President Donald Trump went rogue in his own White House last week, blindsiding his staff by announcing he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. His motives apparently had little do with trade policy. NBC News, citing two unnamed officials, reported that “Trump’s decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team.” Those “simmering issues” include the resignation of communications director Hope Hicks, his close confidant; the downgrading of Jared Kushner’s security clearance, which will limit his son-in-law’s ability to advise the president; and the open defiance of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who stood up to Trump’s bullying over the Russia investigation.
Frustrated by events he could not control, Trump exerted his executive authority by making a unilateral decision. “When White House aides arrived at work on Thursday,” The New York Times reported, “they had no clear idea of what Mr. Trump would say about trade.” The White House was thus forced to roll out a major new policy, with lasting implications for the global economy, on the fly. One White House staffer admitted not even understanding the policy:
Everyone, it seems, is confused—even those whom the policy might help. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “the lack of details about Mr. Trump’s tariff plan injected major unknowns into business planning, executives and trade groups say.” Does the tariff apply to all steel and aluminum? From every country? “No one knows yet,” a Washington lobbyist told the Journal. “I don’t think the president knows.” Some U.S. manufacturers worry the tariffs will “drive up domestic prices and fuel inflation.”
The European Union, Canada, and China are already threatening to respond in kind. The Times reported that U.S. trade partners “promised to retaliate against quintessential American goods like Kentucky bourbon, bluejeans and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. That is likely to turn into a wave of protest aimed at American products as other countries, including traditional allies, respond to Mr. Trump’s plan to clamp down on imports of metals from overseas.” The president may well get the trade war he seeks.
The tariffs are a prime example of the dangers of Trump’s management style. “For 13 months in the Oval Office, and in an unorthodox business career before that, Donald J. Trump has thrived on chaos, using it as an organizing principle and even a management tool,” the Times’ Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman wrote. “Now the costs of that chaos are becoming starkly clear in the demoralized staff and policy disarray of a wayward White House.” At Politico, John Harris and Andrew Restuccia described “this week’s spasm of sudden policy lurches, graceless personal insults, oozing scandal news, and ceaseless West Wing knife fights” as “the starkest example to date of President Donald Trump’s executive style looking untenable not merely from the outside—from the perspective of establishment politicians and media analysts—but from the inside, too.”
As dysfunctional as the White House is today, it likely will get worse because Trump is trapped in a vicious circle. His management style makes it difficult for him to hire and retain qualified people. This leads to an understaffed and relatively inexperienced White House, one prone to burnout and poor decision-making. And as more staffers leave, the fewer people remain to advise Trump responsibly and rein in his excesses. If this pattern continues, a trade war might seem tame compared to the wars an “isolated and angry” Trump is willing to wage.
Trump has struggled with staffing from the start. Early in his presidency, after his extremist and shambolic campaign, there was a public debate about whether Republicans who would have joined a normal GOP administration should steer clear of Trump’s, for fear of being tarnished, or work for him out of a public duty to ensure a functioning government. Many veteran Republicans decided to steer clear, while others where blackballed by Trump loyalists for criticizing him before the election. Ultimately Trump was able to cobble together a makeshift administration made up of family members (Kushner, Ivanka Trump), cronies (Hicks), opportunists (Kellyanne Conway), ideologues (Steve Bannon), plutocrats (Gary Cohn, Steve Mnuchin), and military leaders (both retired and current) who felt a moral compulsion to serve (James Mattis, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster).
Some of this motley crew have left already (Hicks, Bannon) or seem on their way out (McMaster). They join a long and growing list of departures. “In recent months, top advisers on foreign and domestic policy have announced their departures,” CNN
reported at the beginning of the year. “Additional aides are expected to make their exit in the coming weeks. Chief of staff John Kelly has embarked upon an effort to fill the ranks by the end of January. But the absence of willing and qualified replacements, paired with a lengthy hiring process, make it unlikely he’ll reach that goal.” Citing Republican sources, Politico reported that “Trump’s White House has had difficulty attracting outside talent as a result of the Russia probe, the complicated government vetting process and the cap on federal employees’ salaries.” Since then, the thinning of the White House has become so rampant that it has become an Onion joke: “Nation Not Sure How Many Ex-Trump Staffers It Can Safely Reabsorb.”
Some turnover can be expected at this point in a president’s term. But the frequency of departures, and the reasons for it, are unusual. “It is common for administrations to see turnover in their second year,” noted The Atlantic’s David Graham. “But there are also Trump-specific circumstances: It’s clear that working for this president is particularly trying; there remain serious disagreements about policy; and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation haunts the White House.” In other words, the clouds over the White House are only growing more ominous, increasing the stress on the staffers who remain and scaring away those who might otherwise rush to join a Republican administration. This vicious cycle may get more vicious yet.
In the past, some people expressed hope that the “adults” in the White House would restrain Trump. But perhaps they underestimated just how challenging a job it is to parent Trump. As Times’ Paul Krugman tweeted:
“Morale in the West Wing has sunk to a new low,” Landler and Haberman wrote. It is hard to see, as the departures mount, how morale does not sink lower. “These are the darkest days in at least half a year,” The Washington Post reported, and White House aides “worry just how much farther President Trump and his administration may plunge into unrest and malaise before they start to recover. As one official put it: ‘We haven’t bottomed out.’”
Trump is now a president in transition, at times angry and increasingly isolated. He fumes in private that just about every time he looks up at a television screen, the cable news headlines are trumpeting yet another scandal. He voices frustration that son-in-law Jared Kushner has few on-air defenders. He revives old grudges. And he confides to friends that he is uncertain about whom to trust.
As Trump’s staff dwindles, he’ll become angrier and more isolated, prompting him to lash out in unimaginable ways. This could have far greater consequences for the U.S. than a trade war over metals. Trump could declare a war—full stop. And who will restrain him? The obsequious Republicans in Congress? The powerless Democrats? It may turn out that the only adults who can stop Trump now are those who exert their influence through the polling booth.