Sunday, February 11, 2018

BTRTN: The Interns Are Running the Asylum

Tom with the “SaturData Review” which updates key political indicators and highlights other pertinent info from the week, plus our "Political Stat of the Week."

The White House – or more specifically the inner circle of Donald Trump – is dominated by overwhelmingly underqualified senior staffers.

There is, of course, “Jarvanka,” the eager power couple Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who wield vast familial advisory power and a portfolio more of less of their own choosing (including, in Kushner’s case, the Middle East peace process), despite having absolutely no prior experience in public policy, international affairs or politics.  That is, zero experience. 

Then come Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks, both of whom joined the Trump campaign more or less as glorified interns.  With the ouster of Steve Bannon, Miller, a former Jeff Sessions’ staffer, has, at 32, become the de facto senior domestic policy advisor to Trump.  Melania-lookalike Hicks, just 28, parlayed an exceedingly modest NYC public relations career into the White House Communications Director position, having outlasted her three bosses (and predecessors in the position) who collectively lasted a mere six months:  Michael Dubke, Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci.  Hicks, while no PR whiz, is the ultimate sycophant and rarely appears to leave Trump’s side.

And then there is General John Kelly.  Kelly is no spring chicken, and, as chief of staff since last July, he has imposed some degree of managerial order on the Bannon/Priebus/Jarvanka free-for-all that characterized the first months of the Trump Administration.  He quickly ousted Scaramucci, forced all the others, including Jarvanka, to work through him for access to Trump, and limited Trump’s paper flow (via top aide Rob Porter), thereby eliminating the most dubious sources of extremist blather from Trump’s daily consumption.

But Kelly, too, is significantly underqualified for the job.   The chief of staff position was created (essentially) by Dwight Eisenhower, in the person of Sherman Adams, and the most successful ones have combined every bit of Kelly’s no-nonsense discipline and managerial competence with another pillar of expertise that Kelly lacks – that of being the ultimate inside-the-Beltway-doer-fixer politico.  The prototype chief is wily in the legislative process, savvy in the nuances of Washington norms, and serves as the overall GPS to successful presidencies, from routine priority setting to the severest crisis management.

Consider this sampling of past chiefs to confirm this pedigree: Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Hamilton Jordan, James Baker, Howard Baker, Ken Duberstein, John Sununu, Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, John Podesta, Andrew Card, Rahm Emanuel…these were all central casting DC insiders.  They ably served presidents who, since Gerry Ford, have largely been D.C. outsiders, either governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush 43) or relative newbies (one-term senator Barack Obama).

No president – ever – has needed the skill set of a classic chief of staff more than Donald Trump, and General Kelly simply does not measure up.  Kelly may have administrative skills in spades, and is certainly helpful on defense matters, but his lack of political mojo has begun to show in sharp relief.

Kelly took center stage this week, and it was not pretty.  It’s never good news if the chief of staff is making news (particularly if your president is Donald Trump).  First Kelly charged that DACA-eligible dreamers who had not signed up yet for the program were “too lazy to get off their asses.”  But he was just getting started as a newsmaker.  It turns out Kelly has been enabling an abuser for months now, the aforementioned, now-notorious, paper-pusher Porter, whose application for security clearance had been held up because both of his ex-wives told the FBI he abused them.  And this was known to Kelly since last fall.

In a simply spectacular miscalculation, Kelly not only kept Porter on, but advanced his career, oblivious to the domestic violence crosscurrents stimulated by the NFL’s wrist slapping treatment of Ray Rice in 2014, and then the tsunami of the #MeToo movement that outpaced Trump himself as The Story of 2017. 

Stunningly, as recently as Tuesday of this week, Kelly worked with Hicks in drafting a memo that was incredibly supportive of Porter, only to have the growing volcano of public disgust finally erupt the very next day, requiring Porter to resign.  Perhaps even more stupendously, it turns out that Hicks has been dating Porter, and naively and staunchly defending him internally in the White House.  How neither she nor Kelly nor anyone else thought to remove her from the crisis management is a mindboggling debacle.  And on top of this, after Porter was gone, Kelly appears to have tried to convince his own aides of a timetable more favorable to his actions, a story that has all the credibility of Rose Mary Woods contorting to erase those  potentially damning 18 minutes of Watergate tapes.  One of Kelly’s chief virtues – his integrity – was all but shattered by weeks’ end.

