Is the Trump Administration Really That Different?
Is the Trump administration really at all different? That is a question better addressed after reading presidential historian Tevi Troy's Fight House, an illuminating account of bruising internal battles among top-level aides in the 12 previous administrations.
Troy's look back through this particular lens at all presidencies since World War II provides an original perspective on how the White House operates, the effect of the ever growing number of White House staffers, and a useful baseline for comparison of current and future administrations. That alone makes this book worthwhile. But Troy's research into the nature of particular feuds provides additional valuable insight and fun.
From the perspective of any aide, every White House is a political snake pit to at least some degree. The stakes are high in terms of career trajectory and personal advancement. Some administrations maintain surprising unity in terms of domestic policy, others regarding foreign policy. But no administration has escaped completely the internal wars among titanic figures and monumental egos when powerful aides clash. These battles are more than healthy rivalries; they often devolve into hatreds and power plays overshadowing the aides' duties to the president, and they can corrode the ability of an administration to pursue its policies.
The more epic antagonisms Troy dissects include Lyndon Johnson vs. Robert Kennedy (under JFK, whose father noted, "When Bobby hates you, you stay hated."); Henry Kissinger vs. William Rogers (Nixon); Cyrus Vance vs. Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter); Dick Morris vs. Harold Ickes (Clinton); Donald Rumsfeld vs. Colin Powell and Richard Armitage (George W. Bush); and Valerie Jarrett vs. Rahm Emmanuel (Obama).
The various players can often be vicious and vindictive, petty and territorial, and creatively underhanded. The well placed leak to the press — often with "false flag" syntax to appear to have come from someone else — is the weapon of choice to elevate oneself or undermine others. To varying degrees, it has been the bane of every administration's existence.
Troy provides an additional valuable service by contrasting the different managerial approaches by each president to infighting and maintaining lines of authority, and evaluating their respective degrees of success. Reagan, for example, was largely hands-off, letting the fighting play out and valuing the opposing viewpoints, which would emerge sharpened by the process. His strategy succeeded largely because Reagan left no doubt where he stood on issues. Others (particularly Carter, with no chief of staff) were micromanagers who could not control the ubiquitous conflicts.
Not surprisingly, the book is at its best in its analysis of administration infighting under President George W. Bush, where Troy served as a domestic policy adviser and deputy HHS secretary, spending several years living his topic. Impressively, he maintains an objective, above-the-fray tone discussing his own experience, as well as discussing administrations both Democrat and Republican.
Troy succeeds in being be sufficiently detailed without being gossipy in the manner of so many score-settling political memoirs. The result is a book that is perhaps a touch more analytical and less entertaining than it could be. But this ultimately works to the book's advantage: it feels more fair, sober, objective, and reliable than the typical political tell-all. As a result, it is more useful as a contribution to political history. Not to worry: There are still more than enough juicy anecdotes to keep the pages turning.
In fact, Troy has mined such a potentially rich seam that one wonders if each administration's infighting and clashes deserves its own book, perhaps drilling down farther into the core of the conflicts and how they shaped important U.S. policies.
Readers interested in U.S.-Israel-Mideast policy should find it striking how passionate the infighting in this realm has been. The head-butting started at the very beginning, with President Truman's looming decision whether to recognize a soon to be declared State of Israel. Secretary of state George Marshall, a military hero and diplomatic giant revered by so many (including Truman), was adamantly opposed to Israel declaring independence, primarily due to how badly outnumbered the Jews of Palestine were by Arab militaries. He told Truman that if he recognized Israel, Marshall would feel compelled to vote against the president in the coming election.
Truman invited debate on the matter between Marshall and the junior, less accomplished Truman aide Clark Clifford. After Clifford evidently won the day, Marshall not only never again spoke to him, but refused to ever again even mention Clifford's name. (In retrospect, though Clifford deserves praise, Truman likely recognized Israel because he thought it was the right thing to do, with Clifford serving as a lightning rod.)
The Carter and Obama administrations were, it seems, even more hostile to Israeli governments on the inside than they appeared on the outside. President Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, clashed hard on every issue — be it China, the USSR, Iran — with one exception: they were eye-to-eye, along with Carter, about being tough on Israel.
Mark Siegel had arguably the toughest job in the Carter administration: liaison to the alarmed Jewish community. He complained that Brzezinski had been borderline anti-Semitic, including telling the head of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, "You people better learn that you don't dictate foreign policy." V.P. Walter Mondale, among those who come out looking good in this book, complained that the Carter team's animus toward Israel "made my life miserable," pointing particularly at Brzezinski for his relentless anti-Israel tilt and for short-circuiting administration internal debate channels by appealing directly to Carter to get his way, and at Vance, including for a surprise imposition of pro-Palestinian concessions to be made by Israel. Domestic policy adviser Stu Eisenstat's assessment was that "Vance was very pro-Arab. Vance was impossible on this issue."
In the Obama administration, the fault line regarding Israel was largely generational. The younger aides, particularly those influenced by the writings of President Obama's U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, had a decidedly pro-Palestinian tilt. This was best exemplified by the outsized influence of Ben Rhodes, considered to have a "mind-meld" with Obama, who was so antagonistic to Israel that he earned the nickname "Hamas" from chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
So, if every White House is a Fight House, is the Trump administration so different? Troy concludes that in light of wars waged within past administrations, the Trump team is not at all out of the mainstream. Furthermore, Trump as a manager likes conflict and unrest on his team and even encourages it to sharpen policy debate. Troy's analysis seems correct as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.
What distinguishes the Trump "Fight House" is not the degree to which players undercut each other, but the degree to which so many seek to undercut the president himself. In previous administrations, even rivals considered the success of the presidency paramount.
The degree of disloyalty within the current White House is breathtaking. Not a lifelong politician, President Trump did not begin with the usual reservoir of loyal policy hands to instantly staff his administration. Staffs of, for example, the National Security Council were bloated with Obama holdovers; the FBI and Justice Department were riddled with anti-Trump "resistance" at the highest levels; the White House staff had no shortage of "Anonymous" leakers and "whistleblowers" looking to cripple the president while cashing in on book deals and TV contracts; and Trump loyalists are still under unprecedented media assault. The infighting may look familiar, but the Trump administration is simply not comparable to any other.
Perhaps a second Trump term, with a downsized staff and first-term saboteurs identified and removed, will better fit the typical administration mold. Either way, Troy's solid work will long be useful for contextualizing and understanding the internal dynamics of administrations future and past.
Abe Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Israel. He serves as counsel to Republicans Overseas Israel.