Three senior White House staffers announced in the last few days that they are leaving in January — deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, National Economic Council deputy director Jeremy Katz and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. Of course, record-high turnover for this White House is nothing new, but this round feels a bit different.
Up to this point, most of those who left were either fired or clearly did so under pressure, with most outside observers applauding their absence because they were obviously bad hires in the first place. But that’s not necessarily the case with this batch, each of whom had ties to the Republican Party, not to Donald Trump personally, and had the kind of experience appropriate for their senior White House jobs.
So while I’m in no position to assess their individual performance, collectively this appears to be a loss that likely will increase, not decrease, the chaos in the White House. Losing them also will tend — depending, of course, on who replaces them — to position Trump and his administration even further outside the party network.
Here’s the thing, though. All year, I have argued that this presidency has the weakest ties to its party since the days of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. I still think that there are some real dangers associated with personal presidencies. But as my Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson said this week, Trump is nevertheless acting as a strong partisan.
I can think of a few possible reasons. One is simply that the overall political environment is so partisan right now that all incentives push presidents to be extremely partisan regardless of their preferences. Another is that Trump’s weak ties to his party make him particularly easy for the party to influence precisely because he constantly has to prove himself to them.
And then there’s what we know about Trump’s personality. He’s easily influenced by what he hears, especially from flatterers. That pushes him to watch hours and hours of Fox News (and even use conservative talk-show hosts as his kitchen cabinet), which in turn means that he winds up adopting their policy positions. And then there’s the negative personal partisanship possibility. Trump is intensely thin-skinned, and therefore, unlike most professional politicians, he’s incapable of working with a partisan opponent after he hears them attack him.
I don’t know which if any of these explains the “hyper-partisan” actions of an unusually personal president. But it’s certainly been the case so far that he’s just as partisan as Barack Obama or George W. Bush, both of whom had White Houses full of campaign professionals who made their careers almost exclusively within their own party network. And I suspect losing three staffers with solid party ties won’t change that.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. Readers may email him at [email protected]