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So, Umm, Is The Trump Administration In Disarray?

In this week’s politics chat, we talk about how messed up the Trump administration is. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

 

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natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Happy 💕 day.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): 😘

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I’m just so happy to spend this day with all of you.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): mm.

harry:

natesilver: Roses are red;

Violets are blue;

Mike Flynn was framed;

PewDiePie too.

micah: Anyone got good plans?

harry: I’m going to White Castle.

clare.malone: None that i’d like published!

micah: That makes them seem interesting! We’re … going out to dinner. Is that not creative enough?

harry: Where you going out to dinner, Micah?

clare.malone: Definitely White Castle too.

micah: That I don’t want to pub.

Anyway, the topic for today’s chat, itself the subject of a long chat and debate: How messed up is the Trump administration? The most immediate event precipitating this question, of course, is the resignation of Michael Flynn, who fleetingly served as Trump’s national security adviser.

clare.malone: Mike, we hardly knew ya.

micah: To be transparent, I was skeptical of this framing. It seems too early to talk of disarray or crisis. But, Nate, make your case.

natesilver: Well first of all, I was agitating for this framing before Flynn’s resignation. So you’ve gotta give me a little bit of credit for prescience here.

micah: Then we really disagree.

harry: This may be the worst start to an administration ever. Trump has an approval rating of 40 percent, and his national security adviser resigned three weeks into the job. I was saying this on Twitter earlier, and someone responded that William Henry Harrison had a worse start. Harrison died 31 days into his presidency.

micah: That all seems way over the top to me.

harry: I don’t think that’s over the top at all.

micah: Someone make the case!

harry: The question is whether he will recover, and I’d argue he most certainly can recover.

clare.malone: Well, Micah, I think you’re probably thinking about the idea that they’re still figuring things out, but a guy resigning because the Russians potentially had something they could blackmail him with isn’t exactly NOT disarray, right?

natesilver: I’m usually a seller of the “Trump in disarray!” narrative. Because the press has a tendency, first, to exaggerate the importance of minor stories. And secondly, there’s a lot of confirmation bias. If the narrative is that Trump is in disarray, they see the bad news but not the good news, and ambiguous stories are taken to be bad news.

But this time? Trump has had two very serious setbacks.

With Flynn and the executive order on refugees and immigration being blocked in the courts.

And the Flynn story has legs, in that there are going to be a lot of questions about who in the White House knew what and when they knew it.

micah: Knew what? That Flynn had talked sanctions with the Russian ambassador?

natesilver: Right.

micah: Yeah, the other question on that: Was he freelancing?

harry: No clue.

micah: Or was he delivering an approved message?

clare.malone: It feels like that’s a big thing to freelance, no?

micah: It does to me, but I don’t know this world that well.

clare.malone: People have been saying that alarm bells were raised when the Obama administration threw out Russian diplomats and Moscow didn’t respond in kind. And the idea here is that for the Russians not to respond in the way that was expected seemed to indicate to people that they had some sort of inkling that things might get better for them.

harry: This isn’t the first person in the Trump universe to resign because of connections to Russia.

micah: OK, so we’re all on the same page so far. I agree the Flynn story is super serious and has legs.

clare.malone: But it’s not enough to call the administration in “disarray”? Even with the travel ban?

natesilver: But here’s the other thing. The flow of good news for Trump — which mostly consisted of Congress approving legislation and Cabinet nominees without blinking — has really slowed down. I think he’s gonna get the rest of his Cabinet confirmed, although Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick to lead the Labor Department, could be in jeopardy. And I think he’ll get Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court, eventually. After that? Hard to say. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act seems to be in a lot of trouble.

