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I. Buzzing Flies

The West Wing of the White House is a cramped collection of tiny offices, some of them windowless, linked by narrow hallways. New inhabitants are sometimes surprised at just how small the physical quarters are. The current configuration results from a Depression-era renovation designed to increase the workspace of the president’s staff without expanding the physical footprint of the building. Parts of the West Wing can feel grungy and old, and look as if they have been repainted far too often. Many of the offices contain mousetraps to fight the inevitable infestation. Because the windows don’t open, for security reasons, large flies buzz near the ceilings. The relentless pressures and close quarters mean that someone in the West Wing always seems to be sick.

You’ll hear White House veterans say that working in the West Wing is like being on a submarine, sealed off from the rest of the world. “You are right on top of each other and you see each other all the time,” recalled one West Wing veteran. “The day-to-day volume of stuff that comes your way in the White House is overwhelming, especially to a new group.” What sustains you, this person went on, are the stated principles of the president and the dedication of the people working with him to pursue that vision. Ken Duberstein, a White House chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, told me, “There’s only one agenda in any White House, and it’s the president’s.”

VIDEO: The Trump Presidency Is Already in Trouble

But now, in full view of the country and the world, we are watching what happens when a president is elected on the basis of an incoherent and crowd-sourced agenda, one that pandered to white nationalists and stoked economic anxiety. When that same president is someone who has never managed a large bureaucracy and brings almost no close associates who have. And when some of the aides he haphazardly acquired a few months before taking office care more about their own ambitions than his own—whatever they are.

Now combine all that with the inevitable transition from a helter-skelter campaign metabolism to the grinding process of governance. What is happening inside the White House, according to a senior official who is close to the president, is a “reversion to the mean”—a correction of sorts. “When narrative gets bigger than the reality”—for an individual, for a campaign, for an administration—“there is nowhere to go but down.” Two years ago, when Donald J. Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower with his wife, Melania, on announcement day, the entire campaign consisted of three people: Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager; Hope Hicks, the press secretary; and Trump himself, the candidate. The campaign evolved multiple times after that. “We are in a position now where things are in evolution again,” this senior official told me. “We keep adjusting for what is now.”

II. “I Didn’t Ask for This”

When Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office, he redecorated decisively, replacing his predecessor’s maroon drapes with heavy gold ones. He also brought with him a collection of advisers who, according to another senior administration official, not only have “breathtaking personal agendas” and are willing to “malign the people around him” but are also prepared to say, “We are going to do it our way and push through what we want whether it is right for him or not.” The two former presidents Trump is most often compared to are Reagan (for the unserious image that Reagan had as a B-list movie actor) and Richard Nixon (for his authoritarian tendencies, his paranoia, and his antipathy toward the press). But those presidents, this senior administration official explained, had “a real ideology and a real set of issues, and that doesn’t exist here.”

Unlike previous presidents, Trump has also neglected to appoint a professional staff with a high-level governing or White House background. This is due in part to ignorance. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, in his first meeting with Barack Obama, Trump seemed surprised by the scope of the president’s duties, and his aides seemed unaware that there wasn’t a permanent West Wing staff that he would simply inherit.

To get a sense of the current West Wing senior staff, I spoke with members of the administration, including some of those closest to the president, as well as with friends and former classmates of the senior team. Nearly all of them asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak freely. The West Wing right now is a place where the ground is always shifting. With the exception of two family members—Trump’s daughter Ivanka, an unpaid assistant to the president, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president—no one on Trump’s topmost White House staff has been with the new president for very long. That presents a sharp contrast with the teams around Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump’s staff is as unbridled as the president himself. His advisers came together almost by accident and by default. They exhibit loyalty to their boss in front of the camera, only to whisper about him (and about their rivals, often in vicious terms) when the camera is gone.

