On Monday, White House officials denied reports that Donald Trump was considering cutting payroll taxes to stimulate the economy. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he was, in fact, considering cutting payroll taxes. But on Wednesday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he is not considering cutting payroll taxes.
That’s not the only point of policy confusion coming from the administration. After mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump said that he would support legislation that expanded the types of gun purchases subject to background checks. On Tuesday, the Atlantic quoted a White House source who said that Trump had changed his mind and would not pursue background checks. On Wednesday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he is, in fact, hoping to pass background checks.
Typically, the person in a presidential administration in charge of addressing conflicting reports and synthesizing the views of various White House officials into a unified public message is the press secretary, who does so via regular briefings. But the Trump White House hasn’t held a press briefing since March 11, when Sarah Sanders was the press secretary.
Sanders has since left and been replaced by Stephanie Grisham, the former press secretary to the first lady. Grisham says she doesn’t need to hold briefings because the president is so accessible to reporters himself, and she has instead issued one-off responses to reporters’ questions about specific issues. This might be a reasonable approach, except that, as illustrated above, the president doesn’t seem to properly know his own positions. Nor does Grisham: The press secretary told Axios that the idea that Trump would tell Israel to ban Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the country was “fake news,” only for Trump to literally tell Israel to ban Omar and Tlaib from visiting the country in a subsequent tweet.
Given that her boss doesn’t seem to care what she does or says, you almost can’t blame Grisham for mostly staying quiet and out of view. And her marginalized status speaks (ha!) to a broader truth about the current state of the administration: It is even less organized than it was earlier in Trump’s term, when it was, by modern standards, still very disorganized.
Trump has previously had advisers like Reince Priebus, John Kelly, and Steve Bannon who—for all their other faults—had experience managing organizations and pursuing political projects. He’s also had Cabinet members like Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, and recently departed Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats who—again, for all their other faults—were willing to resist his more bonkers demands. All of those people have either been replaced or are in the process of being replaced (a process that is very slow under Trump) by less qualified, more sycophantic individuals.
The current chief of staff is Mick Mulvaney, whose influence seems limited; his name, for example, appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post more than 400 fewer times than Priebus’ did during the first six months of their tenures in the position, according to Nexis. (The highlight of Mulvaney’s summer, from a media-exposure perspective, was when Trump peevishly told him to leave the Oval Office because he had coughed while ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was filming a segment.) Trump is also still advised by his daughter, a lifestyle-brand executive who reportedly referred to him as “daddy” at an official appearance Monday—the White House claims she just said “dad”—and her husband, whose previous experience involved inheriting his father’s real estate business. (Thanks, Daddy/Dad!)
The adviser who’s most prominently involved in two of the most high-stakes issues that are currently on Trump’s plate—the trade dispute with China and the statistical signs that a recession might be imminent—is National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, a notoriously low-accuracy cable-TV pundit who was most recently seen defending the idea that America should buy Greenland.
There is only one White House staffer, really, who appears both administratively competent and intellectually capable of creating a reality-based agenda that has goals broader than indulging the president’s day-to-day whims and grievances: Stephen Miller, who is in charge of immigration policy. On that subject, the White House’s recent activity includes a legal bid to argue that providing “safe and sanitary conditions” to undocumented children need not involve giving them soap or toothpaste, the announcement of a program to punish legal immigrants for using public services, and, on Wednesday, a request to a federal judge to be allowed to detain asylum-seeking migrant families in border facilities indefinitely.
So: No one is even trying to explain what’s going on, and no one knows what’s going on, except the person who is implementing white nationalism. Great!
(I asked the White House press office for comment about how often Grisham speaks to the president, and I will update this post if anyone responds.)