The reason I pushed for this framing is because it seemed like the White House had lost something of its fighting spirit over the past week. They’re playing defense on all fronts and very little offense any more. Hell, Trump isn’t even tweeting that much.

harry: Monday was the first weekday Trump didn’t tweet in the morning his entire administration.

clare.malone: Well, there were certainly a whole lot of stories about loss of confidence on the National Security Council. And that’s got to be a thing that spreads around a bit, these top military guys being spooked, right?

natesilver: I think the best “spin” on this for Trump is that there’s been a maturation and an understanding that they can’t fight every battle. They got rid of Flynn rather than letting things fester too much — although again, there are going to be a lot of “who knew what when” questions. And they’re maybe sort of giving up on the executive order.

harry: Trump just tweeted:

natesilver: He tweeted that the very second I typed the word “maturation.”

micah: LOL.

clare.malone: hahahaha. I LOVE THE INTERNET.

micah: OK, ready for my counterargument?

harry: Sure, we’re ready for your horrible argument. (Says the person who a week ago thought Trump wasn’t losing yet.)

natesilver: Note to readers: The chat has been paused for four minutes while Micah comes up with his bad argument.

micah: If what you’re saying is that Trump and his people are having a whole bunch of serious problems, I 💯 agree. But by taking those discrete issues and calling them “disarray,” I think what we’re saying is (i) those problems aren’t coincidental, but rather stem from structural issues in this White House, like poor organization, poor communication, etc., and (ii) those structural problems aren’t likely to go away. No. 1 seems true to me, but No. 2 doesn’t. Those types of structural issues can’t be separated from the fact that we’re less than a month in.

clare.malone: If this were a board game and you were taking this long on your turn, I would have flipped the board by now. (Also, Nate does this all the time, to be fair :))

natesilver:

harry: For the record, that’s not the “Jeopardy” theme song. That’s its “Think” music.

micah: If the structural issues were like “wildly unpopular policy” or “no support in Congress,” I would be more sympathetic to the disarray narrative. But why shouldn’t we just expect the Trump administration to get better at this kind of stuff. They’ll re-draft the immigration order. They’ll replace Flynn with some ex-general who “Morning Joe” types will praise out the wazoo. It’ll all pass.

The questions on Flynn that remain will be serious, but also complicated and could fail to break through partisan allegiances.

clare.malone: Well, getting rid of Obamacare could be unpopular, right? Isn’t that a big thing coming down the pipeline?

micah: Well, if they go through with it, yeah.

natesilver: And maybe the story is literally disarray in that they have no idea what they’re doing.

micah: I’m OK with that story. “Trump Administration Slow To Figure Out How Stuff Works”

clare.malone: Definition of disarray

1: a lack of order or sequence : confusion, disorder

2: disorderly dress.

No. 2 definitely applies to Bannon’s Oval Office attire, just sayin’.

natesilver: It’s not like they’re two years into the administration and a couple of bad things happened coincidentally in the same week. We’re not even four weeks in yet, and they already have this mess on their hands. Sure, these particular problems might be overrated, but aren’t they a signal that they’re going to have other problems too?

micah: So that’s the question I don’t know the answer to. I agree these are big, big, big problems. But they seem so easily avoided that I don’t think you can rule out the administration learning pretty quickly how to avoid them.

clare.malone: Well, the thing that I would say would worry me if I were in the Trump White House is the number of leaky stories about the power struggles between the high-level aides. To me, that’s a more long-term problem — who are the centers of power, and are they swirling together, Milky Way-style, or are they ripping apart and falling in on themselves like a black hole?

harry: I haven’t seen an administration off to a worse start. That doesn’t mean it can’t get better. The question is why would it? And perhaps somehow it’ll all come together like it did on the campaign. Perhaps. But I just think everyone is leaking. This is not a steady ship. And leaky ships can burst into sinking ships. We’ll see if that happens.

natesilver: I’m also a believer in the notion that crises sometimes have exponential effects. Most organizations are adept at dealing with one problem at a time really well, and they can be surprisingly resilient under those circumstances. But fighting on two fronts at once is a lot tougher. And if you have three or more sort of simultaneous crises, it can be very hard to recover without taking a lot of damage.

