What Trump Should Have Learned From His Predecessors

Presidents who have successfully navigated crises share a key quality.

image of compass with presidential seal
Illustration: Katie Martin; I. Glory / Alamy

Donald Trump should have seen the coronavirus pandemic coming. This is not a statement about epidemiology. It’s a statement about the presidency, a job of high-stakes surprises that are complex and overwhelming.

Over the past several years, I’ve talked with dozens of current and former members of the executive branch in order to understand the demands of the modern presidency. These interviews were conducted before the coronavirus appeared, but almost everyone I spoke with foresaw a crisis of this kind. Some, such as Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were specific. A year before the virus hit, he told me that the threat of a pandemic as deadly as the 1918 flu kept him up at night. Others were more general. They knew disaster would strike, they just didn’t know what form it would take.

“It’s the unexpected that will catch them,” Condoleezza Rice said of new presidents. Every candidate promises, “On day one, I will,” she told me. But “the world doesn’t accord with the world that they thought they were going to be able to shape.”

Rice has seen her share of black swans. She was serving as national security adviser when the 9/11 attacks happened. In the presidential campaign the year before, the topic of terrorism had barely come up. At the three debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the word was spoken only once, in passing.

It was hardly the first time a candidate—not to mention the press corps—failed to anticipate the events that would consume a presidency. In 1913, after Woodrow Wilson was elected, he remarked, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs, for all of my preparation has been in domestic matters.” A little more than a year after his inauguration, World War I began. In 1928, Herbert Hoover accepted his party’s nomination and proclaimed that Americans were “nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.” A year later, more than 60 percent of the country earned less than the amount necessary to support a family.

As these examples suggest, some presidents have been more successful than others at rising to the unforeseen occasion. The presidents who have thrived when events veered in an unexpected direction have something in common: They are the ones who had the courage to ask for help.

The origins of Trump’s disastrous response to the defining crisis of his presidency can be traced to his pronouncement, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, that he alone could fix America’s problems. Trump’s critics seized on the line as evidence of his authoritarian impulses. But he was also tapping into an idea about the presidency that is widely accepted, if rarely examined. We want the president to play the role of an action hero. What he really needs to do is far less glamorous.

To manage a job of surprises, the president needs to build a superlative team. I asked leaders in every walk of American life—CEOs, nonprofit heads, generals, and some of the men who once sat where Trump does now—how they would conduct a job interview for the presidency. Almost all of them started by focusing on the ability to pick and manage a team. “More than anything else [I’d ask] is what their track record would be for hiring people,” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me. “It’s an undoable job. To be able to succeed, whatever success is, you need really good people around you.”

Naturally, the importance of hiring is a particular obsession of the business world, the idea at the heart of many executive aphorisms. “I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person,” Jeff Bezos has said. Michael Bloomberg brought this view from business to the New York City mayor’s office. “The press wants to write the 100-day story. They asked: ‘What’d you do in the first 100 days?’ And I said, ‘I built my team,’ ” Bloomberg has said. “And they responded, ‘Yes, but what legislation did you pass? What did you accomplish?’ And I said, ‘I built my team.’ They never got the concept.”

In part, a president must have a good team for the simple reason that there is so much to do. That has always been true, but it’s especially true now. National-security threats are more numerous and more complex; economic challenges move at the speed of fiber-optic light; the U.S. government itself has become a behemoth. “No matter how good you are as president, you are overseeing 2 million people and a trillion-dollar-plus budget, and the largest organization on Earth,” President Barack Obama told me during his last year in office. “You can’t do it all by yourself.”

Hiring, however, is just the start. A president must also nurture the patterns of behavior that allow an administration to work effectively. He has to empower his subordinates to make decisions and also trust them when they say an issue demands presidential attention, a scarce resource.

By most accounts, the current president has done neither. As The Washington Post reported this spring, intelligence agencies attempted to alert Trump to the danger posed by the novel coronavirus by including it in the president’s daily briefing on more than a dozen occasions, to no avail. When, on February 7, the Chinese doctor who had tried to warn the world about COVID‑19 died from it, someone in the administration should have insisted that this was not the time for the president to assure the nation that China was being honest and transparent about the virus’s spread. Someone should have stopped him from telling the country in early March that anyone who needed a test could get one. If anyone tried to, the president didn’t listen.

