Breaking Down That New York Times Story About How The Trump Administration Can’t Find The White House Light Switches

On Sunday, the New York Times published a doozy of a report alleging that the Trump Administration remains woefully unprepared and underequipped for even the basic task of navigating the White House. There is a lot to unpack in this article, so I’m going to break it down line by line.

Let’s start right at the beginning.

President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.

While I don’t want to rule out the possibility that Donald Trump or Steve Bannon is a huge Sartre fan who wants the White House to evoke the absurd, dismal atmosphere of classic existentialist literature, this is more likely just an indication that the Trump team eschewed even the most basic of prep work before moving into the White House.

Like, they could have just asked the last administration how to turn the lights on. Obama demonstrated his commitment to a smooth transition of power, so presumably he would have given them a straight answer.

And that last sentence. Visitors are not shown out once their meetings are over; instead, they are left to their own devices to find an exit. Three possibilities here.

  1. The Trump administration is so callous, inconsiderate, or uncaring that they do not see this as a problem worth addressing—or they are so shorthanded (a later line suggests Trump only has about a half-dozen aides) that they literally cannot spare anybody to help escort visitors.
  2. Nobody who actually works in the White House right now has any idea how to navigate the place either, and so they are powerless when it comes to helping their guests. On a totally unrelated note, here are the results of a two-second Google search I just performed:                                                     screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-2-42-16-pm
  3. Nobody who actually works in the White House right now has any idea how to navigate the place, but this is because the White House is one of those House of Leaves-type deals where it’s actually some sort of ancient, supernatural structure capable of constantly shifting and expanding its layout in an inscrutable reflection of the psyche of its owner, and so any instructions given to visitors on how to exit the White House are necessarily unreliable, if not outright useless.

Anyways, let’s move on.

In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.

Well, of course Steve Bannon works in the dark. What else would you expect?

Also—and I hadn’t fully appreciated this before the other day—Bannon, in addition to (or perhaps before) being a prominent and vocal white nationalist, racist, and anti-Semite, had a long and successful career on Wall Street, working for several years at Goldman Sachs before splitting off to create his own boutique investment bank, which was apparently successful enough to earn him a financial stake in several TV shows, including Seinfeld. And just to top it all off, he is a Harvard grad, through the Business school.


Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later, Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent and intermittently use Twitter. With his wife, Melania, and young son, Barron, staying in New York, he is almost always by himself, sometimes in the protective presence of his imposing longtime aide and former security chief, Keith Schiller. When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

Honestly, this paragraph does more to humanize Trump than pretty much anything else I’ve read in the past year and a half. Trump has achieved his wildest dreams, and his reward is to wander, alone, through the vast and empty confines of an unfamiliar house. It’d almost be tragic if there weren’t a cadre of malicious, ill-meaning forces gleefully using the man’s ignorance and lack of internal direction, existential anchor, or philosophical compass as a vehicle to push through their horrifying agendas.

During his first two dizzying weeks in office, Mr. Trump, an outsider president working with a surprisingly small crew of no more than a half-dozen empowered aides with virtually no familiarity with the workings of the White House or federal government, sent shock waves at home and overseas with a succession of executive orders designed to fulfill campaign promises and taunt foreign leaders.

Clever, clever, New York Times. Constructing the paragraph to subtly suggest that the executive orders and international taunts are the result of giving power to people who have no idea what they’re doing? Nicely subversive… if everyone else hadn’t already said as much.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit, because the next few lines are Steve Bannon talking and Steve Bannon is too despicable a person to really serve as a conduit for any sort of humor right now.

The bungled rollout of his executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a flurry of other miscues and embarrassments, and an approval rating lower than that of any comparable first-term president in the history of polling have Mr. Trump and his top staff rethinking an improvisational approach to governing that mirrors his chaotic presidential campaign, administration officials and Trump insiders said.

I mean, this is understandable. If doing whatever the fuck you wanted for your entire adult life was enough to make you the president, you’d probably expect that staying the course would keep the good times rolling.

This account of the early days of the Trump White House is based on interviews with dozens of government officials, congressional aides, former staff members and other observers of the new administration, many of whom requested anonymity. At the center of the story, according to these sources, is a president determined to go big but increasingly frustrated by the efforts of his small team to contain the backlash.

