How Trump Can Fix His Troubled White House

An administration in chaos. An undisciplined president. A bloodthirsty press. A surfeit of leaks. Spring 1993 looked a lot like spring 2017.

Mack McLarty, David Gergen, Sandy Berger, and George Stephanopoulos watch Bill Clinton at an October 1993 news conference.
Mack McLarty, David Gergen, Sandy Berger, and George Stephanopoulos watch Bill Clinton at an October 1993 news conference. (Wilfredo Lee / AP)

The president’s first 100 days have been, by and large, a disaster.

Reports of chaos, confusion, and infighting seem to leak out of the West Wing on a daily basis. The president is his own worst enemy, easily distracted, obsessed with minutiae, and uninterested in instilling much order in his administration. His staffers, many of them young, don’t really know the ropes, and it shows. The cluster of aides who arrived with the president from out of town irks official Washington, which, feeling shut out, views the executive-branch staff as bumbling provincial bumpkins and cheers on every failure. The media are more than happy to weave a narrative of chaos. Relations between press and president were strained during the campaign—stories bubbled up about the candidate’s sexual indiscretions, and aides became convinced their boss was subject to a double standard—and now reporters are out for blood. Even the president’s wife is subject to harsh attacks.

It’s spring 1993, and Bill Clinton’s term in office is off to a rocky start.

* * *

The parallels between Clinton’s difficult transition and Donald Trump’s are, of course, imperfect, and the two men arrived in different circumstances with vastly different agendas. But the Clinton transition shows how an administration can stumble out of the gate, and how that a president who sets his mind to it can fix them. Perhaps more importantly, it shows how the first 100 days can set the stage for an administration’s later successes and its recurring weaknesses. Although he righted his listing ship, Clinton’s early mistakes haunted the remainder of his seven-plus years in office.

“The first year is a difficult year, whether it’s President Trump or President Clinton. You’re getting started. There’s going to be some startup slips. We had our share,” Thomas “Mack” McLarty, Clinton’s first chief of staff, told me.

The Clinton administration’s first problems began even before he took office, and were self-inflicted. The 42nd president was reluctant to prepare for his administration before the votes had been tallied—partly a result of superstition about jinxing the outcome, but also because he didn’t want to be seen as presuming victory. Once the election was over, the president-elect made a decision to focus more on his Cabinet and other appointments than on his White House staff. Clinton didn’t name a White House chief of staff until mid-December—nearly a month later than Donald Trump selected Reince Priebus for that post. In some ways, the decision paid off. Clinton had all but one of his Cabinet nominees confirmed by Inauguration Day, which McLarty thinks was a worthy tradeoff.

But the belated focus on the White House staff meant that many of its members had little experience in the highest reaches of Washington politics. “The emphasis on the construction of the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet led to a White House staff that was constructed late, on the fly and almost by remainder,” adviser Bill Galston recalled in an interview with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia years later.

In particular, the press questioned the number of aides who Clinton brought with him from Little Rock, including McLarty, an Arkansan who had been extremely successful in business but who, while active in politics, had never held a political post. McLarty said that criticism was unwarranted.

“You have to have a blend of people who are knowledgeable about the levers of power,” he told me. “We got criticized a bit about Arkansans in the government, but every president going back to Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, they all had people from their home state who they had relationships with. Likewise with President George W. Bush and President Obama—they brought in people from Texas and Illinois, respectively.”

But McLarty saw the value in Washington experience, too. In June, he tapped David Gergen, a veteran of the Republican Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, to join his team, a step that McLarty believes was essential to stabilizing the presidency.

Trump, too, has compiled an eclectic, eccentric mix of advisers, few with White House experience. They include close confidants from New York, like his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign figures like Steve Bannon. Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Washington figure, has never worked in the West Wing. Stephen Miller, just 32, has become a powerful figure, even though, as Joshua Green wrote, “In any other Republican administration, he’d have been lucky to land a second-tier job at a third-tier agency.” Priebus ran the Republican National Committee, but he, too, has no federal-government experience.

