To outward appearances, Donald Trump’s transition has been humming steadily toward his inauguration on Jan. 20. The president-elect has named all but a few members of his prospective Cabinet, and some will begin confirmation hearings this week. Meanwhile, Trump Tower has issued a torrent of White House staff announcements, from a new chief of staff, Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus, to a reality TV star, Omarosa Manigault.
Yet there are signs of trouble, and veterans of past administrations from both parties have warned that chaos almost surely lies ahead.
“Trump is farther behind on taking control of the bureaucracy than any president in recent history,” Paul C. Light of New York University, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars of public management, told me last week. “He’ll be ready to move in on inauguration day, but he won’t have much that’s ready to go, except for cancelling a lot of Obama’s regulations.”
The problem begins with the man at the top. The president-elect comes to the job with the habits of an entrepreneur and a showman, not a manager of large organizations. He’s known for making decisions based on the last advice he heard. He makes policy pronouncements on Twitter, often without his aides knowing in advance. And he’s impatient with hierarchy.
“You'll call my people, you'll call me. It doesn't make any difference,” he told tech executives last month. “We have no formal chain of command around here.”
In the White House, dozens of issues jostle for attention and crises constantly threaten to derail long-term strategy. Usually, it’s the chief of staff’s job to act as a gatekeeper; he controls the president’s meetings and flow of information to make sure the chief executive can focus on his priorities.
In Trump’s case, that will be Priebus, a seasoned political operative who rose from the Wisconsin Republican Party to become chairman of the Republican National Committee and won Trump’s confidence in the process.
But Priebus may not be fully in charge. Instead, aides have described a structure with three top aides: Priebus, political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, and communication strategist Kellyanne Conway. That’s a recipe for confusion.
Defenders of Trump’s troika plan point out that in President Reagan’s successful first term, he had three top aides, too: James A. Baker III, Michael Deaver and Edwin M. Meese. But in that White House, Baker was clearly designated as first among equals; that hasn’t happened in the case of Priebus.
The picture is complicated by the fact that Priebus and Bannon come from intermittently hostile factions in Trump’s coalition.
Priebus, who’s close to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), represents the institutional Republican Party of orthodox conservatism. Bannon, former chief executive of the Breitbart media organization, has said he wants to “hammer” the GOP establishment and oust Ryan as speaker.
Nor is it clear which version of Trumpism the president-elect wants. Trump’s campaign never produced a policy blueprint to settle the question.
Earlier administrations did. “We weren’t confused about what the policy priorities were,” Joshua Bolten, a former chief of staff for George W. Bush, said last month. “We had a 450-page policy book that spelled it out. My concern for the current transition is that they’re not in that sort of position.”
Despite its recent personnel announcements, the Trump team has also been slower than most administrations in filling out its staff.
“They didn’t name a director of personnel until this [last] week,” Light noted. “Most campaigns have one by July or August. He’s got something like 3,300 appointments to make. That’s going to take a lot of time.”
And while Trump’s appointees have business experience, political campaign experience, and military experience, few have any experience in the executive branch.
“Trump has never dealt with a bureaucracy like this,” Light said. “His businesses are flat, and that’s fine. But the federal government is arguably the least flat organization there is; it has 63 layers of executives and managers.”
“He’s got nobody around him with a deep understanding of how to manage the bureaucracy to support his policies.”
Trump could surprise us; he’s done it before. His presidential campaign was underrated all along.
But a measure of chaos is the norm for any inexperienced president, and can quickly engulf his administration. President Clinton, for example, had a terrible first year – and he had been a governor for more than a decade.
White House aides like to quote Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ran a large organization — the U.S. Army in Europe — before he became president:
“Organization cannot make a genius out of an incompetent,” Eisenhower wrote. “On the other hand, disorganization … can easily lead to disaster.”
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