micah: See that’s where I think these narratives get into trouble. What does a “sinking ship” in this case look like? What does “taking a lot of damage” look like? You all are proving my point that disarray narratives are inherently forward-looking, rather than about the moment we’re in.

natesilver: So one tangible measure is whether Trump continues to enjoy support from Republicans in Congress.

micah: There’s been ZERO sign so far of GOP members of Congress wavering on Trump in terms of how they vote.

clare.malone: Mm. That’s not exactly true.

micah: Although, a couple have called for an investigation into the Russia ties.

harry: Here’s how we can judge it in the moment: (i) Trump’s got the worst approval rating at this point in history, and (ii) his national security adviser resigned three weeks in. For three weeks in, that’s pretty bad. Again, though, that doesn’t mean he can’t make a U-turn. I just don’t see a sign of that … yet.

micah: Clare, don’t give me “John McCain said such and such on ‘Meet The Press.’”

clare.malone: There have been people who have cast doubt about Trump’s nominees, have talked about their worry about Russia — couldn’t those be the first signs of them worrying about Trump? Doesn’t mean they’ll act on them tomorrow or next month, but there are still some structural worries that people in the GOP have about this White House. We’ve just got to see what the event would be where things would perhaps start to come apart.

Maybe it won’t be for a long time, but the Russia stuff seems to be permanently waiting in the wings.

micah: I don’t think we can classify anything Republican officials say about Trump as meaningful after what we saw during the campaign. They made a lot of critical remarks, even un-endorsing him. Most found their way, sometimes very quickly, back into his camp.

natesilver: To some extent too, there’s liable to be some herd behavior. Since three Republican senators can kill any Cabinet nomination, you really don’t want to be one of those three and face Trump’s wrath. But what if 20 Republicans were poised to vote against a nominee? Then you’re much safer (although, of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t actually take the vote in that case).

micah: But that’s what it boils down to for me: Save the “Trump In Crisis/Disarray” stories for when those 20 Republicans vote against a nominee — for when there’s real evidence that GOP voters and/or elected officials are breaking with him.

natesilver: I’m saying he’s probably in disarray but not yet in crisis, I guess.

micah: That’s somewhat more palatable.

harry: Crisis is too strong a word for now. But I just don’t see the problem in pointing out this is NOT good. It’s extremely unusual.

clare.malone: Semantics! Love that this chat is just about precision of language at this point.

micah: Well, it’s partly that. But it’s also about how lasting we think Trump’s problems are.

natesilver: As Clare said, the amount of leaking — not just about important things but about trivial things — speaks to problems too. Other than Steve Bannon, it’s not clear who really speaks on behalf of the president and who he really trusts.

clare.malone: This is an administration with some long-term problems, Micah. I’m comfortable saying that. Personnel-wise, and possibly with its agenda down the line. But perhaps you’re right, not immediately.

micah: Yeah, I’m not really that far away from that. I’m just not sure.

natesilver: See, I’m sort of the opposite. In the long run, who the hell knows. Maybe Trump pivots in some way, shape or form. It’s more in the short-to-medium term where the risk lies.

harry: The way this all went down suggests longer-term problems. But I don’t think you even need to go that far. I think all you need to note is this is a rough first three weeks and by that standard alone it’s certainly the closest to disarray in the last 150 years. (Maybe you want to argue Lincoln and the Civil War?)

micah: See, for exactly the reason you just pointed out, Nate — how malleable Trump is — I think you have to take the long-term view.

clare.malone: Listen, I haven’t been to business school, but isn’t it all about managing people and problems? To me, the fact that there are so many people problems does not speak well for running a business (Trump’s preferred metaphor for governance) well.

micah: Yeah, maybe they need to bring in some McKinsey peeps.

natesilver: It probably is true that Trump will get better at management over time. Right now, they’re still figuring out how to turn the lights on.

