President Trump will start the week with a truce reigning among his senior White House staff.
The ultimatum he gave his aides at his club at Mar-a-Lago—bury the hatchet, or else—appears to have held through the weekend. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has apparently brokered a halt to the behind-the-scenes battle between chief strategist Steve Bannon and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
But there is little reason to believe the ceasefire is permanent. In a summit Friday to confront the issues, Trump’s top aides all huddled, but the person most responsible for driving the drama, the President himself, did not attend. Until Trump decides on a clear direction for his Administration the infighting among a strong-headed and ideologically diverse staff is sure to flare again.
Trump is hardly the first president to surround himself with a diverse set of policy ideas or world-views. The Obama Administration spanned Larry Summers and Cass Sunstein. George W. Bush’s White House had Christie Todd Whitman and Paul Wolfowitz. There have long been disagreements and turf wars in the West Wing, but the fireworks of the last few weeks are nonetheless unusual.
The root cause of the current tension isn’t just a personality conflict or policy dispute, but the difficult task of navigating the contradictions of the president. More than two months into the job—and after nearly two-decades of flirting with a White House run—Trump, 70, has yet to decide what type of president he wants to be.
Trump’s aides complain of a lack of clear and consistent guidance from the President—and his senior-most staffers rely on proximity to his ear to try to make their case. It has created awkward situations with crowded meetings and top officials resembling junior body-men. Aides are reluctant to leave him alone because they worry about what he be pushed to do by another faction, or that they would miss an opportunity to sway him to their side.
Trump took office after decades as a businessman, believing that he could broker a middle way between the mainstream conservative and nationalistic strains of his Administration. But the changing patterns of his approach resulted in a serpentine path, weaving—at times daily—between the bickering factions around him.
Trump entered the White House with the least traditional experience for the job, as the first person to enter without a career in elective office or the military. He is also is also among the least ideologically rigid. He brought to the Resolute desk only a few discrete immutable theories: that America is being taken advantage of on the global stage, that domestic political elites are doing a disservice to the electorate and that the talents of a deal-making businessman can fix both problems. Most of the rest, as he suggested in a Wednesday press conference, can change to fit the situation. “I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” he said about the crisis in Syria.
One day later he ordered a military strike on Syria, citing humanitarian horrors as the justification. This was a sharp departure from the “America First” worldview he outlined in the campaign and in his Inaugural Address. “We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own,” he said in that first speech as President. “And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
Inside his Administration, these contradictions have played out among his staff, who have been attracted to their jobs by different parts of Trump’s shifting vision. Bannon, the self-described economic nationalist and former CEO of Breitbart News, leads a cohort devoted to shattering the institutions of government. He’s pushed Trump toward populist and protectionist trade and tax positions, along with a hawkish view on illegal immigration. Kushner, a New York Democrat, has found common cause with fellow Empire Staters Gary Cohn and Dina Powell, the director of the National Economic Council and the Deputy National Security Advisor, respectively. The trio is pushing Trump to embrace more moderate—and even bipartisan—policies. Priebus, a longtime ally of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, advocates the more traditional Republican worldview—and often argues for against rocking the boat too far in any direction.
The dilemma at the core of the Trump Administration reveals itself even in its successes. Trump continues to define himself as a transformational outsider, purposefully understaffing government to reduce its power. Yet, the three clearest political triumphs of his first 81 days, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, his first address to Congress and the recent Syria strike, all hewed closely to the conventional acts of a first-term Republican President.
The personnel divide, in particular, has consumed vast amounts of oxygen inside the White House, with the West Wing occupying countless hours each week to combatting stories about the very real internal drama. It’s undoubtedly distracted key officials from their jobs.
But it won’t be letting up anytime soon. The turmoil in the West Wing won’t end as long as Trump remains on the fence, effectively encouraging his subordinates to battle for sharply different visions of nation’s future.