Rages, scandal, chaos: it’s a normal White House

 The shape of Trump's tenure is not unique; just look at Clinton's first year

"Once Trump came into the Oval Office with a newspaper folded into quarters showing some story based on a leak from the White House. 'What the f*** is this?' Trump had shouted. Presidential flare-ups were common enough, but Trump often would not let an incident go, roaring on for too long before calming down."

"A joke among Trump's aides was that it was better to f*** up really big rather than have a series of daily minor mistakes, since Trump identified with the celebrated, all-points f***-up."

"The White House problems . . . were organisation and discipline. The staff was too often like a soccer league of 10-year-olds."

You are probably thinking - and I really don't blame you - that you have read more than enough about Michael Wolff's explosive bestselling book Fire and Fury, the core thesis of which (that President Donald Trump is a retarded man-child) received fresh support last week from the president's own potty mouth and Twitter feed.

In fact, all three of those quotations are taken from another book about another president's first year in office - The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, which Bob Woodward published in 1994. I just changed the president's surname.

A recurrent theme of The Agenda is Bill Clinton's explosively bad temper. His press spokesman George Stephanopoulos told Woodward that "he had seen and experienced Clinton's temper tantrums . . . many times . . . Others called them 'purple fits' or 'earthquakes'. Stephanopoulos simply called it 'the wave', an overpowering, prolonged rage that would shock an outsider and often was way out of proportion to what caused it."

We know from Wolff that Trump is also capable of "rages".

"Typically these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff. It got primal."

And: "At points on the day's spectrum of adverse political developments, he could have moments of, almost everyone would admit, irrationality. When that happened he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone." This, writes Wolff, was Trump's "fundamental innovation in governing: regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger and spleen". Nope. Twitter hadn't been invented in 1993 so Clinton's outbursts were confined to his inner circle.

My point is not that Clinton is like Trump, of course. My point is that the presidency will infuriate even the best of men. Show me a presidential biography and I'll show you - with a few notable exceptions - eruptions of fury. Yet each presidential biographer makes the mistake of presenting this as a significant character trait of his subject, rather than appreciating that it's structural: the job is inherently maddening.

So let's leave aside personality for a moment and consider a structural interpretation of the past 12 months. I submit that most presidencies have the following characteristics in the first year. The White House operates much like a royal court in the time of Shakespeare - an analogy suggested to Wolff by Steve Bannon, but not a new one. The president is the focal point; access to him is power.

In his first 12 months, however, he is a powerful novice. Those he appoints to key positions are also often new to government. The other branches of government - Congress, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve - operate according to different rules. The president needs to work with them or at least to avoid their opposition. But to do that he needs experienced insiders, not his campaign sidekicks.

Meanwhile, the press exists in a symbiotic relationship with the government, needing the news it generates, communicating its actions to the voters who elected it, but also seeking to shape those actions by the stories it publishes. Somewhere out there, too, are the other governments of the world, sizing up the new guy.

Irrespective of the president's personality, the Clinton and Trump administrations had the following five traits in common during year one:
" a painful transition in personnel from campaign people to Beltway operators
" because of poor co-operation with Congress, failure over healthcare reform and narrowly won success over taxation (hikes for Clinton, cuts for Trump)
" a fixation on a particular financial market as a metric of success (the bond market for Clinton, the stock market for Trump)
" excessive involvement of family members in policy-making (Hillary/"Javanka")
" lousy press coverage.

In other words, Wolff could have written Woodward's book and vice versa.

Indeed, Wolff could have made the events narrated by Woodward sound so much worse. James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, was dating Mary Matalin, a Republican spokeswoman who called Clinton "a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger". Zoë Baird, Clinton's nominee for attorney-general, had to withdraw because of tax evasion. Not only did the first lady play an absurdly large role in formulating healthcare policy; Clinton even put a relative in charge of the White House travel office. Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel and an intimate friend of the Clintons, shot himself dead in a Virginia park six months after the inauguration. Now that's what I call fire and fury.

As for Trump and the media, we've seen the movie before. Things were so bad in 1993 that Hillary tried to move the press out of the White House into the Old Executive Office Building. Just as Trump jettisoned Sean Spicer, so Clinton sidelined Stephanopoulos. In neither case did the press coverage improve. Still to come in Clinton's case were David Hale's revelations about Whitewater and the allegations about the president's liaisons with Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick. Still to come was the Chinese attempt to meddle in US elections (the Russians have taken over that role).

Context matters, as well as structure. Another reason the Clinton and Trump White Houses resembled one another in year one was that neither had to contend with a crisis as big as George W Bush (9/11) and Barack Obama (the financial crisis).

I know what you're thinking. Trump is crass. Clinton is charming. Trump doesn't read. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Trump is a racist. Clinton's best buddy was Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights lawyer. All true. But does any of that really matter in terms of historical outcomes?

How, after all, did the Clinton era unfold after its first, chaotic year? The president's party lost control of the House of Representatives in year two. He still got re-elected but - as scandal after scandal surfaced - the other side impeached him, although he survived and, with the economy booming, even saw his approval rating rise.

I cannot guarantee Trump's fate will be identical to Clinton's. But what makes you so sure it won't be the same old Shakespearean drama - just with a different cast?

Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

The Sunday Times
  • Show All
  • Newsweek/Daily Beast
  • The Washington Post
  • The Australian
  • Daily Mail
  • Huffington Post
  • Vanity Fair
  • FORA.tv
  • The Telegraph
  • Time Magazine
  • Foreign Affairs
  • The Sunday Times
  • London Evening Standard
  • The Spectator
  • The Atlantic
  • The Globe and Mail
  • Politico Magazine
  • The Times Literary Supplement
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Bloomberg
33 Article Results

Turning Points