It is a world against which Trump seems to rebel at every turn. He refuses to empower his chief of staff to create a rule-bound White House, preferring instead to pit advisers against each other in a more freewheeling style. He insists on reaching directly down to subordinates, instead of moving through the hierarchy—calling the acting head of the National Park Service to complain about a photo, tweeting his defense of his travel ban instead of issuing statements through his press office, and meeting with the FBI director instead of the attorney general.
And each time, he has only worsened the trouble he sought to address, or created new problems for himself—producing mockery of his exaggerated crowd-size claims, court injunctions against his executive orders, and now an investigation for obstruction of justice. His repeated defeats seem only to deepen his anger as he strains against bureaucratic rules, the thousands of Lilliputian strings that not even presidential giants can snap.
There is no better example of this than the memo, that humblest—most spare and restrained—of literary genres. It was born in early modern Europe, but came of age during America’s managerial revolution, a key technology of the administrative bureaucracy. They institutionalized memory, making decisions legible to those not personally present, and creating records of conversations that could be referenced later by other bureaucrats.
In the process, they became the key tool of bureaucratic warfare. As MIT’s JoAnne Yates wrote, in her history of the memo as a managerial genre, “This extension of documentary communication also reflected more specific political motivations. As companies grew, allegiances to and rivalries between departments created friction, and each side of each dispute wanted to document its view of the issue.”
When Trump breached protocol and met alone with Comey, the FBI director went back to his office, and wrote a memo. When Trump called NSA Director Mike Rogers to criticize the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russian interference and to pressure him to publicly disavow the possibility of collusion, The Wall Street Journal reports, the NSA’s deputy director dutifully recorded it in a memo. There’s no indication the president ordered his own staff to document his view of these conversations. His preferred form of written communication to subordinates is the personal message scrawled with a Sharpie, not the memorandum dictated to file.
Memo to the president: You’re losing this game because you don’t understand its rules.
There’ve been no shortage of op-eds and talking heads telling the president that he disregards the institutional constraints at his considerable political and legal peril. Many White House advisers have reportedly told him the same, even as others have egged him on. But Trump obtained his clearest warning of all from the man from whom he was least inclined to receive it.