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8 ORG CHART
T he White House, realized former naval officer Steve Bannon after a few weeks, was really a military base, a government-issue office with a mansion’s façade and a few ceremonial rooms sitting on top of a secure installation under military command. The juxtaposition was striking: military hierarchy and order in the background, the chaos of the temporary civilian occupants in the fore.
You could hardly find an entity more at odds with military discipline than a Trump organization. There was no real up-and-down structure, but merely a figure at the top and then everyone else scrambling for his attention. It wasn’t task-based so much as response-oriented—whatever captured the boss’s attention focused everybody’s attention. That was the way in Trump Tower, just as it was now the way in the Trump White House.
The Oval Office itself had been used by prior occupants as the ultimate power symbol, a ceremonial climax. But as soon as Trump arrived, he moved in a collection of battle flags to frame him sitting at his desk, and the Oval immediately became the scene of a daily Trump cluster-fu@k. It’s likely that more people had easy access to this president than any president before. Nearly all meetings in the Oval with the president were invariably surrounded and interrupted by a long list of retainers—indeed, everybody strove to be in every meeting. Furtive people skulked around without clear purpose: Bannon invariably found some reason to study papers in the corner and then to have a last word; Priebus kept his eye on Bannon; Kushner kept constant tabs on the whereabouts of the others. Trump liked to keep Hicks, Conway, and, often, his old Apprentice sidekick Omarosa Manigault—now with a confounding White House title—in constant hovering presence. As always, Trump wanted an eager audience, encouraging as many people as possible to make as many attempts as possible to be as close to him as possible. In time, however, he would take derisive notice of those who seemed most eager to suck up to him.
Good management reduces ego. But in the Trump White House, it could often seem that nothing happened, that reality simply did not exist, if it did not happen in Trump’s presence. This made an upside-down kind of sense: if something happened and he wasn’t present, he didn’t care about it and barely recognized it. His response then was often just a blank stare. It also fed one theory of why hiring in the West Wing and throughout the executive branch was so slow—filling out the vast bureaucracy was out of his view and thus he couldn’t care less. Likewise, visitors with appointments were befuddled by the West Wing’s own lack of staff: after being greeted with a smart military salute by the dress marine at the West Wing door, they discovered that the West Wing often lacked a political-appointee receptionist, leaving guests to find their own way through the warren that was the Western world’s pinnacle of power.
Trump, a former military academy cadet—albeit not an enthusiastic one—had touted a return to military values and expertise. In fact, he most of all sought to preserve his personal right to defy or ignore his own organization. This, too, made sense, since not really having an organization was the most efficient way to sidestep the people in your organization and to dominate them. It was just one irony of his courtship of admired military figures like James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly: they found themselves working in an administration that was in every way inimical to basic command principles.
Almost from the beginning, the West Wing was run against the near-daily report that the person charged with running it, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, was about to lose his job. Or, if he was not about to lose his job, the only reason he was keeping it was that he had not had it long enough to yet be fired from it. But no one in Trump’s inner circle doubted that he would lose his job as soon as, practically speaking, his losing it would not embarrass the president too much. So, they reasoned, no one need pay any attention to him. Priebus, who, during the transition, doubted he would make it to the inauguration, and then, once in, wondered if he could endure the torture for the minimally respectable period of a year, shortly reduced his goal to six months.
The president himself, absent any organizational rigor, often acted as his own chief of staff, or, in a sense, elevated the press secretary job to the primary staff job, and then functioned as his own press secretary—reviewing press releases, dictating quotes, getting reporters on the phone—which left the actual press secretary as a mere flunky and whipping boy. Moreover, his relatives acted as ad hoc general managers of whatever areas they might choose to be general managers in. Then there was Bannon, conducting something of an alternate-universe operation, often launching far-reaching undertakings that no one else knew about. And thus Priebus, at the center of an operation that had no center, found it easy to think there was no reason for him to be there at all.
