One of the most repeated arguments for candidate Trump during the 2016 campaign was that he was a businessman, and that he would surround himself with a team like government had never seen. The story went something like this: Yes, Trump is new to government, and yes, he can be a bit impulsive, but with his business acumen he’ll put together a first-class staff that plays to his strengths, harnessing never-before-seen levels of productivity, efficiency, and policy acumen.
And, indeed, as we get closer to two years since the election, it can confidently be asserted that where things have gone well, some very strong personnel decisions helped. Where things have gone wrong, personnel decisions were inevitably at the root of the problem. Personnel is policy. President Trump has made some great hires, some terrible hires, and very few hires in between.
A current senior adviser to the administration told me that when he worked for the Reagan campaign in 1980, there were something like 200 policy experts aboard to advise the candidate on everything from the economy to foreign affairs. The Trump campaign was built around a repudiation of the “establishment,” so staffing it with such a robust field of wonks was understandably not an option. But the campaign’s thin bench of experts meant that there simply weren’t enough qualified candidates to fill out a real and serious administration once Trump was elected, and his White House continues to live with the consequences.
It should be pointed out that no matter what anyone thinks of the Russia probe, it is unimaginable without the presence of Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone in Trump’s orbit, and he hand-picked each of them. Stone, who had consulted for the Dole campaign in 1996 before being removed for running an ad soliciting “swinger couples” to recreate with him and his wife, is someone the president has been connected to for decades. Manafort was a competent operator, and in decades past he had worked for serious Republican administrations. But he was also a known foreign lobbyist who had spent years and years of his life getting rich doing dirty work for dictators and warlords. And Carter Page, if you believe the most benign versions of his story, was a pro-Russia stooge who had been running around Moscow for years begging for someone to give him money. All three men have come back to haunt Trump since the campaign, as has Michael Cohen, the “personal attorney” of unaccredited-Canadian-law-school fame.
I have written in these very pages about the tragedy of Steve Bannon, but without beating that dead horse, it must be said that it was Bannon who insisted the President’s limited immigration ban be implemented in the noisiest and most chaotic way possible, as he himself bragged to 60 Minutes. What was a perfectly reasonable and popular policy directive thus became an utterly toxic, brutal political mess because of Bannon’s nihilistic tendencies. This was one of the first big moments of the Trump administration, and for many, it severely poisoned the well.
As we get closer to two years since the election, it can confidently be asserted that where things have gone well, some very strong personnel decisions helped. Where things have gone wrong, personnel decisions were inevitably at the root of the problem.
At the same time, the President wisely sought the counsel of Federalist Society executive vice president Leonard Leo in composing his list of judges to fill key federal court vacancies. This has proven a smashing success, not just on the High Court, where Justice Neil Gorsuch has been one highlight of the Trump presidency so far and Brett Kavanaugh seems poised to become another, but also in the dozens of federal judgeships that are now filled with similarly competent, serious originalists. The personnel here drove the outcome — the President got good advice from good people, and the results were good.
The same can be said of many in his foreign-policy team. After the sad, bizarre Rex Tillerson detour at State, Trump has assembled a top-notch stable of foreign-policy staffers. General James Mattis at the Pentagon, Secretary Mike Pompeo at the State Department, and John Bolton at the NSA represent a first-class team of serious policy people with a credible and morally defensible view of America’s leadership in the world. As the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley has repeatedly projected American strength and moral clarity on the international stage. Overall, the administration’s national-security luminaries have been relative a bright spot, and its foreign policy has been likewise as a result.
On the economic front, the President selected Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs, to chair his National Economic Council before replacing Cohn with Larry Kudlow, one of the true supply-sider heroes of our generation. Unsurprisingly, substantive corporate tax reform stands out as the highlight of the president’s economic accomplishments thus far. Elsewhere, his economic-staff choices have been less successful. He appointed Wilbur Ross to run the Commerce Department, Professor Pete Navarro to serve as special trade adviser, and Robert Lighthizer to serve as official trade representative. The results from this protectionist cabal have been a mess of mercantilist policy, confused tariffs on our own allies against the wishes of the industry stakeholders supposedly being helped, the disingenuous use of “national-security fears” to justify said tariffs when no such fears exists, and a tit-for-tat trade war with China that is wrecking soybean farmers, pushing prices higher in many parts of the industrial economy, and detracting from the otherwise strong stock market and economy that many of the president’s policies have helped to create. One personnel hand giveth, the other taketh away.
No discussion of campaign-adviser disasters, cabinet hits, and policy misses could be complete, though, without looking at the most egregious failure of personnel decisions to date. I will let others opine on the wisdom of making one’s own daughter and son-in-law senior advisers in the Oval Office, and on the already-heavily covered antics of Tom Price at HHS and Scott Pruitt at the EPA, because the most frustrating staff decisions for those who bought into the campaign narrative of a CEO in the White House are found much lower down the totem pole.
The story of this last Sunday was that Omarosa Manigault, a former contestant on two of the president’s reality shows, secretly taped conversations in the White House situation room. This comes as she prepares to publish a book with the daring revelation that President Trump talks. This is a national news story for one reason, and one reason only: President Trump hired her despite her complete lack of qualifications. He went with his gut, his gut failed him, and the result is another sad sideshow in an administration not unfamiliar with sad sideshows.
This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of the questionable personnel decisions made by the leader of our republic. From Sebastian Gorka to Corey Lewandowski to Stephen Miller to Michael Flynn, such decisions abound. And in fairness, so do plenty of wonderful staffers who have served to put some significant victories on the board. The key takeaway is that this administration seems to sink or swim with the wisdom or foolishness of its hires. The president, thus far, has shown far too much reliance on personal loyalties and affections, and nowhere near enough reliance on character, pedigree, accomplishments, and maturity. Where that hiring criteria has been reversed, he has hit some bullseyes.
Perhaps a simple standard going forward ought to be: Avoid those who weren’t qualified enough to win one of your own reality shows. From that low bar, there’s nowhere to go but up.