May 4, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Trump lives out his LBJ fantasy: no chief of staff

Trump speaks at a table with his chief of staff John Kelly looking from behind

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

LBJ withheld the title of chief of staff from his top aides, and President Trump is now living out that fantasy even with John Kelly in the building.

As part of his exasperation with being handled, Trump has taken to telling friends that — like Lyndon Johnson — he doesn't even need a chief.

  • And now, with Trump and his new TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani conducting their own media-legal operation with little to no White House oversight, it’s becoming a reality.

Steve Bannon — who has zero contact with Trump these days and is loathed by many in the building — has told associates that Trump never had any respect for the chief of staff position and from the outset saw it as a lowly, administrative post.

  • It needed to be explained to Trump that this was one of the most powerful roles in the U.S. government.
  • Trump has never fully grasped the concept. Sources close to Trump repeat the cliché that he wants to run the White House like the Trump Organization — an unstructured family business where he woke most days unsure of what lay ahead, and ran his business like a series of jazz improv sets.
  • Back then, he spent his days on the phone, taking calls, receiving ideas, making decisions on pure gut instinct with a disdain for sophisticated data or prescriptions from consultants.

Now, Trump is effectively running the White House the same way:

  • The Trump 'n' Rudy show of the past few days has operated entirely independently of the White House communications department.
  • Giuliani and Trump are playing a different game, and the staff inside the building only learn about the plays by watching them on TV.
  • White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders effectively conceded yesterday she’s been operating in the dark with her previous answers to questions about payments made to Stormy Daniels. (It’s not the first time Sanders has had to repeat lines from her boss that have quickly proven false.)

A source who speaks to Kelly often told Swan the chief is now resigned to the fact that he can’t come close to controlling Trump:

  • The reality is that nobody can and nobody ever will.
  • Whoever replaces Kelly — if, indeed, anybody does — will have to accept that there’s no such thing as a chief of staff in Trump’s White House.

Get more stories like this by signing up for our weekly political lookahead newsletter, Axios Sneak Peek.

Go deeper