Chaos theory in Oval Office demoralises staff, causes policy disarray

Hope Hicks (right) the White House communications director, stands beside Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to the president, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Feb 9, 2018.
Hope Hicks (right) the White House communications director, stands beside Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to the president, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Feb 9, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - For 13 months in the Oval Office, and in an unorthodox business career before that, President Donald Trump has thrived on chaos, using it as an organising principle and even a management tool.

Now, the costs of that chaos are becoming starkly clear in the demoralised staff and policy disarray of a wayward White House.

The dysfunction was on vivid display on Thursday (March 1) in the president's introduction of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.

The previous day, Mr Trump's chief economic adviser, Mr Gary Cohn, warned Chief of Staff John Kelly that he might resign if the president went ahead with the plan, according to people briefed on the discussion.

Mr Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president, had lobbied fiercely against the measures.

His threat to leave came during a tumultuous week in which Mr Trump suffered the departure of his closest aide, Ms Hope Hicks, and the effective demotion of his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner who was stripped of his top-secret security clearance.

Mr Trump was forced to deny, through an aide, that he was about to fire his national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Mr Kelly summed up the prevailing mood in the West Wing. "God punished me," he joked of his move from the Department of the Homeland Security to the White House during a discussion to mark the department's 15th anniversary.

When White House aides arrived at work on Thursday, they had no clear idea of what Mr Trump would say about trade. He had summoned steel and aluminium executives to a meeting, but when the White House said only that he would listen to their concerns, it seemed to signal that Mr Cohn had held off the tariffs.

Yet at the end of a photo session, when a reporter asked Mr Trump about the measures, he confirmed that the United States would announce next week that it is imposing long-term tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminium. The White House has not even completed a legal review of the measures.

Mr Trump's off-the-cuff opening of a trade war rattled the stock market, enraged Republicans and left Mr Cohn's future in doubt.

Mr Cohn, who almost left in 2017 after Mr Trump's response to a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, indicated he was waiting to see whether the president goes through with the tariffs, people familiar with his thinking said.

The chaotic rollout also reflected the departure of another White House official, Mr Rob Porter, who as the staff secretary had a key role in keeping the paper flowing in the West Wing and who had backed Mr Cohn in his free-trade views. Mr Porter was forced out in February after facing accusations of spousal abuse.

It was the second day in a row that Mr Trump blindsided Republicans and his own aides. On Wednesday, in another televised session at the White House, he embraced the stricter gun control measures backed by Democrats and urged lawmakers to revive gun-safety regulations that are opposed by the National Rifle Association and most of his party.

"I always said that it was going to take a while for Donald Trump to adjust as president," said Mr Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president's.

In business, he said, Mr Trump relied on a small circle of colleagues and a management style that amounted to "trial and error - the strongest survived, the weak died".

Mr Ruddy insisted that Mr Trump was finding his groove in the Oval Office. But his subordinates are faring less well. With an erratic boss and little in the way of a coherent legislative agenda, they are consumed by infighting, fears of their legal exposure and an ambient sense that the White House is spinning out of control.

Mr Trump is isolated and angry, as well, according to other friends and aides, as he carries on a bitter feud with his attorney general and watches members of his family clash with a chief of staff he recruited to restore a semblance of order - all against the darkening shadow of an investigation of his ties to Russia.

The combined effect is taking a toll.

Mr Trump's instinct during these moments is to return to the populist themes that carried him to the White House, which is why his trade announcement is hardly surprising. Mr Trump has few fixed views on any issue, but he has been consistent on his antipathy for free trade since the 1980s, when he took out newspaper ads warning about US deficits with Japan - a concern that has shifted to China in recent years.

"The WTO has been a disaster for this country," Mr Trump said on Thursday, asserting that China's economic rise coincided with its entry into the World Trade Organisation. "It has been great for China and terrible for the United States, and great for other countries."

But a president who has long tried to impose his version of reality on the world is finding the limits of that strategy. Without Mr Porter playing a stopgap role on trade, the debate has been marked by a lack of focus on policy and planning, according to several aides.

Morale in the West Wing has sunk to a new low, these people said. In private conversations, Mr Trump lashes out regularly at Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a vitriol that stuns members of his staff. Some longtime advisers said that Mr Trump regards Mr Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation as the "original sin", which the president thinks has left him exposed.

Mr Trump's children, meanwhile, have grown exasperated with Mr Kelly, seeing him as a hurdle to their father's success and as antagonistic to their continued presence, according to several people familiar with their thinking. Mr Anthony Scaramucci, an ally of some in the Trump family, whom Mr Kelly fired as communications director after only 11 days, intensified his criticism of the Chief of Staff in a series of news interviews on Wednesday and Thursday.

Mr Trump is also frustrated with Mr Kushner, whom he now views as a liability because of his legal entanglements, the investigations of the Kushner family's real estate company and the publicity over having his security clearance downgraded, according to two people familiar with his views.

In private conversations, the president vacillates between sounding regretful that Mr Kushner is taking arrows and annoyed that he is another problem to deal with.

Privately, some aides have expressed frustration that Mr Kushner and his wife, the president's daughter, Ivanka, have remained at the White House, despite the president having told Mr Kelly and other aides that he believes they should leave.

Yet aides also noted that Mr Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr Kelly for his help in moving them out.

To some staff members, the chaos feels reminiscent of the earliest days of the Trump administration. Some argue that Mr Kelly should have carried out a larger staff shake-up when he came in. That has allowed several people to stagnate, particularly in policy roles, one adviser said.