There are moments in a presidency that call for what we Beltway toffs refer to as “the staff shake-up.” Sometimes, a White House needs a turn-of-the-page in a media narrative that’s fallen into a malaise. On other occasions, stale thinking calls for some new warm bodies to rejuvenate the scene with fresh ideas. Or maybe the president wakes up one morning and realizes that his “staff” is a bunch of ghosts or a kindle of Scottish fold kittens or a sack of volleyballs with human faces painted on them.
“Well, no wonder we’re not getting anywhere,” the president thinks as he thumbs through a pile of résumés.
It’s not often that you see a “staff shake-up” as early as June in the first year of a presidency (though it will flatter Trump to know that his predecessor’s first “shake-up” came in April of 2009), but it seems more and more likely that one is looming for the Trump administration. Still, how will such a thing even work in a White House like Trump’s, where nothing ever seems to work? If the news is any indication, then the answer is “not well at all.”
The catalyst for this coming change seems to be the abrupt departure of Mike Dubke. Now: Who is Mike Dubke? Or rather: Who was Mike Dubke? Apparently, Dubke was the White House communications director. Trust me, I’ve double-checked this. Dubke actually resigned on May 18, but “offered to stay through the president’s first foreign trip to ensure there was a smooth transition as he exited.” And, indeed, it seems that Germany and other European nations have smoothly transitioned to determining that America has lost its collective mind.
Beyond that, there’s not much to say about Dubke, which only proves that he, alone, among the larger White House staff may have been onto something. Just imagine. All this while there was a member of Trump’s inner circle who didn’t court controversy, who wasn’t the subject of massive multiple leaks, who successfully failed to inspire a “Saturday Night Live” parody, and who will leave the White House more or less untarnished by all of its daily Sturm und Drang.
I think it’s fair to say that Dubke was, perhaps, the Trump White House’s most accomplished member.
It’s almost as if Dubke thought it would be a good idea to go for long periods of time without making news. So it’s too bad for the White House that he is on the way out, because frankly, this Trump could use an army of Mike Dubkes. Sadly, as Axios’ Mike Allen notes, the Trump White House was an unforgiving place for the one Mike Dubke they did have. “Insiders say Dubke came in with few patrons, and never gelled with the originals. His departure is a reminder of how hard it is for newcomers to thrive in Trumpland.”
This is why it’s going to be difficult to truly “shake up” Trump’s staff. The problem with Trump’s current staff is that they are all aligned in warring factions, with no clear chain of command, and this leads to infighting ― as well as the inevitable leaks to the press.
This arrangement has not come about by accident, and it won’t be easily corrected. See, this is all part of Trump’s “management style.” In theory, it could euphemistically be described as a system in which “competing personalities and power centers ... generate a lot of friction” out of which really creative ideas might flow. In practice, however, it’s a bunch of amateur sub-alterns caught in a Lord Of The Flies simulation, each trying to outlast the other.
It really is like a reality show, except the only way to win is to quit, as Dubke did.
Trump basically likes to surround himself with yes men who will cater to his needs and tell him what a good job he’s doing. The sort of “staff shake-up” he really needs is one in which he’s surrounded by capable people with institutional knowledge and governing experience who can show him how he might achieve his goals, and who have the authority to tell him “no” on occasion.
For example, a really easy fix for this White House is for Trump to stop sending impulsive tweets. But no one is empowered to make this suggestion. The only thing his staffers are empowered to do is careen from controversy to controversy ― while declaring that “the tweet speaks for itself” ― as their boss makes their lives more and more difficult.
Trump has always had a hard time when it comes to staffing his White House and the executive branch, because the main quality he looks for in an underling is “fanatical devotion.” The ironic thing is that it’s within the wider world of non-fanatical devotees that he might find the sort of person who would truly make him an effective president. The best idea that anyone could bring to Trump’s staff is simply, “What you guys have done so far hasn’t worked.” The problem is that as soon as you’ve pointed this out to Trump, you’ve disqualified yourself from the job.
And so you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is not how this “staff shake-up” is likely to go. According to Allen, Trump is leaning toward tapping GOP lobbyist and campaign “cellphone buddy” David Urban as the new chief of staff, and to hiring former campaign advisers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to run a new “crisis communications war room.”
Trump, according to Allen’s colleague Jonathan Swan, is looking for “killers.” “Lewandowski in particular makes conventional folks in the White House very very nervous,” he writes. “Experience suggests he will not only indulge Trump’s most combative instincts, but goad them.”
Maybe the biggest news here is that there are still “conventional folks in the White House.” Though perhaps not for much longer.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for HuffPost and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.