Effective management is a skill set that can be learned. Or it’s a gift that some people have and others will never have. Or it’s a personality disorder – a kind of curse, a compulsion to organize that can’t be turned off. Or there’s no such thing and effective management just happens, by luck. And then there’s bad management, and incompetent managers who say they’re wonderfully competent. And then there’s Donald Trump. Those who write about business and management had his number from the start. On the anniversary of Trump’s first year in office, the New York Times’ James Stewart summed up the situation this way:
Throughout his presidential campaign Donald J. Trump extolled his business acumen and management skills, and just before his inauguration he insisted the transition to his administration was going “very, very smoothly.”
Yet so chaotic was his first year in office that in January after publication of the Michael Wolff tell-all, “Fire and Fury,” the president had to publicly defend himself as a “stable genius.”
The White House suffered a staff turnover rate of 34 percent during Mr. Trump’s first year, a rate that would be unfathomable at nearly any for-profit enterprise. Even by political standards, it’s off the charts – triple that of the Obama administration, and twice that of Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder – according to a study by the Brookings Institution.
What happened? Stewart asked around. He got answers:
“It’s much worse than I expected,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University and the author of “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.”
“The most important thing you need as a chief executive is the ability to hire and retain talent,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “Trump said he’d get all these great people to work for him. But the rate of departures is unprecedented. Either he hired badly, or he hired well but couldn’t retain them. Either way, this reflects badly on his leadership.”
And there was more:
Mr. Trump does appear to solicit and consider the opinions of others, but they are as likely to be random guests at Mar-a-Lago, or television pundits, as they are experts in the field, or even his own appointees.
“The lack of attention to data drives me nuts,” Mr. Pfeffer said. Mr. Trump, he said, “seems to have no interest in science, social science or data,” citing White House initiatives to repeal Obamacare and to rescue the coal industry as glaring examples.
But the man hates data. Everyone knew that all along. That’s why his base loved him. He decides from his gut, not his brain, and that’s much more authentic or American or whatever. But there also this way of looking at this man’s management style:
“Nothing about the chaos and turnover in the White House surprises me,” said Charles M. Elson, a professor and director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.
“He hasn’t changed in 30 years,” Mr. Elson added. “He isn’t bound by any traditional norms of management.”
Mr. Elson said Mr. Trump acted more like the typical entrepreneur than an experienced manager. “A problem with entrepreneurs is that people get tired of it and they move on,” he said. “People just get worn out. At some point you need a real manager. A lot of entrepreneurs sell their businesses when they reach a certain size and they realize they can’t manage them.”
But more than two years have passed and that was never an option anyway. Donald Trump is stuck with what he has, and he really is stuck. The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan reports on how stuck he is:
President Trump has said Iran is the greatest threat in the Middle East, a would-be nuclear power that he has brought low through the stiffest sanctions ever applied to a single nation. He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded” to punish Iran if it is found to be responsible for the attack on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.
But Trump has also eagerly courted a sit-down negotiation with the leader of Iran, called off a military strike earlier this year because it could have killed too many Iranians and flirted with a plan to offer Tehran a $15 billion lifeline to help it deal with the crushing U.S. sanctions.
On Monday in the Oval Office, Trump told reporters “we don’t want war with anybody” and then less than an hour later said he thinks a U.S. military strike on an Iranian oil facility would be a proportional response.
Which is it? No one knew, because he didn’t know:
Trump is caught between a political imperative to confront Iran – pleasing hawkish Republican supporters and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia – and his own political instincts against foreign intervention and toward cutting a deal.
But uncertainty over where Trump stands has complicated every other foreign policy challenge the United States faces in the Middle East, unnerved Israel and helped push out the administration’s leading Iran hawk, former national security adviser John Bolton.
“It’s not the way you do diplomacy” and heightens the risk of “miscalculation” on both the Iranian and U.S. sides, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Monday during an interview with MSNBC. Cardin is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Trump, however, did have a plan:
Trump’s dual approach on Iran is premised on the idea that by walking out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran and replacing the pact’s concessions with new sanctions, Trump can both please the hawks and force Iran to the bargaining table for a deal that would carry the Trump brand.
