John Dean: The Divide at the Heart of the White House Spells Disaster

John Dean

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

On November 14, 2016, Donald Trump, a man with no professional experience with the federal government whatsoever, designed his White House staff by positioning at the top two men with equal power: Stephen Bannon, who was dubbed with the new title “chief strategist,” and Reince Priebus, tapped with the traditional title of “chief of staff.”

Both Bannon and Priebus have no prior background in the federal government, along with other key players with access to Trump and part of his inner circle: Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner.

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Since Trump’s inauguration, numerous stories on the power struggles between the players, principally the Bannonites versus the Priebusites, have been featured in the media. For example, on January 20, CNN reported on “The Power Struggle Among Trump’s Inner Circle.” By February 3, The New Yorker reported on “Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus’s War For the White House,” and two weeks later, the Washington Monthly headlined “Right Wing Media on the Bannon vs Priebus Power Struggle.”

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White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, and White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23 in Maryland. John Dean writes that during Trump’s first two months in office, his White House operations have produced mostly chaos. Trump is encouraging divisions, rivalries and competition within the staff. Alex Wong/getty

Trump’s White House operations, which have produced mostly chaos during his first two months in office, are on my mind because I am reading an advance copy of journalist Chris Whipple’s upcoming book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, to be published next month. If past is prologue, and I believe that to be true, then based on Whipple’s findings, Trump has asked for trouble, and will likely get more chaos.

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Whipple’s findings show that modern presidents without strong chiefs of staff have not done well. Neither JFK nor LBJ had strong chiefs of staff, and after Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs debacle, he made his brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the de facto chief; LBJ remained his own chief of staff, and allowed the Vietnam War to get out of hand and consume his presidency.

When Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency after Nixon’s resignation, his first impulse was to have no chief of staff. That quickly proved a disaster, so he reversed himself. Similarly, President Jimmy Carter went two years with no chief of staff and accomplished little.

A president who is occupied with controlling the schedule for which aides can use the White House tennis court is wasting his time. Whipple notes that even when Carter finally installed Hamilton Jordan as his chief of staff, Jordan was not well suited for the post, and that choice cost Carter a second term.

Today, Whipple found, the post of White House chief of staff is based largely on the model that President Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, designed and operated, notwithstanding the fact that Haldeman mismanaged Watergate and other Nixon illegal excesses disastrously.

As Whipple discovered, and mentioned when interviewing me about the Nixon White House, Haldeman had attended a 1986 symposium with other former chiefs of staff in San Diego, where he was asked how the Watergate scandal had happened.

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The thing that went wrong is that the system [he had developed for the White House] was not followed. Had we dealt with [Watergate] in the way we set up from the outset… we would have resolved that matter satisfactorily, probably unfortunately for some people, but that was necessary and should have been done. It wasn’t done, and that was what led to the ultimate crisis.

As I told Whipple, to his surprise, and as he quotes in his book, “That’s exactly what happened.”

Haldeman created a checks-and-balance system that was employed with almost everything in the Nixon White House, except for Nixon’s excesses—which led to the demise of his presidency.

The lesson is obvious. The White House needs a strong internal staffing system because important issues that arise cannot be resolved at a lower level. Thus, if a mistake is made, it will likely harm the president.

But if such a system is created and then not employed, it might as well not exist. A White House that treats every problem and situation in an ad hoc fashion, without careful and complete staffing, will inevitably hurt the president.

Whipple’s book shows how smoothly a White House with a strong chief of staff can operate, with the checks, double checks and controls of the Haldeman system, as well as how disastrous it can be for those who do not get it together.

Briefly stated, under the Haldeman model, a chief of staff controls the president’s schedule, and the access of people and paper to the president. He makes certain the president sees who he needs to see and receives the information he needs when he needs it, and together he and the president work out the president’s schedule.

