Take a bow, Jeb Bush. Remember how you said that Donald Trump was “a chaos candidate,” and that he’d probably be “a chaos president”? Well, you nailed it.
A headline in the New York Times, Jan. 29, 2017: “How Trump’s Rush to Enact an Immigration Ban Unleashed Global Chaos.” President Trump had just signed an executive order on immigration that barred visitors from seven Muslim countries. The order had been cooked up in secret by two hard-line White House aides, Stephen Miller and Stephen K. Bannon. John Kelly, then the secretary of Homeland Security, was not briefed until Trump was signing it. No one knew the details: Were existing visas canceled? Did the ban apply to U.S. Green Card holders? The result: mass confusion at airports. Within hours, federal judges began intervening to block this ill-conceived decree, forcing the administration back to the drawing board.
This tragedy of errors was chalked up by Trump apologists to his inexperience. So what is the excuse a year later when chaos still reigns in the White House?
The 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum was also conceived by two renegade officials, White House staffer Peter Navarro and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who circumvented the normal policy process with the president’s connivance. On March 1, Trump announced the counterproductive tariffs, followed the next morning by an imbecilic tweet that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” The stock market dived, even though no executive order was ready.
This set off a furious behind-the-scenes struggle over the details. As late as Thursday morning, West Wing aides had no idea what, if anything. the president would announce. That afternoon, Trump said that that he would grant temporary waivers to Mexico, Canada and possibly other countries: “I’m sticking with 10 and 25 initially. I’ll have a right to go up or down depending on the country, and I’ll have a right to drop out countries or add countries.” In other words, tariff policy will vary according to his whims. This is the Humpty Dumpty Doctrine: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”
The same ad hoc approach was evident that same day when Trump summoned to his office startled South Korean officials who were meeting his aides. The South Koreans said that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un wants to meet Trump (of course he does!) and would be willing to suspend his missile and nuclear tests and discuss denuclearization. “OK, OK,” Trump replied with all the forethought that he might give to deciding between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder. “Tell them I’ll do it.”
Trump made this risky decision without hearing directly from the North Koreans and without consulting his secretary of state, who just hours earlier had said, “We’re a long way from negotiations.” The next day, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to walk back the RSVP, saying, “The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea,” but other officials insisted that the summit “stands.” To imagine how the discussions will go, if they actually take place, remember how “surreal” Trump’s meetings with U.S. lawmakers have been. Only now he will be babbling incomprehensibly about a nuclear crisis, not guns or immigration.
Trump is uncontrollable and uneducable. The “adults” in the White House have done their best but will never succeed for the simple reason that subordinates cannot tell their childish boss what to do. Those who try are chewed up and spit out. Economic adviser Gary Cohn is leaving; national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly may not be far behind. Why Tillerson stays for more humiliation is a mystery. Trump has even lost his emotional support pillars, Communications Director Hope Hicks and bodyguard Keith Schiller. This White House has seen 43 percent turnover among senior staff, compared to 9 percent for Barack Obama in his first year and 6 percent for George W. Bush.
Trump doesn’t care. During the campaign, after having shown that he had never heard of the nuclear triad, he disdained the need to consult foreign policy advisers: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” He has certainly said a lot of things, but if there is evidence that he has “a very good brain” it must be classified at a level that Jared Kushner can no longer access. This administration was born in chaos and will die in chaos because Trump has a chaotic mind and a compulsion to inflict his mental disorder on the wider world. This is how the American era will end — not with a bang but with buffoonery.