Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostEverything | Perspective

The beclowning of the executive branch in 2018

The Trump administration is not moving down the learning curve of managing the federal government. It likely never will.

March 6, 2018 at 8:15 AM

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens as President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Dec. 20. (AP)

Way back in the first half of 2017, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts pointing out the myriad ways in which the Trump administration was beclowning the executive branch. I closed out the first of these posts with the following:

The American system of government has checked Trump’s worst impulses. He has so many bad instincts, however, that not all of them will get checked. The burn rate of his staff is extraordinarily high, and there is no evidence that his remaining acolytes really know how to govern. We are 70 days into an administration that has nearly 1,400 more days in office. Think of the screw-ups that await us.

In a normal administration, things would have improved by now. Even neophytes such as Trump and his not-at-all-experienced-in-government Cabinet should have moved down the learning curve after a year in office.

Instead, consider the stories from the past few days. There are the steel and aluminum tariffs. NBC News’s Stephanie Ruhle and Peter Alexander reported the absence of any coherent policy process behind that decision:

Trump’s policy maneuver, which may ultimately harm U.S. companies and American consumers, was announced without any internal review by government lawyers or his own staff, according to a review of an internal White House document . …

There were no prepared, approved remarks for the president to give at the planned meeting, there was no diplomatic strategy for how to alert foreign trade partners, there was no legislative strategy in place for informing Congress and no agreed upon communications plan beyond an email cobbled together by Ross’s team at the Commerce Department late Wednesday that had not been approved by the White House.

No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in advance.

It is regrettable that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not weigh in on the tariffs. Unfortunately, Tillerson appears to be busy not spending money that Congress wants him to spend on combating Russian influence. The New York Times’ Gardiner Harris reported on this story:

As Russia’s virtual war against the United States continues unabated with the midterm elections approaching, the State Department has yet to spend any of the $120 million it has been allocated since late 2016 to counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust in democracy.

As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts.

The whole story is a testimony to Tillerson’s rank incompetence, but the last few paragraphs really reveal the depths of Tillerson’s mismanagement of the State Department:

Mr. Tillerson is focusing his energies instead on drastically shrinking the department, leaving a significant part of its budget unused and hundreds of important decisions unmade.

Last year, the State Department spent just 79 percent of the money that Congress had authorized for the conduct of foreign affairs, the lowest such level in at least 15 years and well down from the 93 percent spent in the final year of the Obama administration, according to an analysis of data from the Office of Management and Budget.

Because of the hiring and promotion freezes that have left large sums unspent, as well as Mr. Tillerson’s refusal to delegate spending decisions, the department had a backlog of more than 1,400 official requests for Mr. Tillerson’s sign-off at the end of last year, according to a former senior diplomat who left the department then.

And then there is Ben Carson, a gifted neurosurgeon who took the position of secretary of Housing and Urban Development despite possessing zero qualifications or background on these issues. The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush examined how his first year has gone. It’s not going well:

Mr. Carson’s efforts to steer the agency toward programs that foster self-sufficiency, one of his stated goals, have been undermined by staffing mistakes, his indecisiveness and a president indifferent, at best, to the department’s mission of helping the poor, according to two dozen current and former HUD and administration officials.

All of this has been exacerbated by Mr. Carson’s tin ear for politics — such as the damaging disclosure that he had looked the other way when subordinates spent, at a time of savage budget cuts, $31,000 to buy him a new mahogany dining room suite for his office that included a pair of $1,000 side chairs . …

Mr. Carson denies that he has been marginalized and says he backs Mr. Trump’s guns-before-butter budget approach. “I believe in what the president believes,” Mr. Carson said. “We are in a very precarious situation with North Korea, with radical terrorists who want to destroy us, with the Soviet Union, who has ambitions.” An aide later said he was referring to Russia.

I didn’t even excerpt the paragraphs in which Carson’s wife and son make HUD their own personal playground.

There are plenty of additional examples of mismanagement going on in the executive branch, but life is short and you get the drift. There is no functioning interagency process, and the private-sector people heading Cabinet agencies cannot manage their way out of a paper bag. Even in foreign policy, an arena in which Trump has some genuine professionals, the administration cannot get on the same page. My Bloggingheads partner-in-crime Heather Hurlburt, after surveying a range of foreign policy own-goals, concluded, “Let’s be clear: Not a single one of these problems is about ideology. They’re all about sheer incompetence. Any presidential administration should be able to pick a policy, any policy, and execute it competently and predictably. Not this one.”

There is every indication that the beclowning will get worse, not better. Politico reported that the trade tariffs are just a harbinger of bad decisions to come:

Many in Washington were starting look beyond trade to consider the implications of Trump’s fast-and-loose approach to policy.

Republicans inside and outside the White House worry that the internal breakdown in the administration’s policy-vetting process — which collapsed after the departure of [White House staff secretary Rob] Porter, who coordinated policy across the administration — could be repeated on everything from gun control to infrastructure to drug pricing.

“The same thing is going to be true of every other policy issue,” said one person familiar with the internal policy dysfunction.

The New Republic’s Jeet Heer notes the self-reinforcing cycle going on in the Trump White House:

As dysfunctional as the White House is today, it likely will get worse because Trump is trapped in a vicious circle. His management style makes it difficult for him to hire and retain qualified people. This leads to an understaffed and relatively inexperienced White House, one prone to burnout and poor decision-making. And as more staffers leave, the fewer people remain to advise Trump responsibly and rein in his excesses. If this pattern continues, a trade war might seem tame compared to the wars an “isolated and angry” Trump is willing to wage.

Hee’rs concern applies to the rest of the executive branch. I certainly endorse young people taking civil service jobs in the federal government. The cost of taking a political appointment in this administration, however, continues to increase.

Imagine an organization where the best appointments at the top tier are as incompetent as Sebastian Gorka. That’s the future of Trump’s executive branch.

The Trump administration’s beclowning of the executive branch is not going to stop. The only question is how much damage this administration can wreak in the next three to seven years.


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

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