An iconoclast's administration will struggle to find personnel both experienced and aligned.
Veterans of the conservative movement are familiar with Morton Blackwell’s Laws of the Public Policy Process. His most quoted law is the 26th: “Personnel is policy.” Laws 21 and 30 are less famous, but inform a proper approach to number 26: “An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness”; “Better a snake in the grass than a viper in your bosom.”
Most politicians ignore Blackwell’s laws on personnel. When they enter public office, they look to fill their teams with people who fit into a few traditional categories: experts in campaign machinery who helped win the election, subject-matter experts with prior experience in a similar office, and people with gravitas, who will impress the public as muscular hires and signal that the newly elected officeholder is serious. What often gets overlooked—and what is without question the most important criterion to use when weighing potential hires—is philosophical alignment with the candidate and commitment to his program and governing agenda.
A president can only accomplish his policy objectives if administration personnel are both capable and ideologically aligned, willing and able to engage the machinery of government and to bend it toward implementation of the president’s priorities. This was especially so for President Trump, whose policy priorities either upended his own party’s orthodoxy—from economics and trade to foreign policy—or forcefully engaged on social and cultural issues where Republicans had long emphasized rhetoric over policy substance.
Nor is a strong inner circle sufficient. A single cabinet official cannot redirect an executive agency by sheer force of will, gravitas, or even expertise. She requires assistance from philosophically committed, expert staff at the subcabinet level and below—something that was missing in the Trump administration’s agencies, whose heads found themselves frequently undermined by their own political appointees.
The Trump administration suffered from an abundance of heavyweights, “experts,” and vipers, but a notable lack of loyalty to the president’s agenda. The result was an unwillingness to subordinate D.C. political machinations to a focus on accomplishing the president’s agenda, and long periods of infighting, drift, and internal gridlock that hamstrung the Trump policy agenda in key areas.
Vipers in Trump’s Bosom
The president’s personnel woes began long before his inauguration. The Trump transition team exemplified the tension between gravitas and philosophical alignment. In tapping former New Jersey Governor and seasoned political operative Chris Christie to lead the process, the president-elect assumed he would have a steady hand at the top. But Christie was a rival, not just a former rival for the presidency, but a rival to the president’s son-in-law and closest advisor, Jared Kushner.
More importantly, Christie had no discernable connection or commitment to the policy and ideological agenda laid out by the president-elect. Even after Christie endorsed Trump in 2016, he could barely articulate his support for the candidate’s policy agenda, even noting “Donald Trump and I are not going to agree on every issue.” While sycophancy is not a desirable characteristic, general philosophical alignment and a willingness to defend the president’s ideas should be baseline requirements for staff.
Christie possessed neither qualification. The transition work was thus left to the team Christie assembled, including Rich Bagger, his former chief of staff; Bill Palatucci, a corporate lobbyist with ties to the RNC; and at least nine other lobbyists, including at least one who had done work for foreign governments. All were “qualified” and politically experienced, but each lacked a tangible connection or commitment to the goals President Trump wanted to achieve.
The personnel process created by this team was geared solely toward finding people with conventionally Republican expertise and experience, who almost by definition lacked the commitment to or understanding of the unique set of issues that propelled Trump into office. The result of this process famously concluded the week after the election when the personnel binders created by the Christie operation were discarded in a Trump Tower dumpster.
As the incoming administration hurtled toward Inauguration Day, hiring did not improve. Personnel selections for key White House staff were controlled by former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus and his lieutenant, Katie Walsh—again, two political operators “qualified” and “networked” by Washington standards, but woefully unprepared or unwilling to distinguish between people who just wanted a White House job and those who wanted to do battle for the president’s agenda. Beyond Priebus and his aides, no one on the transition team was given visibility into the composition of the White House staff.
“Personnel selections for key White House staff were controlled by political operators ‘qualified’ and ‘networked’ by Washington standards, but woefully unprepared or unwilling to distinguish between people who just wanted a White House job and those who wanted to do battle for the president’s agenda.”