“What are we going to do about this?” Mr. Trump pointedly asked an aide last week, a period of turmoil briefly interrupted by the successful rollout of his Supreme Court selection, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch.

Boy, there’s a lot of people already willing to leak sensitive information about the new administration, huh? We didn’t see anything like this for Obama or Dubya. I’m sure there will be an inquest within the Trump camp, if there hasn’t been one already, to try and stamp out any disloyal, embarrassing-secret-leaking elements. I think the reality is less sinister, though. These people would be just as willing to leak similar information from any other administration. There are  simply far more embarrassing secrets to leak from this, the weirdest, most misguided administration in living memory.

On a related note, I am goddamn sure we’ll see bestselling tell-all memoirs from the likes of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus once this is all over.

Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president’s, said: “I think, in his mind, the success of this is going to be the poll numbers. If they continue to be weak or go lower, then somebody’s going to have to bear some responsibility for that.”

Not Trump, though. He won’t bear any responsibility for his own unpopularity. He is incapable of considering that the buck stops with him.

I wonder he’s ever experienced a moment of introspection? Sitting in his tower, alone late at night, reading through tweets after Melania’s gone to bed to get some much-needed shuteye, did he ever put down his phone and think, “is this what I want to be doing with myself?” On one of his wedding nights, did he ever think, “will I be here for the rest of my life?” When his children were born, did he ever look into their tiny faces, seeing in them the unmistakable architecture of his own, and sit for a moment in breathless wonder at what he had created?

Or is he the avatar of the vision of humanity Ford Prefect develops in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

His first theory was that if human beings didn’t keep exercising their lips, their mouths probably shriveled up.

After a few months of observation he had come up with a second theory, which was this—”If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, their brains start working.”

Moving on:

“I personally think that they’re missing the big picture here,” Mr. Ruddy said of Mr. Trump’s staff. “Now he’s so caught up, the administration is so caught up in turmoil, perceived chaos, that the Democrats smell blood, the protesters, the media smell blood.”

One former staff member likened the aggressive approach of the first two weeks to D-Day, but said the president’s team had stormed the beaches without any plan for a longer war.

This should give us on the left some encouragement. The more vulnerable the administration renders itself, whether through poor execution, lack of preparation, or both, the better.

The comparison to D-Day is interesting. It suggests the same heroic, messianic worldview which has informed much of Trump’s appeal with a certain sector—he will come in and, through the sheer force of his ability, get things done quickly and effectively in a way nobody else can. Of course, it seems like this staffer—sorry, former staffer—doesn’t quite buy into this view.

Clashes among staff are common in the opening days of every administration, but they have seldom been so public and so pronounced this early. “This is a president who came to Washington vowing to shake up the establishment, and this is what it looks like. It’s going to be a little sloppy, there are going to be conflicts,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s first press secretary.

Ari Fleischer, as Establishment as one can get, seems totally unconcerned with Trump’s threats to shake up said Establishment, and in fact seems glad to spout the company line on this point. All those crocodiles and snakes in the swamp sure are quakin’ in their boots, I tell ya!*

*I mean, metaphorically. Crocodiles don’t wear boots, and snakes don’t even have feet. They aren’t actually quakin’ in their boots or anything. Unless, like, I suppose they could kill and skin each other and make boots for themselves out of the leather, like humans do. Or, at least, the crocodiles could, because as we’ve established, the snakes don’t have feet. But also, the crocodiles don’t have opposable thumbs, let alone tanning equipment for the hides, which presents a problem. There’s got to be some tanners in the Everglades, right? They could probably hold them for ransom. I mean, if they could talk. Which they can’t. But the snakes can. Or at least one snake, according to the Bible. Anyways, you get what I mean.

All this is happening as Mr. Trump, a man of flexible ideology but fixed habits, adjusts to a new job, life and city.

Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests, one of the reasons he was forced to scrap a planned trip to Milwaukee last week. For a sense of what is happening outside, he watches cable, both at night and during the day — too much in the eyes of some aides — often offering a bitter play-by-play of critics like CNN’s Don Lemon.

