Shortly after noon on Jan. 20, President Trump’s staff will walk to their desks in the West Wing of the White House or the next-door Eisenhower Executive Office Building. For many it will be the first time. What should they keep in mind to ensure that their tenure—and the president’s—is a success?
I asked a dozen former high-ranking White House aides, who served in administrations since 1963, what advice they would give. Their observations fall into four baskets.
First, concerning each aide’s relationship to the president. Don’t be intimidated, and always give him your best advice, especially if you think he disagrees. President Lyndon Johnson tested advisers by dismissing uncomfortable counsel. His aides had never been elected constable, so who were they to lecture him? But if they stuck to their guns and were persuasive, LBJ often repeated their arguments the next day.
Help the president concentrate on the big things he promised. A thousand items compete for his attention: Spending time on small ones weakens focus and costs public support.
Make sure that whatever is said in the president’s name is accurate. Take seriously the review in which aides comment on presidential draft statements and policy documents. Inaccuracies erode public confidence. Trust, once lost, is difficult to reclaim.
Second, concerning White House decision making. Always give the president a broad range of policy choices. Establish deliberative processes to hone the options. Set deadlines to arrive at decisions, and hold enough time on the president’s schedule for him to reflect on what he’s told.
Resist any temptation to present unanimous recommendations to spare the president any debate. Don’t let aides bury options they oppose so that the president never sees them. Don’t sand off rough edges or seek agreement at the lowest common denominator. Rather, sharpen differences among the choices. And always make certain the strongest arguments against your position are made.
No end-runs around the process. The president must hear all his advisers in the Oval Office, arguing in front of him. If he gets input through one-off conversations with individual aides, he is likelier to make the wrong decision.
Give every issue only one West Wing home—a single person in charge of that policy process and accountable for its decisions. But make sure that when discussions are held, each White House department and federal agency with a stake in the matter is represented.
Third, related to dealing with colleagues. White House staffers are part of a team. They were chosen because the president has confidence in them. You should, too. Answer requests and phone calls from your colleagues quickly. Respect their time: Don’t run unproductive meetings.
You won’t be right all the time, so keep an open mind to other views. Change your opinion if given a good reason, instead of staying invested in a wrong approach. Never pretend to know what you don’t. Far better to answer “I don’t know” and then go find out. Assume that disagreements are in good faith, not based on personal malice. Don’t leak information without authorization. Leaking is the coward’s way, and it undermines the president.
Unless you’re the chief of staff or running the policy process, don’t be the person in meetings who sits silent. If you don’t have a settled opinion, explain your difficulties in forming one. That helps the process more than remaining mute.
Fourth, advice about personal matters. Know that simply because you work at the White House, you’re not “it.” You’re only temporarily part of “it.” Someone sat at your desk before you and someone will sit there after you.
Be humble. Your behavior, both inside the complex and in public, reflects on the president. Act with integrity. Treat everyone with respect, especially those who operate in the background: the career staff, Secret Service agents, military aides, aircrews, stewards and custodians. When working with Congress, don’t hold grudges. Today’s critic could be tomorrow’s critical ally. Cultivate lawmakers in both parties who will talk straight to you.
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