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'Toxic on a day-to-day level': how Trump is mismanaging the White House

Donald Trump
Jim Bourg | Reuters
Donald Trump

President Trump once yelled at Chief of Staff John Kelly so viciously that, per the New York Times, Kelly told staff that "he had never been spoken to like that during 35 years of serving his country." Trump once screamed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions so viciously that Sessions, per the Times, described it as "the most humiliating experience in decades of public life." The president also once called up National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster for the express purpose of — you guessed it — screaming at him.

There is a clear pattern of Trump, through his own personal viciousness and carelessness, abusing and alienating his top deputies, publicly as well as privately. This obviously creates an extremely difficult if not downright hostile work environment in the White House.

The consequences can be hard to see on a day-to-day level, but experts say Trump's repeated humiliations of his staff destroy staff White House morale, suck up valuable time better spent on policy, and drive away top talent. This makes the White House function less effectively as an organization, weakening its ability to deal with real crises like North Korea and Puerto Rico.

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"This administration is toxic and dysfunctional," says Paul Musgrave, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "The weak link is Trump himself."

The Trump administration is abnormally vicious

This context is necessary to make sense of Wednesday's big news: NBC News's report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a "moron" after a July 20 meeting. In the months prior to the comment, Trump had repeatedly contradicted Tillerson and publicly undercut him.

In early April, for example, Tillerson said that the Trump administration would be fine with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad staying in power. Just days later, Trump ordered the US to bomb Assad for the first time, and Tillerson was forced to publicly reverse himself. On June 9, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to end their political isolation of Qatar; less than two hours later, Trump sided with the Saudis by labeling Qatar "a funder of terrorism at a very high level."

The "moron" comment thus appears to be a backlash to the lack of policy direction and public reprimands by the president, at least in part. "It's not like Cabinet officials are just walking around calling the president a moron," as Musgrave puts it.

There are a number of examples of top-level officials being mistreated on top of Tillerson, Kelly, Sessions, and McMaster:

  • During an April meeting with United Nations ambassadors from various countries, the president joked about firing America's representative, Nikki Haley. "Now, does everybody like Nikki? Otherwise she could easily be replaced," Trump said.
  • When Steve Bannon was in the White House, Trump publicly dismissed his importance, telling the Wall Street Journal that he was just "a guy who works for me" who "was not involved in my campaign until very late."
  • Trump reportedly referred to Kelly's predecessor, Reince Priebus, by the deliberately demeaning nickname "Reincey" and mused about shipping him off to Greece.

Presidents don't always treat their staff well: Lyndon Johnson would famously force staff members to follow him the bathroom while dressing them down. But the severity and frequency of Trump's outbursts, in some cases without any clear cause, really is not normal.

"You're dealing with very high stakes, so there are some tense professional interactions," says Julia Azari, a scholar of the presidency at Marquette University. "But the more those aren't personal, and that expectations are clear, and people who are being yelled at are people who haven't met expectations, that's obviously going to be better management."

Sessions is perhaps the most telling example. He's the Cabinet member who's perhaps most closely aligned with Trump ideologically and most willing to follow orders. It was Sessions, for example, who signed off on Trump's highly unusual decision to fire FBI Director James Comey after the director refused to back off from the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

Yet Trump repeatedly humiliated Sessions, both by screaming at him in private and by publicly musing about firing him. The cause was Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation, a decision he made to try to take political heat off the Trump administration. Sessions, as Musgrave puts it, "gave almost nothing but loyalty and still got abused."

Sessions's treatment illustrates how pervasive and defining these levels of attacks were. There is no way to say that Trump's management of his subordinates is normal or healthy, even in a pressure-cooker environment like the West Wing.

"It's important to emphasize that this isn't just a bunch of academics pissing and moaning about Trump because we don't like him," adds Azari. "There were many qualified Republican candidates who would not be having these problems."

This really matters

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."