Jimmy Carter struggled before calling on Hamilton Jordan.

Photographer: Corbis via Getty Images

Trump Is Running the White House Like a Democrat

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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It's safe to say the new Donald Trump administration has shattered all records for reports of internal turmoil in the first week. See, for example, here and here. Some of this could be Trump himself -- several stories are just brutal about his inability to focus and about how unprepared he seems to be. And some of it could be media overkill, since once a story is out there, it tends to feed on itself. 

But another potential explanation -- especially considering the jaw-dropping leaks coming from within the White House -- is that there is something seriously wrong with the way Trump has structured his new staff.

He has decided, in short, to run the White House like a Democrat -- just when it appeared that a decades-long argument had been settled in favor of the Republican model.

Here's the history. The "presidential branch" of government, with large White House staffs and agencies such as the Office of Management and the Budget, the National Security Council, and the Council of Economic Advisers, only goes back to Harry Truman's administration. Truman governed this new part of the government more or less the way Franklin Roosevelt had governed a tiny presidential staff, with several different people reporting directly to the president. 

Dwight Eisenhower, however, brought over a new style from his military experience, naming former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams as his chief of staff. This top-down model served Ike well, and subsequent Republican presidents have all copied it to some extent. Democrats, however, resisted. Even when someone had the title, they were generally weak versions of the idea. So Jimmy Carter began without anyone in that role, which was eventually filled de facto by Hamilton Jordan (who finally got the title two and a half years into the presidency). Both Carter and Bill Clinton wound up moving to a hierarchical chief of staff model after experiencing White House disarray early in their terms. 

It appeared, in January 2009, that the old argument was finally settled in Eisenhower's favor when Barack Obama began his presidency with Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. While the Obama administration had its share of rocky moments, little of it appeared to be traced to White House disorder, and it seemed both parties had adopted the same model. 

So it's a bit of a surprise that Trump has abandoned the Eisenhower model, but appears to be trying out the failed Democratic style. Trump does have a designated chief of staff, Reince Priebus. But he appears to have a weak version of the job, with a three- or four- or perhaps even five-headed organizational structure a better description of what's happening. Originally, Priebus was announced as part of a dual-command structure with Steve Bannon, but Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner made it three, and Kellyanne Conway has been portrayed as one of a "Big Four." And don't forget Vice President Mike Pence, who might make it five.  Could National Security Advisor Michael Flynn even mean six? That's part of the problem; without a solid structure, everything is up in the air, which gives everyone strong incentives for turf wars. 

Each appears to have fairly arbitrary portfolios -- Kushner, for example, is supposedly in charge of a Middle East peace initiative, while Conway has been tasked with health care -- and each has brought staff with them (Priebus from the Republican National Committee, Bannon from Breitbart) who it appears are clearly identified with the person who brought them. It can't help, either, that the total government experience among the Big Four was Conway's brief early-career stint as a judicial clerk. None of them have hands-on experience with how a presidency works -- or how a presidency can go wrong. 

This appears to be producing exactly what Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter could have predicted: A White House with competing factions, with frequent leaks and the air of chaos.  

Granted, we're only a few days in, and even with all the insider stories so far much of this has to be speculative. And it's quite possible that the real problem is the president, and not the staff arrangements he's chosen. But we've seen dramatic differences in presidencies either as staff structure changed (as with Clinton) or when the wrong person wound up as chief of staff (see Ronald Reagan, who was a much worse president during Donald Regan's stint as chief of staff than before or after that unfortunate period). Organization matters. My guess? If the Trump administration ever does get on track, it will be after someone is put in charge. 

  1. Almost every presidency goes through a phase of stories like this or worse, but not this early.

  2. An active, involved Vice President given specific tasks and generally having direct input to the president has worked well, beginning with Walter Mondale for Jimmy Carter. What hasn't worked well at all was the Dick Cheney model of competing with the White House staff to run the place. It's not clear yet which example Pence will follow.

  3. Yes, Trump's campaign had plenty of chaos, and he won. Don't fall into the trap, however, of assuming that everything a winning candidate did must have contributed to the victory. And at any rate, campaign staff structures are different than governing structures.

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:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net