Throughout his presidential campaign Donald J. Trump extolled his business acumen and management skills, and just before his inauguration he insisted the transition to his administration was going “very, very smoothly.”
Yet so chaotic was his first year in office that in January, after publication of the Michael Wolff tell-all “Fire and Fury,” the president had to publicly defend himself as a “stable genius.”
The White House suffered a staff turnover rate of 34 percent during Mr. Trump’s first year, a rate that would be unfathomable at nearly any for-profit enterprise. Even by political standards, it’s off the charts — triple that of the Obama administration, and twice that of Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder — according to a study by the Brookings Institution.
And that was before the recent messy departure of Rob Porter as staff secretary in the wake of spousal abuse allegations, or the announcement on Wednesday by the White House communications director Hope Hicks — the fourth person to hold the job — that she, too, was leaving.
Now at least one White House faction wants Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser and National Economic Council director — and a relative island of calm and stability — to replace John F. Kelly, the chief of staff who was widely criticized for bungling the Porter affair. If so, he would become the president’s third chief of staff in just 14 months. But in this chaotic environment, for every rumor that Mr. Cohn is about to be promoted, there’s one that he’s about to resign.
With over a full year under Mr. Trump’s belt, and his unorthodox management style fully in evidence, I asked several experts to assess the president’s abilities as a manager.
“It’s much worse than I expected,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University and the author of “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.”
“The most important thing you need as a chief executive is the ability to hire and retain talent,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “Trump said he’d get all these great people to work for him. But the rate of departures is unprecedented. Either he hired badly, or he hired well but couldn’t retain them. Either way, this reflects badly on his leadership.”
As Jeffrey T. Polzer, professor of human resource management at Harvard Business School, told me last year, the time-tested approach is “to surround yourself with talented people who have the most expertise, who bring different perspectives to the issue at hand. Then you foster debate and invite different points of view in order to reach a high-quality solution.”
He added that it “requires an openness to being challenged, and some self-awareness and even humility to acknowledge that there are areas where other people know more than you do.”
Mr. Trump does appear to solicit and consider the opinions of others, but they are as likely to be random guests at Mar-a-Lago, or television pundits, as they are experts in the field, or even his own appointees.
“The lack of attention to data drives me nuts,” said Mr. Pfeffer. Mr. Trump, he said, “seems to have no interest in science, social science, or data,” citing White House initiatives to repeal Obamacare and to rescue the coal industry as glaring examples.
Others pointed to his threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement with little understanding of the consequences for American businesses and farmers, and his decision to abandon the Paris climate accord despite scant familiarity with the science of climate change.
“Nothing about the chaos and turnover in the White House surprises me,” said Charles M. Elson, a professor and director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. He said Mr. Trump “is exactly the way he’s always been. He hasn’t changed in 30 years. He isn’t bound by any traditional norms of management.”
Yet despite the well-documented disarray prevailing in the West Wing, Mr. Trump’s first year has yielded some major accomplishments: business-friendly tax legislation; the appointment of a reliably conservative Supreme Court justice in Neil Gorsuch; the selection of Jerome Powell as chairman of the Federal Reserve; and the dismantling of a regulatory regime viewed as overly burdensome by the business community.
“You have to hand it to him: he has pulled some rabbits out of his hat,” Mr. Elson said. “Hardly anyone thought he could pull off tax legislation after so many other people had tried and failed.”
But Mr. Pfeffer said those achievements occurred despite the chaos, not because of it. For every success, Mr. Trump has had notable failures, starting with overhauling immigration policy and repealing Obamacare. “I’ve long felt that if Trump didn’t do well, it would be because of organizational issues,” he said. “Even with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, he hasn’t been able to pass much. That speaks to chaos in the policy sphere.”
Mr. Elson said Mr. Trump acts more like the typical entrepreneur than an experienced manager. “A problem with entrepreneurs is that people get tired of it and they move on,” he said. “People just get worn out. At some point you need a real manager. A lot of entrepreneurs sell their businesses when they reach a certain size and they realize they can’t manage them.”
Would naming Mr. Cohn as chief of staff ameliorate the problem? Despite disenchantment with Mr. Kelly and his handling of the Porter situation, no one I interviewed thinks Mr. Cohn could fundamentally change the dynamic in the Trump White House any more than Mr. Kelly has.
Mr. Cohn is now basking in the afterglow of the tax legislation, which seems to be growing in popularity with the public. His supporters point to the first-rate team he assembled at the National Economic Council as evidence that he — perhaps alone among top White House officials — could attract and retain talent. He enjoys good relations with Congress.
But if Mr. Cohn became Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, he would have to sublimate his own beliefs to the president’s agenda. As one former White House official told me, “He can’t pull another Charlottesville,” referring to Mr. Cohn’s efforts last summer to publicly distance himself from the president’s racially charged comments while still working for him.
Thanks to that incident, Mr. Cohn has already fallen from favor once, and his current rehabilitation may not last. People like Mr. Trump “have friends for a day,” Mr. Elson said. “That’s another quality of the entrepreneur. Like it or not, it’s part of what makes them successful.”
While Mr. Cohn has influential supporters at the White House, talk of his possible elevation has prompted plenty of opposition, too, especially from representatives of Mr. Trump’s populist base. Mr. Cohn is, after all, a longtime Manhattan Democrat.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on behalf of Mr. Cohn.
In any event, Mr. Trump may be oblivious to the staff turnover, widespread vacancies in the executive branch, and indifferent to calls to replace Mr. Kelly.
“I don’t think Trump thinks much about management philosophy,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “He ran for president as a lark, and look at him now. For him it’s all upside.”