Upon entering the beating heart of a country’s government, one normally expects to find a swarm of self-important politicos at least claiming to know what’s going on. Dispatched for a month to Washington, DC from Quartz’s New York headquarters, your reporter hoped to come across just that.
It was not so.
The levels of incoherence in US president Donald Trump’s White House have left even the most seasoned of Capitol Hill blusterers flummoxed.
“What can I do for you guys?” a Democratic Senate staffer asked myself and a colleague at an off-the-record coffee.
“We’re basically just trying to work out what’s going on,” my colleague said.
“You and me both,” was the exasperated reply.
The day before, a former top-ranking State Department official sat down with us for an hour—in theory to instruct us on what to look out for. In practice, his eloquent words were punctured at every turn with “I really don’t know” and ”we’ve just got to wait and see.”
It’s not just the opposition and recent retirees who are out of the loop—prominent Republicans are at a loss, too. A staffer for one well-placed GOP lawmaker explained, without a hint of bitterness, that the president’s inner circle is so miniscule that virtually no one gets a look at White House plans. He said the lack of coherence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was due to the presence of political newcomers who never expected to win—and who are also being bogged down by obstructionist Democrats: “They’re doing anything they can to impede everything they can.”
Meanwhile, bureaucrats at the State Department whisper that they simply don’t know what Trump’s plans might be. They try to make do by continuing with old policies and toning down their language when they’re unsure. Some civil servants mutter that it’s actually quite nice to work on long-neglected “nuts and bolts” before the inevitable political appointees come in and direct their attention onto sexier projects that are priorities for the Trump administration.
Everyone points out that a new administration always takes time to get going, but most swiftly add that the current situation—with swathes of national security jobs left open and crucial positions at federal agencies lacking nominees—is far from normal. “As someone who’s lived through three or four of these transitions, this is off to the slowest start of any I’m aware of,” said retired ambassador Richard Kauzlarich, an adjunct professor at George Mason University who spent 39 years in public service.
Foreign allies are similarly baffled.
“I keep drawing up an org chart” for the White House, said the first secretary for an ambassador to a democratic US ally. “I keep having to erase it.” He asked that if Quartz figures out who he should be talking to, “please let me know.”
Others are past even trying. Asked what he thought of the new administration, an ambassador to a war-torn country that has been the focus of recent US military efforts threw up his hands, and said “I have no idea! Ask me in three months.”
Outside the tiny group containing Trump’s family and his close confidants, everyone else is left parsing the superlative scoops that the New York Times and Washington Post keep dishing out. (The Republican staffer who spoke with Quartz on the condition of anonymity said vice president Mike Pence wasn’t even entirely in Trump’s inner circle, but is more likely in some sort of “co-sphere.”) Bewildered journalists on the outside mumble that such a small coterie of reporters can’t possibly be getting all these exclusives by dogged lead-following and pure talent. “It’s like, were you guys actually in the room?” complained one fellow hack.
Instead, much of the press corps comfort themselves with the conceit that they never had a chance—obviously if you wanted to leak something you’d go straight to the Times, the Post, or CNN. With competition heating up, the Post has even published a guide for leakers to share information with the paper. Those of us who do analytical reporting stroke our fragile egos by repeating—until we almost believe it—that our readers are coming to us to understand the news, not for scoops.
(Potential leakers out there should, of course, know that my inbox is also wide open. Click my byline for my email and PGP code.)
But it’s not as if the extraordinarily voluminous leaks have clarified the situation in Washington. Instead it just redoubles the confusion: we see an incredible amount of conflicting stories, and have no idea where these leaks are coming from or whether they’re being strategically placed.
Let’s take one apparent powerplay: First, we are told that senior adviser Steve Bannon has taken over the White House. His face hits the cover of Time magazine, and Saturday Night Live depicts him, dressed as the grim reaper, as the “real” president. Days later, we hear that Trump is aggrieved by Bannon stealing his limelight, and chief of staff Reince Priebus is clawing back power.
Or….not? Were those initial leaks actually placed by Priebus to get Bannon in hot water? Was Bannon himself, as many whisper, leaking the “Bannon in trouble” stories to make the boss calm down and feel in control? The one thing everyone in the city is sure of is that Priebus and Bannon are not the great friends they keep claiming to be.
Trump insists that reports of chaos and confusion are “non-sense” [sic]. “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he proclaimed at a combative press conference, railing against the leaks while also somehow insisting that they have led to “fake news.” Pressed on the seeming contradiction in terms, he doubled down: “The leaks are absolutely real—the news is fake.” Right.
The point of all this is anyone’s guess. The opposition says there’s no way his administration of DC newbies and Wall Street veterans could figure out how to run a government. (“If you took me to New York and put me at work in an investment bank, I wouldn’t have any idea what to do—it’s exactly the same for them!” exclaimed one longtime Senate Democrat staffer.) There’s also the school of thought that chaos is simply Trump’s preferred modus operandi.
And then, there are the theories that there’s at least some sense of strategy behind it all.
Was Trump, perhaps, really cryptically hinting at his true aims when he called the leaks real and fake at once? When the White House immediately denied an Associated Press story on the national guard being used to round up undocumented immigrants, many journalists concluded that the administration may be planting fake stories to root out leakers.
Similarly, there may just be some method to cutting the State Department and other agencies out of the policy loop, and slowing the hiring of top political appointees.
“If you don’t have a deputy secretary of state or assistant secretaries, then that gives the White House much more freedom,” says Kauzlarich, who worked for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “Secondly, this confusion creates space for the president to manuever between the pragmatic position that Pence laid out [regarding NATO] in Munich and the more hardline position that the president has laid out. Within that space there’s room for a deal.”
The big question is how long the current situation can be sustained. Sympathetic onlookers insist that things will calm down: “This is how it is when administrations take office…people forget—the entire first year of the Clinton administration was a complete disaster,” said Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist who has been in Washington since 1989 and spent eight years working for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
However, if they don’t and the bureaucracy is kept starved of contact, things could turn nasty, Kauzlarich warns. “The reality is you can’t do all this from the White House, in the hands of 5, 10, however many people are involved,” he said. “I don’t know how long you can go on like this, frankly, without facing a consequence.”
Heather Timmons contributed to this report.