Kelly’s job hangs in the balance, but he will likely survive for now (despite making it clear he would resign if Trump so desired), perhaps solely because of the paucity of candidates to replace him.  Sure, Trump could slide over Gary Cohn or Mick Mulvaney, but then who could be recruited to fill their slots?  (Mulvaney is already doing two jobs, OMB and the Consumer Protection Agency, which he inherited when Richard Cordray resigned).  Trump administration talent, already a crisis issue, can only go in one direction, given how toxic a position close to Trump has proven.

The brain drain crisis that threatens the White House received a further blow when Rachel Brand, the #3 official in the house-afire known as the Department of Justice, abruptly resigned.  Brand stood to replace the embattled Rod Rosenstein in the DOJ if he was fired by Trump, and thereby control the fate of Robert Mueller.  Now, her replacement may have to commit to never firing Mueller in return for Senate confirmation.

Trump himself was oddly quiet for most of the week, taking a backseat to Kelly, but the madness surfaced now and then.  Trump decided it would be a fantastic idea to have a military parade that Kim Jong-Un would envy, and we’ll see how General Mattis deals with this one.  Trump also declared he wanted a government shutdown, obviously unaware that the Senate and House leadership were nearing the finish line on the spending bill (which was passed with little Trump involvement, save for his signature on Friday morning.)  And while the stock market continued its precipitous fall – officially a correction now that it has exceeded a 10% pullback – Trump, of course, avoided the subject, by and large, avoiding the obvious:  that if he claimed ownership of the market as it rose, then he also owns it as it drops,.

The background is an unusual place for Trump to lurk, but staying quiet usually serves him well.  Trump’s approval rating inched up another point, to 44%, this week, as he largely stayed in the shadows while Porter exited, Hicks defended, Kelly twisted, McConnell and Schumer maneuvered and Adam Schiff was outraged yet again.

Trump did surface at week’s end to nix the release of the Democrats’ response to the infamous “Nunes Memo” which had laid an egg the week before.  He also issued a ridiculously inappropriate defense of Porter, emphasizing, as with Roy Moore and so many other abusive men Trump has defended, that Porter had denied all the charges, and “I think you also have to remember that.”  And on Saturday, he tweeted an attack on the entire #MeToo movement, complaining that “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”

These actions and words occurred too late to be captured in this week’s polling, so we will see if the fallout of the Kelly/Porter mess or the Dem memo result in deterioration next week. 

(A note on methodology: BTRTN calculates our weekly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.)

SaturData Review
Jan 2017   Post-Inaug.
Wk ending   Feb 2
Wk ending   Feb 9
Change vs. Last Wk
Change vs. Jan 2017
Trump Approval
+1 pp
-4 pp
Trump Disapproval
-1 pp
+10 pp
Trump Net Approval
+4 pp
-10 pp
-10 pp
0 pp
-14 pp

Generic Ballot Dem - Rep
D + 6
D + 6
D + 7
+1 pp
+1 pp

-2 pp
+11 pp
Unemployment Rate
Consumer Confidence
Price of Gas
Most recent GDP

The generic ballot crept up a point in the Democrats’ favor, to +7 over the GOP in this week’s polling.  This margin, if it held until November, would translate to a +49 seat pickup in November for the Dems (according to our BTRTN proprietary regression equation), far more than the +24 they need to take over the House. 

(For the generic ballot, we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.)

The stock market correction dropped the Trumpometer down to +11%, meaning that our five economic indicators have, on average, increased by 11% since Trump’s Inauguration on January 20, 2017, a drop from +18 just three weeks ago.  Polling shows that Trump now “owns” the economy full stop, so we will see going forward how he manages whatever future downturns await him.

(The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.
The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP.)


Trump, of course, touts his impact on the stock market, but in point of fact, the S&P 500 rose faster in Barack Obama’s first year than it did in Trump’s.  Note that the one-year anniversary of Trump’s Inaugural preceded this correction, so, in other words, even when the market was riding high, Trump did not outpace Obama in Year One.

Jan 20 Inaug
Jan 20 Year 1

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