Before they joined the campaign, many of the current staffers had shown no allegiance to Trump. Steve Bannon, at the moment still the chief strategist, and the self-styled intellectual leader of Trump’s base of “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called them, had tried on several other politicians—Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz—before settling on Trump, whom Bannon referred to last year in Vanity Fair as a “blunt instrument” for his own cause. Reince Priebus, Trump’s current chief of staff, is hardly a longtime loyalist. According to two senior administration officials, shortly before the election Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was heard telling aides that Trump was likely going to lose, and that if he did it should not be seen as the fault of the R.N.C. At the same moment, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who had previously worked on the Cruz campaign, was heard telling reporters that if Trump lost it would be the fault of the R.N.C. (This despite her clarification on Twitter on Election Day that she wasn’t blaming the R.N.C. or Priebus.) The Priebus-Conway story circulates inside the Ivanka camp as a way of reminding everyone who Trump’s real allies are. But even Ivanka has told friends, almost by way of apology, “I didn’t ask for this.” Senior administration officials told me that both Bannon and Priebus partisans have spent hours on the phone with reporters, planting stories about each other and their colleagues.

VIDEO: Steve Bannon, the Shadow President

III. Battle of the Brands

All West Wing staffs come to reflect the presidents they serve. Trump’s West Wing is beginning to resemble the family real-estate business Trump grew up in, which has always had more in common with The Godfather than with The Organization Man. Trump has pulled family close. Kushner now occupies the office that is physically closest to the Oval Office. Ivanka Trump has taken on an official role despite her initial intention to simply be “a daughter.” The appointees who have been championed by Ivanka and Jared seem at the moment to be on the rise—no surprise to some. “There is an asymmetry here. You can’t compare family members to other staffers,” the West Wing veteran told me. “You aren’t going to fire your son-in-law or your daughter.” A close associate of Trump’s narrowed that safe zone even further: “Everyone is dispensable, except one person: Ivanka.” But, this person warned, speaking of Jared and Ivanka, “at some point you get them out of this,” because otherwise they are going to get destroyed. The best rule of thumb for survival may come from Thomas Barrack Jr., a longtime friend and ally of the president’s: “Anyone who works for him and becomes victim to unfounded hubris will quickly be taken down to size.”

No one has been secure in his or her position. Trump’s initial selection for national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after misleading White House officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Six weeks after his departure, he offered to testify before Congress, possibly about his former colleagues, in exchange for immunity. Next up was Kellyanne Conway, who was effectively sidelined. Then it was Bannon’s turn. “I’m not sure Steve does a lot of actual work,” said one person in the Trump circle shortly before Bannon was removed from the National Security Council, a position he had enjoyed for fewer than 10 weeks. Prior to his removal, Bannon had repeatedly threatened to quit the administration if he were ousted from the N.S.C., according to two people familiar with the matter. “It was almost like they were calling his bluff,” said one of these people. This person told me that, while Bannon and Kushner got along well during the campaign, Bannon seems to have felt betrayed by Kushner and has retaliated by planting negative stories about him. Kushner sees Bannon as an ideologue whose approach has stymied the president’s effectiveness.

Bannon was said to have been persuaded to stay in part at the urging of Rebekah Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor whose family is part owner of Breitbart News, which Bannon had run. She had been instrumental in getting him hired by Trump in the first place, and she urged him, according to Politico, to put aside differences and think about his position in the White House as “a long-term play.” Bannon, who has denied that he ever threatened to resign or that he ever insulted Kushner, has been pushing back. “There is a concerted effort to paint Jared and Ivanka as anti-movement” among the Bannon faction of the staff, said one senior administration official.

Reince Priebus, who represents the ever unpopular but ever essential establishment wing of the Republican Party, appeared to be on the ropes for a while but seems safe for now. “Reince isn’t going anywhere,” a senior administration official told me. Priebus has discovered, according to another senior administration official, that “it’s much better to try to be the solid chief of staff than aligned with someone.” Priebus, who is a friend of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, an erstwhile Trump critic, was seen as a necessary evil by the “movement” people. But the failure to repeal Obamacare left Priebus badly wounded.

Who will be next to fall from grace is a daily parlor game of the Washington press corps. What seems clear is that each member of the staff operates with the knowledge that there will always be someone who seems about to fall next, and that that person may well be him or her. This uncertainty is frozen in place by a peculiar trait of the boss: as one West Wing official told me, “For a person who has made a very successful TV career off ‘You’re fired,’ he’s not someone who likes to fire people.”

