Trump has four people with nearly equal influence and access at the top of his White House organizational chart
"This guy wants people to fight," a Trump adviser said.
Donald Trump will enter the White House this week accompanied by a throng of advisers with equal authority and, often, warring worldviews. It’s a structure old hands in Washington warn is bound to lead to chaos in the West Wing.
Prior presidents have relied on their chief of staff to run the show in the White House. But Trump has anointed his, Reince Priebus, with the same authority and access as senior adviser and counselor Steve Bannon. They’ll be joined in the White House by Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
All four will have easy access to Trump in the oval office. And they’re all but certain to take opposing views on major issues – a dynamic that played out during Trump’s presidential campaign and is expected to carry over to his administration.
The arrangement offers an early look at Trump’s preferred management structure: Competing power centers and conflicting viewpoints that, in Trump’s eye, means the strongest proposal wins, according to advisers. It’s a format that helped him soar in business and win the presidency in stunning fashion.
Now, Trump is trying to apply it to the unwieldy bureaucracy of Washington.
“He likes contrary views, arguing views. He thinks that generates creative thinking. Look at the way he does his companies; look at the way he did The Apprentice,” said Richard Hohlt, a GOP consultant in Washington. “The question is can you manage it or do you allow that to gridlock you?”
As Trump sought to build his cabinet, some of his senior advisers privately touted that the president-elect was looking to build a “team of rivals.” In recent weeks they’ve sought to tone down that narrative, calling his cabinet picks “doers” and “disruptors.” Whatever the nomenclature, it hardly changes the fact that Trump is building an administration ripe with internal competition.
“This guy wants people to fight,” one Trump adviser bluntly put it. “Because it’s worked for him for 40 years.”
In the Trump administration, the various power centers will extend beyond his inner circle. On security issues, the president-elect tapped Tom Bossert to be his homeland security adviser – and elevated the post so it holds the same stature as national security adviser, a role filled by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
On trade, Trump’s top economic issue, at least three top advisers plan to play key roles in crafting new trade policies. They include Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, Peter Navarro, who will head the National Trade Council and Robert Lighthizer, the pick for US trade representative.
It’s a setup staffers privately admit is ripe for turf wars. The warnings from White House veterans are even stronger.
“There is absolutely no comparison between running a real estate business and branding operation and running the government of the United States. The stakes are exponentially higher. The complexity is exponentially greater,” said David Axelrod, a CNN political commentator who served as a senior adviser in President Obama’s White House.
“I think he’s in for a rude awakening if he thinks he can run this like the Trump Organization,” Axelrod said.
A muddled chain of command, differing worldviews and staff spats can cost a fortune in business and wreak havoc on a campaign, but in an administration the negative outcomes are far more severe – particularly on issues of national security, multiple White House veterans cautioned.
‘Reliant on a team’
In his final news conference Wednesday, President Barack Obama said he personally told Trump “this is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on a team.”
For Trump, that could present a unique challenge.
The president-elect feeds on competition and looks favorably on his lieutenants that are willing to fight fiercely for their ideas, advisers said. He prefers crisp, succinct briefings and believes a battle of viewpoints yields the best outcome.
Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, said, “His goal has been to get the best and brightest individuals together, present their ideas and make a decision based on the best and most persuasive arguments.”
One transition official minimized the potential for conflict, noting that even when Trump’s top aides aren’t in sync, they try to fight their battles ahead of time. Then, they present a plan to Trump.
In reality, the President-elect is often swayed by the last person he’s spoken to, which is part of the reason his top advisers are so keen to travel with him.
Above all, Trump sees himself as the ultimate decider.
But his first attempts at flexing that power already blindsided his allies on Capitol Hill when he surprised them with policy proclamations on healthcare and tax reform.
Meanwhile, some of Trump’s cabinet nominees have already broken publicly with their new boss during the confirmation process – rifts that Trump and his allies are downplaying.
“I told them, ‘Be yourselves and say what you wanna say. Don’t worry about me,’” Trump recently told reporters at Trump Tower. “I’m going to do the right thing, whatever it is.”
Retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for defense secretary, advocated for a national security team with diverse viewpoints during his confirmation hearing, while assuring senators that even as a four-star general he’d have no problem reporting to three-star Gen. Flynn.
“You don’t want the tyranny of consensus of group think early,” Mattis said, noting the cabinet has been compared to a team of rivals. “It’s actually healthy. It’s not tidy. It’ll be respectful, of that I’m certain, and Idon’t anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win, sir.”
‘Save yourself time by getting the best people you can’
As Trump sought to build his administration, the President-elect often passed over candidates with the most impressive resumes for those he felt personally in-sync with, at least in style if not in substance. It’s an approach he’s long advocated.
“Save yourself time by getting the best people you can,” Trump wrote in his 2004 book, How to Get Rich. “Sometimes this can mean choosing attitude over experience and credentials. Use your creativity to come up with a good mix.”
Trump’s mix of advisers often includes people who bear no titles. Throughout the campaign he was known to ask members – and even employees – of Mar-a-Lago to weigh in on issues he was wrestling with.
“I do my own surveys and draw my own conclusions,” Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” “I’m a great believer in asking everyone for an opinion before I make a decision. It’s a natural reflex.”
One senior transition official said Trump’s camps of influence are sprawling. They include his formal advisers, family, other politicians, business associates and sports figures and celebrities.
Not a team of yes-men
Contrasting opinions aren’t guaranteed to breed chaos. Obama appeared to nudge Trump to choose a team he trusts – but not a circle of yes-men.
The outgoing president offered this advice to Trump Wednesday: “if you haven’t created a process that is fact-checking and probing and asking hard questions about policies or promises that you’ve made, that’s when you start making mistakes,” Obama said in his final press conference Wednesday. “Reality has a way of biting back if you’re not paying attention to it.”
Even Trump is aware that a team that can’t deliver results simply can’t last.
“You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole,” Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” “But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”