This has certainly been the most extraordinary transition of power in recent American history. Donald Trump has effectively sought to assert the prerogatives of the presidency and make U.S. foreign policy from the moment he was elected, rather than waiting for niceties like actually being sworn into office or for his predecessor to leave. But even with the astonishing spectacle of Trumpian tweet storms to captivate us, the most interesting dimensions of this transition may well be found where they always are, down in the weeds, in the details of the emerging organizational chart of the government that is being put in place.
There is a long tradition in Washington of the fortunes of administrations and of key players within those administrations being made amid the seemingly innocuous structural and personnel decisions that come daily, often with little fanfare, during the months between the election in November and the inauguration in January. Incoming National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger ensured that he would chair important committees in Richard Nixon’s administration and thus undercut his potential rival, incoming Secretary of State William Rogers, by getting a few key memos approved by Nixon during the transition. His successor in the Jimmy Carter years, Zbigniew Brzezinski, did the same, infuriating and neutralizing the influence of incoming Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Ronald Reagan invited chaos into his White House by appointing a troika to lead it and downgrading the influence of the office of the national security advisor. Bill Clinton changed the dynamic of his “it’s the economy, stupid” administration when he created the National Economic Council (NEC) and installed the exceptionally effective and empowered Robert Rubin as its boss. Examples abound.
Now, Trump has undertaken some moves to make his White House one of the most complexly structured in recent memory, one that defies the lessons of past presidencies and increasingly looks like a page out of Trump’s own management past. It should have us asking, “Who is really going to be in charge of the day-to-day management of the U.S. government?”
It is fitting that 2017 will mark the 70th anniversary of the most important U.S. government reorganization since Reconstruction. In 1947, Harry Truman’s administration embraced a series of changes that came in response to the deliberate efforts of Franklin D. Roosevelt to manage his cabinet by “keeping his left hand from knowing what his right hand was doing.” Truman’s top advisors did not feel the United States could face the challenges of the Cold War world without better coordination. The result was the National Security Act of 1947, which established a central entity in the White House to coordinate the flow of advice and intelligence to the president and to make sure his directions were properly carried out. This was called the National Security Council (NSC). Alongside the NSC, another central entity was created to handle all flows of intelligence within the U.S. government. This was called the Central Intelligence Agency. The act also combined multiple, separate military departments into the Department of Defense and created something new called the Department of the Air Force. It was a watershed in the evolution of the modern U.S. government.
Since then, this structure has pretty much remained intact. The power of these entities has ebbed and flowed mostly as a result of how presidents have managed them. There were minor experiments along the way, most of which resulted in the White House staff and structure growing more complex.
For example, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy established the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to handle international trade negotiations. (This post also had the effect of initiating a long-standing rivalry with the Commerce and State departments over which had the lead in key areas of international economic diplomacy.)
In 1993, as noted above, Clinton set up the NEC alongside the NSC, and for a brief shining moment it was powerful, because Rubin had special influence with Clinton. When Rubin went to Treasury, he cannily kept attending White House morning meetings and thus brought the power of the job with him — undercutting the influence of his successor, Laura Tyson — a blow from which the fledgling entity has never recovered. It is seen now as a vestigial force, clearly subordinate to (although parallel with) the NSC.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a major government restructuring led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and the Homeland Security Council (HSC). DHS spent years distracted by the business of knitting disparate pre-existing government entities together and has long been considered a mess and an ill-considered idea. Similarly, the ODNI was a real tribute to Washington’s old adage that if something doesn’t work, just try it again with a different name. (I call it the “say it again, only louder” approach.) It had virtually exactly the same mission as the CIA and sought to improve coordination by adding another layer of management to the intelligence gathering and analysis process (never a good idea). As for the HSC, President Barack Obama’s team later recognized that having too many White House entities really didn’t make sense and folded its operations into the NSC (exacerbating another ongoing problem — the bloating of the White House staff). That said, the impulse to streamline made sense (they also gave joint NSC responsibilities to NEC members).
