Last week, a senior White House official shared a candid theory with me about why President Donald Trump and his team have been adrift since November: they’ve yet to adjust to the post-election reality, and they haven’t yet learned how to operate without a single, common enemy—Hillary Clinton—to focus on. It was a frank admission that a team built for winning a campaign has so far failed at governing.
Incoming Presidents usually trade in some of their political tacticians for experienced Washington hands when they take office, but Trump installed his entire senior campaign leadership into top positions in the White House, a place where few of them have ever worked before. In fact, one of the only senior Trump staffers with previous White House experience is Omarosa Manigault, the reality-star villain from “The Apprentice,” who briefly worked in the Clinton White House when she was twenty-three years old.
The early results of this experiment in governance by the least experienced have not been promising. The White House staff has been riven by competing factions to an extent that invites comparisons to “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Flies.” Michael Flynn, the national-security adviser, was forced to resign over his pre-Inauguration contact with the Russian Ambassador—but, even before Flynn’s ouster, the National Security Council, which coördinates all American foreign policy, had become dysfunctional. On Thursday, Flynn’s intended replacement, Robert Harward, turned down the job because, as a friend of his told CNN, working in the chaotic Trump White House looked like a “shit sandwich.” A Presidential order blocking travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries has been halted by the courts, and a federal appeals court in California has ruled that the Administration’s central argument for reinstating the travel ban—that the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief are not subject to judicial review—“runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.” An editorial in Der Spiegel, the sober-minded German newsweekly, recently described Trump as “a pathological liar” and “a racist” who “wants to establish an illiberal democracy,” and called on Germany to lead an international alliance against him. Tony Thomas, the four-star general who runs the military’s Special Operations Command, recently wondered whether the U.S. government is “stable.” After four weeks in office, Trump is the least popular new President since the advent of modern polling, during the Truman Administration.
With all of this going on, the big debate inside the White House has been who to define as Trump’s “enemy.” At his press conference on Thursday, Trump appeared to settle the issue by declaring—or reigniting—a war on the media. This was the target that Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who calls the press “the opposition party,” favored. But not all of Trump’s advisers agreed with this approach. “Is the opponent the media because Steve Bannon said so?” the senior White House official told me last week. “He can say so because he never talks to the media.” Meanwhile, other White House officials “have to take all the piss and vinegar.”
Still, faced with a crisis of government management, the Trump team has responded with the two campaign tactics that helped him win the election: his political performance art at press conferences and rallies. On Saturday, the White House will follow up on Trump’s anti-media tirade by sending Trump to Florida for what it has billed as a “campaign” event.
The reaction of many large media outlets to Trump’s mishaps and blowups has been predictable. On Thursday and Friday, journalists picked apart the many lies Trump told at his press conference and reported earnestly on the numerous outrages he set off, such as his attack on a reporter who asked him about rising anti-Semitism, or his query to April Ryan, a long-serving and prominent member of the White House press corps who is African-American, about whether she was “friends” with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Democrats, meanwhile, now openly call Trump a danger to the Republic, and top Party lawmakers in Congress have mused about impeachment.
But Republicans control Congress, so Trump’s fate—for the next two years, at least—will be decided by members of his own party. Right now they fall roughly into three camps. The first is made up of Republicans who see Trump, for all his obvious faults, as a vessel for a fairly standard Republican agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. Trump’s attacks on the media and the left can be seen as a way of keeping this group loyal by defining common enemies.
“I didn’t watch the entire thing, but what I did see was at times hilarious, at times mischievous, at times a bit concerning, and at times mystifying. But none of this should come as a surprise,” John Feehery, a longtime Republican operative, told me of Trump’s press conference. In Washington, Feehery has become the face of the Republican establishment’s accommodationist wing, whose general posture is to shrug at Trumpian anarchy and to view the press, Democrats, and anti-Trump conservatives as alarmist. “He went out there and answered the questions like he answered them on the campaign. He is not going to magically transform himself into a seasoned and careful politician. He is a seventy-year-old guy who has a lot of self-confidence and who is going to play by his set of rules. Some of us might be amused by it. Some might be horrified. But that’s the way it goes. My mantra through his Presidency is ‘It’s not what he says; it’s what he signs.’ ”
The second group on the right is the Never Trump movement, whose warnings about Trump during the campaign look more and more prescient, even as its ranks have diminished. The remaining Never Trump diehards view Feehery and the many Republicans in Congress like him as having made a morally repugnant deal with the President. On Twitter recently, Feehery remarked that “the Left has no sense of humor.” Mark Salter, a longtime friend and adviser to Senator John McCain who supported Hillary Clinton last year, responded, “I’m losing mine too watching reps of the party I’ve belonged to for 40 years trade the security of the country for tax cuts.”
Finally, there is the swing group: Republicans who privately despise Trump and who share many of the concerns that are aired publicly in the press and by Democrats, but who so far don’t see a reason to speak up. Trump’s press conference was “bizarre and borderline unhinged,” a House G.O.P. aide told me on Thursday, echoing a common view of staffers on the Hill. “Especially going after that Jewish reporter asking a totally fair and, frankly, softball question. He somehow interpreted that as a slight against him when it was nothing of the sort.” The aide added, “That said, the media will likely fall right into Trump’s trap: spend the day analyzing the press conference rather than talking in depth about Russia, Flynn, et al.” Partisanship is a powerful force in American politics. It is strong enough that most swing Republicans will remain quiet in the face of a growing crisis of leadership at the highest levels of the American government. A sure sign of the Trump collapse, if it comes, will be when those seemingly unbreakable partisan bonds finally crack.