On the outside, it looks the same.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trump's Wild-Card Administration

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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I don’t think it has sunk in yet just how unpredictable virtually everything in Donald Trump’s administration is going to be.

To begin with, the incoming tweeter-in-chief has taken positions on both sides of many issues. Maybe he has thought through a number of policies and maybe he hasn’t, but either way we know almost nothing of his preferences beyond those that appear to be based on instinct (trade deals bad, Putin good).

And this is only the beginning.

Recent presidents have been fairly predictable because they were partisan. Their actions, including personnel choices, reflected the views of the majority coalition within their party. Even those White House staffers whom we think of as having close ties to the president (George Stephanopoulos for Bill Clinton, Karl Rove for George W. Bush, David Axelrod and David Plouffe for Barack Obama) had careers as Democratic or Republican campaign or governing professionals before their better-known connection was established. As such, they could be seen as partisan actors, not presidential loyalists, and were part of the process of constraining the president. 

Trump’s White House is going to be different, but it’s hard to describe exactly how. From the evidence so far, the White House isn’t going to be like those in the 1960s and 1970s, when personal loyalists with weak (if any) party ties held important positions. The most notable example was under Richard Nixon, whose top two staffers, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, were solely loyal to him.

By contrast, Trump’s White House staff is shaping up as surprisingly normal so far. You can’t get any more “party” than Reince Priebus, the outgoing Republican Party chair who will be, along with Steve Bannon, one of the new president’s top two advisers. Even Bannon has been at the extended fringes of the GOP network. Neither man has a long-term relationship with Trump. Neither was even part of his nomination campaign. 

He’s still filling openings on the White House staff, but so far he is making choices typical of recent presidencies. For example, Stephen Miller, who will be senior policy adviser, worked for Republicans on Capitol Hill, then joined the Trump campaign in January 2016. Trump’s White House differs from George W. Bush’s mainly in the kinds of Republicans it is drawing from. What was once the fringe is now assuming a more central place within the party coalition. (Miller, for example, once worked for Michele Bachmann.) 

Trump is also following normal patterns when it comes to those agencies within the “presidential branch” of government -- the executive office of the president.  For example, his designee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney, has been a prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus.

So why should we be so uncertain about the results of these decisions and appointments?

For one thing, because he’s choosing from a different coalition within the Republican Party, it appears Trump will wind up with a staff with little or no White House experience. This was an enormous problem for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who ran the worst transitions among modern presidents. Poorly functioning White Houses cause uncertainty. 

For another, what distinguished the (once) fringe of the Republican Party from mainstream conservatives wasn’t that people such as Mulvaney (or Bachmann) were especially conservative. It was that they held a theory of governing that emphasized norm-breaking and brinkmanship. If put in practice from the Oval Office, it’s impossible to predict what will happen.

It isn’t even clear to what extent Trump himself will use the presidential branch the way previous presidents from Harry Truman through Barack Obama have done. It’s not unusual for the commander in chief to have personal confidants and sounding boards, but no recent leader has had adult children (and a son-in-law) play such a central role in the transition, especially since Trump’s family members have little connection to the Republican Party.

So, for example, it was reported that Donald Trump Jr. influenced the selection of Ryan Zinke for Interior secretary because the two are avid hunters, even though Zinke’s opposition to a sell-off of public lands may create friction with some Republican interest groups. It’s one thing for a president to develop a new policy that contrasts with traditional party doctrine; it’s quite another to choose personnel and therefore policy because of his kids’ hobbies.

Based on the reporting of the Cabinet selections, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to any of it. Some, such as Betsy DeVos at Education, suggest that Trump will fight for extremely conservative positions; others, such as former governor Rick Perry at the Department of Energy or Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador, seem like mainstream Republican choices. Yet the choices also seem random, so if one nominee dropped out, the replacement might come from a totally different wing of the party with a totally different policy agenda.

Given the record of Trump’s campaign (which went through three campaign managers), we might expect to see higher turnover than usual in the new administration. This too could mean unpredictable swings in policy -- perhaps depending simply on the whims of the president when he chooses a new set of officials.

  1. Agencies within the executive office of the president are more directly responsive to him than the departments and agencies of the executive branch such as the Defense Department or the CIA, which both the president and Congress oversee. 

  2. Even Hillary Clinton had ties to the Democratic Party in advance of her husbands administration.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net