Don’t get me wrong — I have zero sympathy for President Trump’s aides who choose to remain in the White House and lie to the American people. Working in this administration in Trump’s circle requires you to say things that are patently untrue; if you make the decision to do it, you have only yourself to blame. That said, one can pity senior advisers such as Kellyanne Conway and Sebastian Gorka who are sent out to declare that we should not pay attention to what Trump says. Not policy! Don’t obsess!
Put differently, Trump is harming himself, the administration and the country because he cannot control his worst impulses. The best (!) defense is to claim that the public pronouncements of the president of the United States do not matter. It would be better from their perspective for us to un-hear or minimize Trump’s words. Maybe it would be better if he said nothing, you know?
To be blunt, the country should realize the president’s proclivity to say things that even his aide cannot defend poses an immediate and ongoing problem, a serious one. The president tweeted on Sunday about the London attack and in the wee hours of the morning today, compulsively confessing (Yes, I ordered Code Red!) that his executive order was a travel ban, and he liked the original. (The original ban included green-card holders and was more obviously directed at Muslims.) In doing so, he may have eviscerated whatever arguments his lawyers have left to argue that the new ban is not a pale copy of the previously invalidated ban. (For those arguing that campaign statements shouldn’t be held against a president, the problem remains his statements in office.)
There is, we strongly suspect, no master plan that involves attacking the mayor of a victimized city, blowing your cover on the Muslim travel ban and worsening our already- tarnished image with European allies. This is impulsive, unhinged behavior — and that’s an inconvenient fact for those convinced that it is honorable to serve in this administration because the presence of mature, sober figures keeps the country from running into a ditch. With the exception of Jim Mattis, who might prevent a nuclear volley or other calamity involving our armed services, there seems to be less and less reason for others to hang around.
If Trump’s response to the London carnage and his pullout from the Paris agreement did not convince you that he is immune to reason and unwilling to accept advice from adults in the room, the latest backstory from his European trip should dispel any remaining doubts. It seems that leaving out mention of Article 5 was an audible that left his team flummoxed. Politico reports:
The president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.
Maybe he was peeved there was no sword dance or lavish reception, as there has been in Saudi Arabia. Maybe he didn’t like French President Emmanuel Macron’s handshake. Whatever the explanation, a president who on the spur of the moment decides not to communicate a key commitment is also a president who might not keep it even if he said it. He repeatedly proves himself feckless and thereby undercuts the United States’ standing with allies and its image with foes. And once again, it demonstrates that when it matters most, top advisers serve up the appearance of sanity without prompting him to act more sanely. In other words, they are enabling him.
As I said before, literally to prevent nuclear war, Mattis should remain, but the other two in his national-security triumvirate have failed to constrain and guide the president when it mattered. Their leaving would be more beneficial than their staying at this point.