His White House was initially the Wild West before it was modeled more after West Point. Then, as Donald Trump’s third chief of staff explained, the executive campus achieved “a happy medium between those two.”
President Trump has now settled on his fourth chief, this one coming after Reince Priebus, an unsure party boss, and Marine Gen. John Kelly, a strict military man, and then Mick Mulvaney, a systematic budget wonk. None seemed to achieve the exact balance that Trump wanted. Enter Mark Meadows, a dealmaker from Congress who has his own vision for day-to-day order. That means, in broad strokes, getting staff on the same page instead of pulling the president into a hundred different — and distracting — policy fights. That’s the responsibility of every chief, of course, and it’s always a hard job, but one made more difficult by an especially demanding president who finds himself and his nation reeling under a global health pandemic requiring a level of national mobilization not seen since the Second World War.
According to senior White House staff, Meadows views his role as managing the people and data that come to Trump’s attention. His method is to sort out what is truly pressing versus what boosts individual egos and wastes the time of the president. In other words, the new chief guards the door of the Oval Office. And it seems that Meadows, who did not respond to request for comment, has embraced the traffic cop part of his position early in his tenure.
“It is absolutely true,” one White House aide told RealClearPolitics. “His two top priorities from the beginning were, first, increase communication among staff, and second, improve information flow into the Oval Office so that there are not a million different pieces of information in front of the president at once.”
The challenge comes from staffers convinced that their policy issues are the most important and by others who want to use presidential face time to increase their profile. Open the spigot too much either way and “it becomes a mess.” All told, a senior presidential aide explained, “99% of the time, these 5 o’clock fire alarms turn into chaos. He is trying to organize the flow of problems and priorities onto the president’s desk.”
Bad examples are abundant and well-detailed. There was a time when Omarosa Manigault, a one-time winner of “Celebrity Apprentice” and briefly a senior administration official, bragged to Politico that she could walk in and interrupt the president whenever she wanted. Omarosa was eventually fired in December 2017. After another reality television stint, this one on CBS’ “Celebrity Big Brother,” she published a tell-all book, “Unhinged,” written from secretly recorded meetings.
Those were the early days. The management style of the Trump White House has evolved since then, and the president has controlled the progress. The freewheeling era of Priebus led to the tight coordination of Kelly before giving way to the Goldilocks approach of Mulvaney. Trump has preferred these different managing styles at different moments. But before the White House, he seemed set in his ways. At least, that’s what he wrote in “The Art of Deal.”
“Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose,” he admitted in that book. “I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open,” he explained. “You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops,” he said of haggling over billion-dollar real estate deals in Manhattan.
But the presidency is different. There are only so many hours in the day, always have been, and the time that commands executive attention affects the entire country, not just the bottom line of one individual. Trump must know as much. Past administrations certainly did.
When Ari Fleischer was working in the White House, disagreements seldom reached the Oval Office until they had been debated and hashed out among staff. When a decision had to be made, the former press secretary explained, then-President George W. Bush made the final call or put a pin in deliberations. No one, Fleischer insisted, burst in to bother the president.
Trump does not agree with the policy prescriptions of the last Republican in office, let alone mesh with his style of management. This creates challenges — or perhaps new ways of thinking.
“He likes a more wide-ranging, open process, which suits him,” Fleischer surmised. “The job of Mark Meadows is to come up with a discipline and effective staff arrangement that is also free enough to do things the president’s way.” Looking from the outside in, he admitted that the whole thing had become “a riddle.”
Plenty will try piecing together an answer, but at least one friend of Trump, a former colleague of the current chief of staff, says the whole exercise is little more than navel-gazing in search of palace intrigue. “The press always wants to write the story that the new chief of staff is trying to implement some new structure or vision,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz.
“Mark comes to this job with a very keen understanding of how the West Wing works because he played such a critical role as an adviser to that team during impeachment,” the Florida Republican and longtime speed-dial buddy of the president added. “Now that he’s in a leadership role, it’s not as if he is a stranger to the decision-making process.”
But that public sentiment of one presidential ally hasn’t changed the private confusion of some observers trying to figure out the new Rubik’s cube of White House staff management. It will get solved eventually, and some staffer say they like the new changes that Meadows has put in place.
“I won’t call it micromanagement,” one senior administration official said. “It’s more of a closing of the ranks.”
Give it time, Gaetz insisted, “the folks at the White House are just gonna fall in love with him.”