Perhaps the most consequential Priebus hire, which would leave an indelible mark on the entire Trump presidency, was the selection of John DeStefano as director of Presidential Personnel. DeStefano was formerly an aide to John Boehner, the Speaker of the House who was ousted in a rebellion led by future White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. He was the President of Data Trust, a downtown Republican consulting outfit with ties to Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell’s American Crossroads. DeStefano had no discernable expertise in personnel matters, and no connection to or understanding of Trump’s focus or the conservative movement itself. Conservatives were vocal in their displeasure.
Yet it was DeStefano who would steer the personnel ship from February 2017 to the end of May 2019, when he departed the White House to advise the vaping company, Juul. His tenure largely served as a pipeline to shuffle establishment Washington into administration jobs for the sake of their resumes, rather than to do the difficult spadework of confronting Washington’s toxic routines, which was what Trump made clear he intended.
The president also yielded tremendous deference in personnel to the Republican apparatus in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told Trump within the first few weeks, “I don’t wanna hear any more of this ‘drain the swamp’ talk,” ended up placing allies and D.C. regulars into key positions in the White House and various agencies. The president also left much of the subcabinet level staffing to the discretion of his cabinet secretaries. As a result, agencies were run by appointees pursuing the policy agendas (and perhaps political ambitions) of their respective secretaries or else functioning more as autonomous Republican political operatives than as shepherds of the president’s policy priorities.
The president’s own preference for people who he perceived as having the gravitas and heft to command respect compounded the staffing misfires.
His choice of Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State, was better in theory than in execution. Tillerson, though capable as CEO of ExxonMobil, was ill-prepared to navigate the perils and political landmines of managing an executive branch agency full of vipers with their own agendas, and who possessed both the skill and willingness to pursue their own priorities.
The president was seemingly drawn to the celebrity of people like Gary Cohn, the former President and COO of Goldman Sachs, whom he tapped to be his Director of the National Economic Council (NEC). But Cohn, a registered Democrat, was a principal with his own agenda, one he was unprepared to subordinate. In a now-infamous anecdote, Cohn reportedly removed a letter from President Trump’s desk—without the president’s knowledge—that would have ended the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
Trump’s appointment of hedge fund manager, investment banker, and film producer Steven Mnuchin to Secretary of the Treasury was somewhat more successful. This was due perhaps to Mnuchin’s lack of ideological constraints (National Economic Council head Larry Kudlow once remarked that he didn’t know if Mnuchin was a Republican or a Democrat) and his willingness to engage in passionless negotiations on behalf of the president.
Outcomes appeared to matter to Mnuchin more than any particular policy emphasis, and perhaps because of that, he has received substantial credit for securing passage of the first COVID-19 relief package, which included both direct payments to individuals and a robust small-business relief program. But Mnuchin is still an investment banker at heart, and the bill also included an opaque $450 billion “relief” fund to big business reminiscent of the 2008 bank bailout.
Larry Kudlow, who replaced Cohn at the NEC, was also a Wall Street veteran (and a TV personality to boot) and tended to elevate priorities that emphasized financial markets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Kudlow publicly suggested tourism tax breaks as a remedy. On the outside, Club for Growth co-founder Steve Moore came to influence the administration’s policy and received consideration for the Federal Reserve. Moore influenced the administration’s economic approach to COVID-19, strongly and publicly advocating for a payroll tax deferral to benefit businesses and workers affected by COVID-19 related closures.
A Tale of Two Staffs: Immigration Policy
The Department of Homeland Security provides a quintessential illustration of the administration’s personnel challenges. Early in the administration, John Kelly, a retired four-star general, was tapped to be Secretary of Homeland Security and brought with him Kirstjen Nielsen to be his chief of staff. His clashes with the administration began early, when it was clear he was not aligned with the administration’s muscular approach to immigration enforcement, stating in his confirmation hearings that Trump’s proposed border wall “will not do the job.”
Nielsen, Kelly’s protege, was plagued by many of the same issues when she became DHS Secretary. Conservatives questioned her belief in strong immigration enforcement, her remark that there was no need for a border wall “from sea to shining sea,” and her commitment to Trumpian priorities like ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“Dreamers”) program. Trump publicly aired his frustrations that illegal immigration at the border surged under her watch.
