It’s official: Donald Trump is presiding over the most chaotic White House in modern history — and the disorder is not only upending his presidency, it’s hurting Republican chances in November’s congressional elections.
Last month, the Brookings Institution released statistics tracking the turmoil in Trump’s Cabinet and staff. Since his inauguration, the study found, almost half of all top White House positions have changed hands, some more than once.
Trump’s first-year turnover was about twice as great as what Ronald Reagan saw in 1981, three times as great as Barack Obama’s in 2009. The president is already on his second chief of staff, his third national security advisor and, soon, his fifth communications director.
And there’s more to come. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is said to be on the way out, and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt could be the fifth Cabinet officer to be fired. Trump has mused about having no chief of staff, or maybe four of them — innovations that seem unlikely to improve matters. His nominee as secretary of Veterans Affairs, the White House physician, has drawn criticism for lack of management experience.
Meanwhile, dozens of top jobs still haven’t been filled — some because of Democratic resistance in Congress, but many because the administration hasn’t nominated anybody.
The chaos goes well beyond hiring and firing. Trump is governing impulsively, by tweet. Cabinet members, aides and lobbyists jockey to get on Fox News, knowing that’s the best way to reach the president’s ear. Congressional leaders in both parties complain that they can’t make a deal with the White House and know it will stick.
“I’ve never seen a White House as mismanaged as this one,” a top advisor to an earlier Republican president told me last week. He didn’t want to be named because he didn’t want to provoke the ire of the president.
“It’s worse than Carter, worse than Clinton,” said another former GOP White House aide, referring to the famously chaotic first years of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The tumult makes great fodder for cable newscasts, of course. But it also has real consequences for federal policy, and for election-year politics, too.
“The biggest impact is on what isn’t getting done,” the former White House aide said. “Trump isn’t getting his wall built. He isn’t getting an infrastructure plan. He isn’t getting people confirmed.”
Republicans in Congress appear to be increasingly willing to cut their own deals on legislation, without looking for direction from the White House. The bipartisan spending bill Congress passed at the 11th hour last month increased military funding but didn’t have much to do with the president’s agenda beyond that. He called the measure “ridiculous” and threatened to veto it but signed it anyway.
Much of what Trump claims he has accomplished is getting lost in chaos, too. “He’s announced a lot of deregulation, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually getting done,” noted Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings scholar. “It takes a long time to get a new regulation done. If you don’t have an assistant secretary [in the relevant agency] moving the process forward, it’s not going to happen.”
The wheel-spinning has political consequences. Trump has held onto his base of support among conservative Republicans, but he hasn’t grown it. His approval rating in public opinion polls has been stuck within a few points of 40% for more than a year. (The president crowed this week about hitting 50% in one conservative-leaning survey, but that was an outlier.)
Trump’s inability to build more support is striking at a time when the economy has been growing and employment rising. Most presidents see their public standing climb when the economy does well. Trump’s flat poll numbers amid a healthy economy are a remarkable negative achievement.
One reason for the president’s shortfall: Voters have noticed the chaos and don’t like it. A CNN Poll last month found that only 40% gave Trump credit for “managing the government effectively.” (Still, that’s better than the 36% who called him “honest and trustworthy.”)
The president’s flagging poll numbers mean he’s likely to be a serious drag on Republicans running in swing districts this fall, increasing the Democrats' chances of taking control of the House of Representatives, and if the GOP loses in November, some Republicans will blame Trump’s mismanagement.
“That will be the most terrible consequence of the chaos, if it happens,” the former White House aide said.
If Democrats win the House, that will make the president’s troubles far worse. He’ll face a mountain of resistance to his remaining legislative agenda, more investigations of his administration and a move by some Democrats to launch impeachment hearings.
Within his own party, pressure will increase for candidates to challenge him in the presidential primaries. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake are already circling.
When he ran for president, Trump promised that as a businessman, he would be a better manager than any conventional politician. “I alone can fix it,” he said.
But when it comes to the chaos in his own White House, the president hasn’t done much fixing. “He doesn’t seem to know he has a problem,” the former advisor said.
Managing the government well was one of Trump’s core campaign promises, along with “draining the swamp.” He’s failed spectacularly at both — and, unfortunately for the GOP, most voters have noticed.