Trump should have had a jump on Clinton’s 1993 pace. After September 11, as my colleague Russell Berman reported in depth, the presidential-transition process was overhauled to ensure continuity of government, including providing for funding and space for transition teams for both major-party candidates. Instead, Trump got the worst of both worlds. He still doesn’t have a full Cabinet, with nominees moving slowly through the confirmation process. And, like Clinton, his West Wing staff has failed to jell. Many of the top figures in the White House also came directly from the election war room at Trump Tower, which requires shifting gears.

“Any president has to make the transition from campaigning to governing,” McLarty said. “That’s really what a transition is about, and that's really what the first 100 days are about, and it’s crucial that you realize it's a very different landscape, a very different passage in your endeavor.”

Conveying that lesson to President Clinton was not an easy task. “It was just chaotic. There wasn’t anybody in charge,” domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed told the Miller Center in 2004. “I think he kind of liked it that way. He knew he was his own best strategist; he liked being able to make the decisions. So he didn’t worry too much about the fact that his advisers couldn’t agree.”

If Clinton was slow to learn that lesson, Trump seems to flatly reject it. He reportedly revels in the chaos, viewing it (at least in his more optimistic moments) as creative tension and disruption. Trump and Bill Clinton also share a lack of discipline that leads them to become distracted from the task at hand and obsessed with minor details—though in Clinton’s case, that tended toward policy minutiae, while Trump has favored feuding with the press, Barack Obama, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is how Trump operated during the presidential campaign, and it’s understandable that he’d expect what worked then would to work now. Candidate Trump was answerable only to himself and delighted in thumbing his nose even at the Republican Party. His improvisatory approach served him well, garnering attention while simultaneously allowing him to change the subject quickly after each gaffe. When Trump made a decision, he could quickly turn it into action.

But that’s not how the White House works.

“You have these various stakeholders, including the press and members of Congress, that you've got to establish relationships with,” McLarty said. “You've got to establish rapport with world leaders. You've got to be mindful of ‘those that brung you,’ as the expression goes.”

Instead, Trump has clashed with each of these constituencies. He has eagerly alienated the press, and just as eagerly alienated Democratic members in Congress—but he hasn’t done all that much better with Republican members. They have been taken aback by his accusation that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, worried about Russian interference in American elections, and divided over how to replace Obamacare—a maneuver that Trump, in an odd echo of his predecessor’s approach to passing the law, has decided to leave to Congress to sort out. (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he has said—Clinton is among the many who would disagree.)

Meanwhile, Trump has forged few relationships with foreign leaders, and fewer still with important U.S. allies, while his outreach to Vladimir Putin seems endangered by domestic political considerations. After Trump delivered a relatively well-received address to a joint session of Congress at the end of February, a series of scandals overshadowed it, reportedly infuriating Trump. This sort of distraction is a classic pitfall, said Leon Panetta, Clinton’s second chief of staff.

“Your goal is to stay focused on the news that the president should be focused on and what you want to be the headline, not what the press wants to be the headline,” Panetta told me in January. “Your hope is that the president will not be diverted from the principal message that he wants to get out that day.”

* * *

Keeping the president on task requires a White House structure that streamlines decisions, allowing the president to focus on only the most important tasks, confident that aides will execute his decisions efficiently. It also requires the West Wing staff to bury rivalries and egos. Yet each day seems to bring new revelations about Trump’s team, as White House aides leak damaging information about each other and jockey for position. Clinton suffered similar internal rancor.

“His first White House staff, and the way they constantly went around Mack McLarty—it was destructive,” media consultant Frank Greer told the Miller Center. “Everybody was freelancing, everybody was promoting themselves, everybody was looking out for themselves.”

McLarty disagreed with Greer’s assessment, saying that strong communication with the president prevented any problems. “I never felt he undercut me or did something I wasn’t aware of,” he told me. “Did I know he was getting thoughts from others inside and outside government? I think any president’s going to do that. That’s going to have some influence on him. As long as the president’s working with you and you’ve got good and open communication, I just never had that problem.”

McLarty, who had never worked for Clinton in government, had been somewhat surprised to be tapped as chief of staff, and decided to serve no more than two years. In the summer of 1994, he stepped down and was replaced by Panetta, who was then head of the Office of Management and Budget. Panetta told Clinton he was happy where he was. The president replied, “You know, you could be the greatest OMB director in the history of the country, but if the White House is falling apart, nobody's going to remember you.”

