Staffing a Second Trump Term

President Trump addresses a Cabinet meeting in August 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The bench is already shallow.


hat would a second Trump term look like, in the event that Donald Trump pulled out a surprise, come-from-behind victory in November? That’s really a few different, but related, questions: policy agendas, personnel, the shape of the Republican party, and the size of Trump’s support in Congress. Based on his public interviews, Trump himself seems to have no idea of what policies he wants to pursue, just as he seems to think that the most important parts of his first-term record are the ways in which people were unfair to him rather than anything he actually accomplished.

Of course, Trump entered his first term with only a few really fixed ideas, such as walling off the border, moving aggressively to reduce various classes of immigration (illegal immigrants, immigrants from war-torn Muslim countries), renegotiating trade deals and trade relationships, and avoiding major new U.S. troop commitments abroad. What that meant was that an enormous amount of the policy initiative devolved on executive-branch personnel and the Republican majority in Congress. With the loss of the House in 2018, new legislation dried up, and that left people inside the executive branch setting most of the direction.

If Trump is reelected, it is likely that Republicans will hold the Senate, as the party has a slightly greater margin for error in the Senate races than in the presidential race. It is, however, highly unlikely that the Democrats will lose the House no matter what happens. Which means that, just as in his first term, it will be enormously important who is advising and serving the president.

In a typical presidential administration, staffing the second term is a problem. A new administration, usually formed following a change of party control, brings to Washington the best talent in the party: veterans from the last administration, governors and other leaders from outside D.C., rising young Hill staffers, military brass, and a smattering of people from the worlds of media, academia, and business. As the best people burn out and the party veterans take their gold watch, the B team comes forward to staff the second term. Every second term has its exceptions to this trend, but the overall pattern is common enough.

The Trump administration is unusual, however. Trump made so many personal and ideological enemies during the 2016 campaign — people he would not forgive, and people who would not work for him — that the bench was already very shallow. Moreover, he was not expected to win, so few people had planned in advance around changing jobs if he won. Worse, the belligerent attacks on the legitimacy of his election and the general sense of bad moral odor surrounding his administration in many elite quarters made people question the value of having the Trump White House or Trump-era federal departments on their résumé. To cap it off, Trump from nearly the start of his administration was under legal investigation — first the Mueller probe, then the Ukraine impeachment fight — so that joining up meant potentially needing to lawyer up and subject oneself to an expensive and draining legal sideshow.

The result was that the Trump cabinet, White House staff, and appointees to the federal bureaucracy have all featured a lot of people who would not get considered for jobs in a normal administration, leading to a lot of sloppy staff work that has contributed to unforced political errors and losses in court. Trump has attracted some great people to work for him, but it’s been a fairly thin crust that has already eroded in his fourth year in office. Many lower-level positions have gone unfilled, with executive-branch vacancies at an all-time high. On top of that, the Trump cabinet and executive staff have undergone the highest turnover of any administration in the past four decades. The many difficulties of working for a boss with Trump’s personality and public inconstancy, and the witch-hunting climate promoted in some of the factional infights, have exacerbated the difficulty of retaining good people.

The pessimistic case is that Trump’s administration would follow the historic pattern of seeing a lower quality of staff in the second term, starting from what was already an unusually weak position. That could also set off an ideological scramble. The early Trump White House featured a running power struggle over Steve Bannon and his allies trying to fashion a dramatic new form of right-wing populism that would not only focus on Trump’s core concerns about trade and immigration but redirect the party away from things such as supply-side tax policy and small-government conservatism. The Bannonites mostly failed and washed out of the administration, with the conspicuous exception of Stephen Miller. But so did many of the veterans of the party establishment, such as Reince Priebus.

Prominent departures among the sorts of people you’d find in any Republican administration include top military veterans such as James Mattis and John Kelly, old Republican hands such as Dan Coats, Rick Perry, and Jeff Sessions, sober professionals such as Don McGahn, and ambitious Republican politicians such as Nikki Haley. It might be hard to replace the roles they played in the next term, if there is one. That bodes poorly for giving Trump the kind of support, guidance, and restraint he badly needs. With Trump trailing badly in midsummer polls, moreover, it is likely that few qualified people outside the administration are planning for 2021 with an eye on seeking a job in a second term.

The optimistic case, which admittedly was easier to envision in January or February when Trump appeared to be entering the reelection campaign with a strong economic wind at his back, is that the American people deciding to reelect Trump might bring some people off the sidelines who sat out the first term. A one-term president repudiated by the voters might be a liability on a résumé; a two-term president, far less so. Major investigations of the administration (as opposed to Trump personally and his family business, or congressional oversight) are mostly a diminished threat, for now. Trump has been conventional enough, ideologically, to attract more talented Republicans to work for him. The pipeline of younger talent now includes more people who have had time to prepare for a Trump-led party, and in some cases includes people who want one. Finally, the national coronavirus crisis could convince more people who are not fans of Trump that there is a patriotic duty to serve.

If how you campaign is how you govern, Trump’s campaign right now is not offering a lot of cause for the optimistic case. Trump is — quite reasonably, given the electoral hand he is playing — concentrating heavily on negative attacks on Joe Biden, his running mate (when announced), and the cultural Left. The downside of this approach is that it does not build much of a springboard for a second-term agenda, and that, in turn, makes it harder to recruit high-quality people.

Democrats and their pundit class are now also thoroughly talking themselves into pre-emptively rejecting the legitimacy of any Trump reelection, which suggests that another surprise win would be followed by another firestorm of the sort that greeted him in December 2016 and January 2017. That might convince many of the people who stayed out of the first term to steer clear of the second, knowing they would have personal targets on their backs.

The major source of reassurance for a lot of Republicans in Trump’s first term has been knowing that there were enough adults in the room to save the president from his worst instincts and offer him conservative policy options that extended beyond his own limited horizons. If Trump is reelected, we might see that again — but the odds are not terribly encouraging.

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