Presidential travel today is extremely complex, requiring careful advance planning. The message from Whipple’s book—aside from being a fascinating read about the inner workings of the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama White Houses—is that a president who creates conflict and struggles in the staffing system, thus exacerbating the inherent issues within a staff seeking to influence the most powerful political office in the world, is heading for problems.

Trump ran his real estate and branding organization by encouraging staff conflicts. A commercial business seeks ideas and solutions that make the most money. Government exists for a very different reason, succinctly stated by the nation’s founders.

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To paraphrase and quote: Governments are instituted to secure the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While the words of the Declaration of Independence are neither expressly repeated in the Constitution, nor have the jurisprudence of the so-called “declarationists” (see, e.g., an essay on declarationism) who embrace and promote this concept, it remains an accurate explanation for why we have a government.

I wish that I could have told Whipple that Haldeman’s White House operations were designed to make certain that the president’s programs and actions would accomplish this fundamental purpose of government, but I doubt that has ever been the operating measurement for any president or chief of staff.

Rather, the White House staff operation takes as a given that the president’s plans and programs are consistent with and in furtherance of the reasons we have government, and like the president, everyone who works for the federal government pledges to support and uphold the Constitution, the charter for governmental operations, thus controlling the execution and implementation of any president’s campaign pledges and promises.

The Haldeman model was hardly prosaic or lofty; it was designed to control the president’s schedule. All papers and people going to the Oval Office went through Haldeman, so that he could determine what matters required presidential attention.

While Nixon wanted to set policy, he wanted the executive departments and agencies to both provide him with suggestions and follow through on his decisions. Nixon’s tapes show that two themes dominated his thinking. He wanted to bring about world peace, which would not only get him re-elected to a second term, but also give him the prominent place in history that he craved.

The other thought driving Nix would inevitably doom him. As noted by Whipple, “Nixon was determined to do one other thing: exact revenge on his enemies.”

I am sure Whipple noticed when going through Nixon’s White House papers—particularly materials once located in “special files”—they often addressed his efforts at revenge, which fell outside the normal staffing system.

What Haldeman’s system also accomplished was preventing the type of White House atmosphere that Trump is encouraging: creating divisions, rivalries and competition within the staff. No palace intrigue was tolerated.

Nixon’s biggest prima donnas on staff were two academics: Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger. Haldeman handled both of them well. Moynihan soon departed for a successful Senate run. Kissinger survived even Watergate, tarnished but in control of U.S. foreign policy—for besides Nixon, no one understood foreign policy better than Kissinger.

Staff divisions, rivalries and competition result in ruffled feathers, hard feelings, if not backstabbing. The reason there are so many leaks from the Trump White House is because of this internal strife, and while Trump may have found it produced good money-making ideas in his business operations, it is difficult to see how staff discord produces the best public policies.

Just look at the immigration policy produced by the Bannonites in the two executive orders banning Muslims, which have been blocked by federal judges. These orders are the epitome of bad staff work. Everything that could be done wrong in developing and implementing Trump’s campaign promises on immigration has been done.

It is said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave conflicting assignments to staff in order to obtain differing views. Under the Haldeman model, however, good staffing provided the president with all possible views, setting forth the upside and downside, the good and bad, the pro and con.

As Chris Whipple’s work shows, the most successful White House operations are, to uses Trump’s inchoate dream for his own White House, “fine-tuned machines.” But so long as Trump encourages the Bannonites and Preibusites, not to mention the Kellyanneites and the Kushnerites to struggle for his favor, I am confident it will produce more chaos than actions that will reflect favorably on his presidency.

I suggest Trump read Chris Whipple’s book. But he doesn’t read, or even have the patience to listen to the audio edition. Maybe he would like Whipple’s earlier work, his documentary on the chiefs of staff, which evolved into The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.

Hey, Chris, send them both to the president and his top aides. It could make us all a little safer if the material falls into the right hands.

John W. Dean was a counsel to President Richard Nixon.

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