At the same time, the president seemed to like Priebus more and more quite for the reason that he seemed entirely expendable. He took Trump’s verbal abuse about his height and stature affably, or anyway stoically. He was a convenient punching bag when things went wrong—and he didn’t punch back, to Trump’s pleasure and disgust.
“I love Reince,” said the president, with the faintest praise. “Who else would do this job?”
Among the three men with effectively equal rank in the West Wing—Priebus and Bannon and Kushner—only a shared contempt kept them from ganging up on one another.
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, the situation seemed clear to everybody: three men were fighting to run the White House, to be the real chief of staff and power behind the Trump throne. And of course there was Trump himself, who didn’t want to relinquish power to anyone.
In these crosshairs was thirty-two-year-old Katie Walsh.
Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff, represented, at least to herself, a certain Republican ideal: clean, brisk, orderly, efficient. A righteous bureaucrat, pretty but with a permanently grim expression, Walsh was a fine example of the many political professionals in whom competence and organizational skills transcend ideology. (To wit: “I would much rather be part of an organization that has a clear chain of command that I disagree with than a chaotic organization that might seem to better reflect my views.”) Walsh was an inside-the-Beltway figure—a swamp creature. Her expertise was prioritizing Beltway goals, coordinating Beltway personnel, marshaling Beltway resources. A head-down-get-things-done kind of person was how she saw herself. And no nonsense.
“Any time someone goes into a meeting with the president there are like sixty-five things that have to happen first,” she enumerated. “What cabinet secretary has to be alerted about what person is going in there; what people on the Hill should be consulted; the president needs a policy briefing, so who’s owning the brief and getting it to appropriate staff members, oh and by the way you have to vet the guy. . . . Then you have to give it to comms and figure out if it’s a national story, a regional story and are we doing op-eds, going on national TV . . . and that’s before you get to political affairs or public liaison. . . . And for anybody who meets with the president, it has to be explained why other people are not meeting with him, or else they’ll go out there and sh@t all over the last person who was in. . . .” Walsh was what politics is supposed to be—or what it has been. A business supported by, tended to, and, indeed, ennobled, by a professional political class. Politics, evident in the sameness and particular joylessness of Washington dress, a determined anti-fashion statement, is about procedure and temperament. Flash passes. No flash stays in the game.
From an all-girl Catholic school in St. Louis (still wearing a diamond cross around her neck) and volunteer work on local political campaigns, Walsh went to George Washington University—D.C. area colleges being among the most reliable feeders of swamp talent (government is not really an Ivy League profession). Most government and political organizations are not run, for better or worse, by MBAs, but by young people distinguished only by their earnestness and public sector idealism and ambition. (It is an anomaly of Republican politics that young people motivated to work in the public sector find themselves working to limit the public sector.) Careers advance by how well you learn on the job and how well you get along with the rest of the swamp and play its game.
In 2008, Walsh became the McCain campaign’s midwest regional finance director—having majored in marketing and finance at GW, she was trusted to hold the checkbook. Then on to deputy finance director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, deputy finance director and then finance director of the Republican National Committee, and finally, pre-White House, chief of staff of the RNC and its chairman, Reince Priebus.
In retrospect, the key moment in saving the Trump campaign might be less the Mercer-led takeover and imposition of Bannon and Conway in mid-August than the acceptance that the bare-bones and still largely one-man organization would need to depend on the largesse of the RNC. The RNC had the ground game and the data infrastructure; other campaigns might not normally trust the national committee, with its many snakes in the grass, but the Trump campaign had chosen not to build this sort of organization or make this investment. In late August, Bannon and Conway, with Kushner’s consent, made a deal with the deep-swamp RNC despite Trump’s continued insistence that they’d gotten this far without the RNC, so why come crawling now?
Almost right away Walsh became a key player in the campaign, a dedicated, make-the-trains-run-on-time power centralizer—a figure without which few organizations can run. Commuting between RNC headquarters in Washington and Trump Tower, she was the quartermaster who made national political resources available to the campaign.
