In just a month, Donald Trump will go from being the president-elect of the United States to being the actual president of the United States. When he does, his particular style of decision-making is going to become vitally important to all of our lives. From what we learned in the campaign and since the election, there is reason to believe that his White House is going to be a place of unusual uncertainty, perhaps even chaos, as a president who has no idea what he is doing is served by people who have no idea what their boss wants.
We find a good illustration of this problem in the matter of the Presidential Daily Brief, the intelligence report the president gets every day to apprise him of threats to the United States. As you may have heard, Trump finds the PDB boring and has bothered to receive it only a few times in the six weeks since the election. This is making some people very nervous, as Greg Jaffe reports:
Now it looks as if the PDB’s status as Washington’s most indispensable briefing could be coming to an end. “I get it when I need it,” said President-elect Donald Trump, who so far is taking the PDB only a few times a week. “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t need to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years.”
Those remarks have set off fears that Trump could miss a critical piece of intelligence and raised bigger questions about the president-elect’s attention span and interest in foreign policy. Some Democrats have expressed alarm at Trump’s decision not to sit through the PDB each morning with his staff members. “I think it is totally irresponsible in a post-9/11 world,” said Derek Chollet, a former senior official in the Obama administration. “It is a kind of malpractice.”
Some Republicans downplayed those concerns, noting that retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, could summarize the intelligence for him. “That’s a legitimate way to do it,” said Stephen Hadley, who held the same position under President George W. Bush. “It really depends on how the president likes to take information.”
Indeed, it does depend on how the president likes to take information. This president hates reading — particularly boring stuff such as briefing books — and prefers to get information by watching TV. As he said this year, he can make decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” The idea that he’ll be relying on Michael Flynn to give him the information he needs is not reassuring, to say the least.
Trump is about to be thrust into a situation unlike any he has faced before, one in which he will be forced to make an endless string of critically important decisions. As President Obama has said on a number of occasions, the president doesn’t make easy decisions — those are handled by people below him. It’s only when a choice has to be made between difficult options and there’s no obvious answer that the decision is brought to the president. Obama told Michael Lewis in 2012 that he wears only black and blue suits because he didn’t have time to waste deciding what to wear. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia,” he said. When George W. Bush called himself “The Decider,” he wasn’t wrong.
While it’s not always possible for the president to have a good deal of knowledge about the immediate situation he confronts, whether it’s health-care policy or budget deficits or Iran’s internal politics, it certainly helps. Since Trump has neither worked a day in government nor evinced the barest interest in policy, there will be almost no decisions to which Trump will bring any base of knowledge.
That means that perhaps more than any president in history, he’ll have to rely on the people who know more about that particular area than he does to give him the information he needs to make the best decision. This is something all presidents must do, but Trump will be further hampered by what appears to be a deep distrust of anyone who actually has that kind of knowledge.
I suspect that distrust comes from what is obviously his profound intellectual insecurity — no actual smart person goes around saying things like “I’m, like, a smart person” and “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy” and “I have a very good brain” and “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time” and “Look, I went to the best school, I was a good student and all of this stuff. I mean, I’m a smart person,” unless they have some serious issues.
But for whatever reason, Trump is positively contemptuous of those with expertise, as we saw over and over during the campaign. Trump would assure us that “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” or “I know more about renewables than any human being on earth” or “I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.” These are things he actually said and seems to believe.
So inside the Oval Office, a particular scenario will likely play itself out over and over. Trump will be presented with a decision he has to make on a matter about which he knows nothing. In order to bring him up to speed, he’ll be given the views of some experts, perhaps in person, or in a document, or communicated by his close aides. He’ll then have to weigh what those experts have told him. And what will he do? There’s no way to predict. On one hand, he has this contempt for experts, yet on the other hand, as Jenna Johnson and Robert Costa reported in August, according to those around him, “Trump tends to echo the words of the last person with whom he spoke, making direct access to him even more valuable.”
This is all made even more unusual by the fact that Trump has no coherent ideology or policy agenda. There have been presidents who didn’t concern themselves with the details, like Ronald Reagan. But the people who worked for Reagan knew what he believed and what he wanted (and they largely shared those views), which made implementing policy possible. In Trump’s case, it’s impossible to predict what he might think about an issue he hasn’t dealt with directly, and there’s no way to know whether what he thinks about it today will be the same thing he thinks about it tomorrow.
That’s troubling enough when there aren’t lives at stake in what Donald Trump decides. But before long, there will be.