Again, this humanizes Trump quite a bit! It doesn’t make him seem like a great person or anything, but once more it paints a picture of a man who realized his life’s ambition only to discover that it was far from what he imagined it to be, and is now isolating himself and cloaking himself in bitterness to cope.

Until the past few days, Mr. Trump was telling his friends and advisers that he believed the opening stages of his presidency were going well. “Did you hear that, this guy thinks it’s been terrible!” Mr. Trump said mockingly to other aides when one dissenting view was voiced last week during a West Wing meeting.

But his opinion has begun to change with a relentless parade of bad headlines.

Mr. Trump got away from the White House this weekend for the first time since his inauguration, spending it in Palm Beach, Fla., at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, posting Twitter messages angrily — and in personal terms — about the federal judge who put a nationwide halt on the travel ban. Mr. Bannon and Reince Priebus, the two clashing power centers, traveled with him.

Aaaaaaaand now I don’t feel sorry for him any more.

By then, the president, for whom chains of command and policy minutiae rarely meant much, was demanding that Mr. Priebus begin to put in effect a much more conventional White House protocol that had been taken for granted in previous administrations: From now on, Mr. Trump would be looped in on the drafting of executive orders much earlier in the process.

Another change will be a new set of checks on the previously unfettered power enjoyed by Mr. Bannon and the White House policy director, Stephen Miller, who oversees the implementation of the orders and who received the brunt of the internal and public criticism for the rollout of the travel ban.

Mr. Priebus has told Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon that the administration needs to rethink its policy and communications operation in the wake of embarrassing revelations that key details of the orders were withheld from agencies, White House staff and Republican congressional leaders like Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Mr. Priebus has also created a 10-point checklist for the release of any new initiatives that includes signoff from the communications department and the White House staff secretary, Robert Porter, according to several aides familiar with the process.

Boy, Reince Priebus has had quite a year, I tell you what. Presided over a mess of an election year, only for it to somehow end in a Republican sweep of Congress and the White House, and now finds himself in the White House as a close advisor to the President. Except the President is a volatile, uninformed, childish brat and his other closest advisor is literally a white supremacist wielding frightening and unchecked power by the right hand of the most powerful man in the world.

One of the projects I have in the works is a retelling of this election season in the style of Paradise Lost. It is called Priebus Lost and stars good ol’ Reince in the role of Satan, trying to lead his armies in a war he knows they can never win. Obviously, this has been derailed a bit by the whole “the Republicans won everything” business, but remember that in Paradise Lost Satan thought he’d gotten away with the whole business with Adam and Eve and the Forbidden Fruit, and then God turned them all into serpents. We’ll have to wait and see.

whoops sorry spoilers

Mr. Priebus bristles at the perception that he occupies a diminished perch in the West Wing pecking order compared with previous chiefs. But for the moment, Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council, a greater source of frustration to the president than the fallout from the travel ban.

Ah, okay. Raising kids is important. I can’t blame Jared & Ivanka too much for wanting to prioritize them.

If only that was all they were doing. While they’re off spending nights on the town, the graying, ragged, twice-divorced Steve Bannon is working tireless, 16-hour days on actual, invariably horrific policy. You’d think Javanka (hey, might as well come up with a name for the couple—Jivanka? Jaranka? Kushvanka?), Orthodox Jews who adhere stringently to Shabbat, would feel strongly about their father/father-in-law having as his closest advisor a man who has repeatedly both espoused and endorsed vehemently anti-Semitic beliefs, but nope—gotta attend some dinner parties instead.* But hey! They’re rich, they’re related to the President, they’d get a pass under absolutely any worst-case scenario, they don’t need to worry!

*apologies for the wild grammar in this sentence

Mr. Bannon, whose website, Breitbart, was a magnet for white nationalists and xenophobic speech, has also tried to reassure official Washington. He has been careful to build bridges with the Republican establishment, especially Mr. Ryan — whom he once described as “the enemy” and vowed to force out. He now talks regularly with Mr. Ryan to coordinate strategy or plot their planned overhaul of the tax code.

