America’s emerging unelected leaders

David Rothkopf examines the implications of the emerging organizational chart of the Trump administration. He writes: Last week, [Trump’s transition team] unveiled a new White House entity called the National Trade Council (NTC) to oversee many of the same responsibilities of the NEC [National Economic Council] and the USTR [United States Trade Representative]. On Tuesday, it announced that it is re-establishing the HSC [Homeland Security Council whose operations President Obama had folded into the National Security Council] as a separate agency. And, just for kicks, the transition team also announced the creation of a position called the “special representative for international negotiations,” to be filled by a Trump Organization executive vice president and lawyer who will be involved — somehow — in all U.S. negotiations around the world.

So, we now have four major interagency councils in the White House — the NSC [National Security Council], the NEC [National Economic Council], the NTC [National Trade Council], and the HSC. We have at least five entities that now feel empowered to take the lead on U.S. international trade policy: the NEC, the NTC, the new special representative for international negotiations, USTR, and the Commerce Department (whose incoming nominee for secretary, Wilbur Ross, has asserted that he will have a leading role in this regard). You have the overlap between the NSC (which, for example, might handle a terrorist threat where it originated) and the HSC (which might handle a threat where it manifested itself). You have the historic rivalry between the State and Defense departments over national security policy leadership, exacerbated by the move to add even more clout within the White House through the creation of the international negotiator job and the return to two security-focused interagency leadership groups residing there (the NSC and HSC). You still have two top-level officials in the intelligence community (the director of national intelligence and the director of the CIA) overseeing or leading 17 different intelligence agencies. And … well, you don’t need another “and” here. This is a mess waiting to happen. Rivalries, confusion, and miscommunication are all likely outcomes.

What is emerging looks less like a tight, well-managed structure for the world’s largest and most complex organization and more like a loose holding company. Perhaps that should not be a surprise given that the Trump Organization is a loose holding company with hundreds of entities within it and lots of different independent operating units. The key in such structures, however, is a strong coordinating hand at the top. But who is that going to be?

Reports from within the Trump Organization say Trump was not that day-to-day manager. He focused on building the brand, being its face, its messenger. He would dip in and make a few decisions on key deals or an element of a construction project — but leave the rest to his managers.

There is no reason not to assume that this will be his role within the U.S. government. He has said as much, suggesting that Vice President-elect Mike Pence will play a big role overseeing both domestic and international policy. Further, Trump has surrounded himself at a high level in the White House with a team primarily focused on message and politics (his “brand” as president), from senior counselors like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to a handful of other senior messaging and press associates.

In the past, when presidents have sought to run a White House in which power was devolved (as opposed to “micromanagers” like Carter and Obama), much of the responsibility for managing rivalries and competing interests has fallen to the chief of staff. Under Dwight Eisenhower, Chief of Staff Sherman Adams was so powerful that he was considered the “deputy president.” Under Reagan, chiefs of staff also played a key role (with varying degrees of success). Clinton and George W. Bush were helped immensely by strong White House chiefs of staff to help manage day-to-day operations.

The problem for Trump is that his White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has absolutely no qualifications to play this role. He has no executive branch experience. He has no national security experience. He has no real international economic experience. And yet, with competing White House councils clamoring for presidential approvals and face time, he, as gatekeeper, could inadvertently become the most powerful person in the White House.

Here’s the thing: In a holding company, the power lies with the person who ends up coordinating the structure and resolving the inevitable rivalries that emerge within it. Will it be Pence — continuing the recent trend of increasingly important No. 2s, from Al Gore to Dick Cheney to Joe Biden — inheriting a vice presidency vastly more powerful than ever before? Will it be Priebus, who like Trump will be engaging in the most high-stakes on-the-job training in history? Might it be someone like Bannon, who could play a president-whisperer role like Valerie Jarrett or Reagan confidant Mike Deaver once did? Could it be a small committee of advisors that could include Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump?

The answer is unclear. But the more convoluted the Trump administration becomes (and it is already setting records), given the character and track record of the incoming president, the more clear it is that an awesome amount of power is going to be in the hands of someone who the American people did not select for the country’s top job. [Continue reading…]

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