White House

Trump's Random Policy Generator

In this White House, personnel is policy for all the wrong reasons.

Playing the policy slots.

Photographer: Tom Briglia/FilmMagic via Getty Images

"Personnel is policy" is one of the most dependable truisms of Washington politics. It's never been as accurate as it is with Donald Trump in the Oval Office -- and in a way that's quite unsettling to anyone trying to understand how he operates.

We're going to see that in the selection of a new FBI director after Trump's abrupt firing of James Comey. But perhaps a better example comes courtesy of my View colleague Eli Lake's reporting about National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster potentially falling out of favor with the president. Of course, White House infighting is nothing new. 1  But the stakes are higher in this administration since the president has so little experience with complex policy issues and such a flawed criteria for resolving disagreements among staff.

The president has so little commitment to any particular policy approach in most areas, and so little connection to his party. When a president has strong policy commitments, it doesn't matter all that much whether Aide 1 is up and Aide 2 is down because the president sets the terms for what matters. In a partisan White House, policy is determined above all by the party's agenda, so the personal views of Aides 1 and 2 are likely to either be relatively unimportant or, perhaps, identical. Under those circumstances, jockeying for power at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue really is something of interest mainly to inside-the-beltway gossips. 2   

Trump swings wildly from one policy stance to another, often persuaded into new positions by confidantes across the political spectrum. The White House staff almost certainly has unusually large latitude to do whatever they want, unless they do something that shows up on a cable news network he's watching.

This is all made more extreme because of how Trump apparently goes about hiring and choosing who to listen to. Normal presidents might, faced with a choice between two staffers with differing policy views, take the conflict as a sign that he needs to learn more about the governing choices and, if necessary, make a policy-based decision. Other presidents might lean more towards rewarding competence and success. That's what George W. Bush may have been doing when he fired Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006 and de-emphasized the importance of Vice President Dick Cheney during his second term. The current team wasn't succeeding, so Bush tried a new one. 

Trump, by most accounts, doesn't use either of these criteria to resolve personnel conflicts. To those fighting, the policy stakes may be very obvious, such as what's reported to be a conflict between McMaster and other White House factions over Afghanistan. To Trump? We can see in both the Comey and the McMaster stories the extreme value Trump places on visible demonstrations of loyalty. And that's not even counting the "cut of his jib" test Trump has been reported to use in basing personnel decisions on personal appearance. In other words, who is up and who is down may depend less on policy choices or even conventional measures of success than who is better at flattering the boss. 

The combination of unusually little supervision combined with personnel decisions unusually detached from policy preferences means that policy formation as the Trump administration goes forward will likely remain almost random, with wild policy swings the norm -- not the usual kinds of modest fluctuation between a party's moderate and less moderate wings, but potentially erratic shifts from anything to anything. 

So firing Trump's first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, produced one new set of policies, and there's no way to know what comes next if McMaster doesn't last. After all, it's hardly clear that those seeking to push McMaster out will be able to control who replaces him. 

Or, think about judges. Trump on Monday nominated a slate of 10 very conservative nominees for judicial vacancies, just as he nominated a very qualified and very conservative Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court vacancy he inherited. Reporting suggests that White House counsel Don McGahn has taken the lead in working with outside conservative groups to fill the judiciary, in keeping with promises Trump made on the campaign trail. Suppose, just for argument's sake, that McGahn winds up becoming a casualty of the Trump-Russia scandal. Would his replacement be a similarly solid conservative? Who knows? 

Trump has already been dubbed the "king of flip-flops." The trick is to resist trying to find a pattern in it and projecting that pattern into the future. The next set of appointments could mean reversals, or yet another new set of positions, or anything, really. 

It's true that the same things which make Trump weak in his own White House make him weak on Capitol Hill, which means that his policy shifts may be irrelevant to what happens in Congress. It's entirely possible Trump could wind up supporting a single-payer health reform scheme (he praised Australia's system recently; is it hard to imagine Trump replacing conservative Tom Price with a universal care advocate at some point in the future?), but congressional Republicans would just ignore him.

But even a very weak president still has policy influence. Whatever that will turn out to be at any particular moment.  

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

  1. Indeed, I think it's a bit more common in previous administrations than Drezner thinks, although I certainly think it's more common in this factionalized presidency than normal.

  2. Granted, even when the president's and the party's policy preferences are very clear it's certainly possible that a personnel fight might be a proxy for policy disagreements, or that a purely personal power struggle might wind up playing out over policy differences. And even when the president is clear on overall policy direction, it's likely that he or she is less invested in details which might be important indeed.

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

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