Donald Trump is sick of losing. More than 70 days into his tenure, the president has yet to autograph a major piece of legislation. He lost his pseudo–Muslim ban to the courts, Obamacare repeal to the House GOP, and his national security adviser to a scandal that casts a shadow over his entire administration. Now, his party is struggling just to keep the government open through the end of next month, and his approval rating is dipping lower than Obama’s ever did.
The White House knows it needs to make a change. And this week, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s deputy, Katie Walsh, left the White House to help launch Trump’s outside group, America First Policies. In an interview with Axios, Trump’s top aides framed Walsh’s departure as a sign of the administration’s Sillicon Valley–esque openness to creative destruction.
[D]uring the conversation one of the officials made a revealing comment. He views the Trump White House in terms that could be applied to the iterative process of designing software. It’s a beta White House.
The senior official — the comment was “on background” — said the White House was operating on similar principles to the Trump campaign:
“We rode something until it didn’t work any more,” the official said. “We recognized it didn’t work, we changed it, we adjusted it and then we kind of got better … [T]his was much more entrepreneurial.” In the White House, he said, “we’re going to keep adjusting until we get it right.
There’s no question that the Trump campaign made radical adjustments over the course of 2016. But the candidate himself was anything but adaptable — as the perpetual embarrassment of every pundit who cried “pivot” amply demonstrated.
The idea that the Trump administration is akin to an agile software start-up is among this White House’s most laughable delusions (which is saying quite a bit). You can shuffle the pawns all you want, but the king is all but immovable, as the very same Axios piece makes clear:
President Trump brought his chaos-and-loyalty theory of management into the White House, relying on competing factions, balanced by trusted family members, with himself perched atop as the gut-instinct decider. He now realizes this approach has flopped, and feels baffled and paralyzed by how to fix it, numerous friends and advisers tell us.
Trump recognizes that his patented management strategy of defaming his enemies, pitting his underlings against one another in a perpetual game of Last Sycophant Standing, and leveraging his celebrity to con the gullible just isn’t a recipe for success on Capitol Hill.
But the president is also a 70-year-old billionaire who has been far too rich — for far too long — to know how to adjust his habits to other people’s needs.
Does Trump even like being President? Take a look at the evidence.
Trump has done (virtually) everything in his power to prevent his presidency from disrupting his lifestyle. After promising that his family members would have no role in his administration, he has brought his daughter and son-in-law into the West Wing. After arguing that presidents should spend all their time in the White House, working continuously, Trump has retreated to his Florida resort nearly every weekend, at great taxpayer expense. After a campaign centered on his opponent’s irresponsible flouting of IT security, it took two months for his staffers to pry his unsecured Android phone from his cold, tiny hands.
Trump’s aversion to adaptation in the personal realm carries over into the political one. The president’s resolute refusal to educate himself on policy matters left him reliant on the good judgment of Paul Ryan, a man whose political vision Trump won the White House by decrying. Instead of trying to consolidate his gains among working-class swing voters — and divide the congressional Democrats against themselves — by opening his presidency with a push on infrastructure, he let himself be dragged into a losing battle against an entitlement program he spent his campaign vowing to protect.
By the end of February, it was clear that Trump’s incendiary rhetorical style was doing him no favors. His racist jabs at prominent Democrats only energized the liberal base, while his tirades about the “failing” New York Times only won the paper new subscribers. When Trump turned things down a notch — and made it through an entire address to Congress without disparaging any branch of government or racial group — the media sung his praises. A large swath of the Fourth Estate was eager enough for a truce that it was willing to meet the populist president more than halfway. With just a few paeans to unity and condemnations of hate crimes, liberal pundits were hailing a speech that announced the creation of a new government office whose sole purpose was to encourage Americans to associate immigrants with crime.
But Trump did not delete his account. Within a week, he was baselessly accusing his predecessor of wiretapping his phones, forcing even minimally self-respecting conservative journalists into an adversarial stance.
After the untimely death of Trumpcare, the president has mulled the idea of pivoting to the left — allying with moderate Democrats to avoid further conflict with the House’s recalcitrant Freedom Caucus.
But even as he considered reorganizing his whole legislative calendar around that gambit, he carried on defaming the most popular Democrats in the country. In his first televised remarks after the failure of his health-care bill, Trump suggested that he would eventually work with Democrats on a bipartisan alternative — and suggested that the Affordable Care Act was certain to collapse in 2017, as Barack Obama had purposely designed his signature law to self-destruct at the end of his (then-hypothetical) second term, because “he knew he wasn’t going to be here.”
Less than a week later, he was vowing to fight both the House Freedom Caucus and congressional Democrats — a two-front war that would leave him without any possible House majority for his agenda.
All this has left even moderate Democrats in districts Trump won with little incentive to work with the president. As Politico reports:
Trump won by 4 points in the district of Iowa Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack and by a point in the districts of New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos. Bustos, though, said the failed drive to repeal Obamacare has energized opposition to Trump in her district.
“I have a swing district. You would’ve thought that I had a 95 percent Democratic district if you went to my town hall this weekend,” she said. “We have Democrats going home to standing ovations.
Giving Reince Priebus a new deputy isn’t going to make the White House more “entrepreneurial” or responsive to shifting circumstances. To do that, you’d have to give the Oval Office a new occupant.