harry: I’d think they get better. But right now, they’re in a bit of disarray. Disarray can clear up.

micah: Before we get out of here today, though, can we talk a little more in depth about Flynn? How unusual is it for someone at his level to resign like this? Let alone this early in the administration?

harry: It’s certainly the fastest-ever resignation for a national security adviser. (The Wikipedia list may be more complete.)

natesilver: Flynn isn’t technically a Cabinet-level officer, but I also can’t recall a case where a Cabinet officer resigned after three weeks on the job.

micah: Does anyone have a good comp? Or at least a semi-good comp? I mean, is this Scooter-Libby-esque?

harry: Well, Gerald Ford’s first press secretary resigned 30 days into the Ford administration.

natesilver: Some people are saying that the degree of dysfunction reminds them of late-stage Nixon.

clare.malone: Was it Nixon-related, Harry?

harry: It was Nixon-related. It was over the pardon. Essentially, what I’m saying here is this is unprecedented this early-on.

clare.malone: Do we feel like there are any parallels to Stanley McChrystal’s exit from the Obama administration in 2010? That was pretty early on, though not in the first months. And it was a big upset in the military/national security realm.

micah: So Harry’s example seems very different. J. F. terHorst resigned because he was against the Nixon pardon.

natesilver: Look, in some ways the precedent is simply that most presidencies take on too much at once and find the going rougher than expected. Bill Clinton, Obama and Ronald Reagan all faced significant problems two years into their terms.

harry: That’s very true. It just usually doesn’t happen this quickly.

natesilver: The “taking on too much at once” thing seems like a particular problem for Trump, however, because his crisis management strategy is to change the subject. When you’re president, and not just a candidate, changing the subject by (say) issuing some executive order carries real risks if you don’t execute it well.

micah: Julia Ioffe filled in on The Gist the other day, and she was talking with BuzzFeed editor Miriam Elder about a term from Russian politics, Whataboutism, which is when Soviet/Russian leaders would respond to criticisms by pointing to similar/related issues in Western countries. But I like the term to also just describe changing the subject. And that technique seems to be working far less well for Trump in office than it did during the campaign.

So Trump’s tweet this morning is like, “Well, what about those leaks.”

natesilver: In some ways, it’s tempting to compare Trump to a Silicon Valley startup. They’re having all these problems before they’ve really even started to ship the product. And to some extent, the risk is that they’ll lose credibility and that nobody even halfway decent is going to want to work for them, so they could enter a downward spiral.

On the other hand, Trump has four years of runway that can’t really be taken away from him, other than through impeachment. So he’ll get a lot of second and third and fourth chances.

micah: And that’s why I think the idea that these problems will compound, or there will be a self-reinforcing spiral, is a little flawed.

clare.malone: I’ll say this: Just because you can hold onto power given a political climate does not mean your organization does not have deep issues, that it is not projecting some worrisome vapors into the air, into global political climate.

harry: I just try to stay in the moment with Trump. Don’t get ahead. He’s around for a while. There may be other shoes to drop. There may not be.

natesilver: Staffing is a problem, though. If the White House is seen as a snakepit and competent people don’t want to work for him — or Trump selects for sycophantic and incompetent people — his problems could worsen.

micah: IDK, Trump could clean house and start over. We really think some GOP establishment wiseman/wisewoman wouldn’t go be Trump’s chief of staff if assured they were turning over a new leaf? Or some more minor version of that?

OK, we gotta wrap. Nate, please put a nice button on this

natesilver: I’ll put it like this. I think all 14 of the scenarios from this list are still in play. But I think we have enough information now that we wouldn’t weigh them strictly equally. Scenarios No. 2 (death spiral), No. 7 (flailing around), No. 8 (consumed by scandal) and No. 12 (resistance from within the government undermines Trump) are a bit more likely than before, and some of the others are a bit less likely. But all of them are still possible.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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