Let’s take a quick look at five stories about the Donald Trump administration from the last few days:
- Steve Bannon, a former top official in the Trump campaign and the White House, was reported to have said (as he was leaving his job as chief strategist last August) that he was sick of being a “wet nurse to a 71-year-old man.”
- Rob Porter, a senior White House aide, quit his job after allegations of physical abuse by two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend went public. White House aides provided conflicting accounts of who had known what about the abuse. It appears that White House chief of staff John Kelly considered Porter more competent than many of his colleagues and was therefore reluctant to abandon him.
- Rachel Brand, the No. 3 official in the Justice Department, announced that after less than a year she was leaving the government to work at Walmart.
- Christopher Wray, whom Trump appointed director of the FBI, responded to a question about the president’s criticisms of the bureau by dismissing “the noise on TV and in social media.”
- President Trump told the world that he planned to impose a “reciprocal tax” on other countries, which “surprised some of his top aides, who warned that no formal plans have been prepared.”
These stories raise very different issues. What they have in common is that all of them point to serious personnel problems. We have grown used to them over the last 13 months, but their extent remains unusual for a presidential administration.
Bannon, Brand and Porter are each examples of the extremely high turnover in senior positions, and Wray has his job because of turnover. It may be more taxing to work amid the ambient chaos of this administration than it usually is to hold a senior position in the executive branch - which adds to the turnover. Brand was reportedly unhappy in her job in part because the administration had not gotten enough other appointees confirmed to the Justice Department. Her departure will add to the vacancies.
The work can be grueling in any administration, and people take the jobs anyway because there are also rewards. But working for Trump presents special challenges.
The latest news illustrates some of them. The president inspires no loyalty, as Bannon shows. The top aides spend a lot of their mental energy figuring out how to leak to their advantage and to the disadvantage of their internal enemies, as we have seen in the days since Porter left the White House. Being employed there can lead others to associate you with low ethics, including callousness about domestic abuse. And the president feels it appropriate to criticize his own appointees in public rather than simply replace them if they have lost his confidence (as Brand’s superior, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has experienced).
Several of the stories remind us that people who work for the administration have adapted to the chaos by deciding that they do not need to follow what appears at any moment to be the president’s lead. Consider that report about a “reciprocal tax.” Trump has been saying for months now - decades, really - that he would like to see wide-ranging tariffs. His aides seem less than laser-focused on getting him what he wants.
Nor does anyone think that the president’s public line on the Porter story (Trump says his former aide is innocent and has not thought the women to be worth mentioning) should be reflected in what other White House officials say about it on or off the record.
Traditionally, presidencies see declining levels of talent as they age. The most talented appointees burn out (and cash in) and are replaced by the B team. But the administration started in a worse place than many of its predecessors. Many Republicans who would normally have been eager to serve under a Republican president hung back when Trump took office.
Nothing that has happened since Trump has been in office has made people more willing to serve. More Republicans are sorry they accepted an opportunity to work for Trump than are sorry they turned one down.
There are many competent and well-qualified people who work for the president because they think it is in the country’s interest for them to be there - sometimes because they want to encourage what they see as his better angels. But there is room for doubt that Trump has kept his campaign promise that his administration would feature “the best people in the world.” And it is likely that we are already seeing the highest-quality collection of people this administration will ever have to offer.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.