So Panetta took the job and set to work. “I remember asking my predecessor, Mack McLarty, I said, ‘Could you give me a chain of command? What's the staff structure in the White House?’ And he paused and he said, ‘You know, I don't believe I've ever seen one of those,’” Panetta said with a laugh. “I immediately knew I was in deep shit.”

(“I don’t think it was that big a deal. I kind of vaguely remember. I think everybody knew the organization pretty well,” said McLarty, who recommended Panetta as his successor.)

Panetta instituted a pair of staff meetings every day, one for all staff and another for a smaller group. He wanted to make sure he knew what everyone in the White House was doing, so that he could then work with the president—and make sure that there weren’t many different people speaking with Clinton, offering contradictory information. He set up a schedule stretching six months, setting priorities for each day and week.

Trump, however, has maintained an “open-office” policy, meaning that a huge number of aides can speak with him, from top advisers on down to Trump’s private security director, and to Omarosa Manigault, the former Apprentice contestant who now runs communications for the Office of Public Engagement.

One special irritant for Panetta was the profusion of people moving around the West Wing with grand titles and vague or elusive portfolios. “These were people who walked into meetings and talked about, gave their thoughts on all kinds of issues, usually raising hell, and then walked out of those meetings with no responsibility other than to talk a good game,” he said. “They really didn’t have the responsibility to carry out any specific duties except to kind of give their thoughts on what should or shouldn’t happen.”

The way Panetta dealt with those people varied: useful ones co-opted, difficult ones sidelined. One of them was the wunderkind campaign veteran George Stephanopoulos: “I liked George, and I thought he was really smart, so I said, ‘You're going to work under me, pal!’” Another was Dick Morris, the longtime Clinton strategist (or “little campaign shit from Arkansas,” in Panetta’s words), who was commandeering staff to work on pet projects, which Panetta stopped. Today, the Trump White House features a similarly long roster of aides with lofty titles. Priebus is chief of staff. Bannon is chief strategist. Kushner and Miller are senior advisers. Conway is counselor to the president.

“You cannot have a number of power centers within the White House,” Panetta said. “This White House is in danger of making a terrible mistake.” (James Baker, the Reagan chief of staff on whom Panetta modeled his tenure, offered a more diplomatic version of that critique in an interview with Politico: “The White House that they have constructed has a lot of chiefs. In this White House, it seems to me, you’ve got at least four, maybe five, different power centers, so we are just going to have to wait and see how it works in practice.”)

In his defense, Priebus has attempted to impose some of the same measures Panetta did—including an 8 a.m. senior staff meeting, and telling aides they need to go through him or his deputy to speak with the president. Yet the result has been not a more orderly White House, but simply more leaks painting him as weak, beleaguered, and ineffectual. The leaks have become such a problem that Press Secretary Sean Spicer took to checking White House employees’ phones to plug the holes. That, too, leaked.

Anonymous leaking to the press is a challenge for every president, but it is a particular plague for more dysfunctional administrations. Panetta recalled demurring after Clinton demanded he ferret out the source of a leak from the White House.

“I kept telling him, ‘Look, if we spend all of our time and resources trying to find out who was leaking what, A, we'll never really determine what happened and B, it will divert us from the primary mission that we should be working on,’” he said. “The key for me was ultimately if I could build that sense within the White House where people felt like they were part of a team and were loyal to that team, then the problem of leaks began to heal itself.”

These problems—the fractious staff, the vast range of distractions, the press battles, the machinations of other stakeholders, and the gusher of leaks—pose a special challenge to Trump because they are features of the political world that are distant from the way he was able to run his company in the private sector. Businesspeople aspiring to public office have for years argued that their experiences in the private sector will make them effective in the public sector, only to find that the two realms reward and require different, if overlapping, skill sets.

For Trump, the shift is partly a matter of size: The Trump Organization, despite its large declared assets, is a lean company with a small, tightly-knit staff, with family members as executive staff—a mom ’n’ pop that runs international resorts, basically— while Trump now sits atop the massive, sprawling federal bureaucracy.

Galston believed Clinton, the longtime governor of Arkansas, had a similar problem adjusting to the scale of the federal government: “What’s typical about talented governors of small states is that they are head and shoulders above the other politicians in their state, and they can—through force of intellect and character and a loyal dedicated staff—move the political system of those states… Washington is not that way at all.”