VIDEO: Jared Kushner, Adviser to the President

Kushner’s domain, while ever expanding in its responsibilities, is a small nook that the president frequently passes. Priebus has one of the larger offices in the West Wing, the corner office that comes with his position. Bannon has the office between Kushner and Priebus. Around the corner is the office of Vice President Mike Pence—one of the few senior people with real government experience. Upstairs, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, occupies Valerie Jarrett’s old office. Ivanka Trump has a permanent office on the same floor. So does Stephen Miller, a former aide to Jeff Sessions when he was in the Senate, and the youngest of the senior West Wing staff.

Without a clearly defined agenda or hierarchy, senior staff members have resorted to communicating with the president and one another through media coverage. “Everyone has their own brand, if you will, and ultimately they want to do what’s best for the president,” a senior administration official told me by way of explaining the leaky behavior of Trump’s senior staff. “But some have different opinions for how best to accomplish that, whether it’s putting themselves out there or not.”

As everyone knows, the president himself is inordinately engaged with cable news, and his roots as an entertainer lie in reality television. And it may be that reality TV has lessons to offer. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a co-creator of the Lifetime series UnReal, told me that she found Trump to be eerily similar to her UnReal antihero, Quinn King, the female producer of a Bachelor-type reality show, Everlasting. Like King, Trump has a knack for expressing shocking sentiments that others may recoil from, Shapiro told me. And, like all great reality-TV personalities, Trump and many of his staff are “sound-bite machines” who share certain qualities: megalomania, a delusion of grandeur, a willingness to say anything, and little regard for what anyone else thinks: “They are this functionally dysfunctional ramshackle group of people who have come together through their own extremes.” Shapiro is currently preparing the third season of her show, and I asked her the secret to maintaining interest season after season. She said, “A rotating cast of characters always helps.”

IV. Playing the Hero

In this rotating cast of regulars, Steve Bannon has for months conventionally come first. Time put him on its cover as “The Great Manipulator.” In reality-TV terms, he would be the Man with the Dark Past. But Bannon’s recent fall from grace exemplifies just how little certainty there is for anyone in the West Wing. “He wears the negative press as a badge of honor, but Mr. Trump doesn’t subscribe to that,” a person close to Trump told me, using the honorific that you still frequently hear among loyalists. “[Trump] wants positive press. He wants positive press and he wants what he is doing to be viewed favorably by the media.”

Bannon had been viewed as one of the two (with Kushner) most powerful members of the West Wing team, and for a time was referred to (reportedly with his own tacit encouragement) as President Bannon—a joke that isn’t a joke. He keeps a personal publicist and is the self-appointed guardian of the issues that matter to the base that got Trump elected. But, according to a senior administration official, Bannon’s effort to put himself on the National Security Council, without Trump having been fully briefed, made Ivanka and Jared suspicious of his motives. “This was honestly a dark-of-night operation,” this official told me. Similarly, the bungled implementation of the travel ban didn’t win any points for Bannon. According to a senior official close to the president: “You could have told Homeland Security to really start doing their jobs. You didn’t have to sign an executive order and piss in everyone’s face.”

But Bannon’s real undoing in the eyes of his boss, according to three people familiar with the situation, involves his perceived attacks through the media against Kushner and Ivanka as liberal Democrats seeking to undermine a more conservative agenda. Bannon’s other big mistake has been taking credit for Trump’s own popularity, such as it is. Referring to the Time cover, a senior administration official told me, “He is very talented at making himself seem the hero of the conservatives who elected Donald Trump”—the implication being that if you lose Bannon, you lose them. “It’s a very smart thing to do on his part,” this official added, “but ultimately it’s not a sustainable strategy for him. The president sees through that kind of thing, and he’s aware of what’s happening.” The official went on: “The reality is, if he keeps this up he’s not going to be here.”


“Anyone who works for [Trump] and becomes victim to unfounded hubris
will quickly be taken down to size.”