By contrast, the current acting DHS Secretary, Chad Wolf, had a largely successful tenure due to his relentless focus on, and public commitment to, pursuing the president’s agenda. Where Kelly and Nielsen appeared publicly squeamish about the president’s goals, Wolf appeared unflinching in his implementation of the administration’s more creative and successful border-control measures.
Wolf’s efforts were buttressed by the addition of Ken Cuccinelli, first as Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and then in an acting capacity as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. He was ideologically aligned with the president on tough immigration protocols and, like Wolf, he was not distracted by national politics. A savvy operator with prior experience as Attorney General of Virginia, he muscled across a series of regulatory changes that resulted in substantial reform of the H1-B visa system.
Where Kelly and Nielsen oftentimes appeared buffeted by the political winds and eager to distance themselves from the president they served, Wolf and Cuccinelli asserted themselves forcefully, both “within the building” and in public, to deliver concrete policy successes on the president’s behalf. Kelly, Nielsen, Wolf, and Cuccinelli all possessed the expertise and political experience necessary to do the job. But Wolf and Cuccinelli distinguished themselves in two key areas: demonstrated rhetorical and substantive adherence to Trump’s goals, and a willingness to subordinate Washington politics to their pursuit.
Loyal Experts: Exceptions that Prove the Rule
Though the Trump administration was filled primarily by a combination of experts with ulterior ideological motives and outsider loyalists, a handful of ideologically aligned subject-matter experts stood out as Trump’s most effective generals—the exceptions that prove the rule of the Trump administration’s otherwise poor personnel record, and case studies in how a well-staffed administration might have looked.
Robert Lighthizer was sworn in as the U.S. Trade Representative in the Trump administration’s first months and remained in the post throughout. He possessed the rare combination of deep expertise, broad credibility, and a long intellectual record that aligned with Trump’s own outlook.
The administration’s negotiation and passage of the United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and savvy maneuvering at the World Trade Organization were all testaments to his leadership and the quality of the team that he assembled around him. He was aided by Peter Navarro, a long-time skeptic of China, whose views heavily shaped the administration’s aggressive posture toward the country.
Russell Vought’s elevation to director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was another bright spot. Vought, a former staffer for then-Congressman Mike Pence, had both extensive policy experience and a demonstrated willingness to battle with entrenched Washington interests, a skill he would need at OMB. Vought oversaw the development and implementation of key executive orders and deregulatory policies, and efforts to rein in civil servants—from streamlining the process for their termination with the creation of a “Schedule F” employee category to prohibiting agency trainings on “Critical Race Theory.”
“A handful of ideologically aligned subject-matter experts stood out as Trump’s most effective generals—the exceptions that prove the rule of the Trump administration’s otherwise poor personnel record, and case studies in how a well-staffed administration might have looked.”
Though late in the game, the administration finally solved its personnel vetting issue with the hiring of John McEntee as Director of Presidential Personnel. McEntee inherited the office previously held by John DeStefano, and brought a critical difference in sensibilities to the job: McEntee thoroughly and intuitively understood the president, his policy agenda, and the type of staffer it required to implement that agenda. In a short time, he assembled a team of young talent who were deeply committed to the policy legacy that Trump wanted to leave and, importantly, who were unfazed by the bureaucracy.
McEntee and his team quickly began reversing the deference in personnel choices that DeStefano had shown to cabinet heads, instead placing savvy and trusted political operators into key agency positions. Likewise, staff who publicly aired disagreement with the president’s agenda, such as former Federal Communications Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, found their nominations withdrawn.
The Curious Case of Jeff Sessions
No discussion of Trump personnel could be complete without considering Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of the administration’s shortest-lived yet most consequential members, and at once a shining example of personnel done well and a cautionary tale of the cabinet level’s limits.
The best Trump personnel possessed expertise, gravitas, and philosophical alignment with the president. No one embodied these qualities better than Sessions, who was both ideologically aligned on policy and personally loyal to the president—indeed, he was one of the only cabinet members who had supported Trump in the primary. Unfortunately, his tenure was rocked by Trump’s belief that he mishandled Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian collusion, a belief which led to Sessions’ downfall and exile from the administration.
