WASHINGTON – So Michael Wolff wrote a book about Donald Trump. Perhaps you’ve heard about it?
The internet spent a few days pointing and laughing at the more extraordinary claims about Trump’s behavior (including some the book didn’t actually make), and then settled down to the serious business of figuring out which of them were true.
The consensus here in Washington is that Mr. Wolff has perhaps been a little too credulous with his sources, particularly with Steve Bannon, who has since recanted. But beneath that is the feeling that while many of the specifics are in question, the underlying picture resonates with those who deal with the White House.
That picture shows a president who does not read enough to be given thorough briefings, who makes snap judgments (nobody is quite sure what these judgments are based on), who is extremely confident of his own acumen and little interested in the opinions of others — and whose staffers, even the anti-establishment types, often quiver with contempt for their boss whenever they are off the record.
“More than half a dozen of the more skilled White House staff are contemplating imminent departures,” says the news site Axios. “Many leaving are quite fearful about the next chapter of the Trump presidency.”
Ominous words, for those who have been counting on what Ross Douthat called “Trump’s Petticoat Government” — the coalition of people who keep Trump from blithely making disastrous snap decisions.
Those advisers are frequently derided by people who had hoped that Trump’s administration would be more revolutionary, and far more effective, than it has turned out to be. Insiders, of course, have a different take. But while conceding that insiders are self-dealing and self-protective, and often blind to many important things, including their own blindness, I still maintain that you can’t write off Trump’s caretakers as simply counterrevolutionaries who have enfolded our new leader’s noble ambitions in a stasis field of red tape.
In fact, the outsiders whom people were counting on to “drain the swamp” needed startlingly little assistance to get themselves booted off the SS Trump as it headed into those murky waters. And even before those folks were thrown overboard, they proved no more effective than anyone else at steering the understaffed and rudderless vessel toward coherent policy change.
There is a reason that the only successful major endeavor of the Trump administration so far has been a rather conventional Republican tax bill, and it’s not that he was undone by his advisers. It’s that a conventional Republican tax bill was about the only thing that Republicans in Congress could agree upon (barely), and pass (barely), without presidential leadership laying out detailed policy goals and rallying the public behind them.
On foreign policy, of course, the president has more scope for action. But by a similar token, he has vastly more potential to blunder catastrophically, at the cost of millions of lives. Perhaps the foreign policy establishment is too cautious; perhaps America could wring more concessions out of foreign leaders if we were more intransigent. But when errors on the aggressive side mean war, overcaution is an understandable posture, even if it means some financial cost, and some missed opportunities to enjoy swashbuckling triumphalism.
We saw what those sorts of errors looked like in our second showdown with Iraq. Having seen, how many of us are eager for the nuclear sequel to the Korean War? Even if that isn’t the most likely outcome — even if the probability remains small — it’s the sort of thing you want to go a long way to avoid.
During the campaign, his supporters seemed to agree with this premise. Over and over, I was informed that Trump was the alternative to establishment Republicans who engaged in gratuitous military adventurism. Now, when left to his own devices, he seems to positively enjoy goading a nuclear-armed enemy. Which raises the question: What happens if he’s left to his own devices? What happens if those advisers actually do leave?
We may be about to find out. Why stay with the administration? At this point, it’s clear to everyone who might become any sort of policy adviser that there is no hope for a grand master plan of anything, no hope of getting any expansive policy agenda to catch Trump’s extremely limited attentional bandwidth. That’s true whether you’re a MAGA America Firster or a conventional Republican.
It’s also clear that Trump has lost a great deal of political capital, limiting legislative options even if he would listen to his most ambitious and savvy advisers. And one more thing is positively pellucid: Anyone who joins this White House can look forward to unprecedented levels of chaos, infighting and backstabbing, under a boss who will not respect them, or listen to much of anything they have to say.
As the current crop of advisers turns over, who will step forward to take up their unenviable burdens? No one has so far walked out of the Trump West Wing looking better than when they entered. It would be better for the country if the president had good people around him. But how many are going to volunteer to lean into the strike zone and take one for the team? And how many can be confirmed if the Senate tips into Democratic hands next year?
The first chapter of the Trump presidency has been … interesting. We’ll have to hope that the next chapter doesn’t find the protagonist left all on his own, embarking upon a series of truly hair-raising adventures.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She has written for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, The Atlantic and The Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”