"I alone can fix it," Donald Trump thundered as he accepted the Republican nomination for president in Cleveland just over a year ago.
Trump won the nomination, and later the presidency, in part because he promised to bring the managerial skills he used to build a Manhattan real estate empire to Washington, where he would make deals, drain the swamp of business-as-usual corruption, and endow America with so much winning we would soon tire of it.
Six months into his administration, President Trump has half-delivered on that promise.
Trump has indeed brought his style of business leadership to the White House, where he enables factionalism by playing rivals against each other, rewards the most obsequious surrogates regardless of competence, and punishes anyone who inconveniences him with any sort of principled independence. But rather than fatiguing the country with so much tiresome winning, our heads have been left dizzy from an executive branch that isn't so much a team of rivals as a less-mature variant of Lord of the Flies. The result is the "chaos presidency" Jeb Bush warned of during the Republican primary, when Trump mopped the floor with the dynastic former Florida governor and his 15 other GOP rivals.
The latest Washington edition of a feral kid-fight on a desert island was instigated by the new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci — like his boss, a self-styled straight-shooting quasi-tough guy from Queens — who not only acknowledged the turmoil among White House staffers, but also took a swing at one of the most senior among them: Chief of Staff Reince Preibus.
In an interview with CNN, Scaramucci followed up a tweet in which he appeared to accuse Preibus of being behind an "illegal leak" of Scaramucci's financial disclosure form, which was published by Politico. But there was no such leak. Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert obtained the publicly available document without even having to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Rather than admitting he impugned the integrity of a White House colleague with an ignorant half-cocked tweet, Scaramucci compared his relationship with Preibus to the mythical sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the latter of whom was murdered by the former. Scaramucci then did Trump's managerial style proud by doubling down on his vaguely accusatory tweet, telling CNN's Chris Cuomo, "If Reince wants to explain he's not a leaker, let him do that." He added, "As you know from the Italian expression, the fish stinks from the head down." (It's actually a Greek expression.) "But I can tell you two fish that don't stink, and that's me and the president."
Oh, also, Scaramucci called up The New Yorker and this happened:
"Reince is a f--king paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac," Scaramucci said. He channelled Priebus as he spoke: "'Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the f--king thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.'" [The New Yorker]
The White House communications director sure has a way with words.
President Trump also facilitated chaos in the Department of Defense this week over his tweets promising to ban transgendered individuals from serving in the military "in any capacity." The change in policy apparently blindsided vacationing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who was only given a day's notice of Trump's intentions, and was reportedly "appalled" by the manner in which the president — once a vocal proponent for allowing gays to serve in the military — tweeted out such a stunning revocation of rights for members of our armed services.
Though Trump tweeted that "generals" recommended he ban trans people from military service, reports have indicated it was in fact social conservatives and culture warriors in the White House — specifically Vice President Mike Pence and senior advisor Stephen Bannon — who pushed for the ban as a reward to the religious right for supporting the fidelity-challenged Trump.
The chaos in the White House has also shockingly transfigured that feared and loathed totem of authoritarian state power, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, into a borderline sympathetic figure as he continues to twist in the wind over something he did months ago — recusing himself from the investigation into Trump's campaign and the Russian government — which nearly everyone other than Trump and his most sycophantic inner circle acknowledge was the only reasonable and ethical action for a campaign surrogate like Sessions to take.
In some ways this is how Trump ran his business "empire" — which included some disastrously failed casinos, a failed airline, and a lot of Trump-branding attached to buildings developed and built by other people's corporations.
When Trump's first wife Ivana ran Trump's Castle (one of his few briefly successful Atlantic City casinos), he wrote in The Art of the Deal of her talent as a manager. Yet behind the scenes, Trump worried his wife was getting too big for her britches and deployed surrogates to cause friction among her staff and overall operations. In Trump's thinking, the added challenges would make her stronger as a leader. In reality, his marriage collapsed due to his public philandering and Trump's Castle would end up bankrupt in short order.
Trump supporters may delight at their hero's ability to make "the media" and "liberals" aghast over the slapdash unprofessionalism of this administration, but they'd be deluding themselves if they think this is good for the business of running the country. The dirty little secret is, Trump was never a great businessman, and he owes his few legitimate professional successes not to any particular skill in the nebulously defined arts of "deal-making" or leadership, but from the very government handouts and insider-dealing his supporters claim to abhor.
If Trump has any talent as a businessman, it lies primarily in his ability to leverage favorable tax breaks (nearly $1 billion worth in New York alone) from simpering politicians. The ultimate "political outsider" would have never been able to build the Trump brand into anything bigger than his father's stable of outer-borough apartments without cozying up to political insiders in New York City government and finance.
But Trump is at the top of government now. And if you think the current state of business in White House stinks, look to the head of the fish.