Another strike against Bannon is that, when speaking of the Freedom Caucus ahead of the planned vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act, he assured the rest of the senior team, “I’ve got these guys taken care of,” according to someone close to the West Wing. “We don’t have to worry about them.”

One can see how Bannon and Trump might have gotten along. Bannon, like Trump, has been married three times. All of the marriages ended in divorce. The dissolution of the second marriage came with allegations of physical abuse and anti-Semitic comments by Bannon, both of which he denied. In 1990, Bannon, who had worked for several years at Goldman Sachs, formed his own investment firm, Bannon & Co., which focused on media and film. The company fortuitously landed a stake in Seinfeld before the show took off, earning Bannon a small fortune. Throughout the 1990s, he was an executive film producer, and in 2004, Bannon tried his hand at directing movies. His first was a Reagan documentary, called In the Face of Evil, with an estimated $500,000 budget. At a screening for the film, Bannon met Andrew Breitbart, who was creating his eponymous alt-right Web site, which would go on to serve as a platform for white nationalism and attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and women. Bannon gave him financial advice and office space. He later joined the Breitbart board, and when Andrew Breitbart died he took over the organization.

Bannon directed coverage and ran the newsroom like a dictator, according to Kurt Bardella, who worked for the site as a communications consultant for two and a half years. “It was very much ‘This is how to get it done,’ and if you had a different opinion, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ”

Skepticism about Bannon drips from West Wing tongues, making it understandable why he might feel vulnerable. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and a former president of Goldman Sachs, is temperamentally a key Bannon foe. And no matter how many hugs Reince Priebus may exchange with Bannon in front of conservative audiences, so is Priebus. Trump himself played down Bannon’s role in the campaign in an April interview with the New York Post. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said, a statement which ignores the fact that Bannon was the campaign C.E.O. for most of the general election. “Inside, he is a man standing alone,” a senior official close to the president told me. “Even Reince—he thought Steve was his guy, but he’s realizing Steve is the problem.” Will Bannon leave? “Where that ends will be up to the president.” Unless, of course, Bannon decides to walk out.

V. A Hannity-Coulter Love Child

In reality-TV terms, Stephen Miller would be the Young Attention Seeker. The 31-year-old senior policy adviser made a name for himself in the Trump administration beginning with multiple TV appearances one Sunday morning in February, when he vehemently defended Trump’s first effort at a travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries. Miller had helped write the rushed executive order that put the ban in place. On that same Sunday, Miller gamely defended Trump’s false claim that voter fraud on a massive scale had occurred in the 2016 election. Miller’s self-assurance that morning—at a memorable moment he declared that the “powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”—felt familiar to some of Miller’s former classmates who had known him at Duke University. Miller was a campus provocateur on the issue of janitors’ pay and value. A chain-smoker who spent considerable time studying in the common room of his dorm, Miller became “excessively mad” about a request that he sign a birthday card for a janitor who cleaned the building, according to one school-mate. Miller said that “this person has a job” that “we pay him for,” and that it was “patronizing” to give him a card. Miller wrote a regular column for a Duke newspaper, The Chronicle. Over time, his writing for the paper exhibited all the hallmarks of a college conservative, decrying the so-called war on Christmas, feminism, and “leftist multi-culturalism.” The Duke lacrosse case—three members of the team were falsely accused of rape—was a breakout moment for Miller, who attacked the prosecutor and declared “racial paranoia” to be the true culprit in the episode. After the case against the lacrosse players unraveled, Miller, still an undergraduate, appeared on Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor to attack the liberal Duke faculty.

When asked about Miller, one of his classmates noted that stories about Ted Cruz as a student at Princeton made him out to be “really smart, really conservative, and a huge asshole.” Cruz’s conservatism, though, seemed rooted in a deep sense of constitutionalism. Miller, by contrast, was animated by “purity, traitors, immigration, and being an oppressed minority on campus.”

