The Trump White House doesn’t seem to appreciate it when political observers comment on the “chaos” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The label, however, is tough to avoid.
It’s not just the scandals. Or the resignations. Or the palace intrigue. Or even the in-fighting. Perhaps the most important part of the chaotic conditions in the White House is that the staff doesn’t appear to know what it’s doing.
And I mean they literally don’t know. After Donald Trump blurted out his plans for trade tariffs the other day, NBC News reported that the president blindsided his own team, announcing a new policy “without any internal review by government lawyers or his own staff.” What’s more, “No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in in advance.”
That was last week. This week wasn’t any better. The Washington Post offered an interesting behind-the-scenes look at how the controversial tariff policy was unveiled.
“Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House,” [the president] wrote at 7:38 a.m…. The response inside and outside the White House: What meeting?
There was no mention of the event on the president’s schedule, and the major focus of the day was supposed to be a discussion of gun violence in video games. A number of aides thought tentative plans for a tariff announcement had been called off. Soon, there were rumors that the teased event would be canceled or delayed.
Less than four hours later, the White House hosted South Korean officials, who told the press that Trump would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – sometime fairly soon. Earlier in the day, State Department officials, who were apparently unaware of the developments, had downplayed the possibility of such talks, reinforcing the “apparent lack of coordination” between the West Wing and the president’s diplomatic team.
We talk regularly about Team Trump’s staffing crisis, but it’s important to acknowledge the simple truth at the heart of the White House’s problem: no one wants to work in an environment in which they have no idea what their colleagues and superiors may do next.
And yet, this is a staple of Trump’s presidency. His aides didn’t know, for example, that he’d denounce a House Republican surveillance bill that the White House supported. (Trump apparently saw something that confused him on Fox News.)
As regular readers may recall, Trump’s aides were also surprised to learn that he’d announced via Twitter that Christopher Wray was his choice to lead the FBI. They were equally startled to read Trump’s tweets banning transgender Americans from military service.
As we discussed last summer, White House aides also didn’t know in advance that Trump would falsely accuse Barack Obama via Twitter of tapping his phone. They also had no idea that the president would tweet news about John Kelly serving as chief of staff. Politico highlighted an instance from early last year in which Trump lashed out at China via Twitter “while U.S. officials were meeting with a Chinese delegation at the State Department.”
My personal favorite was this Associated Press report:
Aides to President Donald Trump were in deep talks about how to defuse tensions between Qatar and other Arab nations when the door to the secure room at the White House burst open.
The urgent message: Trump had just tweeted about Qatar.
One adviser read the tweet aloud and with that, the policymakers in midconference call had no other choice but to rework their plans to reflect the president’s tweeted assertion that Qatar, host to some 11,000 U.S. troops, was funding terrorism.
It was an accusation against a close U.S. ally that had never been voiced so publicly and with such indelicacy.
It’s easy to feel some sympathy for the U.S. officials who find themselves blindsided by an erratic president who’s capable of waking up on any given day and declaring just about anything that pops into his mind. It’s a dangerous dynamic that makes it exceedingly difficult for a variety of dedicated professionals to do their jobs.
It necessarily creates “chaos.”
I imagine some of the president’s supporters will see this and think, “If members of Trump’s team don’t like it, they can always leave.” And while there’s some truth to that, let’s not forget that much of the team is now doing exactly that.