Back in May, an anonymous source told Just Security's Kate Brannen that the administration resembled a kind of "Game of Thrones for morons." The point was that top-level officials were constantly feuding with one another for influence and job security, by (among other things) keeping up with the president's fickle moods.
The specific word "moron" obviously has extra resonance today, but the overall description helps explain why the toxic work environment the president creates matters for people outside the White House. When people are simultaneously disgusted by and afraid of their boss, it's very hard for them to do their jobs effectively.
"In this situation, it really becomes an open question as to whether the structure of the Trump administration and the president's personality makes success possible," Musgrave says.
This is a problem not just for those staff members but for the broader public.
Senior US officials have limited time — Tillerson, for example, is responsible for coordinating diplomacy with every country on earth. Every minute spent on internal competition for influence, having to manage a vicious Trump meeting, or handling the press after the president publicly undercuts you is a minute not being spent working on actual policy issues. That time trade-off directly undercuts the administration's ability to solve real issues.
What's more, public clashes between the president and top aides can literally undercut the administration's foreign policy goals. This past weekend, for example, Tillerson said that he was negotiating directly with North Korean officials — but then Trump tweeted that he should knock it off.
"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Trump wrote. "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"
This kind of mixed signal makes it hard for the North Koreans to figure out what the US government wants from them, to put it mildly — lowering the chances of a negotiated solution to the standoff.
The fact that Trump's rough management style has been publicly reported makes all of this worse. It makes it hard to fill vital open positions, like the currently vacant top-level policy positions for Asia and the Middle East at the State Department, and hard to replace the highest-level officials when they invariably quit (as Tillerson may yet).
"If the White House looks like the wheels are coming off, they're not going to attract more people," Azari says. "You're not going to want to get yourself mixed up in something that's not only toxic on a day-to-day level but politically toxic."
These kinds of vacancies are devastating for departments.
Take State as an example. Top-level political appointees are necessary to shape policy, as they serve as a conduit between the administration and foreign governments. Without people in these positions, career diplomats fill in as best as they can, but they have a hard time making new decisions or formulating new policy. It's nigh unprecedented to go this long with this many vacancies because it cripples America's ability to develop diplomatic stances on vital issues.
Ultimately, the biggest question all of this raises is about Donald Trump himself. If the people who work with him daily, people he elevated to some of the highest positions in the land, think he's a "moron" or hate the way he treats them — well, those judgments certainly should mean a lot to those of us on the outside.
"Republican presidents often have their intelligence questioned — [think] Ford, Reagan, George W. Bush. But I think the record shows that people closer to them came to appreciate their qualities," Azari adds.
"We do not see these things from people close to Trump."