James Comey’s opening statement reads like the test answer you’re supposed to give at the end of the Human Resources training video. When your superior makes you uncomfortable should you a) explain your boundaries b) discuss the issue with your direct report c) make contemporaneous notes to lock in your recollection or d) all of the above.
Comey picked D.
The question of whether the president tried to impede the FBI investigation will go many rounds, but the former FBI director’s opening statement doesn’t just illuminate those issues. It is also a workplace document—a window into how the president operates. Along with other developments in the Trump administration this week, the Comey testimony offers a striking picture of boss and subordinate relations.
The issues raised are not just of obstruction of justice but obstruction of progress. How can Trump administration officials operate in such an unpredictable environment? The president delights in breaking norms, but he undermines his colleagues who can’t predict where he’s going. That contributes to an atmosphere of chaos and saps from administrative veterans the greatest skill they bring—the ability to anticipate events that occur along normal patterns.
Things were so unpredictable in Comey’s first meeting with President-elect Trump, the former FBI director immediately took notes in his car after the interaction. The president, by asking for a loyalty pledge and crossing boundaries, so destabilized the relationship between the two men Comey reportedly tried to blend into the White House drapery at one event to avoid an exchange. This had ripple effects. The president also destabilized the bureaucratic system. Comey worried that the pressure from Trump to end the Flynn investigation or remove the “cloud” of the larger investigation would “infect” the investigation if he let others working on the case know about it. You don’t need to believe the particulars of each exchange to see that this mode of management was not productive to a larger purpose.
A number of Donald Trump’s supporters told me during the campaign they had faith that he would be a good president because he would be helped by the experts around him. But the president’s improvisation saps experts of their key skill: pattern recognition. Chess masters don’t evaluate all the possible moves. They know how to discard 98 percent of the ones they could make and then focus on the best choice of the remaining lot. That’s the way expertise works in other fields too: Wise practitioners recognize familiar patterns and put their creativity, improvisation, and skill toward the marginal cases.
President Trump has this skill in politics and no doubt in business. But the president can’t demonstrate pattern recognition across all topics, and can’t acquire a lifetime of experience to learn it fast enough for issues he’s never encountered. That’s why he needs experts to be allowed to apply their similar skills. That’s the theory behind his hands-off approach to the military. But where the president does assert himself, he does not simply introduce chaos. He also demands loyalty in response to his unpredictable moves, which asks experts to embrace a move they’ve already discarded as too improbable to ponder. It’s only possible to use pattern recognition if the patterns are not changing after you’ve made your assessment, or as long as someone doesn’t flip the board over and send the pieces rolling under the breakfront.
This week, experts throughout the administration were having their plans scrambled. Department of Justice officials fighting to defend the second Trump order limiting immigration from terrorism-linked countries were undermined by the president’s tweeting. “The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.,” he wrote. That’s his justice department he’s talking about there, carrying out his orders. This caused George Conway, the husband of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, to plead with the president on Twitter to stop undermining his case.
Over at the Pentagon, officials reasserted support for Qatar after its Arab neighbors cut ties. The U.S. has a base in Qatar. But in a tweet, the president sided with Qatar’s opponents, and took credit for the move against the country as fruit of his recent overseas trip. In Politico this week, Susan Glasser detailed how the president surprised his foreign-policy team at a NATO summit during that trip. Though the president's top advisers had told allies he would offer public support for the bedrock Article 5 commitment—an attack on one is an attack on all—at the last minute, Trump decided not to read that line in his speech.
Successful presidents know how to translate their will to their staffers, and successful staffers know how to move without the ball. Aides to presidents of both parties that I’ve talked to over the years tell a version of the same story. A White House works well when a president’s staff can intuit what its president wants and act without needing direct contact. A former senior Obama official spoke approvingly about Ronald Reagan when explaining this phenomenon to me. Reagan’s team didn’t need to check in with Reagan to know his desires: increase personal freedom, limit the growth of government and fight the communists.
Oliver North went a little too far, of course, but the Trump White House faces the opposite problem. In the Trump White House, when staffers try to anticipate the boss they get undermined by the boss.
When Trump fired James Comey, Vice President Pence offered a dramatic explanation for the decision, suggesting that it was based solely on the recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “A man of extraordinary independence and integrity and a reputation in both political parties of great character, came to work, sat down, and made the recommendation for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new leadership.” Then the president explained he had already made the decision and the Russia investigation at least factored in.
Three weeks ago, National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster issued sweeping statements knocking back reports that the president passed on sensitive information to Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting. The next day, the president offered a different story.
These kinds of moves lead to embarrassing paralysis. No staffer wants to get too far out on a limb when they’re working for an unpredictable arborist. For two days in a row this week, White House spokespeople couldn’t answer if the president still had faith in his attorney general. Usually a staffer would say, “Of course he does,” but that guess can’t be made in the Trump administration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if the president had confidence in Comey and said of course he did, but then six days later, Trump fired Comey. Soon enough, the president was describing Comey as a nut who was mentally unstable.
Earlier this week, staffers were criticizing the excessive focus on Trump’s tweets only to have the president point to them as vital to his communication. The president surprised his aides by announcing his new choice for FBI director without letting the team know just as he surprised his aides by rushing the announcement of a tax package. Aides can’t explain his views on climate change or defend his unverified claims on voter suppression, or what he meant by "add more dollars to healthcare and make it the best anywhere” long after the House negotiations were over.
The culture of undermining sends signals of disrespect. This approach not only saps motivation and undermines teamwork, it also lowers the motivation to work extra hours anticipating what can go wrong. If people feel like the boss doesn’t respect them, they don’t stretch for the boss.
So far, Trump has picked nominees for only 80 of the 558 important appointments he needs to fill. Only 40 of them have cleared Senate confirmation. He lags far behind his predecessors, according to the Partnership for Public Service. To fill those spots the president doesn’t just need warm bodies, he needs the highly talented types that were the implicit promise of electing a novice to the job. I’ve talked to several who have been approached for short- or long-term duty in the Trump administration. The evidence of the work environment that mounts with each passing day makes them highly wary. There is no human-resources training for how to respond when you work for an unpredictable president. It’s perhaps fitting that when you visit the website of the White House Office of Administration it says “Check back soon for more information."
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.