A fascinating dimension of the Sessions saga is its demonstration of the need for dedication to the president’s policy agenda even within a department headed by a well-chosen secretary.
“Commitment to the mission matters at all levels: White House staff, cabinet, subcabinet, and even lower.”
According to the standard narrative, Sessions’ troubles began when he recused himself from FBI Director James Comey’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. But the recusal would not have been a problem were it not for several disastrous personnel moves. As a prosecutor subject to an investigation, Sessions made the entirely customary choice, as recommended by DOJ’s recusal counsel. Sessions rightly believed it would be impossible for him to lead or quash an investigation where he was personally a target.
But personnel decisions magnified the consequence of Sessions’ recusal and ultimately doomed the Trump loyalist. The first was that Trump had not fired FBI Director Comey in January and installed a credible replacement. The second, and perhaps more important, was that Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General who assumed management of the investigation following the Sessions recusal, was a product of establishment Washington. Rosenstein was selected by the Trump transition team, presumably due to experience, expertise, and command of the Justice Department bureaucracy. But while Rosenstein was undoubtedly competent at wielding the levers of government, he had no discernable interest in Trump’s larger policy goals. He may have physically filled Sessions’ role, but he left a large ideological vacancy for which Sessions was ultimately blamed.
The lesson is clear. Commitment to the mission matters at all levels: White House staff, cabinet, subcabinet, and even lower.
The Role of Institutions
The composition, priorities, and emphasis of the establishment Republicans in Washington, as well as the ruling class of Washington itself, uniquely shaped the personnel operation of the Trump White House in two ways.
First, while there existed no shortage of expertise and ability available to the president, there was a stunning and unprecedented absence of individuals and institutions with a grasp of, and commitment to, the policy agenda that got Trump elected.
This speaks more to the entrenched, ideological nature of the establishment GOP than it does to Trump’s personnel operation, but it affected the White House in ways difficult to overstate. Past Republican presidents have traditionally culled staff from long-standing policy institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute or from congressional offices in the House and Senate.
Trump drew on these resources, but many of them outright opposed Trump and what he stood for. And even those who were cautiously supportive lacked the intellectual and policy prowess to advance his agenda with the creativity and forcefulness it required.
“Bad personnel choices are always a risk, but good ones will never be better than the pool from which they are drawn.”
Second, the unprecedented rage directed at Trump by almost every mainstream media outlet perverted the incentives for administration staff in a way that rewarded those who actively undermined and publicly denounced the administration and its policies. Staffers at all levels who publicly turned on the president were rewarded with cable news spots, book deals, pundit contracts, and speaking tours.
While every administration must deal with leaks, liars, and tell-alls, the Trump administration was bedeviled by them. This was attributable in no small part to the lack of ideological commitment to the president and the broader agenda for which he stood. It was also attributable to the management style of Trump himself, which, rather than fostering unity, tended to seed chaos and rivalries.
External forces will plague all future White House staffs, with those seeking the most direct challenge to the status quo facing the strongest pressure. The best immunization is a community and institutions that build cohesion and loyalty, both internally and to the shared policy agenda. Bad personnel choices are always a risk, but good ones will never be better than the pool from which they are drawn.
Donald Trump was in some senses a victim of his own success, refashioning the Republican Party’s electoral coalition and transforming the policy landscape much faster than existing institutions could adapt or new ones could emerge. Many in the existing establishment will eagerly declare the resulting failures as proof of their own superiority. But mostly it underscores their irrelevance. America is a democracy, not a technocracy, and so it is the citizenry rather than the bureaucrats who choose the nation’s leaders and its direction. If some public servants are proudly incapable of serving the public, new ones will soon enough replace them.
Rachel Bovard is the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, where she trains and advises congressional staff and members regarding parliamentary and policy strategy. From 2015 to 2017, she was director of policy services at the Heritage Foundation, where she worked closely with the Trump transition team. Previously, she spent a decade on Capitol Hill in both the House and the Senate.