This week, the New York Times touched off a firestorm by publishing an anonymous op-ed from a “senior official in the Trump administration” who criticized President Donald Trump as amoral, influenced by “misguided impulses,” and ignorant of what his staff is actually doing.
House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy penned a letter to the editor of the Times blasting the op-ed. “If you didn’t believe in the Deep State before,” he wrote, “it just took out an advertisement in the New York Times.” McCarthy went on:
The members of this political class claim to love democracy, but they are “working diligently” to “insulate” the government from democratic decisions. They claim to love the norms that protect constitutional government, but shatter constitutional norms of executive power. They claim to be above party and ideology, but are in fact so blinded by groupthink that they cannot tolerate any challenge to their 1990s-era consensus on trade, immigration and foreign policy.
I have to take issue with this characterization. Let’s put aside the merits of Anonymous’s critique, whether he should have attached his name to the piece, or even written it altogether. (I describe the person as “he” because that’s the pronoun the Times used for the writer.) Reasonable people — including conservatives who are generally happy with Trump’s policy successes — can disagree. (I think the criticisms ring true, but it was grossly irresponsible to write the piece.) Regardless of the merits of the op-ed, McCarthy is eliding a distinction regarding the “Deep State” that, when made clear, can help sharpen our understanding of Trump’s approach to executive governance.
“The Deep State” has become a loaded term, but it is bottomed on an uncontroversial notion: There is a class of permanent government workers within the bureaucracy who serve on good behavior and are therefore immune to which party is in charge of the White House. They are different from the roughly 4,000 executive jobs filled by the president, including West Wing staff, cabinet officials who require Senate confirmation, and their subordinates. These appointees serve at the pleasure of the president or other political officers who, in turn, depend on the president for their position. “The Deep State,” on the other hand, is a description of the millions of bureaucrats immune from the political ebbs and flows. The term is meant to suggest that these men and women are pursuing agendas that run contrary to the preferences of the president, the peole who voted for him, or the nation at large.
We can debate whether and how much the Deep State is actually countering Trump’s agenda. But one thing that is not debatable is that the anonymous author is not part of such a group. Anonymous is, rather, a “senior administration official” who, based on what his op-ed reveals, serves at the pleasure of the president. Trump could get rid of him, if he knew who he was.
This suggests that McCarthy’s view of Anonymous is not apt. Instead of rebuking Anonymous with the same complaints many conservatives have lobbed at the career officials at the Department of Justice, we could instead see his op-ed as an illustration of the inherent principal–agent problem that every president must confront. And the essay strongly suggests that Trump is struggling with this problem.
Simply stated, the principal–agent problem arises whenever any principal deputizes an agent to do his bidding. How can the principal make sure that the agent is actually doing what he has been tasked to do? Well, it requires monitoring and sanctions — both of which are costly to the principal. Modern bureaucracies — both the corporate and governmental kinds — are, in part, infrastructures created to solve this problem. All sorts of managers, inspectors, and human-resources officials are in place to make sure that workers are doing what the owners told them to do.
In the realm of presidential governance, solutions to the principal–agent problem are much more ad hoc, depending on the personality and experience of each particular commander in chief. Indeed, the differences between presidential success and failure often come down to how the president handles the monitoring of his staff. Jimmy Carter, for instance, was an unsuccessful president in no small part because he was a micromanager. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, imported organization structures from the military to great success. More recently, in Confidence Men, Ron Suskind reported that Barack Obama instructed U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to draw up a plan to dissolve Citigroup; however, Suskind claimed, Geithner ignored the order, and Obama never followed up. That is the principal–agent problem in action.
President Trump clearly has put together a chaotic and unpredictable organization, or perhaps his administrations suffers for the lack of any organization whatsoever. His managerial style seems to be impromptu, and his approach to staff is apparently mercurial. These are not good ways to handle the principal–agent problem he necessarily faces. Such an approach leads to low morale and lackluster oversight of staff, which by all accounts is what we have seen, time and again — from the Anonymous op-ed, to the new Bob Woodward book (not just its contents, but the fact that so many officials willingly participated in it), even to Omarosa’s recording conversations in the West Wing, including in the Situation Room. These are all symptoms of an executive branch that is suffering from a lack of sufficient management.
And look: If Trump does not have a good handle on what his agents are up to, then his power necessarily is going to decline, as the principal–agent problem grows. We can bemoan the fact that his political appointees are undermining democratic accountability by ignoring or circumventing Trump’s dictates, but that misses the point. The principal–agent problem exists just about everywhere. It is a consequence of human nature, whereby people are prone to put their own judgments and interests first. That’s why principals must monitor their agents.
Trump has clearly not done a good job of that. And that is on him.