If Trump himself was often a disruption in the final months of the race and during the transition, the campaign around him, in part because its only option was to smoothly integrate with the RNC, was a vastly more responsive and unified organization than, say, the Hillary Clinton campaign with its significantly greater resources. Facing catastrophe and seeming certain humiliation, the Trump campaign pulled together—with Priebus, Bannon, and Kushner all starring in buddy-movie roles.
The camaraderie barely survived a few days in the West Wing.
To Katie Walsh, it became almost immediately clear that the common purpose of the campaign and the urgency of the transition were lost as soon as the Trump team stepped into the White House. They had gone from managing Donald Trump to the expectation of being managed by him—or at least through him and almost solely for his purposes. Yet the president, while proposing the most radical departure from governing and policy norms in several generations, had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy, nor a team that could reasonably unite behind him.
In most White Houses, policy and action flow down, with staff trying to implement what the president wants—or, at the very least, what the chief of staff says the president wants. In the Trump White House, policy making, from the very first instance of Bannon’s immigration EO, flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought).
Trump, observed Walsh, had a set of beliefs and impulses, much of them on his mind for many years, some of them fairly contradictory, and little of them fitting legislative or political conventions or form. Hence, she and everyone else was translating a set of desires and urges into a program, a process that required a lot of guess work. It was, said Walsh, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.” But making suggestions was deeply complicated. Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all.
Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television.
But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention.
The organization therefore needed a set of internal rationalizations that would allow it to trust a man who, while he knew little, was entirely confident of his own gut instincts and reflexive opinions, however frequently they might change.
Here was a key Trump White House rationale: expertise, that liberal virtue, was overrated. After all, so often people who had worked hard to know what they knew made the wrong decisions. So maybe the gut was as good, or maybe better, at getting to the heart of the matter than the wonkish and data-driven inability to see the forest for the trees that often seemed to plague U.S. policy making. Maybe. Hopefully.
Of course, nobody really believed that, except the president himself.
Still, here was the basic faith, overriding his impetuousness and eccentricities and limited knowledge base: nobody became the president of the United States—that camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle accomplishment—without unique astuteness and cunning. Right? In the early days of the White House, this was the fundamental hypothesis of the senior staff, shared by Walsh and everyone else: Trump must know what he was doing, his intuition must be profound.
But then there was the other aspect of his supposedly superb insight and apprehension, and it was hard to miss: he was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant in these instances than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however silent and confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do.
During the campaign, he became a kind of vaunted action figure. His staff marveled at his willingness to keep moving, getting back on the plane and getting off the plane and getting back on, and doing rally after rally, with a pride in doing more events than anybody else—double Hillary’s!—and ever ridiculing his opponent’s slow pace. He performed. “This man never takes a break from being Donald Trump,” noted Bannon, with a complicated sort of faint praise, a few weeks after joining the campaign full time.
It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.” However alarming, Trump’s way of operating also presented an opportunity to the people in closest proximity to him: by understanding him, by observing the kind of habits and reflexive responses that his business opponents had long learned to use to their advantage, they might be able to game him, to move him. Still, while he might be moved today, nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow.
One of the ways to establish what Trump wanted and where he stood and what his underlying policy intentions were—or at least the intentions that you could convince him were his—came to involve an improbably close textual analysis of his largely off-the-cuff speeches, random remarks, and reflexive tweets during the campaign.
Bannon doggedly went through the Trump oeuvre highlighting possible insights and policy proscriptions. Part of Bannon’s authority in the new White House was as keeper of the Trump promises, meticulously logged onto the white board in his office. Some of these promises Trump enthusiastically remembered making, others he had little memory of, but was happy to accept that he had said it. Bannon acted as disciple and promoted Trump to guru—or inscrutable God.
