What Happens When No One Is Running the White House

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s time for an update on how Donald Trump’s terrible management skills are undermining his presidency. Here’s the Mick Mulvaney edition – which could turn out to be the worst yet.

Earlier in his presidency, Trump’s loose management style made it seem likely he would wind up with the kinds of problems that plagued Jimmy Carter and, early in his presidency, Bill Clinton. Without a strong chief of staff, his White House would be vulnerable to all sorts of chaos. This is in fact what happened while Reince Priebus held the title, but not the traditional authority and responsibilities, of chief of staff. To some extent things improved when John Kelly held the position, but ultimately Kelly was defeated by the president and the job, and wound up surrendering back to the chaos.

assumed that little would change when Mulvaney took over. After all, Trump didn’t even actually give him the job; Mulvaney remains the “acting” chief of staff. To be sure, in that particular job, which does not require Senate confirmation, the difference between “acting” and holding the job permanently (until it’s not permanent any more) is largely symbolic – but symbolism sometimes matters, as in this case the “acting” might signal that Mulvaney can be safely ignored.

We learn now, from an excellent profile from a team of Washington Post reporters, that it didn’t work out quite that way. What’s happening, instead, is almost certainly way more dangerous – to the nation, and to Trump’s presidency.

Mulvaney seems to be only mildly interested in the normal responsibilities of the chief of staff – managing the White House staff and organizing the president’s schedule and responsibilities. He’s apparently opted out of the foreign policy and national security portions of the presidency. And his solution to the problem that defeated Kelly – how to handle the special challenges of constraining Trump’s worst instincts without drawing Trump’s wrath – has been to make no attempt at all to stop Trump.

What Mulvaney is interested in is achieving a series of policy goals, and has, the Post reports, built up a “fiefdom” in his preferred issue areas, in which he dictates policy to executive branch departments and agencies and expects them to follow orders. Indeed, the profile interprets the demise of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta as a consequence not of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, but of Acosta’s unwillingness to say “how high?” when Mulvaney said “Jump!”

The Priebus era called to mind Mack McLarty, Clinton’s first chief of staff, who was never given the authority to rein in White House chaos.

Good White House chiefs of staff are honest brokers who accept and adopt the president’s agenda, rather than policy advocates who attempt to end-run or manipulate the president. Mulvaney’s fiefdom-building is somewhat like that of Donald Regan, who took advantage of Ronald Reagan’s tendency toward passive acceptance of what his staff was doing to run the Reagan administration into the ground in 1985 and 1986, eventually losing his job when the Iran-Contra scandal went public. Regan was able to use control of staff, the door of the Oval Office, and paper flow to eventually isolate and manipulate the president. It’s also a bit reminiscent of how Vice President Dick Cheney (formerly a chief of staff, in the Ford White House) was able to take advantage of an inexperienced president to carve out considerable influence over national security during George W. Bush’s first term.

Both of those episodes ended in policy fiascoes. That’s no coincidence.

When the White House dictates to executive branch departments and agencies, policy winds up ignoring the expertise of executive branch bureaucracies. Policy failure for technical reasons becomes more likely; the people who actually know how to do policy are cut out of the decision-making process and even sometimes the actual implementation of new plans, and the White House staff that takes their place have no procedures in place to protect them. That’s how White House staffers have wound up botching an illegal break-in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, or showing up in Iran with a Bible and a cake, or outing a CIA agent.

Meanwhile, it’s presidential involvement – with the electoral incentives and political skills that presidents have – that normally guards against policy going too far wrong. White House staffers simply don’t have the same incentives. We can see that with Mulvaney, who seems to be primarily interested in forcing through his own agenda of ideological and interest-group preferences, regardless of whether they fit well into the president’s agenda or help him win re-election. Indeed, he seems to have figured out a compromise in which he leaves alone foreign policy along with those (few) things the president cares about, primarily trade and immigration, and tries to control the remainder of the domestic agenda. That includes several items that are unpopular with both parties on Capitol Hill – and presumably, therefore, items such as new restrictions on stem cell use that may earn the president considerable trouble.

And that’s if they’re not totally botched.

Meanwhile, with Trump mainly responsive to whatever happens to be on Fox News, and Mulvaney carrying out the House Freedom Caucus agenda, it’s not at all clear that anyone is actually trying to make sure that basic government tasks are being carried out at minimal levels of competence. So far, the biggest Mulvaney-era fiasco has been the government shutdown back in the winter. But it wouldn’t be surprising at all if something worse should happen on his watch. After all, what we have right now appears to be the worst of both worlds – a classic Carter-style disorganized presidency in some areas, with a classic Regan regency in other areas. What could go wrong?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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