So far, President Trump has tried to run the White House much the way he ran his family business. That means little rigid organization and a skeleton crew of loyal, but not necessarily experienced staffers.
As the president tries to transfer that improvisational style from Trump Tower to the White House, the results have been mixed — just this week the president’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned and his choice to lead the Labor Department, Andrew Puzder, withdrew himself from the confirmation process.
“Donald’s business had a very small staff,” says journalist David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump. “And except for when he was in trouble with his bankers he was the absolute ruler of his business empire, which is not at all how the White House works.”
Trump now finds himself in charge of a vast federal bureaucracy that neither he nor some of his Cabinet nominees know much about. He’s bristled at the idea that presidential orders can be blocked by a federal judge. And he’s upended longstanding foreign policy doctrine — questioning the two-state solution in the Middle East, for example — as casually as though he were simply changing the drapes in the lobby of a Trump hotel.
“A lot of what Donald does is seat of the pants,” Johnston says. “He contends he’s a great negotiator. He’s really not a great negotiator. He’s just great at promoting the idea that he’s a great negotiator.”
Trump promoted that idea through fourteen seasons as star of The Apprentice, dishing out advice while playing a successful businessman on TV.
“A good leader has to be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of employees,” Trump said in one episode.
That skill was tested this week at the White House, when National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after making false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. While Trump had known about those false statements for more than two-and-a-half weeks before Flynn quit, spokesman Sean Spicer insists the president acted decisively.
“When he’s ready to make a decision he makes it, whether it’s hiring somebody or asking for someone’s resignation,” Spicer says. Indeed, the president appears to be moving quickly to replace Flynn. Discussions with Ret. Vice-Adm. Robert Harward were already underway even before Flynn tendered his resignation.
In fact, Trump made “You’re fired” into his TV catchphrase, although former employees say Trump doesn’t actually like to fire people in real life.
The president also seems comfortable surrounded by competing personalities and power centers in the White House. That can generate a lot of friction and palace intrigue. But not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing.
“It can make things pretty intense on the inside. But for the rest of us on the outside, it tends to lead to wiser decisions,” says Chris Demuth, a veteran of the Reagan White House who is now a distinguished fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt deliberately pitted staff members against one another, Demuth says, often with creative results.
He also shares the president’s view that being unpredictable is a good thing.
“If we look back through history there are several of our presidents who actually cultivated a reputation for unpredictability to keep foes especially in international affairs a little off balance,” Demuth says. “Richard Nixon was very good at promoting the idea he could be just a little bit crazy.”
Unless that unpredictability is calibrated, though, friends can be thrown off balance as well. And that can make it harder for the president to actually advance his agenda.
“Running government is no different than assembling an automobile, making a movie,” says journalist Johnston, who launched the news site DCReport.org. “There are lots of different parts that have to be brought together and coordinated with a knowledge of how do you achieve that. Trump doesn’t have those skills.”
The administration is less than one month old so adjustments could still be made. After the botched roll-out of the travel ban, for example, the White House chief of staff reportedly drew up a checklist to see that future initiatives go through the proper channels. Trump the improviser often seems impatient with checklists. But as he once said on The Apprentice, it’s important to adapt.
“Often times, things go wrong and there’s just not much you can do about it,” Trump said. “But a really good leader will step up, take responsibility, and really just find the right solution.”
The question is whether Trump himself can learn that lesson from his own political apprenticeship.