This devolved into a further rationalization, or Trump truth: “The president was very clear on what he wanted to deliver to the American public,” said Walsh. He was “excellent in communicating this.” At the same time, she acknowledged that it was not at all clear in any specific sense what he wanted. Hence, there was another rationalization: Trump was “inspirational not operational.” Kushner, understanding that Bannon’s white board represented Bannon’s agenda more than the president’s agenda, got to wondering how much of this source text was being edited by Bannon. He made several attempts to comb through his father-in-law’s words on his own before expressing frustration with the task and giving up.
Mick Mulvaney, the former South Carolina congressman now head of the Office of Management and Budget and directly charged with creating the Trump budget that would underlie the White House program, also fell back on the Trump spoken record. Bob Woodward’s 1994 book, The Agenda, is a blow-by-blow account of the first eighteen months of the Clinton White House, most of it focused on creating the Clinton budget, with the single largest block of the president’s time devoted to deep contemplation and arguments about how to allocate resources. In Trump’s case, this sort of close and continuous engagement was inconceivable; budgeting was simply too small-bore for him.
“The first couple of times when I went to the White House, someone had to say, This is Mick Mulvaney, he’s the budget director,” said Mulvaney. And in Mulvaney’s telling Trump was too scattershot to ever be of much help, tending to interrupt planning with random questions that seem to have come from someone’s recent lobbying or by some burst of free association. If Trump cared about something, he usually already had a fixed view based on limited information. If he didn’t care, he had no view and no information. Hence, the Trump budget team was also largely forced to return to Trump’s speeches when searching for the general policy themes they could then fasten into a budget program.
Walsh, sitting within sight of the Oval Office, was located at something like the ground zero of the information flow between the president and his staff. As Trump’s primary scheduler, her job was to ration the president’s time and organize the flow of information to him around the priorities that the White House had set. In this, Walsh became the effective middle person among the three men working hardest to maneuver the president—Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus.
Each man saw the president as something of a blank page—or a scrambled one. And each, Walsh came to appreciate with increasing incredulity, had a radically different idea of how to fill or remake that page. Bannon was the alt-right militant. Kushner was the New York Democrat. And Priebus was the establishment Republican. “Steve wants to force a million people out of the country and repeal the nation’s health law and lay on a bunch of tariffs that will completely decimate how we trade, and Jared wants to deal with human trafficking and protecting Planned Parenthood.” And Priebus wanted Donald Trump to be another kind of Republican altogether.
As Walsh saw it, Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House. It was a 1970s video game, the white ball pinging back and forth in the black triangle.
Priebus—who was supposed to be the weak link, thus allowing both Bannon and Kushner, variously, to be the effective chief of staff—was actually turning out to be quite a barking dog, even if a small one. In the Bannon world and in the Kushner world, Trumpism represented politics with no connection to the Republican mainstream, with Bannon reviling that mainstream and Kushner operating as a Democrat. Priebus, meanwhile, was the designated mainstream terrier.
Bannon and Kushner were therefore more than a little irritated to discover that the unimposing Priebus had an agenda of his own: heeding Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s prescription that “this president will sign whatever is put in front of him,” while also taking advantage of the White House’s lack of political and legislative experience and outsourcing as much policy as possible to Capitol Hill.
In the early weeks of the administration, Priebus arranged for House Speaker Paul Ryan, however much a Trumpist bête noire for much of the campaign, to come into the White House with a group of ranking committee chairmen. In the meeting, the president blithely announced that he had never had much patience for committees and so was glad someone else did. Ryan, henceforth, became another figure with unfettered access to the president—and to whom the president, entirely uninterested in legislative strategy or procedures, granted virtual carte blanche.
Almost nobody represented what Bannon opposed as well as Paul Ryan. The essence of Bannonism (and Mercerism) was a radical isolationism, a protean protectionism, and a determined Keynesianism. Bannon ascribed these principles to Trumpism, and they ran as counter to Republicanism as it was perhaps possible to get. What’s more, Bannon found Ryan, in theory the House’s policy whiz, to be slow-witted if not incompetent, and an easy and constant target of Bannon’s under-his-breath ridicule. Still, if the president had unaccountably embraced Priebus-Ryan, he also could not do without Bannon.
