Donald Trump Has One Problem
False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Donald Trump faces the diciest moment of his presidency, a Senate impeachment trial, with a pair of distinct handicaps: shattered credibility and a West Wing that is broken into fiefdoms and often clueless about his intentions. Both were years in the making; neither seems easily fixed.
From the outside, these can seem like two different problems. But in many ways, they’re one and the same. False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Start with a president who is a solitary decision maker and who has swept aside early staff efforts to vet the material he sees. Trump now absorbs information, innuendo, gossip, and calumny wherever he finds it. He’s getting it from random Twitter feeds and old friends, from overseas autocrats and pro-Trump talking heads. He’ll repeat rumor as fact without naming the source.
Presidents are free to change their mind, and it’s not a bad thing to rethink one’s assumptions. But Trump does it so often and so impulsively that he’s left his staff as bewildered as anyone on the outside about his plans. No one in the West Wing can speak for him, creating awkward instances in which they’ve defended positions he’s abandoned and touted proposals he never endorsed. He’ll dispatch aides to deliver a public message, then repudiate what they’ve just announced.
Misinformation feeds the chaos; chaos gives rise to more misinformation. One former aide told me that Trump had a habit of coming downstairs from the White House residential quarters calling for some action that would have upended his staff’s planning. Trying to figure out where the president got the idea, the aide would scan the previous night’s Fox News shows for hints. Members of Congress often insist to White House staff that Trump state his position in a tweet, knowing they can’t rely on assurances from anyone in the West Wing, a second former aide told me. “He changes his mind. That’s the fundamental point,” this person said.
David Shulkin is a Trump cast-off whose tumultuous stint in the Cabinet was overtaken long ago by more pressing dramas. But his short, unhappy life in Trumpland illustrates the self-perpetuating cycle of miscommunication and dysfunction. The former Veterans Affairs secretary would often get phone calls from Trump asking questions based on something he had seen on Fox News, Shulkin told me. Trump was “constantly getting information from outside people, and his contacts from outside the White House were continually telling him what needed to happen at the VA and giving him messaging,” Shulkin said. “I never really understood where he would get some of his questions from.” In one embarrassing moment caught on camera, Trump turned to him at a White House gathering and asked if he would be coming to Mar-a-Lago for a meeting to discuss the VA. Shulkin shook his head. No one had invited him to a meeting about the agency he led; this was the first he was hearing about it. “I looked at him quizzically because I had no idea what he was talking about,” Shulkin told me.
Trump’s heedlessness—his staff would call it decisiveness—has shaken his White House’s credibility since day two. Bristling over news reports showing that fewer people had come to see his inauguration than Barack Obama’s in 2009, Trump told his press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, to go out and deal with it—quickly. Spicer’s combative claim that Trump’s crowd was the biggest ever was swiftly disproved and forever mocked. That first falsehood—three years ago this week—set a pattern.
Examples have been piling up ever since.
A few months into his term, when the Justice Department revised his travel ban to ensure that it would pass constitutional muster, Trump complained that the version his own government produced was “watered down” and “politically correct.”
Last year, Trump sent out his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to tell the press that the next G7 summit would take place at his Doral golf club, in Florida. Two days later, Trump said it would be held elsewhere.
In recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly said that he is prepared to let top White House officials testify at the Senate impeachment trial—even as his legal team has actively worked to block them from appearing.
In private, Trump can accept when he’s wrong. Told by aides that he’s made a mistake, he’ll reply with a simple Crap, the second former White House aide told me. What he won’t do is openly admit error. (This is too bad. Think of how disarming it might be if Trump, standing on the South Lawn while the helicopter blades whirred, told the press pool at least once in a while, Crap, I got it wrong.)
Over time, Trump’s seasoned aides have learned that predicting what he’ll do is risky. Aides have told me they don’t want to jeopardize their reputations by defending positions that Trump will later renounce. “Sometimes we were told that we back X legislation or we’ll sign that bill,” the second aide told me. “And then he’d tweet something the next day that changes it. That was one of those things that followed us around.”
Assumptions about how Trump will act at any given time can backfire. U.S. military leaders, for example, didn’t think Trump would pick the option of killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani when they presented it to him, The New York Times reported earlier this month. They thought wrong.
But no one in Trump’s orbit seems to want him to change his style these days. “He speaks casually,” a third former White House aide told me. “You understand the essence of what he’s thinking and saying.” By contrast, “you got beautifully crafted statements from the Obama administration. But you never got the man’s thinking or a sense of who he really was.”
If anything, staff members have encouraged Trump to trust his instincts. “You’ve got to be aggressive and make the case,” Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told me. “The media isn’t going to help you. You have to attack, attack, attack.”
Trump’s accessibility has its merits, some who have worked with him told me. If he trusts you, he’ll listen to you, tossing aside the filters that normally control the information getting to the president. Shulkin found some aspects of that approach liberating, he said. When he worked at the VA during the Obama administration, “you would go to a specific office and present papers and briefing material. You would have weeks where they’d be looking at and analyzing the issues, and you would come back and meet about it. Progress was steady, but slow.” Under Trump, the bureaucracy fell away. He would go directly to the president and the conversation might go like this, he told me:
“Look, this is what I want to do.”
“Is this a good thing for veterans?” Trump would ask.
“Go ahead and do it.”
But for all that face time, Shulkin came to a humiliating end, a casualty of the same managerial mess that had given him so much unstructured access to Trump in the first place. Conservatives were unhappy with him; they didn’t think he was doing enough to privatize certain VA services. Trump was listening. Hearing rumors that he might get dumped, Shulkin said he called then–Chief of Staff John Kelly to ask about his status. Kelly is someone who should have known the answer—he had taken the job to bring order to the West Wing. At first Kelly told him, “David, there’s absolutely no truth to that. You have the president’s confidence.”
Later that same day, Trump himself called, and he didn’t mention that Shulkin’s job was in jeopardy. Yet within a few hours, Kelly called him back: The rumors were true. “David,” he said, according to Shulkin, “I had no idea.”