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Trump is setting up the government in a way that promises chaos

President Donald Trump acknowledges the audience after taking the oath of office.
Jim Bourg | Reuters
President Donald Trump acknowledges the audience after taking the oath of office.

Will Donald Trump make the Cabinet great again?

Recent reports suggest that once in office, the president may delegate a great deal of policymaking authority to his 15 Cabinet secretaries, rather than managing things hands on or through White House staff.

Trump is planning to give his Cabinet "unusually wide latitude," Politico's Josh Dawsey and Andrew Restuccia reported earlier this month, citing sources close to the transition. They added that Trump's own role would likely be that of a "chairman-of-the-board style manager," focusing on "high-profile issues, publicity and his brand."

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This would come as a contrast to the increasingly White House–dominated systems recent presidents have set up — and that secretaries have chafed at, viewing many White House staffers as overly political and power-hungry micromanagers. "Never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller," Glenn Thrush wrote in a 2013 feature on President Obama's team.

For a president who has little interest in the nitty-gritty of policy, this seems to make a whole lot of sense. Why not let the Cabinet secretaries — many of whom are successful businessmen or generals — run their own shops? That would bring different voices into the policymaking process rather than centralizing power in the White House yet again.

Here's the problem: This has been tried before, several times, and it never seems to work out. "My reaction is that that will last until the first few Cabinet meetings," says Andrew Rudalevige, a political science professor at Bowdoin College.

Indeed, from Richard Nixon through Obama, nearly every new president has come into office vowing to empower his Cabinet, but eventually ended up reining them in and empowering the White House instead.

That's because there's a structural problem here: The president and his White House team are charged with coming up with an overall strategy for the administration's success, but each Cabinet official tends to end up primarily concerned with his or her department's particular set of issues. This is a recipe for conflict. For example:

  • Some Cabinet secretaries go off message and earn the White House's ire by creating inconvenient headlines.
  • Other secretaries become viewed as having "gone native," advocating for their own department's interests over what the White House sees as the greater good.
  • Fights over personnel are constant, with the White House wanting to install loyalists to the president and Cabinet officials seeking their own people. (We're already seeing some under Trump.)
  • Some Cabinet secretaries lose out in power struggles with White House staffers, who themselves naturally want more influence in the administration.

Eventually, recent presidents have generally concluded that a having a Cabinet full of independent actors is more trouble than it's worth. And while it's not impossible for Trump to defy this historical trend, he'd have to solve some serious incentive problems — and be a strikingly good manager — to pull it off.

"The Cabinet" isn't really a thing anymore

New presidents with little experience in the executive branch often idealistically believe they can use the Cabinet better than their predecessors, either through greater delegation or by relying on it as an advisory body.

Nixon initially pledged to "strengthen the Cabinet," Jimmy Carter said he believed "in Cabinet administration of government," and Ronald Reagan said the Cabinet would be his "inner circle" and "almost like the board of directors," as Rudalevige recounts in The Presidency and the Political System.

But using the full Cabinet as an advisory body is hard in practice. For one, it's too big these days — there are 15 full department secretaries and seven other Cabinet-level officials. More importantly, the various secretaries often have little relevant knowledge or experience about the issues their counterparts in other departments are facing. So as a rule, modern-day Cabinet meetings have been purely for show.

As a result, Cabinet secretaries end up being less attuned to the political, strategic, and messaging priorities of the White House. That's in part simply because of where they sit and whom they see and talk to every day. It's also in part due to their own bureaucratic incentives and self-interest.

"The reality is that Cabinet secretaries' duties and inclinations often put them on a collision course with White House staffers, who are trying to rein them in and harness them to presidential priorities," writes James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

"Presidents making these decisions at the start of their terms are starting at the lowest point of knowledge about how bureaucracy works and how the government works," says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College. "But then you get into the governing details, and you realize you've delegated authority to, say, Betsy DeVos, who's decided to pick a fight with the teachers unions, or Rex Tillerson, who's gone out pursuing a solution to the Mideast problem that's contrary to what you want."

It's easy for Cabinet secretaries to step on the White House's message

In early 2009, President Obama was desperately trying to woo rural red-state Democratic senators, knowing he'd eventually need their votes for his health reform bill. His White House staff knew this was one of the president's top priorities, and that other issues — like new gun control legislation — would have to take a back seat.

Attorney General Eric Holder, however, didn't get the memo. Back during the campaign, Obama had said he'd push for renewing the expired ban on assault weapons. So when Holder was asked about the topic at the press conference, he said the administration planned to do just that. And as Daniel Klaidman recounts in his book Kill or Capture, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was not exactly happy about it:

Emanuel was furious. He slammed his desk and cursed the attorney general. Holder was only repeating a position Obama had expressed during the campaign, but that was before the White House needed the backing of pro-gun Democrats from red states for their domestic agenda. The chief of staff sent word to Justice that Holder needed to "shut the fuck up" on guns…

The conflict between Holder and Emanuel — which recurred again and again on various topics over Obama's first two years — is just one example of how a well-meaning Cabinet secretary can end stepping on the White House's preferred strategy or message of the day.Thrush's piece on the Cabinet contains a similar tale about Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who committed the awful crime of publicly discussing climate change when the administration wanted to focus on jobs.

