ot long ago the Washington tabloid Politico cast its gaze across the fruited plain and made a dubious declaration. “A star-turned president has created a reality show in the White House,” it said, “with Americans eating up storylines of who is rising, who is fading, and who is screwing up.” Even after I had reconciled myself to the unique adjective “star-turned,” I still had a quibble with that claim. For the Americans who are eating up storylines about White House personnel already live here in Washington. From what I can tell, Americans in the Land Beyond the Beltway try to think about Washington as little as possible, and when they do, it’s more about how their star-turned president is handling the government than how the president’s counselor, Steve Bannon, is getting along with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They probably think a little more about Ivanka, and who can blame them.
Politico was right about one thing. Members of the political class in Washington have decided to cast every development in the Trump White House as melodrama, played out by stock characters drawn from their own exhausted imaginations.
“In Battle for Trump’s Heart and Mind,” read the headline in the New York Times, “It’s Bannon vs. Kushner.”
“Bannon wants a war on Washington,” said the Washington Post. “Now he’s part of one inside the White House.”
New York magazine: “Bannon’s Biblical Fall.”
And Vanity Fair took many thousand words to take us “Inside the Kushner-Bannon Civil War.”
Battles, the Bible, a civil war—it’s all very exciting!
We call it “palace intrigue.” All day every day, according to the White House press corps, one faction is scheming to undermine another, for reasons never entirely clear. It’s a wonder they have time to do anything else. Palace intrigue has been a common feature of the White House for a long time. Most political junkies can tell you about the fights between the Reaganites and the moderates back in the ’80s, or the rasslin’ between the Georgia good-old-boys and Beltway Democrats during the confusing reign of Jimmy Carter. Who will ever forget how the “knives were out” for Donald Rumsfeld under George W. Bush, or the dramatic defenestration of the lordly John Sununu from the White House of W.’s father? The phrase “White House in disarray” is a hot key on the headline writer’s keyboard.
Travel a little further back in postwar history, however, and you won’t find many tales of palace intrigue. Aside from Missy LeHand and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were the archenemies trying to destroy each other in FDR’s White House? President Eisenhower’s chief of staff resigned over a now-forgotten scandal involving the gift of a vicuña coat, but otherwise Ike’s staff was as placid as his smile. (Nobody remembers what vicuña is, either.) This suggests that a lot of palace intrigue is less a function of the modern presidency than of the way reporters cover the modern presidency.
The press corps encircling the Trump White House would be unrecognizable to a press aide from, say, the Ford administration. White House reporters are younger, more argumentative, less experienced in matters of state, and consumed by trivia—easily bored, easily excited, easily gulled. If palace intrigue didn’t exist, we would have to invent it, and we probably have.
Consider those headlines. They came out in early April, among a dozen major stories about the infighting between two factions in the Trump White House—a “West Wing Game of Thrones,” as one report called it. The tip sheet Axios summarized the coverage with breathless urgency. “President Trump is considering a broad shake-up of his White House,” we were told. The victims “could include” Bannon and Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus. “High-level leaks” said that Bannon was “fed up” and wanted to quit. But no! “Associates” say Bannon is “playing for keeps”! “He’s told associates: ‘I love a gunfight.’” And the president’s son-in-law, who would presumably be used for Bannon’s target practice? He “could be” behind the shake-up. Axios even included a list of people who “insiders” say might replace the as-good-as-dead chief of staff.
A reader can react one of several ways to stories of palace intrigue. If he lives in Washington, he will probably swallow them whole and then talk about little else until the next palace intrigues are concocted. If you live far enough away from Washington, however, you will be more skeptical. There are many thresholds of credibility to cross. You must, first, assume that the reporters themselves are trustworthy. There’s no reason to doubt they’re accurately recording what they’ve been told; very few Washington reporters, if any, are fabricators.
But a fair number of them are chumps. While their stenographic skills may be beyond question, their ability to resist manipulation is less certain. In weaving a good intrigue, a reporter has to penetrate the motives of his sources and sift rumor from fact, and knowledge from wish fulfillment, all the while discounting his own fervid wish that the juicy story is true. Taken together, this task requires an advanced level of self-knowledge and a heightened sensitivity to others that borders on clairvoyance. Why a person of such rare gifts would want to be a White House reporter, I can’t imagine.
The Vanity Fair article about the Bannon-Kushner civil war shows how dubious such stories can be. The article appears to be brimming over with sources, and of course we are never told who they are. We are left to rely on the writer’s judgment that they’re not taking her for a ride. The signs aren’t encouraging. She says she spoke to “members of the administration, including some of those closest to the president, as well as with friends and former classmates of the senior team.” She wants us to understand this crew is unlike any in recent presidential history. “They exhibit loyalty to [Trump] in front of the camera,” she writes with a kind of astonishment, “only to whisper about him when the camera is gone.” It’s a revelation to her. There’s one born every minute.
How many actual sources has she used? We read quotes from “one senior administration official,” a “West Wing veteran,” “one senior administration official,” “one West Wing official,” “a senior administration official” again, “someone close to the West Wing,” “one senior official close to the president,” “one senior official close to the president” again, “someone close to Trump” . . . When the story is through we’ve been swamped with dozens of anonymous quotes, and to judge by these identifiers, all the quotes could have come from a total of three people. She confirms one anecdote by attributing it to “two people familiar with the matter.” She doesn’t consider the possibility that the two people simply heard the same rumor and passed it on to her.
It is essential to the hack catechism that letting bureaucrats and politicos speak anonymously ensures their candor. “Nearly all of them asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak freely,” is how the Vanity Fair writer puts it. And that is one way to look at it. It’s also possible that the cloak of anonymity allows sources to impress a big-shot reporter by telling more than they know or sounding more certain than they are. Worse, anonymity gives them license to spread rumors, misunderstandings, half-truths, and outright lies without fear of consequence. Most of us learn early on in life that a person who tells unflattering secrets about his colleagues and friends isn’t to be trusted anyway. In Washington, the scummier the staffer, the more reliable the source.
The Great White House Shake-up, caused by the Civil War between Bannon and Trump, was the White House press corps’ obsession for most of April. Then April was gone, and even now, in mid-May, there’s no sign of the shake-up. It might happen still, of course, but the most convenient feature of palace-intrigue stories is that they’re unfalsifiable: We will never be sure the shake-up was going to happen at all. Meanwhile, the biggest personnel story of Trump’s young presidency—the sacking of FBI director James Comey—came as a complete surprise. Palace watchers and palace sources, reporters and courtiers alike, on the record and off, were stunned. At least that’s what a senior official would tell me, I’m pretty sure.