White House

In Trump's White House, Family Comes First

Steve Bannon has little hope of winning his fight with Jared Kushner.
Inside track. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Factions inside Donald Trump’s White House have knives out for one another. Or guns.

“I love a gunfight,” is how the administration’s dark knight, Steve Bannon, apparently described a looming confrontation between his loyalists (Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway and the Mercer family) and Jared Kushner’s supporters (Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn and Dina Powell).

Bannon enjoys this sort of thing. When the White House effort to overturn Obamacare was going down in flames, he brought members of the conservative Freedom Caucus in for a sit-down and issued a warning, according to Axios’s Mike Allen: “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” The legislators ignored him.

Bannon has no real leverage in Congress, other than whatever evolving regard Republicans have for his boss, and any fear they have of Trump’s media and electoral muscle. Within the White House itself, Bannon’s only authority resides in his proximity to the president -- and as I noted on Bloomberg View in February, no one will ever have Trump’s ear and his trust as much as his son-in-law and his daughter do.

This means Bannon will lose any direct confrontation with Kushner, even if he smack-talks behind Kushner’s back. On Friday, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, reportedly began trying to broker a peace settlement between Bannon and Kushner, but Priebus himself appears to be in disfavor, so it may be just the blind leading the blind.

Family always comes first in Trumplandia, and family members are usually the only ones with tenure.

That presents hurdles to a president who remains policy-challenged and has just gone ballistic on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- an about-face on everything he had said about intervention in the Middle East.

Cue Tom Barrack, the chief executive of Colony Capital and a friend of the president who occasionally steps out to explain Trump to the world. Responding to a New York Times query about schisms within the White House management team, Barrack said:

This president’s method of managing is by him personally curating points of views from a diverse group of people in whom he has some trust and credibility. And he very rarely accepts one course of action or one suggestion without laundering it amongst all of them. And what happens in that process is confusion amongst those from whom he’s seeking advice. What works for him is that, out of that milieu, his instincts take him to the right answer.

Barrack is an even-handed man who gets credit for trying to put the best face on the funhouse. And “laundering” is a great word. But Trump doesn’t have a “method,” he isn’t “curating points of view,” he’s not overseeing a “process,” and his “instincts” rarely “take him to the right answer.” (The president’s Twitter feed shows which direction his “instincts” usually take him.)

Trump lacks a cohesive strategy for his administration, because he lacks a cohesive political and economic worldview of his own. People freelance in the Trump White House because the president doesn’t set meaningful ground rules or push a consistent game plan.

In the wake of last week’s military strike in Syria, two of Trump’s key foreign policy advisers, Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, presented diverging outlooks for Syria when they went on the Sunday news shows.

“There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” Haley told CNN. “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen.”

Tillerson argued against toppling Assad: “I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change,” he told ABC. “And we are asking Russia to fulfill its commitment and we’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”

Where did the president himself see things headed in Syria? Hard to say, because he played golf for several hours on Sunday and left the press pool behind. On Twitter, he thanked the Navy for the Syria strike and added a link to a press release describing his congratulatory phone calls to the commanders involved in the attack.

Foreign policy mysteries aside, Trump appears to be taking steps to try to professionalize part of his White House. On Sunday, he made K.T. McFarland, who had been his deputy national security adviser, the ambassador to Singapore. That was after ousting Bannon from the National Security Council and firing Michael Flynn as its head. More seasoned, grounded people now run the NSC.

But Jared and Ivanka remain the president’s favorite sounding boards. Neither of them has overseen a large organization or had any deep management experience, and that’s unfortunate, because neither has the president.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School Management, extolled the virtues of the Trump family’s business background in a Politico feature over the weekend.

“By virtue of their close relationship with the president, Jared and Ivanka are able to speak truth to power without fear of suspect motives,” he observed. “This is a major advantage of family enterprises… With shared values, deeper bonds of trust, greater respect for risk taking, and longer time frames, family dynastic wealth has been a huge force in the success of global enterprises.”

But unless families are lucky enough to have talent pools within their ranks, they can also let family members run successful enterprises into the ground by favoring them to run things instead of more capable outsiders. In his daughter and son-in-law, Trump has unproven managers, and in his own long, haphazard and checkered career as head of the boutique Trump Organization, he has often attracted subpar talent. The Trump White House is currently a blend of proven operators, hangers-on and unpredictable (possibly destructive) loons.

The president might choreograph his next steps with aplomb, but that would involve deft handling of the myriad conflicts in his own team, turning over decision-making to more capable people, developing policy chops, and making sure that the chaos he engenders doesn’t consume everything around him. Or, he might continue to try to run the country like an episode of “The Apprentice.” But that isn’t a method. It’s madness.

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:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

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