How Trump Would Manage the Federal Government

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on Super Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on Super Tuesday. Andrew Harnik/AP

Donald Trump has received significant criticism for failing to disclose details on how he would implement his policy proposals, especially when it comes to deporting millions of undocumented individuals living in the United States and building a wall along the Mexican border.

Trump, however, has a simple response.

“It’s called management,” Trump said on This Week in October. “It's called good management and it's called great people.”

The Republican frontrunner for president has not elaborated on who those people are, but his career in private enterprise, an array of books and statements from the campaign trail paint a rough outline of how he would likely govern.

Some of the “great people” Trump would bring in, according to his campaign’s immigration plan, would be career employees. The real estate mogul would hire 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, a more than 50 percent increase of the agency’s workforce. He would also give ICE far greater resources to enforce immigration laws and find people residing in the country without legal status.

Trump has also alluded to making personnel changes at a more senior level.

“My specifics are very simple,” Trump said on This Week. “I'm going to get great people that know what they're doing, not a bunch of political hacks that have no idea what they're doing, appointed by President Obama, that doesn't have a clue.”

Trump has floated the names of some prominent businessmen he would like to bring on board his theoretical administration, but in his private sector experience he has historically maintained a very close-knit group of top aides and executives.

His top people “tend to be people who have stayed with him for a very long time,” said Mike D’Antonio, author of the recent biography Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. “Or they’re people he’s related to.”

At the rank-and-file level, the 22,000 employees in Trump Organization see their top boss as a figurehead.

“He leads by inspiring or projecting a image,” D’Antonio said, likening him to a president. “He’s accustomed to that ceremonial authority.”

As an executive, Trump has developed a reputation as a micromanager -- an approach that could prove difficult to continue when dealing with a workforce of more than 2 million civilians performing the wide range of day-to-day operations occurring across federal agencies.

In a Bloomberg Business profile, Max Abelson described that predicament:

It’s hard to imagine how Trump’s management style would or could translate to government, where hierarchies are impenetrable, micromanagement ineffective, and expensive urns [such as those in his office] susceptible to congressional scrutiny.

D’Antonio clarified, however, Trump is not a “strong operations executive.” His high-profile failures -- his airline, some of his casinos -- were 24-hour businesses that required constant attention, much like the government.

“He’s someone who wants to make the key decisions,” D’Antonio said, though he added, “The management task is quite different from making a deal.” The federal government, he said, “requires very effective operating experience…and that’s not his strong point.”

Trump has intimated where he would turn to get that sort of experience: his vice president. “I would want somebody that could help me with government,” Trump has said, when asked about the qualities he would look for in his running mate.

As a candidate, Trump has laid out some of the priorities of his administration. He has vowed to eliminate the Education Department and dramatically cut the Environmental Protection Agency. He also promised to take on the age-old trio of boogeymen:

Waste, fraud and abuse all over the place. Waste, fraud and abuse. You look at what's happening with Social Security, you look -- look at what's happening with every agency -- waste, fraud and abuse. We will cut so much, your head will spin.

In addition to ICE, Trump has taken a liking to the General Services Administration, with which he recently negotiated to purchase and develop the Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C.  (which Trump describes as “the hottest job they’ve ever put out”).

“The GSA people are tremendous people,” Trump said at a rally in Portland, Maine, on Thursday. “This was in the Obama administration,” he bragged of his ability to win the contract. “I wouldn’t exactly say I had an advantage.” 

GSA itself said at a recent congressional hearing Trump’s building was under budget and ahead of schedule. Trump often brings up that contracting experience, saying “under budget and ahead of schedule” is a phrase Americans would be hearing more often from government in his presidency.

Before entering the race, Trump made clear in his writings he saw room only for a limited government. He laid out his views in his 2000 book The America We Deserve:

First: Get government out of activities it can’t do well. (A list of things government doesn’t do well is a very long list.) Second: Get government back in the business of providing for public convenience (transportation, public works) and safety (police and firefighters), and make sure it does so efficiently. Then judge its efforts by visible, definable results and fine-tune as needed.

One fundamental governmental responsibility, according to Trump, is that fulfilled by the Veterans Affairs Department. In a white paper on VA reform, the businessman promised to reward, not punish, employees who expose inefficiencies. He also vowed to use his signature phrase on “incompetent” VA executives: “They’re fired.”

Trump would not likely feel inclined to bring that firing authority to rank-and-file federal employees -- a reform that has been pushed recently by congressional Republicans and other presidential contenders -- D’Antonio said. His tendency is to keep his attention on the top managers, to whom he typically maintains an intense loyalty.

The developer never apologizes, however, and told D’Antonio, “It’s a good idea to be a little bit paranoid.” That philosophy would likely influence his management style, according to the biographer, which could spell short tenures for his Cabinet members.

“Those people are the ones that are likely to draw his ire,” D’Antonio said. “If they’re shown to be in the wrong, and corrupt, he would probably want to exercise his authority to fire them quite quickly.”

In dealing with the more front-line feds, a Trump administration would have to interact with federal employee unions. While his company has fought every step of the way as his Las Vegas, Nev., casino employees attempted to unionize, Trump is no stranger to organized labor.

“I have great relationships with unions,” he told Newsweek last year. “New York is mostly unionized.”

Trump is still in the process of settling his Las Vegas labor dispute with the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled against him in an initial decision. Trump has maintained good relations with at least one federal union, however; Chris Crane, a president of the National ICE Council -- a component of the American Federation of Government Employees -- is a Trump supporter who spoke at the candidate’s Alabama rally last week. Trump called the union leader, who has a long history of speaking out on controversial immigration issues, a “national hero.”

And therein lies the paradox that could likely accompany a Trump presidency: he is loyal to his deputies, except when he needs to avoid admitting wrongdoing; he disparages his rivals at every turn, except when he has the opportunity to strike a deal with them; and he is anti-union, except when union leaders espouse his views. Ultimately, this could result in Trump not rocking the boat as much as his turbulent campaign and bombastic personality might suggest.

While Trump at virtually every chance he gets decries the “stupid people” who run the U.S. government -- the aforementioned people who have “no idea what they’re doing” -- D’Antonio does not expect him to attempt to upend the core functioning of government. Trump’s specialty, the biographer said, is deal making, “not operating something well or efficiently.”

“He’s been around enough to know not to mess with certain things,” D'Antonio said. 

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