Miller was a Trump supporter as early as 2011, according to one current West Wing official. For that reason, this person said, it’s wrong to think of him as part of the Bannon camp—his roots with Trump go deeper. Miller is “growing more and more in importance because he is liked and respected by everyone,” according to a senior official close to the president, in a comment that made me realize Miller was being saved even as Bannon was being savaged. It is Miller, not Bannon, this official says, who is the true keeper of the policy agenda at the White House, and he has been for some time: “We had a whole campaign with 15 policy speeches before [Bannon] showed up for the last 72 days.”

VI. Survivor

Appointing Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff “was just a cop-out,” the senior administration official told me. It was “too hard to figure out who else to do it.” Reince (short for Reinhold) Priebus might be thought of as the Man with the Midlife Crisis. He is a Kenosha, Wisconsin, political survivor whose position in Trump’s inner circle is as surprising as it is tenuous. It may be that the only thing that unites Kushner and Bannon is their attitude toward Priebus.

Priebus’s role is, by Trump’s design, less powerful than that of a traditional chief of staff. Typically, the chief of staff is meant to serve as the main gatekeeper to the president—having one person atop the hierarchy with unquestioned authority is essential—but Trump’s management style has long been to pit top aides against one another, and almost any senior aide can just wander into the Oval Office. There is not a warm bond between Trump and Priebus, according to current and former Trump aides, and there is a lot of unfortunate history. In the middle of 2015, according to an account in The New York Times, Priebus called Trump to scold him for describing Mexicans as “rapists” as well as for his early reluctance to promise he would back whichever Republican won the nomination. Trump has reminded Priebus of the fact that he urged Trump to drop out of the race following the release of the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape. Despite Priebus’s near-constant efforts since then to prove his indispensability to the president, Trump has “never trusted him,” the senior official maintained. The departure of a key Priebus deputy, Katie Walsh, from the West Wing, in the view of some current and former West Wing staffers, is a sign of Priebus’s weakness. “That’s why Reince is on every Sunday show,” one of them told me. “Trump will watch and say, ‘Well, at least he’s out there defending me!,’ and meanwhile Rome is burning inside the White House.” While blame for the failed health-care bill is spread widely, it lands most squarely on Priebus, in the view of Trump associates I spoke to. “Why did [Trump] go for health care?” one of them asked me rhetorically. “Because the chief of staff had been best friends with Speaker Ryan, that’s why.” That said, according to a senior official close to the president, Priebus is staying put: “Reince is stepping up to the challenge and will be there for some time.”

VIDEO: Kellyanne Conway, the Trump Whisperer?

VII. Conservative “Pundette”

“Don’t spend too much time on Kellyanne,” the senior administration official told me, referring to the Cheerleader Gone Wrong character in this reality-TV tableau. “She’s a harmless, sweet person, but she is less and less in the middle of it.” Kellyanne Conway is one of the few people in Trump’s circle who actually have something like a hardscrabble background. Her parents split before she was three years old, and Conway was raised by her mother, two unmarried aunts, and a grandmother in southern New Jersey. There, Conway picked blueberries during the summer to make extra money. At age 16, she won the New Jersey Blueberry Princess pageant, and she later won the World Champion Blueberry Packing competition. She says that being raised in a family of women should have made her a Democrat, but she was inspired by Ronald Reagan and his positive yet forceful tone.

After graduation from law school, Conway went to work for the colorful and outspoken Republican pollster Frank Luntz and eventually started her own polling business. She was, along with Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, one of the notable conservative women pundits in Washington known to some as the “pundettes.” Conway worked for Vice President Mike Pence, among others, when he was in Congress. She also became friendly with Rebekah Mercer—the daughter of Robert Mercer, co-founder of the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, a major donor in Republican circles. In the campaign, Conway first worked for Senator Ted Cruz, but when Trump became the nominee she moved over to his campaign, partly at the urging of the Mercers.