But the hawks like Bolton weren’t pleased – they wanted regime change over there, not a deal – and Iran wasn’t feeling forced into anything. They had the rest of the world on their side and Trump has a mess:
Trump would be the first U.S. president to meet an Iranian president since the 1970s, an idea that appeals to him, said advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views. He has made an offer that has no precedent since the Islamic republic was born out of a bitterly anti-American revolution in 1979, saying repeatedly that he would sit down with “no conditions.”
Political allies have also advised Trump that a military attack could escalate and hurt him with key supporters who like his “America First” pledge to limit U.S. obligations overseas, one senior administration official and one outside adviser said Monday.
Although Trump campaigned in 2016 on closing down what he called endless wars, he has not brought troops home from Afghanistan or Iraq and would not want to head into reelection next year saddled with a new conflict in the Middle East, these advisers said. To do so would hand Democrats a compelling argument that Trump bumbled his way into a war, according to one of the advisers.
Gearan, however, notes the real problem everyone saw from the start:
He wants to best the legacy of former president Barack Obama.
Under that umbrella, the locked-and-loaded comment on Sunday comes from a desire to confront a tough adversary with greater toughness, something he says Obama failed to do. And the invitation to Iran to negotiate comes from Trump’s thinking that he can drive a harder bargain than his predecessor.
Trump particularly wants to show up traditional foreign policy hands and U.S. allies who point to the 2015 nuclear deal as a signature Obama achievement, people who have discussed Iran policy with him said.
Trump himself pointed out how his deal would be different from Obama’s last week when he said Iran wants a deal.
“We cannot let Iran have a nuclear weapon, and they never will have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said Wednesday. “And if they’re thinking about enrichment, they can forget about it, because it’s going to be very, it’s going to be very dangerous for them to enrich.”
That was Obama’s deal. Trump is not managing anything well, but the Post’s Ashley Parker notes an even odder part of his management style:
President Trump has used it with groups and individuals. He has used it for family members and employees. And he has bestowed it on Washington politicians and middle-of-the-country farmers.
For Trump, the possessive pronoun “my” is a term of endearment – one he dispenses with freely, from “my generals” to “my Peter” Navarro, one of the president’s senior economic advisers, to “my little Melania,” his wife.
Trump uses the pronoun affectionately, part of an almost subconscious effort to shine warmth on someone in his orbit, say current and former aides, who describe the linguistic tic as a doting gesture. But others say the habit can also seem belittling and, for Trump, that it may be as much about dominance and control as familiarity.
This does seem like manipulation:
Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer who is critical of the president, said that while he has never heard the president use the phrase dismissively – “he always uses it to convey you’re part of the home team,” O’Brien said – the practical reality is more complicated.
“He thinks he’s conveying a compliment to the people he says it about, but in fact, it’s not really about putting them on equal footing,” said O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. “I read anytime President Trump starts a statement with ‘my’ that it’s completely in the possessive, and it’s about ownership, and it’s about control.”
And with Trump, O’Brien added, the modifier provides only minute-to-minute reassurance. “You can go from being ‘my’ to being gone in a tweet that goes out in 15 seconds,” he said.
In short, consider it a threat, and one often made:
The president’s preferred possessive was in the spotlight most recently on Friday, when the Wall Street Journal reported that as Trump awaited Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at the Group of Seven summit last month in France, he jokingly called out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”
In response, Maggie Haberman, a New York Times reporter who covers the White House, tweeted a “partial list of people the president has recently referred to as ‘my,’ ” including Sissi, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, an unnamed reporter and an unidentified African American man at one of his campaign rallies.
Indeed, Trump deploys “my” widely and frequently. Just before his January 2017 inauguration, the president-elect gazed across a ballroom during a celebratory lunch at the Trump International Hotel and used the diminutive for then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) – a pet name that was viewed as verbal evidence of the two men’s strong political relationship.
“Where’s Kevin,” Trump asked. “There’s my Kevin.”
And there’s this:
Trump also refers to “my farmers” with some regularity. Speaking in the Roosevelt Room in May in solidarity with the nation’s farmers and ranchers, the president was clear in his support: “I have to take care of my farmers with disaster relief,” he said.
A month earlier, at a rally in Michigan, Trump urged the nation’s farmers to hold tough in his trade wars with China and the European Union, saying, “There may be a little pain for a little while, but ultimately for my farmers, I love my farmers.”
Trump also regularly refers to “my generals” and “my military,” seeming to assert a type of ownership over the nation’s civilian defense institutions that has irked some in the U.S. military community.