Bannon’s unique ability—partly through becoming more familiar with the president’s own words than the president was himself, and partly through a cunning self-effacement (upended by his bursts of self-promotion)—was to egg the president on by convincing him that Bannon’s own views were entirely derived from the president’s views. Bannon didn’t promote internal debate, provide policy rationale, or deliver Power-Point presentations; instead, he was the equivalent of Trump’s personal talk radio. Trump could turn him on at any moment, and it pleased him that Bannon’s pronouncements and views would consistently be fully formed and ever available, a bracing, unified-field narrative. As well, he could turn him off, and Bannon would be tactically quiet until turned on again.
Kushner had neither Bannon’s policy imagination nor Priebus’s institutional ties. But, of course, he had family status, carrying its own high authority. In addition, he had billionaire status. He had cultivated a wide range of New York and international money people, Trump acquaintances and cronies, and, often, people whom Trump would have wished to like him better than they did. In this, Kushner became the representative in the White House of the liberal status quo. He was something like what used to be called a Rockefeller Republican and now might more properly be a Goldman Sachs Democrat. He—and, perhaps even more, Ivanka—was at diametric odds with both Priebus, the stout-right, Sun Belt–leaning, evangelical dependent Republican, and Bannon, the alt-right, populist, anti-party disruptor.
From their separate corners each man pursued his own strategy. Bannon did all he could to roll over Priebus and Kushner in an effort to prosecute the war for Trumpism/Bannonism as quickly as possible. Priebus, already complaining about “political neophytes and the boss’s relatives,” subcontracted his agenda out to Ryan and the Hill. And Kushner, on one of the steepest learning curves in the history of politics (not that everyone in the White House wasn’t on a steep curve, but Kushner’s was perhaps the steepest), and often exhibiting a painful naïveté as he aspired to be one of the world’s savviest players, was advocating doing nothing fast and everything in moderation. Each had coteries opposed to the other: Bannonites pursued their goal of breaking everything fast, Priebus’s RNC faction focused on the opportunities for the Republican agenda, Kushner and his wife did their best to make their unpredictable relative look temperate and rational.
And in the middle was Trump.
“The three gentlemen running things,” as Walsh came to coolly characterize them, all served Trump in different ways. Walsh understood that Bannon provided the president with inspiration and purpose, while the Priebus-Ryan connection promised to do what to Trump seemed like the specialized work of government. For his part, Kushner best coordinated the rich men who spoke to Trump at night, with Kushner often urging them to caution him against both Bannon and Priebus.
The three advisers were in open conflict by the end of the second week following the immigration EO and travel ban debacle. This internal rivalry was the result of stylistic, philosophic, and temperamental differences; perhaps more important, it was the direct result of the lack of a rational org chart or chain of command. For Walsh, it was a daily process of managing an impossible task: almost as soon as she received direction from one of the three men, she would be countermanded by one or another of them.
“I take a conversation at face value and move forward with it,” she defended herself. “I put what was decided on the schedule and bring in comms and build a press plan around it and bring in political affairs and office of public liaison. And then Jared says, Why did you do that. And I say, ‘Because we had a meeting three days ago with you and Reince and Steve where you agreed to do this.’ And he says, ‘But that didn’t mean I wanted it on the schedule. That’s not why I had that conversation.’ It almost doesn’t matter what anyone says: Jared will agree, and then it will get sabotaged, and then Jared goes to the president and says, See, that was Reince’s idea or Steve’s idea.” Bannon concentrated on a succession of EOs that would move the new administration forward without having to wade through Congress. That focus was countermanded by Priebus, who was cultivating the Trump-Ryan romance and the Republican agenda, which in turn was countermanded by Kushner, who was concentrating on presidential bonhomie and CEO roundtables, not least because he knew how much the president liked them (and, as Bannon pointed out, because Kushner himself liked them). And instead of facing the inherent conflicts in each strategy, the three men recognized that the conflicts were largely irresolvable and avoided facing that fact by avoiding each other.