So what has the Trump administration done thus far? Last week, it unveiled a new White House entity called the National Trade Council (NTC) to oversee many of the same responsibilities of the NEC and the USTR. On Tuesday, it announced that it is re-establishing the HSC as a separate agency. And, just for kicks, the transition team also announced the creation of a position called the “special representative for international negotiations,” to be filled by a Trump Organization executive vice president and lawyer who will be involved — somehow — in all U.S. negotiations around the world.
So, we now have four major interagency councils in the White House — the NSC, the NEC, the NTC, and the HSC. We have at least five entities that now feel empowered to take the lead on U.S. international trade policy: the NEC, the NTC, the new special representative for international negotiations, USTR, and the Commerce Department (whose incoming nominee for secretary, Wilbur Ross, has asserted that he will have a leading role in this regard). You have the overlap between the NSC (which, for example, might handle a terrorist threat where it originated) and the HSC (which might handle a threat where it manifested itself). You have the historic rivalry between the State and Defense departments over national security policy leadership, exacerbated by the move to add even more clout within the White House through the creation of the international negotiator job and the return to two security-focused interagency leadership groups residing there (the NSC and HSC). You still have two top-level officials in the intelligence community (the director of national intelligence and the director of the CIA) overseeing or leading 17 different intelligence agencies. And … well, you don’t need another “and” here. This is a mess waiting to happen. Rivalries, confusion, and miscommunication are all likely outcomes.
What is emerging looks less like a tight, well-managed structure for the world’s largest and most complex organization and more like a loose holding company. Perhaps that should not be a surprise given that the Trump Organization is a loose holding company with hundreds of entities within it and lots of different independent operating units. The key in such structures, however, is a strong coordinating hand at the top. But who is that going to be?
Reports from within the Trump Organization say Trump was not that day-to-day manager. He focused on building the brand, being its face, its messenger. He would dip in and make a few decisions on key deals or an element of a construction project — but leave the rest to his managers.
There is no reason not to assume that this will be his role within the U.S. government. He has said as much, suggesting that Vice President-elect Mike Pence will play a big role overseeing both domestic and international policy. Further, Trump has surrounded himself at a high level in the White House with a team primarily focused on message and politics (his “brand” as president), from senior counselors like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to a handful of other senior messaging and press associates.
In the past, when presidents have sought to run a White House in which power was devolved (as opposed to “micromanagers” like Carter and Obama), much of the responsibility for managing rivalries and competing interests has fallen to the chief of staff. Under Dwight Eisenhower, Chief of Staff Sherman Adams was so powerful that he was considered the “deputy president.” Under Reagan, chiefs of staff also played a key role (with varying degrees of success). Clinton and George W. Bush were helped immensely by strong White House chiefs of staff to help manage day-to-day operations.
The problem for Trump is that his White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has absolutely no qualifications to play this role. He has no executive branch experience. He has no national security experience. He has no real international economic experience. And yet, with competing White House councils clamoring for presidential approvals and face time, he, as gatekeeper, could inadvertently become the most powerful person in the White House.
Here’s the thing: In a holding company, the power lies with the person who ends up coordinating the structure and resolving the inevitable rivalries that emerge within it. Will it be Pence — continuing the recent trend of increasingly important No. 2s, from Al Gore to Dick Cheney to Joe Biden — inheriting a vice presidency vastly more powerful than ever before? Will it be Priebus, who like Trump will be engaging in the most high-stakes on-the-job training in history? Might it be someone like Bannon, who could play a president-whisperer role like Valerie Jarrett or Reagan confidant Mike Deaver once did? Could it be a small committee of advisors that could include Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump?
The answer is unclear. But the more convoluted the Trump administration becomes (and it is already setting records), given the character and track record of the incoming president, the more clear it is that an awesome amount of power is going to be in the hands of someone who the American people did not select for the country’s top job.