Trump Has the White House He Always Wanted

- April 04, 2018

Sometimes it seems like Donald Trump never met a number he didn’t want to exaggerate, from his inaugration crowd to his net worth to his own height. But there’s one area in his administration that he doesn’t need to embellish: staff turnover.

According to Politifact, by mid-March of this year, 43 percent of his most senior staff had quit, been reassigned, or been pushed out. Although that included the summary sacking of Rex Tillerson on March 13, it didn’t take into account the subsequent tweet-firings that ushered out H.R. McMaster and David Shulkin. Notably, all three of them, at least early on, were praised for their relevant experience, and in McMaster’s case for his record of speaking truth to power.

This dizzying rate of roster moves is seen by many as disruptive and destabilizing, incompatible with the function of the highest political office in the nation. Maybe so, but it’s the way Trump likes it. As I learned when writing a Trump family biography, this behavior is yet another indication of Donald Trump’s preferred management style. What looks like an HR department nightmare is actually a calculated and deliberate strategy by Trump to restyle his new business address to resemble the one where he has spent most of his work life—the executive suite on the 26th floor of Trump Tower.

No doubt Trump saw his share of standard pyramid-style organizational charts during his two years at Wharton, but he has always preferred what anthropologists call “a circular hierarchy”—or, in plain English, a wheel. A work-flow diagram at the Trump Organization would have put Donald Trump at the hub and connected him by spokes to his small number of top staff. They numbered about a dozen, and he hired them with the same kind of gut instinct that propelled his political rise—he didn’t value traditional expertise as much as a willingness to give him undisputed loyalty and unlimited energy. Trump spotted Matthew Calamari, a former college linebacker, at the 1981 U.S. Open tennis tournament when Calamari, working security, tackled a pair of hecklers. Trump hired him as a bodyguard. Today, he’s the Trump Organization’s chief operating officer and executive vice-president.

There was no business plan, no development strategy, no layers of authority; instead, Trump would come up with an idea, work it up in his head, and tell one of his handpicked diamonds in the rough to get moving on it. “It didn’t make any difference that you had never done something before,” Jeff Walker, a military school classmate who worked for the Trump Organization for more than a decade, told me. “He thought you could figure it out. That’s what made him exciting to work for—no bureaucratic red tape. You got an assignment, you went off and did it, didn’t let anything stand in your way. Move it, knock it down. He wouldn’t tolerate it, neither should you.”


What Trump wanted most were soldiers, not subject-matter experts. And this created a kind of stability; some of his most loyal employees have stayed with him for decades. But it was people he hired for their knowledge that lasted the shortest time. In fact, a number of his more celebrated business flops happened when he ignored the industry veterans he had hired and plowed forward with his own ideas. When he acquired the Eastern shuttle in 1988, he hired airline executive Bruce Nobles but disregarded his advice to be frugal. He splurged on bird’s-eye maple veneer and gold-plated bathroom fixtures, losing critical market share to tackier but cheaper rivals. Two years later, he ignored warnings from his own executives, including Jack O’Donnell, then president and chief operating officer of Trump Plaza, one of the two profitable casinos Trump already had in Atlantic City, about the danger of opening a third casino in an overcrowded market. Instead, Trump bulled ahead, opened the Trump Taj Mahal, and caused profits at all three to crater. He ended up firing Nobles and O’Donnell resigned, though Trump claimed he had fired him too.

When Trump first arrived at the White House, he stepped outside his usual comfort zone and appointed several people, including Tillerson and Gary Cohn, who had decades of experience in their fields. But they also had ideas that conflicted with Trump, and now they’re gone, replaced with more pliable figures. Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman whose support for Trump netted him the top post at the CIA, will take over for Tillerson, who couldn’t get with Trump’s forget-diplomacy program, and Larry Kudlow, an economics pundit on TV and an early Trump loyalist, has replaced Gary Cohn, who refused to sign on to Trump’s tariff plan. The possibility of EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt’s imminent ouster raises the question of whether Trump would replace him with someone less likely to draw critical attention. Filling some positions, like the still-vacant communications director, don’t appear to be high on Trump’s to-do list; he had the perfect person in the job—the ultra-loyal and supremely deferential Hope Hicks—and for now he appears content to handle the White House messaging himself.

Today, the hub-and-spokes model is facing its ultimate test. It was arguably sufficient for the Trump Organization, which currently has 22,000 people on its payroll, but as president, Trump is now the ultimate boss for 2.7 million people, a 122-fold increase. For him to rely on little more than his own gut instincts, maybe (or maybe not) modified by the last person he spoke to or by whatever a Fox News commentator just said, is a high-risk strategy. And it gets still more risky when his hiring policy esteems loyalty over resume, a priority that seems unduly reckless even to some of his appointees. Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump’s White House physician, has been nominated to head up the Veteran’s Administration, not because he has years of management experience (he doesn’t), but more likely because he pronounced the president to be “in excellent health.” Even Jackson apparently hesitated at the prospect of heading up a famously challenging agency with 274,000 employees. But Trump likes the way he looks: “He’s like central casting—like. Hollywood star,” Trump said during a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser in February, according to CNN.

And there’s another problem with this managerial style. Although it seems that the administration would love to privatize as much of the federal government as possible, the business methods that the Trump Organization regularly employed—no-bid contracts, ruthless cost-cutting, partial or sometimes no payment to vendors, and, ultimately, corporate bankruptcy—are not options available to the White House.
Regardless, the president is not about to abandon his experts-be-damned, hub-and-spokes approach. Instead, the man who is famous for having a short attention span seems laser-focused on expanding this way of doing business across the entire country. Hunkered down in front of a bank of flat-screen TVs, cell phone in hand, he has become a national hub, using Twitter as a set of virtual spokes that connect him directly to nearly 50 million followers.

As for the immediate future, the most likely prospect is that staff turnover will continue to set new records. As Trump himself recently tweeted, “People will always come & go.” But to those who find themselves lured by the proximity to power such a job offers, here’s a word of warning: Note that on the same day Trump fired VA head David Shulkin, he signed the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil Painting Act, known as the EGO Act. It permanently bans taxpayer funding for portraits of federal government officials or employees, ostensibly in the name of economy but perhaps also because in the Trump cabinet, no one will be there long enough to finish sitting for the artist.


 

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