Over the weekend, former White House counsel Don McGahn’s off-the-record musings about how President Donald Trump runs his show surfaced thanks to reporting from Jonathan Swan at Axios.
McGahn was partaking in what’s become a ritual for certain ex-West Wingers; let’s call it the “it-was-sometimes-really-horrible-working-in-the-Trump-White-House-but-I-decided-to-continue-debasing-myself-anyway-because-there-were-things-I-wanted-that-made-it-worth-selling-my-soul” sacrament. He reportedly told a gathering of Senate aides that he’d “spent the last couple of years getting yelled at” by the president. McGahn largely praised Trump, but he also “hinted at the brutality of his tenure.”
Among other things, McGahn reportedly outlined Trump’s management style. He was described as saying that “Trump doesn’t trust one person as a gatekeeper” and “dislikes intermediaries.” McGahn went so far as to describe this as a reflection of Trump’s “hub and spokes model” of management – a structure in which “no member of staff is empowered because Trump is the hub and he makes the decisions; all the senior aides are spokes.” Trump often assigns “the same task to multiple people” and “there is no chief of staff in the usual sense.”
Lest it’s lost on anyone by now, Donald Trump is not some Peter Drucker-style organisational guru. He doesn’t have a management “theory” at all, much less any coherent “hub and spokes model” deployed with purpose to achieve substantive policy goals. He’s a solo pilot and a force of nature who, prior to his presidency, ran a boutique business that specialized in branding and licensing his name, while developing a handful of golf courses and managing a lucrative real estate portfolio.
Trump also was a serial bankruptcy artist who repeatedly drove the only organization of size he ever managed, his casino company, off a financial cliff. There were no hubs and spokes at the Trump Organization for most of its existence. There was just a hub. The White House is the same and anyone who wants to use consultant speak to parse Trumpian chaos, staff turnover and bumbling is (no doubt intentionally) kidding themselves.
A hub and spokes model can work if all of the spokes are individuals authentically empowered by a confident, capable leader at the hub who recruits and retains talented, effective people. Together, they make the organizational wheel spin and everybody arrives at their destination together.
Then there’s the Trump White House.
On Monday, Trump began decimating the Department of Homeland Security. The purge took place because the president’s foray into immigration reform has run off the rails very publicly, and he’s unwilling to take responsibility for a debacle that spiraled into a humanitarian crisis. Trump’s policy thus far has consisted of claiming he’s going to keep migrants and refugees out by building The Wall. For anything beyond that, he’s now deferring to two young insiders: Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner. In the meantime, Trump is trying to mask the magnitude of his failure by blaming other DHS managers and forcing them to walk the plank.
It began with the defenestration of Kirstjen Nielsen, who was booted out on Sunday evening after helping Trump pursue The Wall, deploy National Guard forces to round up undocumented immigrants, and – in what’s certain to be a historical emblem of Trump’s rule – separate migrant children from their families. Nielsen also “faced criticism from Trump over things she couldn’t control, such as court rulings against his plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, his ban on refugees from predominantly Muslim nations, and a perceived inability to effectively secure or choke off border crossings,” according to Bloomberg News reporters.
Nielsen was paranoid about getting sacked toward the end of her tenure and never found an easy bond with a president who rarely takes advice. After a little over a year on the job, she found herself attending at least one cabinet meeting in which Trump “castigated her repeatedly” in front of her peers, according to the New York Times. (Take note: Breaking a spoke in half, publicly, does not comport with an effective hub and spoke strategy.)
Nielsen also had to navigate Oval Office meetings in which Trump suggested that the best approach would be to shut down the border entirely or to illegally deny entry to asylum seekers. Nielsen reportedly waved Trump off of that latter move, although CNN reported on Monday that the president encouraged border agents to break the law and deny entry to migrants during a visit to the border last Friday. Nielsen will no longer get to contribute to such constructive hub and spoke sessions, but it’s hard to gin up much sympathy for her or any other ex-Trump crew mates feeling shell-shocked by their experiences. They’re all adults who decided to hitch their wagons to Trump’s star and to leave morality, civility or legality by the wayside.
Other folks swept up in the DHS unraveling are also getting grade-school humiliations visited upon them. Ralph Alles, who oversaw the U.S. Secret Service (as well as security breaches at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club) was forced out on Monday and will probably be accompanied by at least four other senior DHS officials. According to the Times, Trump grew so frustrated with Alles that he made fun of his looks and called him “Dumbo” because of his large ears. (Again: Good hubs don’t run around bullying and demeaning the spokes.)
All of the fun and games isn’t unique to DHS. Trump’s gyrations caused James Mattis to flee the Defense Department in December and his full-fledged replacement has yet to be found. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Jonathan Bernstein noted, it’s “now been more than a year since Trump had a full, confirmed cabinet, something he’s only had for about four and a half months of his presidency.”
Survivors in the Trump shark tank are, inevitably, family members like Kushner or the president’s daughter, Ivanka – a reality that was set in stone from the very day of his inauguration. Other newbies to the White House who don’t enjoy a family tie seem to have realized that the best way of surviving as a spoke may be to telegraph your loyalty to the hub well in advance of getting the actual job. Attorney General William Barr, for example, shared a long memo pooh-poohing the Mueller investigation with the president long before Trump appointed him.
The cure for what ails Trump and his White House can be found in a book he wrote almost 20 years ago. But don’t expect him to follow his own advice. “I put people together for their management skills, but I like to find good combinations as well. And when I feel that I have the right team, I let them show me what they can do,” he wrote in “The America We Deserve,” one of his many non-fiction works of fiction. A secret part of that winning recipe, he added, “was my willingness to step back, not to be too hands-on, and to let the talented people who work for me do their own thing.”
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”