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Just how unusual is the Trump White House?


Senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other White House officials listen as President Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg participate in a news conference in April. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

More than 100 days in, the Trump White House is not running quite as smoothly as President Trump has suggested. But this doesn’t mean that this White House’s pathologies are unique. Every White House has its management problems. President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser did not last long. In the George W. Bush years, one White House staff member resigned early, complaining about the “Mayberry Machiavellis” thwarting his efforts.

Just because this White House is putting a new problem on display does not mean that it’s bad; just because previous administrations have displayed similar White House problems doesn’t mean that it’s good, either.

Still, let’s briefly review recent tendencies to see whether the Trump White House is doing something a) unprecedented and b) disturbing:

TENDENCY #1: blaming the predecessor. Politico’s Josh Dawsey has a decent summary of this particular Trump tic:

The White House’s kneejerk reaction of blaming Obama hasn’t been contained to the Flynn scandal. They have blamed him for widespread protests, wiretapped phones, poor economic numbers, outsourced jobs, gangs proliferating across the United States, and problems in the Middle East — among other issues.

“I inherited a mess,” Trump said, explaining some of his early woes

Is this unprecedented? No, absolutely not, a fact that Dawsey acknowledges when he writes in his next sentence, “Since time immemorial, presidents have blasted their predecessors.” I think you might have to go back to the George H.W. Bush administration to find a new White House not blaming the old White House for early problems.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that President Obama asked the Trump administration not to hire Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, during his daily briefing on May 8 at the White House. (Reuters)

Is this disturbing? Somewhat. All administrations exaggerate the bad policy effects of the prior administration, and a lot of the stuff Trump is foisting on Obama is standard politics. This White House, however, also seems willing to ascribe malicious intent to its predecessor, which does seem new. Trump’s accusations of Obama “wiretapping” him is far more extreme than the garden-variety acts of blame the last guy.

TENDENCY #2: Leaks followed by counter-leaks. Last week, the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markey and Asawin Suebaeng wrote an article based on White House sources suggesting that human paperweight Sebastian Gorka was on his way out of the White House. A few days later, however, that same duo had a story suggesting the Gorka was staying, thanks to Steven K. Bannon’s lobbying and Trump’s intervention.

This kind of back-and-forth about national security staffers in the White House is not limited to Gorka. On Monday, Eli Lake reported in Bloomberg News that Trump’s new national security adviser was on the outs with the president:

Trump has complained in front of McMaster in intelligence briefings about “the general undermining my policy,” according to two White House officials. The president has given McMaster less face time. McMaster’s requests to brief the president before some press interviews have been declined. Over the weekend, McMaster did not accompany Trump to meet with Australia’s prime minister; the outgoing deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, attended instead.

A few hours later, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted the following:

It sure seems as though the White House staff has contradicted itself quite a bit in recent weeks. No wonder Gorka complains about fake news!

Is this unprecedented? No, but it is pretty unusual. As noted above, all administrations have competing factions, and they will often leak or write about one another. Still, such behavior usually spans the executive branch, often in response to a weakened White House. I don’t think even Henry Kissinger leaked for the purpose of sabotaging a fellow White House staffer.

Is this disturbing? It depends. In some cases, it doesn’t matter much. For example, even if Gorka still works in the White House, his lack of a security clearance and, you know, operational authority over anything suggests that Gorka will not really be exercising power anytime soon.

On the other hand, these leaks are problematic not in and of themselves but because they reveal that, even now, the national security machinery is not functioning well. Trump’s obvious fondness for Flynn, even after his resignation as national security adviser, has made life difficult for his replacement, H.R. McMaster. He tried to get rid of Ezra Cohen-Watnick from the National Security Council staff and failed. And multiple reports now suggest that deputy NSC adviser McFarland, whom McMaster has nudged out to become U.S. ambassador to Singapore, ain’t going anywhere for a while.

3. Tendency #3: Getting foreign governments to pressure the president to go your way. One of the reasons Trump is ostensibly mad at McMaster is that the latter talked to South Korea and flatly contradicted Trump on who would pay for the THAAD anti-ballistic-missile system.

That was peanuts compared to the NAFTA tale, however:

White House staff called the Prime Minister’s Office last month to urge Justin Trudeau to persuade President Donald Trump not to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to multiple Canadian government sources.

The unconventional diplomatic manoeuvre — approaching the head of a foreign government to influence your own boss — proved decisive, as Trump thereafter abandoned his threat to pull out of NAFTA unilaterally, citing the arguments made by Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto as pivotal.

Is this unprecedented? It’s not new across the globe — see, for example, why some Japanese officials liked gaiatsu from outsiders. Still, it seems pretty new to the United States.

Is this disturbing? A little bit. There are elements of “omnibalancing” behavior at work, in which domestic factions look for international supporters to bolster their domestic standing. Each Trump White House faction seems to prefer finding foreign allies. The thing is, the inventor of the term also argued that omnibalancing primarily applied to developing countries. It is a little disturbing to see the Trump White House displaying traits similar to a 1970s junta.

4) Tendency #4: Trump on social media. See here. Or here. Or — you get the drift.

Is this unprecedented? Yes, just because the nature of social media is new enough to not have affected Trump’s predecessors.

Is this disturbing? Well, I argued as much in the past. And on Monday evening, Tom Nichols tweeted a persuasive thread on this very subject.

To sum up: A lot of the Trump White House’s behavior has precedent — but that’s not reassuring at all.


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