Conway eventually took over as Trump’s campaign manager and was a cable-news darling. More recently, her ability to speak for Trump has diminished, and she has been cut out of some key matters, including the decision to ask General Michael Flynn to resign. When the Trump campaign arrived in the White House, Conway’s strategy of pivoting away from a question about Trump to attack his rival was no longer available. It was very different defending a policy decision. “The way we dealt with her is that she’s not in meetings anymore,” according to a senior official close to the president. “That’s how we dealt with that. So I’d say right now she’s trying to figure out what her job is going to be.” Conway’s exhortation to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” backfired, both for ethical reasons and because it irked Ivanka, who did not appreciate being called out amid a controversy over a national boycott of her clothing line (and the dropping of that line by Nordstrom). “He loves to see her on television,” one person close to the White House said of Trump and Conway before the inauguration. But Conway’s repeated cooperation with magazine profiles has raised suspicions about whom she is really out for. Conway’s husband, George T. Conway III, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, was recently appointed to head the civil division of the Justice Department. The appointment guarantees that, no matter what her standing inside the White House, she will not be leaving Washington anytime soon.

VIII. A Slick and Silky Gloss

Vice President Mike Pence likes to say he grew up in Indiana with a cornfield in his backyard. Like Priebus, Pence is close to House Speaker Paul Ryan—which is seen as both a good thing and a bad thing. As a senior official close to the president put it, “Paul’s deficit is he has bad political judgment.” Pence’s folksy demeanor serves him well in the vicious world of the West Wing, where, this same official claims, Pence is a “calming presence.” He identifies as an evangelical Christian. His deft handling of the General Flynn affair, hanging back until he didn’t, then quietly slitting Flynn’s throat, makes him a force in a White House that is short on experience and backroom skill. Think of him as the Man Who Is Here to Win.

Pence attended law school at the University of Indiana and spent four years as a corporate attorney. He ran for Congress in 1988 and lost, then ran and lost again in 1990. That second race was notable for what it revealed about how far Pence was willing to go to tarnish an opponent. He ran an ad featuring an actor dressed as an Arab sheikh, in flowing robes and sunglasses, thanking Pence’s Democratic opponent, Phil Sharp, for encouraging America’s dependence on foreign oil. “It was just grossly wrong and overstated. And it didn’t work,” Sharp said in an interview years later with The Boston Globe. Pence, he went on, “was always personally polite. If you met him, he’d be quite polite to me or anybody else. But it was a very, very nasty, hateful campaign.” Pence had learned to play the Arab card long before 9/11. He had also learned, as George H. W. Bush had demonstrated a few years earlier, that a nice guy with a taste for the malicious and underhanded can take people by surprise.

Pence launched into a radio career that taught him how to hone his political message and gave his folksiness the slick and silky gloss it has today. In 2000, with a much higher public profile, Pence was elected to the House of Representatives. In Congress, he immediately argued against the recognition of “homosexuals as a ‘discrete and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws.” He also wanted any resources devoted to AIDS to be reserved only for organizations providing “assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” He repeatedly introduced measures to de-fund Planned Parenthood. As the Republican membership of the House moved ever farther to the right, Pence found himself ever closer to the sweet spot. In 2008 he became the leader of the House Republican Conference. Four years later, he was elected governor of Indiana. Four years after that he was Donald Trump’s vice president. When Trump was thinking about the finalists—they included New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, along with Pence—he reviewed thick briefing binders. At the time, Kushner joked to campaign colleagues that Christie’s read like a John Grisham novel, Newt’s read like a Danielle Steel novel, and Mike Pence’s read like the Bible.

IX. Utterly Transactional

Ivanka Trump, who could play the No-BS Heiress in our reality show, and her husband, Jared, the Crafty In-Law, are both children of privilege and are both extraordinarily loyal to their fathers. The senior administration official told me that, with this president, it is “family above all else. That’s how he has lived his life. Anybody thinking they are going to win a fight against the family is not very smart.” Kushner has reportedly described himself as a “first among equals” among White House staffers—not an endearing self-assessment, but probably an accurate one—and has been given an almost laughable assortment of responsibilities. He is tasked not only with bringing peace to the Middle East but also with re-inventing the way the entire government does business. He is heavily involved in policy regarding China. He recently made a surprise trip to Iraq. In addition, he is now the boss of his father’s former tormentor, Chris Christie, who heads a White House commission to tackle the opioid crisis. Christie was the prosecutor who helped put Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, in prison, and Jared has not forgotten.

