The ouster (or resignation, depending on whom you listen to) of Reince Priebus as President Trump’s chief of staff last week served as another tug of the crowbar splitting Trump away from the party he ostensibly leads. Priebus came to the White House from the Republican Party’s senior-most position; his departure, coupled with the departure of Sean Spicer as press secretary, means that Trump’s administration is without two of its strongest ties to the Republican National Committee.
And, as Tim Alberta noted in an article for Politico over the weekend, it means that the administration hardly has strong ties to the party at all. Alberta writes:
Looking around Trump’s inner circle, there is communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a political novice who in the past donated to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who used Breitbart to try and burn the Republican Party to the ground; National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, a lifelong Democrat; director of strategic communication Hope Hicks, who has zero history with GOP politics; and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, a pair of self-professed Manhattan progressives.
“Of Trump’s closest advisers,” Alberta adds, “only Mike Pence has any association with the Republican Party.”
Contrast that with July 2009, when President Barack Obama was building out his team. His interim communications director was Anita Dunn, who’d worked in Democratic politics for years. Senior adviser David Axelrod had done the same. His National Economic Council director was Larry Summers, who’d served as treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton. Adviser Valerie Jarrett had worked for Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, which is how she knew the Obamas.
But the relative distance between Trump’s team and the GOP goes a bit further than that. We reviewed his and Obama’s Cabinet members at this point in each president’s first term. Obama’s team had a greater percentage of lifelong Democrats than Trump’s team does lifelong Republicans. Obama had more staffers who had never given to the opposing party. And Obama’s team had more people with experience in elected office, federal appointments or working for Democratic Party organizations than did Trump.
Our full analysis by person:
Even the Obama staffers without experience at the federal level often had experience at the state level, including EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Several had experience or appointments under Republican presidents.
To Alberta’s point, though, Trump’s most senior advisers lack ties to the GOP, save Pence. This was hugely beneficial to Trump on the campaign trail, allowing him to position himself as an outsider unbeholden to the party that provided his glide path to the presidency. In office, though, it’s less helpful. Trump now has no one in his inner circle who knows how to twist arms to get things done on Capitol Hill. (Pence’s efforts in that regard, including a midnight visit to the Senate floor last week in hopes of casting the tiebreaking vote on a Senate health-care measure, have not proved very effective.) The input Trump receives from his senior team will lack the perspective of the party he leads.
Save for passing legislation — a big exception — there may be a plus side to this distance. Trump ran as the populist everyman who would deliver on all of the things that Americans say they want but which never seem to happen in Congress. If Trump were to start trying to effect change that crosses party lines and incorporates the concerns of Democrats as well as Republicans, he might have some success.
But that’s not really the space Trump occupies. His opposition to the party doesn’t stem from his being a centrist, bridging the gap between left and right. He has repeatedly shown that his opposition is like Bannon’s: much further to the right than the party mainstream is mostly willing to go. Trump is the most successful Fox News-watching tea partyer in American political history, and that’s why he’s distant from the rest of the party.
The consolation for Republicans? That second chart, showing how, outside of Trump’s inner circle, there are a lot of party stalwarts who are in positions to affect the functioning of the executive branch. Not as robustly partisan as Obama’s 2009 White House, but at least Trump’s Cabinet is friendlier to the GOP than is the West Wing.