A new president needs to staff his administration with people who will be loyal to him. Donald Trump's problem is that he does not have enough loyalists to staff the White House, much less the entire executive branch.
Previous presidents have come to Washington after enough time in politics to develop concentric circles of loyalists who can take jobs at all levels of government. Just look at the people who stood ready to help the Bush family or the Clintons over the years.
Trump, who never held public office before winning the presidency, didn't have that. In addition, he campaigned with an abrasive style that alienated a significant portion of the Republican Party's political talent. Beyond that, Trump's way of running his business, even though it made him a billionaire, was small in scale — in his Trump Tower office, he relied heavily on a tight circle of people who were either related to him or had been with him for a very long time.
Now, Trump's style has led to an acute staffing problem across the administration and also to high-profile infighting in the White House. The former means that Trump cannot assert full control over a massive federal bureaucracy that is already inclined to resist him. The latter has led to an almost comical situation in which the president has piled portfolio upon portfolio on trusted son-in-law Jared Kushner — now commonly referred to as one of the most powerful men in Washington — who had no preparation for the responsibility.
On the question of the federal bureaucracy, many Trump supporters are dismayed by the slowness with which he is hiring for the various government departments and agencies. According to a database compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, out of 553 important positions that require Senate confirmation — and that is by no means all the political appointments Trump has to make— only 22 Trump nominees have been confirmed, while another 53 have either been formally nominated or are awaiting formal announcement of their nominations. That leaves 478 jobs with no nominee at all.
To give a few examples, there are 113,000 employees in the Department of Justice, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the only Senate-confirmed Trump appointee there. There are 742,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense, and Defense Secretary James Mattis is the only Senate-confirmed Trump appointee there. There are 105,000 employees in the Agriculture Department, and there are no Senate-confirmed Trump appointees there.
Some of that problem stems from Senate Democrats' efforts to slow down Trump nominations. But the far greater issue is that Trump hasn't nominated enough people. He doesn't have those big concentric circles of loyalists to call on.
Even though the slow start across the bureaucracy is probably more consequential, the White House palace intrigue has received the lion's share of press attention. Lately, the spotlight has focused on friction between Kushner and top adviser Steve Bannon. And that, too, is partly a function of the lack-of-loyalists problem.
The president himself suggested that in an interview Tuesday with the New York Post's Michael Goodwin. When Goodwin asked whether Trump still had confidence in Bannon, Trump said: "I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist and it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary."
It doesn't take a mind-reader to interpret that as a vote of no confidence. Members of the Bannon coterie in the White House were said to be shocked.
Veterans of earlier White Houses faulted Bannon for not trying to build relationships with people who could be his allies in the West Wing. When trouble came, who would go to bat for him? But a bigger problem was revealed by Trump's observation that Bannon had only joined Trump late in the campaign.
In Chairman Mao's China, veterans of the Long March held a special status; they had been with the Great Helmsman for the entire journey. The situation is much the same in any American political operation, where candidates value people who have been with them all the way. In TrumpWorld, that's nobody — outside the president's family and a few assistants from Trump's company.
Trump named Bannon chief executive of the campaign on Aug. 17, 2016. Even though Bannon's Breitbart News had supported Trump for longer, the president is right — that is pretty late in a campaign that began in earnest more than a year and a half earlier. Bannon wasn't there for the Long March.
Of course, other top White House aides, like chief of staff Reince Priebus and spokesman Sean Spicer, were also latecomers, and they were never fully part of the campaign. Not surprisingly, there have been trust issues; no Long March loyalty for them, either.
Thus Trump's focus on the family. After dispatching sons Don and Eric to run the business, Trump formally brought daughter Ivanka and Kushner into the White House power structure. (The president sought and received a Justice Department opinion arguing that the White House is exempt from federal anti-nepotism law.)
And Trump began to pile jobs on Kushner. The Middle East peace portfolio. Point of contact for foreign leaders. Tackling the opioid crisis. Heading the Office of American Innovation. "No human being can do all that stuff," says a Republican White House veteran.
When Bannon appeared ready for a "gunfight" with Kushner, eyes rolled across Washington. Who was Bannon kidding? "He's picked a fight with the only person he can't beat," said a top GOP politico close to the White House. And it didn't take a top GOP politico to figure that in the end, family will win.
At least, family will win in a fight versus Bannon or any of Trump's other hires, no matter how initially infatuated Trump might be with them. In the long run, though, it might not be correct to say Kushner, even with his special place as the husband of Trump's favorite daughter, cannot be fired. It might be more accurate to say he will be the last fired.
When Bill Clinton's White House went off the rails in the spring of 1993, Clinton tried to recover, barely more than 100 days in office, by hiring the veteran Republican political operator David Gergen. The addition helped smooth things a bit, in part because it showed Clinton was willing to reach outside his circle to help run the government.
Trump will probably have to do that too. (Reach outside his circle, that is, not specifically hire Gergen, which would cause some Republicans to leap from tall buildings.) The president will have to entrust with power a new set of Republicans who weren't on the Long March and who aren't related to him by blood or marriage. It's coming, sooner or later.