When Donald Trump ran for the White House, he insisted that his lack of experience in politics and his complete disdain for the details (or even the broad strokes) of policy were not only not a problem, they were a key reason why he’d be such a terrific president. The system needed to be shaken up, and it couldn’t be done by someone locked inside it.
This is inane. If you don’t like the way your mechanic is keeping your car running, you hire a better mechanic — you don’t hire a web designer to fix your car on the theory that he won’t be tied down to old ways of thinking about car engines. But that’s what 46 percent of the American voters did in November, and now we’re seeing the results.
You can agree or disagree with the substance of what this administration is trying to do. But it’s hard to deny that so far they’re going about it with a stunning level of incompetence.
Let’s begin with the topic of the moment, national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn is in danger of losing his job over allegations that between the election and the inauguration he spoke to the Russian ambassador about sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia (perhaps giving some kind of assurance that once Trump took office the sanctions would be lifted), then lied about it. Among other things, Flynn told Vice President Pence that he never discussed sanctions with the ambassador, and Pence then defended him publicly.
But in the latest round of stories about Flynn, what is perhaps most striking is what a chaotic mess the White House’s national security operation — which Flynn is supposed to manage — has become. As the New York Times reports Monday, National Security Council staff “get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls.” Then there’s this:
Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.
Several staff members said that Mr. Flynn, who was a career Army officer, was not familiar with how to call up the National Guard in an emergency — for, say, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the detonation of a dirty bomb in an American city.
This story — of key White House staff surprised to learn how some particularly important process actually works — is something we’ve seen again and again. For instance, the process leading to the executive order on travel restrictions was apparently overseen by Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller without the input of the relevant agencies or legal counsel, and it ultimately was put on hold by the courts — which was of course precisely what happened, to the president’s shock and anger.
The truth is that no president has ever needed an experienced, capable staff more than this one. Trump’s own ignorance and lack of concern about policy and the bureaucratic details of governing meant that he came into office incapable of offering his staff clear direction on both what they should do and how things should run. In that vacuum, he needed people who could execute policy with a minimum of bumbling, and that takes at least some who understand the system.
Instead, he stocked the upper echelon of his staff with people without any government experience. Look at his closest advisers. Bannon was in the Navy in the 1970s and 1980s, but otherwise has never worked in government. Reince Priebus has never worked in government. Jared Kushner has never worked in government. Kellyanne Conway has never worked in government. Miller has worked in Congress, but not in the executive branch. The Cabinet, too, is filled with officials who have no government experience.
The result is an administration interested in “disruption” which in practice is going to create a lot of destruction. And that’s not to mention the copious, glorious, hilarious leaks. There has never been an administration that has leaked so much so early as this one, driven in no small part by people jockeying for position and attempting to undermine their rivals in a kind of West Wing Thunderdome.
The truly remarkable element of the leaks, however, is what they say about the person whom the leakers are all working for. Leakers have told reporters that Trump watches huge amounts of cable news, that he called Flynn in the middle of the night so Flynn could clarify whether it’s better to have a strong dollar or a weak dollar, that he interrupted a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin so someone could explain to him what the New START treaty was, that he was unaware that an executive order he signed had put Bannon on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, that he threatened to send troops into Mexico in pursuit of “bad hombres,” and that he demands that briefing papers be kept to “a single page, with lots of graphics and maps,” among other things.
While Trump’s top advisers go on television and describe him as a kind of living god with infallible judgment and superhuman accomplishments (“We have a president who has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration,” said Miller on Sunday), those a level or two below are rushing to the media to warn that their boss is a complete nincompoop.
A lot of this stuff is just comical, but some of it is truly frightening. Take this stunning story from CNN about how Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were dining at Mar-a-Lago in the company of the club’s members when Trump decided to take a phone call about a North Korean missile launch:
As Mar-a-Lago’s wealthy members looked on from their tables, and with a keyboard player crooning in the background, Trump and Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.
Well it sure is a good thing we didn’t elect the candidate who used the wrong email, since the current administration is so concerned with the security of highly sensitive matters of state.
Democrats might be somewhat reassured by all this bungling, if it has the result of limiting the progress the administration can make on its goals. But just wait until we get into a real crisis.