The extent to which Reince Priebus’s appointment as White House chief of staff has been greeted in mainstream quarters as a reassuring sign that Donald Trump is going to govern the country in a responsible way is, itself, a disturbing sign. It’s true that Priebus seems broadly competent and unlike Steve Bannon doesn’t have a long record of promoting bigotry in public life.
But to congratulate Trump on mainstreaming bigotry through his No. 2 White House official rather than his No. 1 staff pick sets an appallingly low bar. Running the American government is an enormous job with enormous consequences. The choices the president makes deserve to be held to the highest possible standard, not a low bar of minimal acceptability.
Trump landed on Priebus, fairly clearly, because he gets along with him personally and because Priebus also gets along with congressional Republican leaders. That’s nice. But for a president with no relevant experience or qualifications to be picking key staff positions largely on the basis of their ability to be nice to Donald Trump is a disaster. Some are sketching out the Priebus/Bannon relationship as analogous to the dual power structure of Andy Card and Karl Rove in George W Bush’s White House. But the analogy fails entirely.
Priebus, like Rove, is a professional political operative with no experience in government. Card was a veteran elected official who served four years as deputy chief of staff in the George H.W. Bush administration. And Bush himself served six years as governor of a large state. In the Trump/Priebus/Bannon axis that’s running the government, there’s nobody who has any idea how to run the government.
Donald Trump needs help running the federal government
Americans rarely elect presidents who have any meaningful experience working in the executive branch of the federal government. Trump is not the first president-elect who overcame a lack of relevant experience by arguing that the country needed an outsider in the White House, and he won’t be the last.
The fact of the matter is, however, that the executive branch of the federal government is a large and complicated entity. You have foreign affairs to manage, but also a vast bureaucracy. You have your White House staff but also your various Cabinet agencies. Then there are the independent agencies, each of which has its own quirks. There’s the press, there’s Congress, and there’s dealing with state and local governments when you need to coordinate on a local issue of national significance.
Successful presidents are normally helped in this task by chiefs of staff who are themselves well-versed in the operations of the federal government.
From time to time, presidents break this mold — as Jimmy Carter did with Hamilton Jordan and Bill Clinton did with Mack McLarty — but the result is usually disaster. Clinton soon wised up and elevated Leon Panetta, his Office of Management and Budget Director and veteran House member, to be his new chief. He went on to have a largely successful tenure as president. Carter stuck far too long with an outsider regime, and despite good intentions and Democratic congressional majorities he never really managed to be an effective president.
And Clinton and Carter were both former governors, experienced in a structurally similar, albeit smaller-scale, job than the presidency. Trump has no experience working in government at any level. He didn’t even serve in the military.
Really, Donald Trump needs help
Here is a stunning passage from a Wall Street Journal report on the meeting between Trump and Barack Obama at the White House:
During their private White House meeting on Thursday, Mr. Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope, said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.
This is just to say that Trump isn’t kidding around about being an outsider to national politics. Neither he nor his inner circle of advisers — a group that seems to be largely composed of his children — have any experience working in the government or even a demonstrated interest in American politics.
Priebus is very well-suited to helping Trump with one particular aspect of the job — managing personal relationships with Republican members of Congress and the major donors to the party.
But Trump is really going to have to run the federal government. A lot of people would like to get the president’s attention on any given day, for example. You can’t just let the president exclusively meet with the people he likes, or you might miss a major crisis. But you can’t just let any agency head who claims to have a major crisis barge into the Oval Office. Nor can you simply delegate authority. Agencies need to work together. Dispute need to be resolved.
Under the circumstances, it would be extremely helpful to have a chief of staff who has worked in a previous White House and seen how a previous chief of staff did the job. A person who could make deliberate, informed decisions about the best way to meld the traditional structure of the role with Trump’s personality and preferences. Someone like Joel Kaplan or Blake Gottesman, both of whom served as deputy chiefs during George W. Bush’s relatively successful second term, would be the obvious picks.
America faces a staggering range of potential disasters
Trump’s elevation to the presidency has people worried about everything from the collapse of America’s democratic institutions to the spectacle of violence in the streets.
But it’s worth recalling that any presidency also features a range of more or less banal crises in which the fate of the nation and the world is nonetheless at stake. Can Trump really tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran without completely destablizing the Persian Gulf, for example? I’m not sure, I’m sure that Trump is not sure, and I’m frankly skeptical that Priebus is the right person to figure it out.
From the Mariel boatlift to Hurricane Katrina to the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, weird apolitical crises strike and need to be handled. Financial markets sometimes need soothing. Sometimes it looks like a war is going to break out in the Taiwan Strait.
It’s great that Trump has decided to make the premier digital popularizer of white nationalism the second most important person in his White House rather than the first. But the presidency is still a really big job that Trump has no relevant experience for. Priebus works as an “establishment” figure who has also earned Trump’s trust. But he’s never worked in the White House or even in Wisconsin state government. Trump needs people who can help him actually run the government. More to the point, the country needs people who can help Trump actually run the government.
Falling over ourselves to praise Priebus as a responsible choice simply sets the bar too low given the stakes.