Black-swan events expose presidents who haven’t built strong organizations. Once the explosions start, you can’t just conjure the ability to communicate and coordinate. As a former FEMA deputy administrator told The New York Times recently, in a story about the Trump administration’s bungled attempts to secure crucial medical supplies, “There’s an old saying in emergency management—disaster is the wrong time to exchange business cards.”

Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had to manage the boiler room when the economy cratered in 2007. “If I hadn’t had a year before the crisis struck to build a relationship of trust with George Bush, I don’t know what I could have negotiated,” he told me. Paulson also stressed that a key to his success was working for a president who encouraged him to forge relationships with leaders of the opposing party. When he needed to, Paulson could draw on the trust of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Book cover image: The Hardest Job in the World
Random House

The Trump administration, by contrast, has set the modern standard for organizational chaos. Congress requires presidents to start building their teams before they ever get the job. Then–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie led the transition for Trump, but that work, contained in a host of binders, was thrown out almost immediately; Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner wanted to go another way. This initiated a slapdash process in which loyalty became the key factor in hiring. And when the new hires proved insufficiently loyal, they were fired. According to a Brookings Institution study, in its first three years, the Trump administration lost a record 86 percent of its “A-team staff,” a category that refers to the top non-Cabinet officials. Thirty-eight percent of those key spots experienced “serial turnover.” As a candidate, Trump had promised to hire “the best people,” but as president, he relies on constant churn to maintain fealty and control. Cabinet members who have had the temerity to exercise autonomy have not lasted, and have found themselves the subject of presidential scorn long after their departure.

When asked why he had not installed and empowered people who could have predicted or managed the COVID‑19 outbreak, Trump said that, as a general rule, he likes to keep the head count low. People can always be hired back if the situation calls for it. This is a vision of organizational design befitting fruit picking or hotels that staff up for vacation season, not the kind required for the sort of catastrophes presidents inevitably face.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in all kinds of American systems. Because it arrived in the midst of a presidential campaign, we have an opportunity to talk about how to shore up many of those systems, including spotty health care and flimsy protections for the working poor.

But we should also take this opportunity to reconsider the presidency itself, and the expectations we have for the holder of the office. Candidates are inclined to boast On day one, I will because the press and the voting public tend to reward the ones who make the grandest promises, not the ones who offer the most practical solutions. We should think harder about the actual demands of the job when evaluating the people who seek it. We can’t forget that a president’s success in office will ultimately rest less on his ability to solve all the nation’s problems and more on his ability to hire and manage a team that stands a chance of doing so.

Of course, even after the shock of the COVID‑19 crisis subsides, it is unrealistic to think that campaigns are going to transform into rigorous job interviews. Still, we might look more favorably on candidates with genuine executive experience, or demand that candidates talk more about their approach to building a team. Condoleezza Rice suggested that we ask candidates what black-swan event they anticipate happening on their watch—and how they would address it.

We have other ways, too, to judge whether a president will be up to his inevitable crisis. We can assess whether he has certain qualities that cannot be delegated to a team, yet are impossible for a president to draw on if he lacks the space and time that a good team can afford him. Can he speak to the entire nation, and not just his supporters? Can he deliver accurate information and maintain the public trust? Can he be the author of hope for Americans in moments of hardship? And, most important, will he be willing to take responsibility when the unexpected thing happens on his watch—whether the crisis is of his making or not?

This isn’t just some dusty old norm. A leader who takes ownership of a calamity lets people know that, despite the uncertainty, he is on the case. And he lets his team know that the administration is on the hook. Political spin and excuse-making won’t do; only results. This is why Obama took responsibility for the BP oil spill even though his administration hadn’t caused it and even though capping oil wells was not a task central to the executive branch. “I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis,” the president said. “I am the president, and the buck stops with me.”

Donald Trump does not see the job that way. When asked in mid-March whether he took responsibility for the lag in scaling up coronavirus testing, he said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” That is not a phrase available to American presidents. To his detractors, it was the signature statement of his presidency. To his defenders, it represented the fundamental shift in worldview that he has brought to the job. Why should he take the political heat for events that he did not initiate? The short answer is that it’s his job.

This article was adapted from John Dickerson’s book The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. It appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “A Presidential Guide to Crisis Management.”