The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump says he runs a ‘fine-tuned machine.’ Here are the ways that’s not true.

The president spoke to and took questions from reporters at the White House for more than an hour, Feb. 16. Here are key moments from that event. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

At yesterday’s surreal press conference, President Trump expressed his amazement that he picks up the newspaper or turns on the TV and sees stories saying that his administration is in chaos. “Yet it is the exact opposite,” he said. “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”

Somehow, the assembled reporters and other onlookers restrained themselves from breaking out into gales of laughter. While it might eventually get its act together, at least at this early stage, this is the most disorganized and chaotic administration in memory.

It’s particularly disturbing that the president and those who work for him seem to be in a state somewhere between denial and delusion, wherein they insist that everything this White House does turns out splendidly. Let’s review some examples of this “fine-tuned machine” in action:

  • Trump spends the first few days of his presidency insisting against all evidence that his was the best-attended inauguration in history; no one on his staff seems to be able to stop him.
  • In White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s first briefing, he berates reporters, lies to them, then stalks off without taking questions, a performance so bizarre that it becomes the topic of two separate “Saturday Night Live” skits. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway later asserts that Spicer was not actually lying but deploying “alternative facts.”
  • After Conway takes to cable news to endorse Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, the Office of Government Ethics urges the White House to open an investigation of her obvious violation of ethics rules.
  • A torrent of leaks floods from the White House, many portraying the president as ignorant, impulsive and erratic.
  • The first military action authorized by Trump, a raid on an al-Qaeda compound in Yemen, goes disastrously wrong, resulting in the death of a Navy SEAL, multiple civilians killed and the loss of a $70 million aircraft.
  • In phone calls with foreign leaders, Trump regales them with tales of his spectacular election victory before turning hostile. Details of the calls are promptly leaked to the media.
  • Trump signs an executive order placing his political adviser Steve Bannon on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, an unprecedented move. Trump is apparently unaware that he had done so, later becoming angry at aides who had failed to explain it to him.
  • Trump signs an executive order banning all refugees and nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. The White House fails to consult the relevant agencies and legal advisers in writing the order. The result is chaos in airports across the country and hurried changes in the implementation of the order, and before long it is struck down by the courts.
  • When the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, decides that the order cannot be defended in court, Trump fires her.
  • Trump’s choice to be secretary of the Army, Vincent Viola, abruptly withdraws from consideration.
  • Rex Tillerson’s choice to be his No. 2 at the State Department, Iran-contra figure and convicted criminal Elliott Abrams, is vetoed by Trump after he learns that Abrams said unkind things about him during the campaign.
  • While dining at his Mar-a-Lago club with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump is told that North Korea has just conducted a provocative missile launch. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to move to a secure and private location to discuss it, so Abe, Trump and his aides examine documents and strategize over their response in full view of club members snapping photos of the scene to put up on their social media pages.
  • Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is forced to resign after it is revealed that he misled members of the administration about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. A new report says that Flynn also misled the FBI when he was questioned about them.
  • Trump’s choice to replace Flynn, retired vice admiral Robert Harward, turns down the job. According to CNN, “A friend of Harward’s said he was reluctant to take the job because the White House seems so chaotic. Harward called the offer a ‘s––– sandwich,’ the friend said.”
  • The president’s choice for labor secretary withdraws at the last moment amid allegations of domestic abuse and the employment of an undocumented immigrant.
  • Six White House aides are fired and escorted from the building after they fail FBI background checks.
  • It takes nearly a month into Trump’s tenure before the White House finally finds a communications director willing to take the job.
  • Of the 696 government positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump has nominated 34 people, 13 of whom have been confirmed, leaving 662 positions where no one has even been nominated.

But while this spectacular goat rodeo is going on behind the scenes, in public the president and his aides insist that all is well. Spicer says that the Yemen raid was “absolutely a success.” Trump says that “we had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban” and that Michael Flynn is a fantastic person who was maligned by the media.

Perhaps you can attribute this all to the fact that the president himself and so many of his key aides have no government experience. Or perhaps there’s some other cause. But either way, it’s almost impossible to imagine this White House or this president actually admitting that something they did went less than perfectly. Among other things, this may prevent them from changing course or learning from their errors. If you’re busy insisting that your screw-ups were actually triumphs, you’ll never consider what you might do differently.

Which suggests that this fine-tuned machine is going to run no better over the next four years than it’s running now.