Rex Tillerson, who ran Exxon Mobil for a decade before signing on as Donald Trump’s secretary of state, is reportedly “baffled” that the White House didn’t consult with him on its controversial executive order restricting travel and immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries.
James Mattis, who retired as a four-star Marine Corps general and supervisor of the U.S. Central Command before becoming Trump’s secretary of defense, is said by the Associated Press to be “particularly incensed” about exactly the same thing.
Both men — seasoned, thoughtful managers with bucketloads of experience and insight — probably thought that Trump recruited them to his cabinet to be trusted advisers. They may be in for more surprises, however, because there’s a good chance that Trump sees them merely as hood ornaments atop the little engine of state he’s building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For most of Trump’s career he has trusted only a small group of longtime loyalists at the Trump Organization, and even then he has often tightened the circle further to family members.
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Advisers will come and go in the White House in coming years, but it’s likely that the only permanent confidantes and counselors to the most powerful man in the world will be his 36-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, 35.
It will probably be Javanka to whom Trump turns for final gut checks on major decisions, and the Tillersons and Mattises of the world may have to shuffle along.
That’s not to say that outside advisers won’t ascend from time to time. Remember Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani? Both men hovered in Trump’s inner sanctum during the 2016 campaign before he passed them over for White House and cabinet posts they coveted. For a time they appeared to be close counselors before being put out to pasture once Trump deemed them to be liabilities.
Trump hasn’t enjoyed sharing credit or center stage for long stretches with anyone other than family. Advisers like Christie and Giuliani (and Cory Lewandowski) who are considered overly ubiquitous or assertive — or both — can find themselves out on the street. That’s a reality that may eventually land hard on Trump’s current leading media ambassador, Kellyanne Conway, who seems to have enjoyed more airtime lately than her boss. Chief strategist Steve Bannon, on the other hand, has shrewdly managed to stay off TV and has avoided interviews (a posture Kushner also favors).
But Bannon, 63, had a coming-out of sorts over the last few days after it was revealed that he worked in secrecy with a White House youngster, 32-year-old Stephen Miller, to draft Trump’s immigration order. Widespread outcry about the order and Bannon’s apparent power to dictate policy — along with his promotion to an influential position on Trump’s National Security Council — inspired a spate of recent headlines describing where gravity now resides in the Oval Office: with “President Bannon.”
This creates some peril for Bannon. Trump has always enjoyed having street-smart brawlers like Bannon at his side (think of Roy Cohn and Roger Stone) but he’s unlikely to countenance a pretender to the throne. (Even if Bannon is going out of his way not to pretend, the media has crowned him. Trump absorbs media coverage and it often sways him.)
Bannon and Conway may survive in the White House for as long as Trump does. But there are already rifts within Trump’s senior team as different cliques jockey for position. And Trump’s inability to knit together advisers and managers, and his family-centric ways, will continue to be stumbling blocks for his administration.
Trump’s management experience has been confined to the boutique licensing and development business he and his children run from the 26th floor of Trump Tower. The only sizable enterprise he ever oversaw was his casino company, where success depended on sharing power with qualified managers, being emotionally and intellectually disciplined and thinking strategically. Trump did none of those things and ran that venture into the ground.
- O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.