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How Not to Run the White House

What Trump and his chief of staff failed to learn from their predecessors


If nothing else does it, the current scandal engulfing the Trump White House—which has quickly metastasized from a matter of disregarding repeated FBI reports of wife-beating by a top official to one of recklessness in the handling of top secret information—should bring home the point that governing is serious business. And that those who don’t take it seriously are headed for trouble. The White House is in more trouble now than presidencies in modern history have been after just a year in office. The Republican strategist Steve Schmidt was correct in his anguished comment on MSNBC that “this isn’t normal.” Moreover, the abnormality is spreading—and it will be difficult to rein in. Too much bad blood is being allowed to spill; pent-up resentments are being acted upon; the once-quiet knifing among staff members has turned into warfare.

A White House reflects the person at the top. John F. Kennedy’s mirrored the combination of idealism and cynicism of the president, and for all the excitement that Kennedy’s “new frontier” radiated, he hadn’t achieved all that much before his life and his presidency were cut short. Still, the most important thing Kennedy did was to make government service an exciting calling; people flocked to Washington because they wanted to serve. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president and successor, deeply believed in government as an instrument for improving people’s lives, and his White House employed capable figures. Richard Nixon’s staff implemented his paranoia, which ultimately brought him down (and sent several of his aides to jail). But numerous federal programs were begun during his presidency—in large part because he faced a Democratic Congress, which among other things was populated with strong environmentalists (preeminently senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edmund Muskie of Maine). Nixon has gotten credit for hatching the Environmental Protection Agency, which the current administration is deconstructing as quickly as it can. But Nixon was no environmentalist: He privately and not atypically called the movement that began during his White House years “crap for clowns.” Nixon proposed a guaranteed income—a radical notion then as now—but instructed his aides to make sure that it didn’t survive in Congress (which it didn’t). Still, Nixon, a former congressman, senator, and vice president, was the last Republican president to believe in government as a positive good.

Even Ronald Reagan, no fan of government programs, took governing seriously. Reagan, about whom many observers joked when he ran for president that he was but a B-movie actor, had been a two-term governor of California. And after his election to the presidency in 1980 he chose as his chief of staff not one of the Californians who had been close to him for years but an experienced Washington hand. James Baker, a Texan who was close to George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and then successor, had run two campaigns against Reagan: those of Jerry Ford for the nomination in 1976 and Bush’s for the presidency in 1980. After Reagan won the nomination and picked Bush to be his vice president, Reagan turned to Baker to run his White House. Baker’s been widely acclaimed as one of the smartest and savviest chiefs of staff. (Though they held different positions, Baker’s standing is likened to that of Joseph Califano in Lyndon Johnson’s White House.) Baker ostensibly shared power with two longtime California aides to Reagan (Ed Meese and Michael Deaver), but he was without question the first among equals.

The way Reagan let Baker play the role of chief of staff should be the model for how to run a White House, but the way each subsequent president ran his White House (or let it be run) has been sui generis, depending on his personality. Jimmy Carter, for example, didn’t think he needed a chief of staff for a while, and involved himself in such details as who would use the White House tennis courts. (After two and a half years of no one in the job, Carter appointed close aide Hamilton Jordan, who served until close to the end, but the combined inexperience in Washington of Carter and his top aides led to a one-term presidency.) Bill Clinton chose a friend since kindergarten, Mack McLarty, undoubtedly figuring he could be trusted, but McLarty knew little about Washington or governing and flamed out after a year; Clinton went through three more chiefs of staff and was the first two-term Democratic president since FDR.

The way Reagan worked with Baker was that Reagan would set the tone, make the big speeches, involve himself in international matters (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”), and that Baker would run the White House. Though Reagan was seen as an ideologue, he chose a crafty pragmatist to run the White House and by extension the government. In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last summer, at the time that Reince Priebus’s role as chief of staff was in meltdown, Baker stated the clue for achieving a successful White House: First, he said, the president “has to empower a strong chief of staff,” and then added, crucially, that Reaganlet me staff the White House and I staffed it with people who’d understood government, who’d been in Washington before and who wanted to get things done.”

