April 15, 2017


THE INSIDE STORY OF THE KUSHNER-BANNON CIVIL WAR : West Wing sources come clean about the backstabbing, the bullying, the distrust, and the buzzing flies. (SARAH ELLISON, MAY 2017, Vanity Fair)

Unlike previous presidents, Trump has also neglected to appoint a professional staff with a high-level governing or White House background. This is due in part to ignorance. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, in his first meeting with Barack Obama, Trump seemed surprised by the scope of the president's duties, and his aides seemed unaware that there wasn't a permanent West Wing staff that he would simply inherit.

To get a sense of the current West Wing senior staff, I spoke with members of the administration, including some of those closest to the president, as well as with friends and former classmates of the senior team. Nearly all of them asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak freely. The West Wing right now is a place where the ground is always shifting. With the exception of two family members--Trump's daughter Ivanka, an unpaid assistant to the president, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president--no one on Trump's topmost White House staff has been with the new president for very long. That presents a sharp contrast with the teams around Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump's staff is as unbridled as the president himself. His advisers came together almost by accident and by default. They exhibit loyalty to their boss in front of the camera, only to whisper about him (and about their rivals, often in vicious terms) when the camera is gone.

Before they joined the campaign, many of the current staffers had shown no allegiance to Trump. Steve Bannon, at the moment still the chief strategist, and the self-styled intellectual leader of Trump's base of "deplorables," as Hillary Clinton called them, had tried on several other politicians--Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz--before settling on Trump, whom Bannon referred to last year in Vanity Fair as a "blunt instrument" for his own cause. Reince Priebus, Trump's current chief of staff, is hardly a longtime loyalist. According to two senior administration officials, shortly before the election Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was heard telling aides that Trump was likely going to lose, and that if he did it should not be seen as the fault of the R.N.C. At the same moment, Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who had previously worked on the Cruz campaign, was heard telling reporters that if Trump lost it would be the fault of the R.N.C. (This despite her clarification on Twitter on Election Day that she wasn't blaming the R.N.C. or Priebus.) The Priebus-Conway story circulates inside the Ivanka camp as a way of reminding everyone who Trump's real allies are. But even Ivanka has told friends, almost by way of apology, "I didn't ask for this." Senior administration officials told me that both Bannon and Priebus partisans have spent hours on the phone with reporters, planting stories about each other and their colleagues.

All West Wing staffs come to reflect the presidents they serve. Trump's West Wing is beginning to resemble the family real-estate business Trump grew up in, which has always had more in common with The Godfather than with The Organization Man. Trump has pulled family close. Kushner now occupies the office that is physically closest to the Oval Office. Ivanka Trump has taken on an official role despite her initial intention to simply be "a daughter." The appointees who have been championed by Ivanka and Jared seem at the moment to be on the rise--no surprise to some. "There is an asymmetry here. You can't compare family members to other staffers," the West Wing veteran told me. "You aren't going to fire your son-in-law or your daughter." A close associate of Trump's narrowed that safe zone even further: "Everyone is dispensable, except one person: Ivanka." But, this person warned, speaking of Jared and Ivanka, "at some point you get them out of this," because otherwise they are going to get destroyed. The best rule of thumb for survival may come from Thomas Barrack Jr., a longtime friend and ally of the president's: "Anyone who works for him and becomes victim to unfounded hubris will quickly be taken down to size." [...]

As everyone knows, the president himself is inordinately engaged with cable news, and his roots as an entertainer lie in reality television. And it may be that reality TV has lessons to offer. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a co-creator of the Lifetime series UnReal, told me that she found Trump to be eerily similar to her UnReal antihero, Quinn King, the female producer of a Bachelor-type reality show, Everlasting. Like King, Trump has a knack for expressing shocking sentiments that others may recoil from, Shapiro told me. And, like all great reality-TV personalities, Trump and many of his staff are "sound-bite machines" who share certain qualities: megalomania, a delusion of grandeur, a willingness to say anything, and little regard for what anyone else thinks: "They are this functionally dysfunctional ramshackle group of people who have come together through their own extremes." Shapiro is currently preparing the third season of her show, and I asked her the secret to maintaining interest season after season. She said, "A rotating cast of characters always helps." [...]

This White House team, for all its early policy failures and the administration's historically low approval ratings, is more visible to the public than perhaps any other presidential staff in history--testimony to the amount of time staff members spend talking about one another to the media they despise. Hate-watching is a key element of reality television: viewers get a surge of superiority and catharsis when watching characters they do not respect but in some strange way are drawn to. "It's incredibly satisfying to hate-watch [Trump]," Shapiro said--and the same goes for watching members of his staff. Senior West Wing aides, like the president himself, exhibit a trait that is essential for a successful reality-TV show: they are largely unself-aware, not fully realizing "how they are perceived, because they will keep stumbling into the same mess over and over again, and they are really easy to place in a cast of characters," said UnReal's Shapiro. They are, in part, reliable caricatures of themselves.

Seen in these terms, this particular White House reality show is a success. Although many of Trump's signature campaign promises--the repeal of Obamacare, the Muslim ban, the building of a wall along the Mexican border--have so far failed, the Trump presidency has propelled TV-news viewership to record numbers. Cable-TV news ratings in the first quarter of 2017 were even higher than those in the last quarter of 2016, which had the suspense of the actual election going for them.

Gauged against a different yardstick, though, the state of affairs in the West Wing is something we have never witnessed before. In every White House, there are competing loyalties and rivalries. That dynamic is normal. What is unusual about this presidency is that Trump himself is not a stable center of gravity and may be incapable of becoming one. He knows little, believes in little, and shows signs of regretting what has happened to him. Governing requires saying no to one's strongest supporters and yes to one's fiercest opponents. To have that presence of mind requires a clear and unified vision from the president. "Without an ideology or a worldview, all you have is a scramble for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement," a former West Wing aide told me.

Posted by at April 15, 2017 8:49 AM