National Opinions

Chaos in cabinet remains a major stumbling block

Clouds over the White House in Washington, Feb. 16, 2018. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, indicted 13 Russian nationals and described a vast, sophisticated Russian operation to interfere in the election, delivering to Trump the kind of evidence that the president has long sought to dismiss as political attacks from his rivals. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)
Clouds over the White House in Washington, Feb. 16, 2018.  (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

One of the important things about the Donald Trump presidency is that it constantly challenges the capacity of journalism to tell the American people what’s going on. Even when there’s good reporting — and there’s been an extraordinary amount of fantastic reporting over the last 15 months — it’s become a cliché how hard it is to explain the big picture.

Take, for example, the current state of the Cabinet:

– The secretary of Veterans Affairs was fired March 28. His replacement’s nomination was withdrawn April 26. There is, as I write this, no replacement for the replacement.

– The CIA director position has been vacant since April 26, although the acting director is also the nominee — who over the weekend had to be talked out of withdrawing as a result of her own troubled confirmation fight. It remains unclear what her chances are for confirmation.

– Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, the administrator is almost certainly on his way out — although, to be fair, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lasted for months as a dead man walking.

– At least two others, the secretaries of Housing and Urban Development and Interior, have been sufficiently scandal-plagued that one or both are likely to leave before long.

– And the White House chief of staff is another dead man walking, with plenty of active reporting about his replacement.

That’s not even counting the attorney general, who the president frequently muses about firing, or the somewhat lesser scandals surrounding the secretary of Treasury. Oh, and the Commerce secretary was supposed to be in hot water with the president a while ago, although I think that one has passed. But who knows?

Any one of these stories on its own is fairly normal. But to have that many positions up in the air at the same time isn’t. There’s a big-picture story here, and it’s a very difficult one to tell. Some have compiled lengthy lists of Trump administration turnover, but I don’t think it quite captures the day-to-day chaos.

Part of this is that a hallmark of the Trump management style is to never solve a personnel problem in a day if you can string it out for days, weeks or even months. Another part is that these things build on one another. The CIA problem is a consequence of moving the former director to State to replace the departing secretary there; presumably one of the reasons all of this is bunching up now is that the president has reportedly cut his own White House chief of staff out of the loop on several things, which destroys the chances of any kind of orderly procedure.

At any rate, it remains a huge story, and one that is extremely difficult to tell properly.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote “A Plain Blog About Politics.”