Two things here:

  1. It took this long for the Times to bring up the whole white-supremacy thing re: Steve Bannon.
  2. Paul Ryan is wiling to go along with anything as long as it might advance his pet projects. This administration could purge every senior member of the government, replace them all with Trump’s Saudi business partners and their friends, and then start a devastating and pointless ground war with China, Australia, and Mexico simultaneously, and Ryan would just issue a weakly worded statement about how he is “concerned” that putting people with funny accents in internment camps is un-American, but remains optimistic that Republicans in Congress can work with the administration on the important issue of tax reform.

Before he was ousted in November as transition chief, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the Trump adviser with the most government experience, helped prepare a detailed staffing and implementation plan in line with the kickoff strategies of previous Republican presidents.

It was discarded — a senior Trump aide made a show of tossing it into a garbage can — for a strategy that prioritized the daily release of dramatic executive orders to put opponents on the defensive.

There is a lot to unpack here:

  1. Ahahahahahahah fuck you Chris Christie your embarrassing downfall is one of the only good things to come out of all this
  2. I like how Christie was the only one proposing something sane and orderly and they were just like “fuck you” and shot it down.
  3. I don’t know which possibility is funnier—that the rest of Trump’s staff legitimately thought that a reckless approach would go over better than something better organized, or that Christie’s idea was only trashed because Jared Kushner really, really, really fucking hates him.
  4. “A senior Trump aide”—and thus presumably neither the man himself nor Bannon, Priebus, or Kushner—was the one tossing the sane plan in the trash (literally), which implies that the whole damn White House is just as unhinged—but I mean, we kinda knew that considering nobody had the foresight/humility (pick one) to ask the outgoing administration how to turn on the lights.
  5. But the rest of that sentence implies that the executive orders strategy was a decision from many people—and there’s plenty of ways to reconcile the different actors at play in those two sentences, but I’m choosing to imagine that that senior aide threw Christie’s plan into the trash in a fit of pique and then the administration as a whole, realizing that they didn’t have any other copies of it or anything, had run with this new plan. 
  6. That’s almost certainly not what happened, but on this evidence you wouldn’t put it past this administration, and it’s easily the most entertaining possibility I can come up with.
  7. Hahahahahahaha oh my god it was around this time last year that Chris Christie threw away his convictions and integrity in order to hitch his metaphorical boxcar to the #TrumpTrain and now one year later he has been reduced to “former Trump advisor” oh my god that’s almost enough to make everything okay I mean not really but you know as a lifelong New Jersey resident the schadenfreude is certainly delightful
  8. Hang on let’s all laugh at Chris Christie a little more: ahahahahahhahahahahahhahahahhahahhahahahhahahhahahhahahhahahahhahhahahahhahahahahhahahahahhahahahhahahahhahahahhahahahhahahahhahahahahhahahahhahahhahahahhahahahahhahahahahhahahahhahahahhahahhahahahhahahahahahhhahahahhahahahahahhahahahahha

Mr. Christie, who agrees in principle with the broad strokes of Mr. Trump’s immigration policy, says the president has been let down by his staff.

“The president deserves better than the rollout he got on the immigration executive order,” Mr. Christie said. “The fact is that he’s put forward a policy that, in my opinion, is significantly more effective than what he had proposed during the campaign, yet because of the botched implementation, they allowed his opponents to attack him by calling it a Muslim ban.”

“Come back to me, Donald,” says Chris Christie, standing outside the Lincoln Bedroom window, freezing rain slicking back his thinning hair, “Come back to me. Nobody else will be as good to you as I was.”

Silence. No response.

“Please, Donald,” he continues. “Nobody else knows how to treat you right. Not like I do. You’ll see. They’re letting you down. They’re letting you get hurt. You deserve better. You deserve me. I wouldn’t let you get hurt. Please, please have me back.”

Three Secret Service agents leap from the bushes and tackle him.

In the past few days, Mr. Trump’s team has stressed its cohesion and the challenges of jump-starting an administration that few outside its group ever thought would exist.

“This team spent months in the foxhole together during the campaign,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. “We moved into the White House as a unified team committed to enacting the president’s agenda.”

All you need to know about the veracity of this account is that it’s coming from Sean Spicer.

As part of Mr. Trump’s Oval Office renovation, he ordered that four hardback chairs be placed in a semicircle around his Resolute Desk now heaped, in Trump Tower fashion, with memos and newspapers. They are an emblem of Mr. Trump’s in-your-face management style, but also a reminder that in the White House, the seats always outlast the people seated in them.

