These are dark days inside the White House. The fledgling administration has sprung innumerable leaks, evidence not just of a government riven by infighting, but also President Donald Trump’s deliberately chaotic management style. “The way that Trump treats his senior staff is one of those places where he is totally and completely off the charts,” writes The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who is usually given to normalizing Trump. “Most presidents do everything they can to show public support for the men and women in their inner circle…Trump, on the other hand, not only seems entirely comfortable airing his issues with senior staff but also appears to enjoy doing so.”
In the popular imagination, Trump is the boss behind the big desk who chews out failing employees and yells, “You’re fired.” There has been real continuity between the Trump of Celebrity Apprentice and the president who keeps his underlings in a state of permanent insecurity. The main difference is that he hasn’t fired anyone of importance—not explicitly, anyway. National security advisor Michael Flynn resigned on Monday night after it became clear he had misled the White House about phone calls with the Russian ambassador late last year.
Two other top members of the Trump administration remain on the hot seat: Press secretary Sean Spicer, whom Trump is reportedly trying to replace because of the president’s disappointment with his press conferences (and also, it seems, for being unmanned by a Melissa McCarthy imitation on Saturday Night Live); and chief of staff Reince Priebus, who is being blamed by some in Trump’s circle for the bad publicity of the first three weeks, including the botched rollout of the executive order restricting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries (Priebus also pushed Trump to hire Spicer). Their days may be numbered, too.
By some accounts, a staff shakeup is exactly what the Trump administration needs. After all, it’s fairly common for new governments to get off to a rocky start until the president finds a team that gels. That was certainly true of presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Writing in Axios, Mike Allen predicted that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner “will outlast everyone. Many Republicans think the two will recognize the damage to Trump’s brand and their own—and help engineer a return to a more conventional West Wing.” Writing in Politico, Josh Dawsey and Alex Isenstadt suggest that Trump was “mulling an early staff shake-up.” To add to these rumors, Trump reportedly is meeting on Tuesday with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been hovering like a vulture in the hopes of returning to Trump’s inner circle.
The idea that a staff shake-up might bring order to a chaotic White House is superficially plausible, but crumbles on closer inspection. Unlike Carter, Reagan, and Clinton, Trump has no political or governmental experience whatsoever. His management style—fomenting chaos and insecurity among his subordinates so they compete to please him—might have served him well as an entertainer but less well in enterprises that involve more than performance and brand-burnishing. Hence Trump’s long string of business failures and bankruptcies in fields outside of entertainment and brand licensing.
The key question isn’t the makeup of Trump’s staff, but rather the makeup of its boss. As an executive, Trump loves flattery, is quick to take offense at criticism, and is all too easily swayed by dubious conspiracy theories that feed his ideological preferences (most recently seen in his false claim that millions voted illegally in last year’s election, in which he lost the popular vote). He is smitten with simplistic slogans (“drain the swamp,” “build the wall”) but lacks the intellectual rigor to move beyond them. All of these traits sabotage, perhaps fatally, his ability to manage and govern effectively.
Consider this anecdote from Politico about how Kellyanne Conway keeps in good standing with Trump:
White House aides say it can be hard to know what will make Trump happy, or what will anger him. Some aides chafed at Conway’s decision to plug Ivanka Trump’s merchandise line on television, a move that drew widespread criticism, including from ethics experts who said she was walking a dangerous line. But, far from hurting her internally, it may have helped. Trump liked the appearance, and Conway’s standing has increased in his eyes, said several people close to the president.
A staff shake-up is not going to solve the problem of Conway unethically using her office to hawk Trump merchandise because the root problem is Trump himself. To him, Conway is not a problematic staffer but an almost perfect one, because she tells him what he wants to hear (and says to journalists whatever he wants her to say, the truth be damned). Trump values loyalty above all else, which is why he trusts his family members most, especially Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Beyond that, Trump has a small circle of cronies who have stuck with him through thick and thin. It’s hard for him to work with people outside that circle, which again points to the fact that the trouble is not with the staff so much as the man who selects the staff.
Before the inauguration, there was speculation that Trump might be a puppet of some master manipulator, whether it be Vice President Mike Pence, top advisor Steve Bannon, House Speaker Paul Ryan, or even Russian President Vladimir Putin. This hypothesis has been disproven by the first weeks of Trump’s presidency. Far from being a figurehead, he is setting the tone for a free-for-all at the White House. Some, like Flynn, have tried to assert themselves (which, in Flynn’s case, might have contributed to his downfall). Others have tried to parrot Trump’s lies, but also find themselves falling out of favor (Priebus and Spicer).
Trump can fire, or force to resign, almost anyone in the administration save Pence. But doing so isn’t likely to suddenly turn things around in the White House. Trump will seek new supplicants as replacements, and they, too, will fall out of favor with him—for reasons they may or may not understand. It is well-documented that Trump is a rude, mercurial, vengeful boss who is, oxymoronically, an inattentive micromanager. He is arrogant enough to believe he knows everything, and thus his staffers are expendable minions, but he’s too ignorant to govern well. The only effective staff shake-up would be one aimed at the very top. That, in the end, is the real problem with this White House: Trump can’t fire himself.