President Donald Trump at the White House on June 9, 2017. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
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Nesbit was the communications director to former Vice President Dan Quayle. He is the author of Poison Tea
Donald Trump is a black swan. No one truly saw the 2016 election ending as it did, including President Trump himself. It’s why he re-lives that black swan event over and over again, publicly.
But what has become painfully apparent in the past two months is that his presidency is anything but a black swan. Its near-total failure to deliver on his core campaign promises isn’t all that complicated or mysterious. Trump will continue to fail as a president until he has a senior White House staff that he genuinely believes can actually carry out the agenda that he promised people.
Trump has surrounded himself with senior staff he doesn’t really know — and doesn’t really trust. (His daughter and son-in-law don’t count. Family and friends will always remain loyal, whether they have an office in the West Wing or not.) What Trump needs — and simply does not have — is a team that he knows and trusts will spend every waking moment on his agenda.
Because he failed to put a senior team in place that he trusted, he has squandered nearly every opportunity to become the “people’s president” that he promised during the 2016 campaign. Trump should have proposed a jobs bill and a plan to put money in people’s pockets through either personal tax cuts or new revenue sources on the first day of his presidency. Instead, his staff has allowed him to drift into one briar patch after another.
For instance, Trump promised to find a cheaper, better healthcare system that covered everyone. Instead, he has allowed others to offer up a monstrosity in his name that strips healthcare from 2o-something million people. He promised new jobs. Instead, he walked away from an historic global climate agreement that had perfectly positioned America to lead a $10 trillion renewable energy revolution generating hundreds of thousands of good, new jobs in states that voted for him.
There are other examples like these. But they all point to the same root cause which can’t be papered over with meaningless messaging schemes or talking points (neither of which are an actual communications plan). Trump is failing as a president because he has no one around him that he trusts to give him non-sycophantic advice, and who will deliver for him on bread-and-butter issues that matter to people outside of Washington, DC.
I’ve been through precisely this drill twice — first as Dan Quayle’s Senate press secretary when he was selected to run as George H.W. Bush’s vice presidential running mate and a second time as his communications director in the White House when Bush’s White House team tried to drop him from the re-election ticket. In both instances, Quayle was forced to course-correct and bring in new senior staff that he trusted implicitly to offer real advice, and who would be loyal and responsive.
Presidential campaigns and presidencies are brutal affairs for senior staff, no matter the party. You work non-stop in near anonymity. Every day is a chance for something to go catastrophically wrong — and for someone to take the inglorious fall. Real and perceived enemies lurk in the shadows. Every move, and every motive, is questioned endlessly.
All of this explains why a president has to have senior staff that he knows can stand up to this nearly unbearable pressure and scrutiny — and still manage to give him unvarnished, strategic advice that is in both his and the country’s best interests. This dynamic becomes doubly important when the stakes are elevated — as they are now in the middle of an FBI investigation that will sorely test every member of his staff.
Trump has one more roll of the dice — one more chance to re-boot his presidency to take on the sorts of issues (like a jobs and infrastructure bill and tax cuts or dividend payments for tens of millions of middle-class Americans) that he said he would try to take on if he won. If he falls into one more briar patch, the House of Representatives could flip in 2018, and he will be a one-term president.
Nesbit was former GOP Vice President Dan Quayle’s communications director