He seems to be saying he owns you, so don’t cross him or he’ll destroy you, but the military is not his:
Former Army Officer Mark Hertling recently told Business Insider he found Trump’s language “extremely offensive.”
“The US military belongs to the nation, not the president. We’re not his,” Hertling said.
Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and director of the CIA, has also objected to the president’s choice of words.
“When it comes to the military, the military belongs to the country. Our defense system belongs to the country. And it’s not the president’s military, it’s the military of the United States of America,” Panetta said on MSNBC in April.
“He has responsibility obviously, as commander in chief, to be able to make decisions with regards to our military. But I think if you ask the men and women in uniform who they are responsible to, I think their answer would be, ‘We’re responsible to the United States of America.'”
Perhaps so, but Parker notes this:
Trump has also referred to “my base” in almost paternalistic terms, such as last month when, shortly before boarding Marine One, he was asked by reporters whether his base supported background checks for gun purchases.
“I think my base relies very much on common sense, and they rely on me, in terms of telling them what’s happening,” the president said.
That’s beyond paternalistic and Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor and a professor of public policy at the UC Berkeley – and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good – sees more than confused bad management. Reich sees this:
In retrospect, what’s most disturbing about “Sharpiegate” isn’t Trump’s clumsy effort to doctor a National Weather Service map or even his brazen move to get the same agency to lie on his behalf.
It is how utterly petty his motive was. We’ve had presidents trying to cover up a sexual liaison with an intern and a botched burglary, but never have we had one who went to such lengths to cover up an inaccurate weather forecast. Alabama being hit by a hurricane? Friends, this is not rational behavior.
Trump also cancelled a meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. The meeting was to have been secret. It was scheduled for the week of the anniversary of 9/11. He cancelled it by tweet.
Does any of this strike you as even remotely rational?
Before that, Trump cancelled a state visit to Denmark because Denmark wouldn’t sell Greenland to the US. Hello? Greenland wasn’t for sale. The US no longer buys populated countries. The state visit had been planned for months.
He has repeatedly told senior officials to explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes hitting the US. He believes video games cause mass shootings. He thinks climate change is no big deal.
He says trade wars are “good and easy to win”. He insists it’s Chinese rather than US consumers who pay his tariffs. He “orders” American firms to stop doing business in China.
He calls the chairman of the Federal Reserve an “enemy”. He retweets a comedian’s sick suggestion that the Clintons were responsible for the suicide of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
And thus this:
I think we have to face the truth that no one seems to want to admit. This is no longer a case of excessive narcissism or grandiosity. We’re not simply dealing with an unusually large ego.
The president of the United States is seriously, frighteningly, dangerously unstable. And he’s getting worse by the day.
But there’s a problem:
It’s almost too late for an impeachment. Besides, no president has ever been sent packing. Nixon resigned because he saw it coming. Trump would sooner start a civil war.
Also, being unstable is not an impeachable offense.
The rest is an argument for invoking the 25th Amendment, and an admission that that’s a longshot. But something has to be done. Alberto Nardelli reports this:
It has become Donald Trump’s anecdote of choice for world leaders. At the last two G7 summit meetings – which bring together the heads of government of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, the UK and the US – the president has launched into the same lengthy monologue about what a “great guy” Kim Jong Un is.
The story got its latest outing at last month’s summit in Biarritz, France, as the world leaders were gathered around the table for the formal meeting. When the discussion turned to North Korea – which had spent much of the month firing short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in a serious threat to stability in the region – Trump went off on a tangent, spending some 10 minutes rambling about his great relationship with Kim, leaving the other G7 leaders mostly speechless, three sources with direct knowledge of the discussions told BuzzFeed News.
All the leaders – apart from new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was making his G7 debut – had heard Trump tell the exact same story the same way the last time they all gathered round the summit table, in Canada last year.
That is an old man telling the same joke to the same people over and over, and it’s not that good of a joke:
When Trump first met Kim, in Singapore in June last year, the two men talked about the tweets that Trump had posted in 2017, nicknaming the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man.”
In Trump’s retelling, during a back-and-forth exchange about the name-calling the two men had engaged in over many months before the meeting in Singapore – “You called me fat… and then you called me this,” – Kim asks Trump why he’d called him that.