The Kushners were a prominent Democratic real-estate family in New Jersey. Their relationship to politics was mostly as members of the donor class. A person close to Jared told me that growing up in New Jersey taught him the utterly transactional nature of politics. His ability to move with ease from one political ideology to another, depending on what seems useful at the moment, comes naturally.

Kushner was drawn into the campaign, and the administration, by degrees—“drafted into this crazy journey,” he has been heard to say. More than anything it’s a reflection of how few people there were to do anything in the campaign’s early days. At one point during the campaign, when Trump wanted to speak more substantively about China, he gave Kushner a summary of his views and then asked him to do some research. Kushner simply went on Amazon, where he was struck by the title of one book, Death by China, co-authored by Peter Navarro. He cold-called Navarro, a well-known trade-deficit hawk, who agreed to join the team as an economic adviser. (When he joined, Navarro was in fact the campaign’s only economic adviser.) Kushner operated in much the same way when it came to crafting Trump’s tax plan—calling up someone for help out of the blue. Given the initial absence of pros who could do the job properly, he also tried his hand at writing speeches. Responding to criticism from the boss (“Jared, this is terrible!”), Kushner said, according to a person familiar with the episode, “I’m not a fucking speechwriter. I am a real-estate guy.”

Ivanka grew up as the favorite child from her father’s first marriage, to Czechoslovakia-born model Ivana Trump. Her parents’ divorce, spurred by Donald’s very public infidelity, was a New York tabloid event, but instead of driving Ivanka away from her father the divorce made her appreciate him all the more—because, she told her brothers, she couldn’t take him for granted. Ever since, Ivanka has valued family loyalty and trust above almost everything else. She and her husband are worth up to $740 million, based on recently released ethics filings. After her father was elected, Ivanka disassociated herself from her eponymous clothing and accessories line. She has maintained her stake in the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C.—an obvious conflict of interest. Trump has included Ivanka in many meetings, among them several with foreign leaders, some instances of which have also drawn charges of a conflict of interest.

VIDEO: Ivanka Trump, the First Daughter

Ivanka is extraordinarily disciplined and aware of her own image. Ivanka and Jared’s three children, Arabella, Joseph, and Theodore, all have names that seem to evoke the Kennedy family. (Arabella is the name that Jackie Kennedy gave to her stillborn daughter in 1956.) Whether these naming opportunities were deliberately pursued, it is certainly grist for anyone who believes that Ivanka hopes to create her own latter-day version of Camelot.

After an early push by Priebus to seed his own people throughout the White House and the executive branch, Ivanka and Jared are planting people of their own. Wilbur Ross and the many Goldman Sachs executives in the White House—despite Trump’s repeated stump speeches decrying Goldman and its influence on politics—are all among the appointees that Ivanka and Jared have championed. Ivanka has recruited the likes of Goldman’s Dina Powell; they met when Ivanka was holding meetings with women around the country. Powell, who was born in Cairo and speaks Arabic, joined the administration initially to oversee entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, and economic growth. She is now deputy national-security adviser for strategy, working for H. R. McMaster—a position of true influence.

Powell is valued in part for her ability to spot talent—someone who might be able to replicate Ivanka’s and Jared’s DNA elsewhere in the administration. Ivanka and Jared are on guard against the story line being spread by Bannon’s camp—that they are, at heart, liberal Democrats working against the “movement” that Bannon purports to represent. Dina Powell is a registered Republican praised by Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Condoleezza Rice, which blunts some of the Bannon camp’s attack.

The story line that is harder to undermine is the one entrenched among at least half of all Americans about the boss himself. As a senior official close to the president explained, “He could cure cancer tomorrow and these people would still hate him—including the editor of your magazine. Donald does that to people. He gets under their skin. People say: He’s unhinged. I think he’s unhinged everybody else. Take a step back. He is who he is and people want him to sit down and be a normal politician. Sit with a child and play catch. He’s not a politician and his range is what it is.”