But Trump’s challenge is also structural. In business, Trump was constrained only by his deal-making abilities and, to a certain extent, regulation and the law—though he showed an affinity for sidestepping regulations and civil suits through lengthy litigation and creative settlements. Government’s lattice of checks and balances is already hobbling Trump; when the federal judiciary suspended his immigration executive order, he lashed out in anger.

McLarty, who came to the White House after serving as CEO of Arkla, a Fortune 500 natural-gas company, was unusually well-positioned to assess the difference between business and government. While the pace of change in government can feel comparatively slow, that doesn’t mean the president can be slow, he said.

“We found, and I found, and I think President Trump will find, that the timeline for making decisions in the White House is much faster than in business,” McLarty said. “The wheels of government grind slowly, but you have to move forward and make decisions. Sometimes you don't get your legislation passed quickly—that part does grind slowly.”

Trump and his staff are also dealing with a much broader range of issues than a real-estate-and-entertainment concern like the Trump Organization, McLarty said—and eventually, “President Trump and his team are going to have to prepare for UFOs— unforeseen occurrences.”

For example, in March 1993, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an apparent test of the Clinton team. (Pyongyang later reversed course.) Now North Korea is testing a new president again, with missile launches in mid-February and again over the weekend. State media reported that one weapon being tested is designed to be able to strike U.S. bases in Japan. The White House was notably slow in responding.

* * *

From one angle, Clinton’s first 100 days are a harrowing warning to Trump. The problems that emerged early on continued to haunt him for the rest of his presidency. Aides found ways to mitigate and direct the president’s lack of discipline, but it still flared up in both the policy and personal realms, most notably in his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A series of scandals, including Filegate and Travelgate, fed into the independent counsel’s investigation that ultimately turned up that affair and led to Clinton’s impeachment. His bold push to overhaul the health-care system, overseen by First Lady Hillary Clinton, collapsed, dooming reform for another 15 years and stalling his policy agenda.

Clinton’s approval rating dropped from 58 percent when he took office to just 37 by June. (Trump hasn’t dropped as much because he started much lower.) The combination of a rudderless administration and proliferating scandals helped Republicans to a massive victory in the 1994 midterm elections. That created GOP control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1946, and enabled Clinton’s impeachment.

From a different angle, Clinton’s example could be heartening for the Trump team. Despite his rocky start, Clinton went on to easily win reelection. He oversaw a booming economy. And while portions of his legacy—the crime bill, NAFTA, and welfare reform chief among them—have lost their luster, he remains well-liked by the public and well-regarded by political historians. Ending up with a Clintonian reputation would seem near-miraculous given Trump’s start, a challenge compounded by the fact that, despite some notable political victories, much of his agenda is deeply unpopular.

“After the first year, President Clinton’s approval rating was 57 percent—and remember, he got 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992,” McLarty said. “I think Donald Trump would take that deal in a minute, if he could get his team in place, get his legislation in place, step onto the international stage, establish positive relationships with world leaders, and have a 57 percent approval rating at the end of the first year.”

How far Trump can get toward that goal will depend on Reince Priebus, but Priebus’s success will, in turn, depend on Trump. The buck stops with the president. McLarty often receives blame for the early chaos in the White House, but some administration alums, like Galston, have countered that Clinton’s White House ran the way it did because that’s what Clinton wanted. “Mack McLarty was selected because he’s a decent man, utterly loyal to the president, grew up with him, and would not interfere with that model of executive leadership, would enable it rather than interfere with it,” Galston told the Miller Center.

So it will be with the Trump administration: Priebus’s ability to right the ship will depend on Trump deciding he wants it righted. That will be especially tricky for the chief of staff, since Bannon—one of his rivals for control—has repeatedly espoused chaos as a useful strategy.

“[Priebus’s success] depends on two things: whether he has the total trust of the president, and two, whether he has the courage to tell the president when he’s wrong,” Panetta said. He predicted the shakeup would make the beginning of the Clinton administration look smooth by comparison.

“It's likely that this first year is going to be spent trying to work out all of those difficulties,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a lot bloodier.”