Last Updated Feb 15, 2017 10:08 AM EST
Sunday, on “Face the Nation” White House policy adviser Stephen Miller assessed the administration’s ability to handle the frantic pace: “to say that we’re in control would be a substantial understatement.” Today, National Security adviser Michael Flynn resigned. Sunday, a friend of the president, Newsmax editor Chris Ruddy who had just shared a late night drink at the White House, went on CNN’s Reliable Sources and said Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was in over his head. Administration-friendly Breitbart reported Tuesday that a list of possible replacements for Priebus is being evaluated as a part of a staff shake-up. The reports of such a shakeup and of general chaos are not just appearing in administration-allied organs, but also here, here, here, here, here and here.
Miller’s assertion of total competency came the morning after the president and his national security team appeared to hold a patio security session tableside at a Mar-a-Lago to assess how to respond to a North Korean missile launch. A few days earlier, an appeals court had upended the president’s plans by putting a hold on his immigration executive order.
Something is definitely being substantially understated.
Michael Flynn was forced to resign, we are told, because he told a big lie. But what about the little ones? Monday, Kellyanne Conway offered an echo of Miller’s certainty when asked about the controversy swirling around Flynn. The president had “full confidence” in his national security adviser, she said. A day later, Sean Spicer contradicted her and said that Flynn was fired because of a long growing erosion of trust. These two things cannot be true. A president cannot grow a long-term lack of trust in someone with whom they had full confidence the day before. Still, both statements were uttered with the force of truth and on behalf of the Presidency. (The term “full confidence” now has an unstable meaning; A source told Ruddy the president has “full confidence” in Priebus.)
The stark differences between these two statements would be concerning enough, but Conway’s appearance on MSNBC highlights the way in which the disconnect hurts White House credibility. Monday, in defending the president’s “full confidence,” Conway detailed Flynn’s central role in national security meetings and interactions with foreign leaders. He was the tent pole at the center of things. Each example she cited was another brick in the monument to Trump’s confidence. But now that we learn that the president had growing trust concerns about Flynn, the evidence from Conway’s defense becomes damning embroidery. If the president didn’t trust his national security adviser, as Spicer claims, why was Flynn in the middle of the many crucial decisions Conway outlined?
If Michael Flynn lost his job because of a gradual erosion of trust, shouldn’t the easy and frequent production of official statements that are so many connecting flights from the truth also be concerning?
What is the appetite for truth in the Trump White House? That’s not a question about the untrue things the president says. It’s about the level of truth the system expects. That is, after all, the standard by which we are told Flynn was ultimately judged. He didn’t meet that standard and was pushed out. Accepting that standard (and not entertaining the idea that the real problem was not Flynn’s lie, but that he was caught lying), what are the incentives for honesty in the Trump White House? Are people drawn to their most honest selves? Or, do the incentives encourage people to say things that aren’t so? Or, are people encouraged to compete by seeing who can really go over the top?
Usually a White House staff struggles with a boss who hates to hear uncomfortable news. The structure of the office and power make it hard to be honest. Instead, here, everyone pumps each other up, particularly when the staff feels under siege. Every day is the Battle of Agincourt and no one wants to raise their hand and say hey we’re outnumbered.
This White House adds a new twist. The boss encourages showy public acts of misinformation. The claims of certainty are gaudy enough to be seen by the audience all the way in the last seat of the theater. The president is clearly in the back row watching. After Miller’s Sunday show appearances in which he expressed metaphysical certainty about unsubstantiated voter fraud claims, President Trump praised him on Twitter.
Performance fealty creates an incentive structure which fools the public and encourages dissembling. It also worries allies. A number of Republican congressional staffers and lawmakers I have talked to worry that the White House isn’t evaluating its problems clearly and that President Trump’s management structure encourages the staff to behave like everything is awesome. The sense of frustration and unpredictability in these conversations is palpable.
Donald Trump came from the corporate world. In many corporations the penalty for lying to the boss or senior executives in a way that makes them look bad is swift dismissal. That isn’t the case in the Trump White House. The president restrained himself for weeks after learning Flynn didn’t tell the truth. Vice President Pence, the injured party, wasn’t informed for more than a week after the news of Flynn’s misinformation was delivered to the White House by the Department of Justice. Press secretary Spicer said it was to give Flynn “due process.” Another administration source explained it was for the lawyers to check out whether Flynn had broken any laws. Donald Trump’s fame was built in part on a reputation for quick firings, but sometimes reality is different than the reality show.