White House feuds with Cabinet nothing new, but Trump's feuds are unusual

White House feuds with Cabinet nothing new, but Trump's feuds are unusual

In the past few weeks, three stories have leaked out about policy disagreements within the Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE Administration. All involved Cabinet officials feuding with the White House.

There is a long tradition of tension between the White House and Cabinet officials. Richard Nixon famously complained about one of his cabinet officials having “gone native” when he said “rather than running the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy runs him.” Cabinet secretaries work much more closely with the staff of their departments on a day-to-day basis than with the White House. Over time, it’s not too surprising that they would begin to be influenced by those around them as Nixon learned.


Furthermore, while they are appointed by the President, Cabinet officials are confirmed by the Senate and must testify in front of their oversight and appropriations committees regularly.  They rely on Congress for the budgets of their agencies.  Therefore they must worry about pleasing Congress as much as they must worry about pleasing the person that appointed them. 


But the discord in year two of the Trump Administration appears to be more intense more and swift than in other presidencies. In fact, very recent presidents have feuded less with their Cabinet than Nixon and some of his predecessors (although exceptions like President Clinton and Janet Reno and President Bush and Paul O’Neill are notable). Furthermore, the volume of feuds within the Trump Administration this quickly is virtually unheard of.

All of these disagreements have several things in common which distinguish them from earlier President-Cabinet feuds. In all of these cases, the Cabinet officials appear to be interested in policy changes that will endure against inevitable court challenges. The Cabinet officials are also Washington D.C. veterans who understand how effectively to make policy at the federal level (note that feuds with D.C. novices such as Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosTrump awards Medal of Valor, civilian honors to responders in Dayton and El Paso shootings Trump administration fines Michigan State University .5M in Larry Nassar case Government watchdog finds expanded student loan forgiveness program still rejecting most applicants MORE and Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonSenior HUD official reprimanded for making political statements on the job The Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks Visiting California, Trump pledges action on homelessness MORE have not been reported). 

In contrast, the Trump White House appears mostly interested in public relations victories and claiming that policies have been changed long before courts have ruled on the legality of those changes. Presidents are always more concerned with politics than cabinet officials but the lack of concern about actual policy outcomes in the Trump Administration is striking.

Nowhere has this been clearer that at EPA. Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE survived for so long despite his barrage of ethical scandals because he had roughly the same sensibility regarding policy accomplishments as his boss. He gave the White House many opportunities to claim it was rolling back regulations while approving sloppy work that has been almost universally halted by the courts. By the time the court threw out Pruitt’s efforts, he and the White House had moved on to the next phony regulatory rollback.

Wheeler, Azar, and Acosta are veterans of the policy world. They realize that one doesn’t deconstruct the administrative state with press releases and tweets. Indeed one doesn’t really do it at all. Instead, policy change is about making incremental changes and dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Previous administrations worked hard to create new policies. To date, this White House doesn’t appear interested in putting in similar levels of work to undo them. That’s the primary source of the conflict between Trump and his more experienced Cabinet members.

Stuart Shapiro is the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.