Each man had, in his own astute fashion, found his own way to appeal to the president and to communicate with him. Bannon offered a rousing fu@k-you show of force; Priebus offered flattery from the congressional leadership; Kushner offered the approval of blue-chip businessmen. So strong were these particular appeals that the president typically preferred not to distinguish among them. They were all exactly what he wanted from the presidency, and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t have them all. He wanted to break things, he wanted a Republican Congress to give him bills to sign, and he wanted the love and respect of New York machers and socialites. Some inside the White House perceived that Bannon’s EOs were meant to be a workaround in response to Priebus’s courtship of the party, and that Kushner’s CEOs were appalled by Bannon’s EOs and resistant to much of the Republican agenda. But if the president understood this, it did not particularly trouble him.
Having achieved something like executive paralysis within the first month of the new administration—each of the three gentlemen was as powerful in his allure to the president as the others and each, at times, was equally annoying to the president—Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner all built their own mechanisms to influence the president and undermine the others.
Analysis or argument or PowerPoint did not work. But who said what to Trump and when often did. If, at Bannon’s prodding, Rebekah Mercer called him, that had an effect. Priebus could count on Paul Ryan’s clout with him. If Kushner set up Murdoch to call, that registered. At the same time, each successive call mostly canceled the others out.
This paralysis led the three advisers to rely on the other particularly effective way to move him, which was to use the media. Hence each man became an inveterate and polished leaker. Bannon and Kushner studiously avoided press exposure; two of the most powerful people in government were, for the most part, entirely silent, eschewing almost all interviews and even the traditional political conversations on Sunday morning television. Curiously, however, both men became the background voices to virtually all media coverage of the White House. Early on, before getting down to attacking each other, Bannon and Kushner were united in their separate offensives against Priebus. Kushner’s preferred outlet was Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s Morning Joe, one of the president’s certain morning shows. Bannon’s first port of call was the alt-right media (“Bannon’s Breitbart shenanigans,” in Walsh’s view). By the end of the first month in the White House, Bannon and Kushner had each built a network of primary outlets, as well as secondary ones to deflect from the obviousness of the primary ones, creating a White House that simultaneously displayed extreme animosity toward the press and yet great willingness to leak to it. In this, at least, Trump’s administration was achieving a landmark transparency.
The constant leaking was often blamed on lower minions and permanent executive branch staff, culminating in late February with an all-hands meeting of staffers called by Sean Spicer—cell phones surrendered at the door—during which the press secretary issued threats of random phone checks and admonitions about the use of encrypted texting apps. Everybody was a potential leaker; everybody was accusing everybody else of being a leaker.
Everybody was a leaker.
One day, when Kushner accused Walsh of leaking about him, she challenged him back: “My phone records versus yours, my email versus yours.”
But most of the leaks, certainly the juiciest ones, were coming from the higher-ups—not to mention from the person occupying the topmost echelon.
The president couldn’t stop talking. He was plaintive and self-pitying, and it was obvious to everyone that if he had a north star, it was just to be liked. He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him. He might be happy throughout the day as a parade of union steel workers or CEOs trooped into the White House, with the president praising his visitors and them praising him, but that good cheer would sour in the evening after several hours of cable television. Then he would get on the phone, and in unguarded ramblings to friends and others, conversations that would routinely last for thirty or forty minutes, and could go much longer, he would vent, largely at the media and his staff. In what was termed by some of the self-appointed Trump experts around him—and everyone was a Trump expert—he seemed intent on “poisoning the well,” in which he created a loop of suspicion, disgruntlement, and blame heaped on others.
When the president got on the phone after dinner, it was often a rambling affair. In paranoid or sadistic fashion, he’d speculate on the flaws and weaknesses of each member of his staff. Bannon was disloyal (not to mention he always looks like sh@t). Priebus was weak (not to mention he was short—a midget). Kushner was a suck-up. Spicer was stupid (and looks terrible too). Conway was a crybaby. Jared and Ivanka should never have come to Washington.