Every so often, the New York Times slips a perfect, subtle gem into their reporting, and that last line is one such example. Of course, that one line can’t can’t compare to the gleaming gold standard of the craft, and probably the single best work of writing to come out of the election season: this December 2015 report on Ted Cruz’s attempts to appear relatable on the campaign trail.

That piece is a far better read than the next couple paragraphs, which mostly just detail Sean Spicer’s and Kellyanne Conway’s roles in the White House right now and can be safely skipped.

Mr. Trump remains intensely focused on his brand, but the demands of the job mean he spends less time monitoring the news media — although he recently upgraded the flat-screen TV in his private dining room so he can watch the news while eating lunch.

I’m not sure why you’d need to upgrade the TV to be able to watch the news. The implication is that the dining room already had a flat-screen TV. Did the last one somehow not work between the hours of 11 AM and 3 PM? Or maybe the problem is with Trump. Is he so nearsighted that he couldn’t make out the old TV, and needed a bigger one? Maybe that’s why he squints all the time: he’s too proud to wear glasses, and he hates contacts, so he’s forced to compensate. I doubt it, though—he had to read from a bunch of teleprompters and stuff in the campaign, after all.

He often has to wait until the end of the workday before grinding through news clips with Mr. Spicer, marking the ones he does not like with a big arrow in black Sharpie — though he almost always makes time to monitor Mr. Spicer’s performance at the daily briefings, summoning him to offer praise or criticism, a West Wing aide said.

Heh heh. “Grinding”. Heh heh. Heh.


Visitors to the Oval Office say Mr. Trump is obsessed with the décor — it is both a totem of a victory that validates him as a serious person and an image-burnishing backdrop — so he has told his staff to schedule as many televised events in the room as possible.

It says a lot about Trump that he thought he needed to ascend all the way to the presidency of the United States to be considered a serious person. But in fairness, it’s still pretty hard to take him seriously, so he may have a point.

Wish we could say the same about Steve “I have cleverly manipulated my way into a position of immense influence that will give me a broad and multifaceted platform for not just espousing, but imposing, my extreme and loathsome views” Bannon.

To pass the time between meetings, Mr. Trump gives quick tours to visitors, highlighting little tweaks he has made after initially expecting he would have to pay for them himself.

Flanking his desk are portraits of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. He will linger on the opulence of the newly hung golden drapes, which he told a recent visitor were once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt but in fact were patterned for Bill Clinton. For a man who sometimes has trouble concentrating on policy memos, Mr. Trump was delighted to page through a book that offered him 17 window covering options.

Kind of odd that Trump wouldn’t have expected the White House décor to be paid for on the taxpayer’s dime. I wonder what he thought about that? Did he consider it wasteful spending, as he has suggested is the case with many government programs? His delight at not having to pay himself makes that unlikely.

His invocation of FDR, meanwhile, likely comes from the common knowledge of FDR’s historical significance and broad renown, rather than any personal admiration of the man as one of America’s greatest presidents. These drapes were used by one of the biggest names in American presidency!, he boasts. Though I guess he could view FDR’s investment in infrastructure, but come on—we both know that’s not the case. Dude doesn’t read. Might have been told about the internment camp thing, though. That’s certainly a (deeply frightening) possibility.


Ultimately, this is very much the White House that Mr. Trump wanted to build. But while the world reckons with the effect he is having on the presidency, he is adjusting to the effect of the presidency on him. He is now a public employee. And the only boss Mr. Trump ever had in his life was his father, a hard-driving developer the president still treats with deep reverence.

With most of his belongings in New York, the only family picture on the shelf behind Mr. Trump’s desk is a small black-and-white photograph of that boss, Frederick Christ Trump.

I knew it. I fucking knew it. For all the talk of his inscrutable motivations, unpredictable psyche, and malleable beliefs, at his core there’s been only one thing that’s motivated him all this time: daddy issues. And I fucking called it.

If you’re still inexplicably in the mood to read more about Trump, might I interest you in The Life of Ronald, my 2016-election-and-Trump-presidency-themed parody of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo

Top Image: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons