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The White House challenge: limiting Trump's diet of wrong information

The White House chief of staff, unable to rely on Donald Trump's critical-thinking skills, is working hard to control the information reaching the Oval Office.
During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis.

It's difficult to identify one overarching problem plaguing Donald Trump's presidency, but one of the key areas of difficulty is the amount of nonsense he's consumed on a nearly daily basis.

Politico reported a few months ago, "Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing. The consequences can be tremendous.... A news story tucked into Trump's hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president's entire agenda." (Donald Trump Jr. has reportedly been "a huge problem" in this area.)

Ideally, Trump would have better critical-thinking skills, and it wouldn't be quite so easy for people in the president's orbit, eager to exploit his ignorance and gullibility, to manipulate him. But these are the circumstances we face now.

Or more to the point, these are the circumstances White House Chief of Staff John Kelly inherited and is desperate to change. Politico reported yesterday:

Confronted with a West Wing that treated policymaking as a free-for-all, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, is instituting a system used by previous administrations to limit internal competition -- and to make himself the last word on the material that crosses the president's desk. [...]In a conference call last week, Kelly initiated a new policymaking process in which just he and one other aide -- White House staff secretary Rob Porter, a little-known but highly regarded Rhodes scholar who overlapped with Jared Kushner as an undergraduate at Harvard -- will review all documents that cross the Resolute desk.

And while that sounds sensible -- indeed, these steps would bring this White House in line with every modern White House -- there's no reason to assume this will help address one of Trump's most glaring shortcomings.

First, the president is still prone to tantrums. The New York Times reported overnight, "Despite Mr. Kelly's fairly deft touch at approaching the president, Mr. Trump has shown signs of rebelling after stories have appeared describing how his chief of staff has put tighter controls in place."

Dan Drezner recently helped document each of the times White House officials have characterized the president in ways that make him sound like a toddler. The list is in constant need of updates.

Second, Kelly's best efforts notwithstanding, Trump receives all kinds of bad information -- and it's not limited to pieces of paper that enter the Oval Office. By all accounts, the president consumes an alarming about of conservative media; he monitors social media; and he chats with outside allies who put all kinds of odd ideas in his head.

As we discussed several weeks ago, Kelly may help mitigate the problem, but the White House chief of staff isn't a babysitter, and he can only hold Trump's hand so much. Unless Kelly intends to control access to the president's television remote and phone -- something Trump would never allow -- it's likely the retired general is fighting a losing battle.