“Don’t you know Elton John? It’s a great song,” the president, who is a big fan of the British musician, says.
To which Kim responds, “But you called me ‘little.'”
Then comes Trump’s punchline: “That’s what he didn’t like!”
And everyone is supposed to laugh, but that stopped happening long ago:
Trump repeating the same anecdote about Elton John and a brutal dictator to a bemused set of world leaders sounds like the latest Twitter joke about America’s president…
But Trump’s G7 soliloquy is not a parody. And it captures a more serious truth of the Trump administration: the president, viewed from afar as a dangerous buffoon by his liberal critics, often elicits a similar response from other world leaders who deal with him up close.
The real-life outbursts behind the closed doors of a high-level summit are not very different to what people see on his Twitter feed. While one source dryly described the ramblings on Kim as “very entertaining,” they’re laughing at him, not with him, and it is behavior like this that has dramatically undermined the president’s global political power at a time when the US is trying to build support for action against China and Iran.
Trump’s words and views about Kim in private are not too dissimilar to those he has expressed many times before in public, another G7 source noted.
And now this is simply embarrassing:
A source emphasized the absurdity of Trump departing on a strange tangent in the middle of serious G7 discussions to wax lyrical about Kim.
Trump described Kim as “brutal” but at the same time explained “what a great guy he was,” the source recalled. Trump then went on to tell the other leaders how Kim had risen to power aged only 25 in a difficult environment.
“He is so fascinated with him,” a source said. “He has a childish fascination with brutality,” they added, before speculating that in part this was possibly a convoluted way for Trump to express how tough he was in dealing with Kim.
His remarks had no coherent thread or real purpose, according to the source.
Johnson, the UK prime minister, briefly tried to engage, the source said. “The other leaders just sat back, and didn’t know what to say.”
No one knows what to say now, although Eugene Robinson suggests this:
I want to hear the Democratic presidential candidates explain, convincingly, how they’re going to beat Donald Trump. Then I want to hear how they propose to repair the devastating damage Trump has done to all three branches of government – and to our trust in our institutions.
But he also admits that might be too much to ask:
One of the most underreported stories about the Trump administration is its basic incompetence. Perhaps Trump’s biggest con of all was convincing his supporters that he was some sort of business wizard with a genius for management. In truth, the Trump Organization was a mom-and-pop family business that he repeatedly micromanaged to the brink of collapse. He is doing exactly the same with the government of the United States.
The White House itself is less like “The West Wing” than “Game of Thrones.” Courtiers vie for the favor of the Mad King, unable or unwilling to perform normal duties for fear of risking Trump’s ire. Usually, the White House is a place where information from outside sources is synthesized and digested so the president can make the best possible decisions. Under Trump, the flow is reversed – his whims, however ill-informed or contradictory or just plain loopy, are tweeted out and must be made into policy.
And that has consequences:
Agencies vital to our national security – including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency – lumber along, month after month, without permanent leadership. “It’s easier to make moves when they’re acting,” Trump has said, but really the situation reflects his own insecurity. By keeping his underlings weak and beholden only to him, he limits their power – and thus hamstrings the departments they nominally lead.
So the first job of the next president will be to restock the executive branch with the kind of competent, dedicated professionals who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past. This will be a big endeavor, but it’s relatively straightforward.
But then there’s this:
More difficult is figuring out how to address the damage Trump has done to the legislative branch. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Trump has rendered Congress all but impotent. Even measures with upward of 90 percent public support, such as universal background checks for gun purchases, cannot get an up-or-down vote because Senate Republicans are so terrified of Trump’s displeasure.
And there’s this:
Hardest of all will be fixing what Trump has done to the judicial branch. Trump and McConnell have confirmed more than 150 new federal judges, most of them far-right ideologues. Their impact on jurisprudence in the coming decades will be bad; their impact on public perception of the judiciary is already worse.
We need to be able to believe that justice is blind, that our judges are fair and impartial – including those who serve on the ultimate tribunal, the Supreme Court. Trump’s brazen court-packing threatens to shatter that belief, and I don’t know whether anything but probity and time can restore that faith.
There may not be enough probity and time in the whole universe to fix this, but the nation was fooled. This was not a business wizard with a genius for management. He only said that. Why did anyone believe him? Effective management may be a skill set, or a gift, or a curse, but it can be observed. Has everyone seen enough yet?