X. “All You Have Is a Scramble”

This White House team, for all its early policy failures and the administration’s historically low approval ratings, is more visible to the public than perhaps any other presidential staff in history—testimony to the amount of time staff members spend talking about one another to the media they despise. Hate-watching is a key element of reality television: viewers get a surge of superiority and catharsis when watching characters they do not respect but in some strange way are drawn to. “It’s incredibly satisfying to hate-watch [Trump],” Shapiro said—and the same goes for watching members of his staff. Senior West Wing aides, like the president himself, exhibit a trait that is essential for a successful reality-TV show: they are largely unself-aware, not fully realizing “how they are perceived, because they will keep stumbling into the same mess over and over again, and they are really easy to place in a cast of characters,” said UnReal’s Shapiro. They are, in part, reliable caricatures of themselves.

Seen in these terms, this particular White House reality show is a success. Although many of Trump’s signature campaign promises—the repeal of Obamacare, the Muslim ban, the building of a wall along the Mexican border—have so far failed, the Trump presidency has propelled TV-news viewership to record numbers. Cable-TV news ratings in the first quarter of 2017 were even higher than those in the last quarter of 2016, which had the suspense of the actual election going for them.

Gauged against a different yardstick, though, the state of affairs in the West Wing is something we have never witnessed before. In every White House, there are competing loyalties and rivalries. That dynamic is normal. What is unusual about this presidency is that Trump himself is not a stable center of gravity and may be incapable of becoming one. He knows little, believes in little, and shows signs of regretting what has happened to him. Governing requires saying no to one’s strongest supporters and yes to one’s fiercest opponents. To have that presence of mind requires a clear and unified vision from the president. “Without an ideology or a worldview, all you have is a scramble for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement,” a former West Wing aide told me.

And it is a scramble without boundaries. What has been seen in the West Wing is now playing out in every Cabinet department and government agency: the competing agendas of a jockeying staff are being transplanted to the upper reaches throughout the executive branch as now Bannon, now Kushner, now Priebus, now Pence push their acolytes and protégés into hundreds of senior positions. The White House mess may soon be everywhere.

2014

Losing to wind next to his helicopter in Scotland.

Photo: By Michael McGurk/Alamy.

January 26, 2017

Losing to wind at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Photo: By Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

December 1, 2016

Losing to wind as he heads to Indiana.

Photo: By Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

February 23, 2012

Losing to wind while he’s in Scotland to discuss bankrolling an anti-wind-farm campaign in order to fight an off-shore development near his luxury golf resort.

Photo: By Danny Lawson/PA/A.P.

December 6, 2010

Losing to wind in the presence of Tom Brady.

Photo: From Boston Herald/Splash News.

January 20, 2017

Losing to wind while waving.

Photo: By Rob Carr/Getty Images.

July 2, 2014

Putting up a good fight but ultimately losing to wind in Scotland.

Photo: By Michael McGurk/Rex/Shutterstock.

2014

2014

Losing to wind next to his helicopter in Scotland.

By Michael McGurk/Alamy.

January 26, 2017

January 26, 2017

Losing to wind at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

By Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

December 1, 2016

December 1, 2016

Losing to wind as he heads to Indiana.

By Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

February 23, 2012

February 23, 2012

Losing to wind while he’s in Scotland to discuss bankrolling an anti-wind-farm campaign in order to fight an off-shore development near his luxury golf resort.

By Danny Lawson/PA/A.P.

October 21, 2012

October 21, 2012

Losing to wind while he talks to Patriots owner Robert Kraft before a game.

From Splash News.

June 9, 2008

June 9, 2008

Losing to wind at the house on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, where his mother was born before she immigrated to the United States in 1929.

From PA/Alamy.

January 26, 2017

January 26, 2017

Losing to wind while boarding the Marine One helicopter at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

By Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.

January 6, 2017

January 6, 2017

Losing to wind while leaving One World Trade in New York.

By Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

December 6, 2010

December 6, 2010

Losing to wind in the presence of Tom Brady.

From Boston Herald/Splash News.

January 20, 2017

January 20, 2017

Losing to wind while waving.

By Rob Carr/Getty Images.

July 2, 2014

July 2, 2014

Putting up a good fight but ultimately losing to wind in Scotland.

By Michael McGurk/Rex/Shutterstock.



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