Some countries have a head of state and a head of government, one official whose role is largely ceremonial and one who actually runs things. Before he took office, Donald Trump apparently believed the presidency was more the former; he admitted that he thought holding the most powerful position on Earth would be less work than running a midsize real estate and brand licensing company.
A year and a half into his presidency, one has to ask if we’d be better off if we all agreed to have Trump do some ribbon-cutting, hold rallies for his rabid supporters and leave the governing to people who have some clue what they’re doing.
In fact, in some ways that’s already happening. NBC News has a good piece documenting the remarkable number of Trump administration officials who have publicly contradicted the president on matters related to Russia in the past couple of days. This includes the FBI director, the director of national intelligence and the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
That is, to put it mildly, highly unusual, but it’s the kind of thing that is becoming familiar. If you’re a top Trump official, it has become a significant part of your job to to assure people that they can ignore the insane things that come out of your boss’s mouth on any given day.
When they do that, they’re essentially trying to head off the tragic consequences of Trump’s ignorance, incompetence, malice and bad faith — consequences that in many cases are still hypothetical. For instance, Trump has made clear his utter contempt for NATO, arguably the most successful military alliance in human history, which has required administration officials to repeatedly take steps to reassure our understandably unsettled allies that we won’t be withdrawing any time soon. But for the moment the alliance still stands, and Vladimir Putin has not yet attempted to test it by invading a member nation.
In some cases, perhaps Trump’s aides should just let Trump say what he wants but not treat his statements as requiring any kind of action on their part. When Trump demands a private meeting with Putin without any aides present, and then the Russians say afterward that Trump made “verbal agreements” on some kind of military cooperation, the best answer for American officials might not be to scramble to figure out what the hell Trump agreed to, but just to act as though the whole thing never happened. Chances are that he’ll forget about it in a day or two anyway, once a celebrity says something on Twitter that gets him mad.
Another example: When Trump ludicrously claims that he has been tough on Russia, there’s a way in which he isn’t wrong. He has personally been a pathetic supplicant to Putin, but the administration has taken steps to punish Russia for its transgressions, imposing sanctions and expelling Russian diplomats. These steps have sometimes taken place over Trump’s objections, but they did occur.
So what we see is a constant tug-of-war between Trump and many of the people who work for him, in which they try to get him to read a briefing book or moderate his fawning over Putin, which he resists, but they often find ways to do the same things on policy that they would have done even if the president himself were more reasonable.
Just to be clear: I’m not arguing that this means everything is fine. In many areas, Trump’s rancid impulses are being put into direct practice. On immigration, for instance, the administration is enacting a series of policies to restrict legal immigration, shut America’s doors to asylum seekers and treat immigrant families with uncommon cruelty. These are expressions of Trump’s white nationalist philosophy, and they’re happening partly because it’s one of the few policy areas he actually cares about and demands action on, and partly because the people constructing those policies, like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, are just as hostile to immigrants as Trump is, if not more.
Not only that, there are areas where Trump’s indifference to the task of governing means that policies wind up being more extreme than they would otherwise have been. For instance, in previous Republican administrations it was common practice to find a moderate Republican who enjoys walks in the woods to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; while there would certainly be a deregulatory agenda carried out, they would attempt to show voters that they weren’t actively trying to poison our air, land and water. There may have been doctrinaire anti-environmentalists installed in the agencies, but the president’s broader political concerns would have provided at least some moderating influence.
But since Trump doesn’t care one way or other what the EPA does, the ideologues are left to do whatever they want. So first Scott Pruitt was installed to lead the agency; he lost his job only because his small-time corruption became an embarrassment to the president. He was replaced by acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist whose first major action was to ease rules on the storage of highly toxic coal ash, because who really needs to know if there’s mercury, cadmium and arsenic in your drinking water? The chances that Trump even knows that’s what the EPA is doing are somewhere between small and none.
All that being said, we still have a system in which the president is supposed to be running the government. As time goes on, more and more people in this administration may decide that they can ignore what the president says or does and carry out whatever policy they think is best. There are times when that could save us from catastrophe, and times when it could make things much worse.