There is no one left in the White House who has any idea what they’re doing. At least nobody conservative.
President Donald Trump never tires of reminding audiences that he is not a politician, and he proves it on an hourly basis. He is by turns a nationalist, a populist, and a demagogue — but rarely acts as a traditional conservative.
As the previous occupant of the White House once said, a president’s “success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics.” With the far-right White House strategist Steve Bannon gone, the team left behind appears to be ill-equipped to maneuver the political challenges needed to turn the administration’s ambitious policy goals into successes. The chasm between Trump’s approach and that of his nominal allies in the Republican-controlled Congress is about to be sharpened in relief — and the resumes of his remaining staffers are ill-suited to overcome the gulf.
Just look at what little experience top officials in the Trump White House have in the political side of policymaking.
Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, is a retired general. His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, is an active-duty general and the bane of Breitbart, the far-right website Bannon used to run.
Trump’s top remaining advisers are Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, a married couple who happen to be Trump’s son-in-law and daughter. They are there, they often say privately, to moderate Trump’s instincts. Before going to the White House, Kushner inherited his father’s real estate empire and Ivanka Trump ran a fashion line.
Hope Hicks, perhaps the most talented figure left in the White House, was working as a spokesperson for the Trump Organization before she was drafted into the service of the Trump campaign, and then the White House. She is now the acting communications director.
Gary Cohn, the senior economic adviser, was president of Goldman Sachs — and a Democrat before going to work for Trump. Dina Powell, another senior adviser and New York liberal, also came from Goldman Sachs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was CEO of Exxon Mobil and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also came from the banking world.
Kellyanne Conway is not a political novice, but has long been a fringe figure in Republican politics. That is Trump’s team.
The biggest problem vexing the Trump administration in Congress has been its inability to fuse the conservative and establishment wings of the party into a coalition that can actually pass an agenda. There is now nobody at a senior level charged to work with conservatives. To paraphrase the over-quoted Walter Sobchak: “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
“Who in the White House is going to handle that portfolio?” said Sam Geduldig, a Republican lobbyist who works closely with the Freedom Caucus. “There is a lack of a conservative who conservatives view as one of their own in this White House, and that could impact the congressional agenda.”
The most senior figure in the White House with real political experience may just be Mick Mulvaney, a burn-it-all-down former congressman from South Carolina, who was swept in by the tea party wave. He is the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The most senior figure in the administration more broadly who has conservatives’ trust is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump recently went to war against. His former aide, Stephen Miller, is similarly trusted by conservatives. He was an obscure figure until recently, but he may be the far-right’s best hope.
There is also Tom Price, a former conservative member of Congress who is now Health and Human Services secretary. But he was publicly humiliated just last week. Price declined to declare the opioid epidemic an emergency, and was overruled in grand fashion by Trump. And before the most recent vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act, Trump joked to a crowd of Boy Scouts that he’d fire Price if he failed.
Trump’s tepid 35 percent support, meanwhile, is concentrated among readers of Breitbart — which Bannon may return to. But no matter what Bannon does or says, his firing will be seen by some of his base as a betrayal of the cause, further eroding his support, leaving Trump further isolated.
As John Kelly’s opponents are dispatched one by one, a defenseless Trump may find himself among the targets. “Generals tend to suck at chief of staff, because the job is so political, but they tend to be good at getting a president to resign,” said one former senior Bush administration official.
Just ask Richard Nixon, or his chief of staff, retired General Al Haig.