Neither Holder nor Chu was trying to undercut the president or his positions. But the Senate math on health reform and the White House message of the day on the economy just weren't at the forefront of their minds, since they were spending more time on their own issue areas. So they end up being viewed as troublemakers by a monomaniacally focused White House.

"If you are letting the Cabinet do what it wants, you will have lots of different stories, and it's harder to control the narrative of your administration," Rudalevige says. For Donald Trump in particular — who always wants to be the center of attention — he may not be so thrilled if his Cabinet secretaries keep making news that he doesn't like.

Many Cabinet officials get "captured" by their departments

But some Cabinet clashes with the White House have deeper roots than a simple lack of message discipline. When appointees go off to head their respective departments, many suddenly ... change.

"It's quite standard for political appointees to come in and then be exposed to the mission of the agency, and have senior staff brief them, to learn something about the agency and enlarge their perspective. And they end up moderating some of their views," Harvard law professor and former Obama climate adviser Jody Freeman recently told Vox's Brad Plumer.

And in the most extreme cases, these appointees become viewed as championing their department's interests, or the interests of the constituents the department is closest to, over the president's own priorities.

This effect can sometimes be rather comical. During the Nixon administration, Caspar Weinberger served as budget director and loved spending cuts so much he was dubbed "Cap the Knife." But when he was moved to head the Defense Department under Reagan, he suddenly grew to love defense spending increases so much that some renamed him "Cap the Ladle."

Nixon aide John Ehrlichman referred to this phenomenon as "going native." He had a point, Rudalevige argues, writing that "presidents constantly and correctly worry that department heads have divided loyalties … [that] the secretaries may become champions of the department as an institution." He adds: "Departments owe too much to too many political actors for presidents to fully trust their chiefs' motives or advice."

Who gets to pick Cabinet officials' subordinates?

The president of the United States is responsible for filling more than 4,000 executive branch positions — many of which are sub-Cabinet posts strewn around the various departments, and therefore subordinate to the Cabinet secretaries.

Naturally, Cabinet secretaries would like to have a major say in who will be working for them. But appointments are one of the president's most important powers. On the one hand, they serve the classic patronage role of rewarding supporters. On the other hand, the president wants people who will work for him rather than against him in key jobs.

Furthermore, there are structural reasons for the White House and Cabinet to disagree on sub-Cabinet appointments. The secretaries fear the White House "will weigh too heavily the political service of the appointee and will neglect the expertise, managerial ability, and compatibility of the nominee with the other executives in the department," Pfiffner writes for the Presidential Transition Project. Conversely, "the White House staff tends to suspect that Cabinet secretaries are likely to recruit people who are loyal to the Cabinet secretary but not necessarily to the president."

Presidents who give away a great deal of their appointment power to their Cabinet secretaries quickly usually regret it (as both Nixon and Carter did). "They wind up with departments that aren't necessarily on the president's page, but rather working for each Cabinet office," Rudalevige says. "You can argue from a technocratic competence perspective that that's a good thing. But from the president's perspective, he's trying to herd 4 million cats toward his preferred policy outcomes, and [the appointment power] is not really a resource he can afford to give away."

The Reagan transition, meanwhile, took a different approach — carefully vetting appointees in the White House personnel office, making sure those chosen would be loyal to the president and would work to carry out his agenda. "We wanted our appointees to be the president's ambassadors to the agencies, not the other way around," Reagan aide Ed Meeselater wrote.

Similar conflicts are already taking shape under Trump. The Washington Post's Josh Roginreported earlier this month that Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis and the Trump transition team were having "an increasingly acrimonious dispute" over DOD jobs. The Trump people didn't want "NeverTrumpers" rewarded with jobs, while Mattis was unimpressed at the names they were offering him instead.

The White House staff naturally wants power and control for themselves — and many truly are closer to the president

Finally, delegation to the Cabinet often doesn't work out in practice because the White House staff doesn't want it to work out. Those staff members tend to be ambitious people who want influence and control, and often they're both physically and substantively closer to the president than the Cabinet secretaries are.

This is the case for Trump as well. His White House is filled with campaign loyalists such as chief strategist Steve Bannon, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — as well as the president-elect's own son-in-law, Jared Kushner. So when they claim to speak to the president and to know what he would want, their claims will sound plausible.

Meanwhile, out of all Trump's Cabinet appointments, he appears to be personally close to just a few — such as Steve Mnuchin at Treasury (his campaign fundraising chair), Wilbur Ross at Commerce (a longtime friend), and Jeff Sessions at Justice (who often traveled with Trump during the campaign). Many of the others — like Rex Tillerson and James Mattis — Trump barely knows. A few he seems to have barely spoken to.

In theory, delegation of substantial power to the Cabinet could work if the president empowers people he fully trusts in those positions and is comfortable making do with only a weak White House staff. Neither appears to be the case for Trump.

"If the president can set priorities that are widely shared by those who work for him, the management process is much easier," says Dickinson. "If he doesn't, that leads to competing power centers and rivals."

Such competition has often led to a midterm shake-up, in which the president concludes his administration is a mess and decides to solve it — by centralizing more power in the White House.

Commentary by Andrew Prokop, a writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @awprokop.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.