The White House Needs an Injection of Calm
Most people don’t live near Washington. They’re not connected to it. They see a new White House on screens—computer, TV. They don’t listen to all the chatter but sometimes turn the sound up.
Over weeks you get a general picture. It yields an impression. The impression lasts.
One month in, what impression would people be getting of the Trump administration? Early dynamism followed by mess. Good executive orders followed by bad, the choice of Neil Gorsuch for the high court followed by the departure of Michael Flynn from the National Security Council.
Nothing about the story of Mr. Flynn is satisfyingly clear. Most people would say discussing the views of the incoming administration with the Russian ambassador would be an anodyne act—harmless, maybe even helpful. But few know exactly what was said. That he misled the vice president about discussing sanctions is bad. That the vice president later vouched for him is embarrassing. That Mr. Flynn’s phone conversations were subject to surveillance is strange. That information about the call or calls was leaked to the press is unprecedented.
Two mysteries need to be solved, and if it takes a formal congressional investigation, then so be it. The first is whether there were indeed unusual Russian contacts with the Trump campaign and transition, and whether they suggest an unhealthy relationship between the president and Russia. The second is: Who is listening to, and leaking information to the press about, not only Mr. Flynn’s conversations but the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders? And what is their motive?
Is this, as some suggest, “deep state” revenge for the haughty, dismissive way Donald Trump spoke of the U.S. intelligence community during and after the campaign? Is it driven by sincere and legitimate anxieties that the new White House has an unknown relationship with Vladimir Putin’s government that potentially compromises U.S. security, independence of judgment and freedom of action? Is it driven by the antipathy of the permanent government toward Mr. Putin, and a desire to bring down those, like Mr. Trump, who hope for closer relations with Russia? Is it that they’ve seen—and listened to—enough of Mr. Trump to think he’s a screwball, period, and a threat to the republic?
It is a terrible thing if suddenly, in America, there is a government within the government that hates the elected government—and that secretly, silently, and with no accountability, acts on it.
The president complains about leaks in angry tweets. They look weak, as if he’s saying: Hey, America, you better solve this problem!
No, buddy, you solve it.
The Trump administration should shock everyone by demanding a major congressional investigation into the whole dangerous mess. The White House ought to welcome the opportunity to clear the air on the first question and get to the bottom of—and stop—the second.
Back to the screens.
There’s a lot going against the new White House—the mainstream media, the spies, the antic nature of the president himself, the ambivalence of his own party, the rise of the passionate left.
And another thing: the president’s band of exotics.
Mr. Trump is an unusual character and it’s no surprise he surrounded himself with unusual characters. They’re a band of outsiders with an eye to the historical chance. They’re a highly individualistic, highly idiosyncratic crew.
They’re dressed like Supergirl at a party; they glower around in skinny ties and skinny suits with skinny sideburns; they’re telling reporters to please quote them when they say “Shut up and listen.” They are spoofed on TV because they’re so easily spoofable.
And we see a lot of them. Sometimes they are explaining away their boss’s faux pas. Sometimes they’re explaining their own. We see them in fiery, confrontational interviews. They speak quickly, dramatically, vividly.
They aren’t calming things down and inspiring trust and confidence.
In fairness, they’re working in a White House in which they cannot confidently predict their own president’s views, actions and statements. They don’t necessarily know where they stand, long term, with him or one another. (He apparently likes things loosey-goosey. He’s got what he wanted.) They’re under heavy pressure. And like their boss, they’ve never been there before.
But it may mean something that the other night in a speech in Trump-loving Oklahoma, I said of the president’s colorful aides, “They should get off TV,” and the room burst into applause.
They should go and sit in their offices and plan something. White Houses, which are always dramatic places that deal with daily crises, don’t need more drama. They need systems, order, process, calm. They need clear lines of authority and responsibility.
Let the cabinet members, now that they’re confirmed and so officially exist, advance policy and explain thinking. Let the president and the vice president do the asserting and context-giving.
I used to think White Houses needed more independent, brilliant people. This one needs more shy, quiet, process people.
Give more attention to planning than promotion and marketing. If you plan better, you’ll need fewer cleanup crews.
Sit down and have a cup of coffee. Handle the incoming. There’s always enough.
Since the president likes to be compared to Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan had the last unambiguously successful modern presidency, it would be a good investment of time to look at the process by which he accomplished it. Start with Michael Deaver’s memoir, “A Different Drummer.” Deaver, along with Ed Meese and James Baker, was one of the famous troika that ran things. His central insight: He was staff. His job was putting out fires, not starting them.
Mr. Baker, in his memoir, “Work Hard, Study . . . and Keep Out of Politics!,” literally offers a step-by-step guide in how to invent and organize a functioning White House. He knew it was a dramatic moment in history and his president had been painted as a dramatic figure—Hollywood actor turned nuclear cowboy who’ll start a war. So he kept the public part of the White House low-key, organized and focused. Not every pot had to be kept on full boil.
The key decision that kept everything working was that the first year would be devoted to a single issue, the economy, starting with tax cuts. If you turn the economy around, the president thought, everything else becomes possible.
Mr. Baker spent most of his time with the president or in his own office, at his desk or on his couch. There, about once a week, he spoke on background to reporters from the big news organizations. He was giving them insight into what they were seeing. He was usually candid and always candid-seeming. What he was giving them was not dumb, vulgar spin but insight. He didn’t constantly do TV, so interviewers came to see him as a catch and treated him with respect.
That was good for the administration: Important journalists started to understand what it was doing and why. And it was good for Jim Baker. In the ideological abattoir that was the Reagan White House it wasn’t usually his blood that was on the floor.
I know, different world. But some things about that world are worth revisiting, and can be modified to fit the screen.