Business Vs Government: President Grapples for Control
President Trump has got to take over the system and let his Team do the dirty work.
There is an important and damaging cultural divide between the Trumps and the governing system that the President and his closest allies are trying to tame.
Call it New York vs. Washington, or business Vs government, but it comes down to this: the president hasn’t gotten control over the bureaucracy, much of which is in open rebellion against him. You can see it by the remarkably low numbers of political appointees currently approved by the Senate, as by the torrent of leaks aimed at damaging Trump and his top aides.
The New Yorkers—famously, the Trumps themselves, the Kushners, and the bankers in the Cabinet and the White House—seem to have come to Washington expecting that, once The Donald had been sworn in, the bureaucrats would do what they were told.
The New Yorkers—as we saw during the election campaign and throughout the transition—did not believe they needed a large organization, staffed with their own loyal followers. They thought the important thing was to make the right decisions, and install a few key officials at the very top.
Washington doesn’t work that way. Most Washingtonians think they know more about policy than the outsiders who move in during odd-numbered years, and they advance their own views whenever possible. If the Trumps wanted to change things, they had to take over the system, not just tell the bureaucrats what they wanted.
As Max Weber foresaw, the bureaucrats are the most powerful people in the modern state, and if you want to govern effectively you’d better put your own bureaucrats in charge of your opponents’. The New Yorkers have not done that, and the Washingtonians still control a great deal of the turf.
The New Yorkers have been astonished to discover that not even direct orders from the Oval Office always produce the desired results; officials, especially “carryovers” who disagree with the president, unhesitatingly leak to the media or pursue their own wishes.
Bureaucrats have lots of ways to block entry to people they don’t want, ranging from denying or delaying their clearances to spreading unpleasant gossip.
The New Yorkers were not prepared for big-time sabotage.
This failure to understand Washington became painfully obvious right after the election, when the cabinet members-in-waiting, instead of organizing teams of pending deputies, under secretaries and assistant secretaries (the people who work out the policy details and then enforce them within the various departments and agencies) were commuting between Washington—where this work inevitably had to be carried out—and Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan.
President Trump followers who worked on the transition team often found themselves outnumbered by Obama loyalists, a surprising number of whom are still in office, pushing the policies of the previous administration.
Taking over the system required the New Yorkers to put their own people in key positions in every agency, and also remove those who could be expected to oppose the new policies. They did not appreciate the urgency of the mission, preferring to entrust a handful of (business and family) associates with the task.
To be sure, there were some very talented people in that group, but many more were needed.
Even someone as smart and energetic as Jared Kushner could not, and cannot, possibly do all the things the president has piled on him. His current workload includes major legislation from health care to tax reform, and every foreign policy initiative from North Korea to the Middle East.
It may be that the president is following the example of one of his longstanding New York friends, former Washingtonian Henry Kissinger, who ran the State Department with a small group of trusted aides.
But Kissinger knew a lot about Washington, and he constantly created “busy work” for the bureaucracy that would keep them out of the top loop, unable to meddle in, or sabotage, his policies. If that is Trump’s plan, he is not doing it very effectively.
Here again, the numbers work against him. Kissinger’s State Department was bigger than Trump’s handful of close allies, and there is no sign that any of the major departments is under Trumpian control.
Weekend gossip has it that the president is contemplating major personnel changes, which is the normal and predictable reaction of any chief executive, or board of directors, to dropping share prices and a steady flow of bad news. But here again, the cultural conflict between Washingtonians and New Yorkers is likely to remain a central impediment to The Donald.
There are still many people he should purge, quite aside from such high-value targets as James Comey. We’ll know if the president has learned this lesson if he replaces hundreds, or thousands, of high and mid-level officials with talented people who will fight for his objectives. We will see further evidence of a sharply rising learning curve if the various spokespeople speak in harmony.
It isn’t primarily up to him, he’s got to take over the system and let his team do more of the dirty work.
Paul Ebeling, Editor
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