appoint loyalists to key positions, so that they could then fire career civil servants. Quite the opposite is happening right now. Key positions remain unfilled, while civil servants and Obama holdovers leak unflattering information about the administration.

Bannon’s hostility toward the federal government and Trump’s reliance on a few loyalists point down a dangerous path. Bannon and Trump could be happy to preside over a deeply dysfunctional government, as long as they can blame someone else, be it career civil servants, the “deep state,” or holdovers from the Obama administration. The administration could split into two: A small cadre of loyalists in the White House feuding with the very government they are supposed to oversee. Bannon’s “Leninist” desire to deconstruct the administrative state could be a slogan for a presidency that’s happy to forgo the running of government in order to provide the ideological drama of an outsider president battling the saboteurs and subversives. 

Such an outcome might be satisfying to Bannon, but it’s hard to square with any push for a productive agenda, be it building a wall on the Mexican border or renegotiating trade agreements. To be sure, there have been presidents who have been able to combine feuding with career bureaucrats with actual policy change. Thomas Wright cites the example of Richard Nixon, who engineered the opening to China through covert negotiations that circumvented both the State Department and the Pentagon. But as Wright notes, “[I]t requires people with the technical brilliance of Nixon and Henry Kissinger to do such a thing.”

Trump has shown little of Nixon’s command of policy, and moreover, Nixon’s achievement came at a price. The very secretiveness that allowed him to outsmart the military industrial complex also fueled his war against leaks, ultimately leading to his undoing in the Watergate scandal. With Trump, we might have the worst of all possible worlds: Nixon’s paranoia without his achievements.