President Trump has a staff problem. Well, actually, make that three staff problems.
The first problem is with the people he has fired or pushed to resign. The White House has become something of a revolving door these past few months, with high-level staff churning in and out at a remarkable pace.
In presidencies past, I’m not sure I could have accurately listed more than handful of administration functionaries by name, because the bulk of their work and statements were mundane promulgations of their president’s agenda.
With Trump, though, it’s as if we’ve entered a national reality show, and almost every week somebody gets kicked off. Yates, Flynn, Comey, Spicer, Priebus, Scaramucci — we all know these names because the firings and resignations just keep coming. Whatever optimistic fibs Trump tells himself and the public, you don’t have to be inside the West Wing to know it’s in chaos.
The second problem is with the people Trump hasn’t hired. At this stage in his administration, the president lags significantly behind his predecessors in terms of political appointments. As of mid-July, for example, Politico reported Trump had confirmed a mere 49 appointees, “compared to 201 for Barack Obama, 185 for George W. Bush, 196 for Bill Clinton and 148 for George H.W. Bush” at the same point in their presidencies.
While the White House may be right to place some of the blame for this pace on Democratic obstructionism in Congress, Trump’s slow rate of making appointments and his insistence that the Senate devote its time and votes exclusively to major agenda items like health care reform surely isn’t helping. This past Sunday, for example, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Trump wants the Senate to literally stop all other votes until it fixes Obamacare. You can see how that might gum up the works.
(My libertarianism at this point compels me to point out that when all these positions remain empty, and yet the United States continues to function, it should tell you something about the excessive size and scope of our government.)
The third problem is with the people Trump has hired and kept. Some of them are objectionable primarily on policy grounds, chief among them Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who may soon be moving to the first problem category if the president stays his current course. Sessions’ record on criminal justice is authoritarian and unethical at every turn; he takes a deeply inhumane and discredited approach to the drug war and maintains a callous disregard for individual liberty and private property.
Other Trump hires are problematic because of the conflicts of interest they entail. Here I am thinking primarily of his decision to hire his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as top White House advisers. True, neither is accepting a federal salary, and the Justice Department decided Trump would not run afoul of any laws by hiring family. But those details can’t wash away a certain ‘swampiness,’ if you will, about the whole situation. Hiring family will always offer critics a foothold wherever Ivanka and Jared are involved. The stench of nepotism will always raise questions and undercut even the most innocent and wise decisions that could come out of the Trump White House.
And still other Trump hires are problems — as Trump himself is obsessively aware — because they just can’t seem to keep their mouths shut.
This week, former general and Homeland Security secretary John Kelly took over as White House chief of staff. In this role, he is supposed to get the presidency back on track and solve these staffing problems. Kelly has come out swinging with the firing of the foul-mouthed Anthony Scaramucci, but however well the retired general succeeds at imposing military discipline on the staffing situation, it would be a mistake to expect him to fix this administration.
That’s because hiring the right people won’t make Trump a good president. It can’t, because Trump lacks the character for the office, and the office has become a gross distortion of itself. Trump has demonstrated over and over that he has spent seven decades failing to cultivate the personal discipline, integrity and compassion that would suit him to implement good policy — and he brings that indecent irresponsibility to an office defined by license and overgrown authority.
In that context, whom Trump (or Kelly in his stead) hires and fires can only matter so much. If this administration lasts long enough for the staffing problems to be resolved, Trump will still be Trump, and the imperial presidency will still be the imperial presidency.