For example, Baker’s closest aide in the White House was Richard Darman, who previously had served in five government departments, including the Commerce Department where Baker had been an under secretary in the Ford presidency until he left to run Ford’s presidential campaign in 1976, which Ford lost narrowly to Carter. (Baker had a peripheral role in Nixon’s presidency.)

Baker recognized Darman’s pragmatic brilliance and kept him close as he took on various high-level jobs, including those of secretary of the treasury and secretary of state during Reagan’s second term. As it happens, Darman’s first White House job was as staff secretary, making him a predecessor to Rob Porter, the focus of the latest scandal. (After Baker left the White House, Reagan installed Don Regan, formerly secretary of the treasury—in effect, Baker and Regan switched jobs—but Regan made the mistake of considering himself not only something of a prime minister but also a rude one. And one of the people he insulted, most unwisely, was Nancy Reagan, who engineered his ouster by working through among others Katherine Graham, then the owner of The Washington Post. Post editorials were deservedly unkind to Regan.)

While Ronald Reagan could run against Washington yet populate his White House with experienced Washington operators, Trump ran against Washington and didn’t change his attitude toward it when it came to staffing his presidency. Further, he ruled out anyone who hadn’t wholeheartedly supported him—even experts who might have co-signed a letter in opposition to him. He had few experienced people to choose among. The reverse was also true: Experienced Republican hands weren’t drawn to serve a man known to be unusually temperamental. By the time Trump took office it was widely understood that he didn’t bother to inform himself on issues and that he indulged himself in screaming at aides. (Bill Clinton was also a yeller, but that usually occurred in the early mornings and Clinton didn’t carry grudges into his daily business.) Trump ran against the Washington “swamp,” but that swamp is populated not only with interest groups but also with people knowledgeable about the ways of Washington. That Trump chose the former head of the Republican National Committee, Priebus, was in fact a bow to the Republican establishment. But Priebus, a weak figure as RNC head, also wasn’t empowered by Trump to run a disciplined White House.

Trump messed up his own situation further by putting his daughter and son-in-law—two people who were unfireable—on the White House staff. Trouble could only flow from that, and it did. Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner cultivated members of the press and let them know that they had come to Washington to try to rein in the new president, to moderate his behavior. Obviously, they weren’t wildly successful. But, like him, neither of them had had five minutes of government experience. Ivanka and Jared got involved in White House personnel decisions and feuds—Kushner famously encouraged his father-in-law to make his first big mistake, to fire FBI Director James Comey. Inevitably, other staff members were jealous of the family prerogatives with the president and Kelly’s efforts to make them into just another couple of staff members also inevitably fell short. Though Kushner has been less visible than in the early months of the Trump presidency, he’s still supposedly in charge of finding a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, a prospect not particularly helped by Trump’s sudden recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without getting anything in return—a move championed by Kushner. He’s also ostensibly still heading a plan to “revitalize” the government. Of greater note to most observers is how much interest the special counsel Robert Mueller is taking in Kushner’s financial arrangements and his dealings with certain Russians. (It may be recalled that during the transition Kushner suggested a secret line of communication between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin—run through the Russian embassy, which wouldn’t make it very secret from the Russian government, but Americans were another matter.) Kushner’s name became more prominent in recent days when it turned out that, like Porter, he hadn’t been given a top security clearance to read highly classified material but was doing so, anyway. (He had been on an “interim” clearance for an uncommonly long time.)

When John Kelly replaced Preibus—Trump once more indulging his fondness for generals—Kelly made it clear that he was determined to bring some organizational sense to the White House, but that he wouldn’t try to manage the president. It’s not that his predecessors as chief of staff had managed their presidents but none needed more discipline than Donald Trump does. Thus, while Kelly succeeded in ridding the White House staff of people seen as troublemakers (who are among those now trying to bring Kelly down), as long as Trump insists on tweeting in a way that can upend policy or inflame an entire segment of the public, so long as he clearly thinks that lying is an acceptable mode of governing, so long as he remains impetuous and at the same time both essentially uninformed on many important issues and persuadable, so long as he muses aloud about replacing key figures, including Kelly, the Trump White House won’t be a stable place.

Therefore it doesn’t much matter who is Trump’s chief of staff.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Trump recognized Palestine as the capital of Israel. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital.