President Donald Trump, who prefers cable news to reading, should take a quick glance at a book by the late Walt Kelly. He’s the cartoonist who invented Pogo and had him say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
As Trump deals with his first resignation of a top White House official and, according to multiple reports, considers a deeper staff shakeup following the rockiest start of any modern president, Pogo could teach him something important that he appears determined to ignore: The problem is the president.
The chaotic lack of discipline, duplicity, ad hoc actions and ad hominem attacks that mark Trump’s first weeks in office were hallmarks of his campaign. It worked then, but it’s a lot harder to govern that way.
Trump picked his staff, which in its first three and a half weeks has been a reflection of its leader. Why should we be surprised by carelessly drafted executive orders, like the ban on travel from seven mostly Muslim countries, or narcissistic embarrassments, like dwelling on the size of the inaugural crowd or focusing only on himself at the Central Intelligence Agency, or the stream of invective directed against the likes of John McCain?
Already gone is National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who was uniquely ill-suited for his job. His erratic judgment, after all, had gotten him fired from a previous post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He held secret discussions with the Russian ambassador in the last month of President Barack Obama’s administration, apparently advising the diplomat not to worry about sanctions imposed by Obama because they’d be revisited under Trump. Then he denied it to Vice President Mike Pence and had to apologize.
That was both ethically improper and politically dumb because it highlighted anew the Trump administration’s puzzling connections to Russia. Flynn was a regular guest on state-owned Russian television and there are government investigations of Trump’s possible links to Russia.
Flynn’s resignation Monday night leaves the national-security apparatus in turmoil. But that’s not all. Trump’s allies have been bad-mouthing Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, whom Trump set up to be in a clash with Steve Bannon, the alt-right strategist who shrewdly plays to Trump’s dark side.
A small but telling sign of who’s prevailing was the appointment of Julia Hahn as assistant to the president. She was a reporter for Breitbart News, the right-wing site formerly run by Bannon, and her mission was to assail, sometimes viciously, House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan confidantes say the speaker was not given a heads-up about Hahn’s White House appointment.
Fierce competition among top presidential aides is common and not necessarily destructive. It was pervasive, for example, in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt reveled in what he considered creative tension because he was a secure man. Trump is not.
Trump also has been unhappy with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose reputation is forever linked to Saturday Night Live’s Melissa McCarthy and her satirical take on his performance. Spicer’s combative style clearly is aimed at pleasing an audience of one: Trump.
Last weekend, the White House dispatched policy adviser Stephen Miller to do Sunday interviews. He embraced the take-no-prisoners style the boss likes. Although he was caught in lies, claiming there was widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire last November, and crazy assertions, like suggesting that a judge has no right to rule on the legality of a presidential order, Trump loved it, tweeting out praise.
According to a Politico report on Monday, the president is turning to outsiders like Wall Street executive Steve Schwarzman for advice on his staffing mess. Schwarzman is smart and understands Wall Street and markets. His knowledge of Washington is limited.
There is talk among Republicans of bringing in a new team manned by experienced adults. That happened in 1986 in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when former Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker was enlisted to deal with White House management chaos. The difference: Baker was brought in to help an adult.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.