His callers, largely because they found his conversation peculiar, alarming, or completely contrary to reason and common sense, often overrode what they might otherwise have assumed to be the confidential nature of the calls and shared the content with someone else. Hence news about the inner workings of the White House went into free circulation. Except it was not so much the inner workings of the White House—although it would often be reported as such—but the perambulations of the president’s mind, which changed direction almost as fast as he could express himself. Yet there were constant tropes in his own narrative: Bannon was about to be cast out, Priebus too, and Kushner needed his protection from the other bullies.
So if Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner were now fighting a daily war with one another, it was mightily exacerbated by something of a running disinformation campaign about them that was being prosecuted by the president himself. A chronic naysayer, he viewed each member of his inner circle as a problem child whose fate he held in his hand. “We are sinners and he is God” was one view; “We serve at the president’s displeasure,” another.
In the West Wing of every administration since at least that of Clinton and Gore, the vice president has occupied a certain independent power base in the organization. And yet Vice President Mike Pence—the fallback guy in an administration the length of whose term remained the subject of something like a national office betting pool—was a cipher, a smiling presence either resisting his own obvious power or unable to seize it.
“I do funerals and ribbon cuttings,” he told a former Republican Hill colleague. In this, he was seen as either feigning an old-fashioned, what-me-worry, standard-issue veep identity lest he upset his patron or, in fact, honestly acknowledging who he was.
Katie Walsh, amid the chaos, saw the vice president’s office as a point of calm in the storm. Pence’s staff was not only known by people outside the White House for the alacrity with which it returned calls and for the ease with which it seemed to accomplish West Wing tasks, it also seemed to be comprised of people who liked each other and who were dedicated to a common goal: eliminating as much friction as possible around the vice president.
Pence started nearly every speech saying, “I bring greetings from our forty-fifth president of the United States, Donald J. Trump . . .”—a salutation directed more to the president than to the audience.
Pence cast himself as blandly uninteresting, sometimes barely seeming to exist in the shadow of Donald Trump. Little leaked out of the Pence side of the White House. The people who worked for the vice president, were, like Pence himself, people of few words.
In a sense, he had solved the riddle of how to serve as the junior partner to a president who could not tolerate any kind of comparisons: extreme self-effacement.
“Pence,” said Walsh, “is not dumb.”
Actually, well short of intelligent was exactly how others in the West Wing saw him. And because he wasn’t smart, he was not able to provide any leadership ballast.
On the Jarvanka side, Pence became a point of grateful amusement. He was almost absurdly happy to be Donald Trump’s vice president, happy to play the role of exactly the kind of vice president that would not ruffle Trump’s feathers. The Jarvanka side credited Pence’s wife, Karen, as the guiding hand behind his convenient meekness. Indeed, he took to this role so well that, later, his extreme submissiveness struck some as suspicious.
The Priebus side, where Walsh firmly sat, saw Pence as one of the few senior West Wing figures who treated Priebus as though he was truly the chief of staff. Pence often seemed like a mere staffer, the ever present note taker in so many meetings.
From the Bannon side, Pence garnered only contempt. “Pence is like the husband in Ozzie and Harriet, a nonevent,” said one Bannonite.
Although many saw him as a vice president who might well assume the presidency someday, he was also perceived as the weakest vice president in decades and, in organizational terms, an empty suit who was useless in the daily effort to help restrain the president and stabilize the West Wing.
During that first month, Walsh’s disbelief and even fear about what was happening in the White House moved her to think about quitting. Every day after that became its own countdown toward the moment she knew she wouldn’t be able to take it anymore—which would finally come at the end of March. To Walsh, the proud political pro, the chaos, the rivalries, and the president’s own lack of focus and lack of concern were simply incomprehensible.
In early March, Walsh confronted Kushner and demanded: “Just give me the three things the president wants to focus on. What are the three priorities of this White House?”
“Yes,” said Kushner, wholly absent an answer, “we should probably have that conversation.”
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