The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts spent its winter break
trying to find the warmest socks imaginable oh dear God it’s so cold perusing the assessments of president Trump’s first year in office. Peter Baker’s account in the New York Times was one of the more noteworthy ones, because Chief of Staff John F. Kelly commented on the record. Clearly, one of the political themes of 2017 is the professionalization of White House operations under Kelly. And these paragraphs reveal what Kelly thinks he has accomplished:
Even Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who took over in July as chief of staff, has met the limits of his ability to guide the president. Rather than seek to control Mr. Trump, Mr. Kelly has tried to control the information that gets to him and make sure it is vetted. The structure he has established resembles that of previous presidents. That does not mean Mr. Trump adheres to it.
“I’m not put on earth to control him,” Mr. Kelly said. “But I have been put on earth to make this staff work better and make sure this president, whether you voted for him or not, is fully informed before he makes a decision. And I think we achieved that.”
“He remains fairly unconventional,” he added. “But as I point out, he now is fully briefed on the issues and the pluses and minuses, pros and cons.”
If Kelly has accomplished this task, then surely it is possible for Donald Trump to rise to mediocrity, yes?
Alas, I am still pretty sure that the answer is still no. The evidence is mounting that Kelly’s statement might have been a slight exaggeration. The problem is that, to persuade president Trump, his advisors have to devise causal arguments that resonate with his blinkered worldview. Which leads to some pretty bad arguments.
To understand what I mean, consider what Axios’ Jonathan Swan reports about the internal White House debates over trade policy. Trade is one of the few areas where Trump has convictions that last longer than it takes for him to digest a well-done steak. Trump is a stone-cold mercantilist, and has been one since the 1980s. His economic advisers, such as Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin, feel differently. According to Swan, here are the arguments they are using to prevent Trump from slapping wide-ranging tariffs on everyone:
Cohn and Mnuchin are now appealing to Trump’s obsession with the record-breaking run of the stock market under his presidency, according to four sources with direct knowledge.
They’re telling him the stock market is at an all-time high, and that new tariffs on whole industries like steel and aluminum would hurt it.
They’re also telling him — and others are joining them in making this argument directly to the president — that he’s just given the middle class a tax cut, and that any tariffs making consumer goods more expensive would undo the pay raise he just gave them.
Cohn and Mnuchin’s argument about tariffs having a negative effect on consumer prices is spot-on. That’s good staff work! Well done, Gary and Steve!
It’s the argument about stock prices that gives me pause, for two reasons. First, claiming aggregate stock market effects in response to sectoral tariffs seems pretty dodgy; the literature suggests the effects would be more limited. The second and more basic point is that maybe, just maybe, the stock market is not the best metric to use when talking about the U.S. economy, much less the effects of protectionism.
I suspect that Cohn and Mnuchin know this. But they also know Donald Trump, and they know that the president believes that the stock market’s performance is an enormous vindication of his presidency. It is therefore unsurprising that his advisers would play to his prejudices to advance their argument.
This would hardly be the first time that Trump’s staffers used dodgy evidence to advance their arguments. We know that over the summer national security adviser H.R. McMaster showed Trump a 1970s photo of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, part of a successful effort to persuade the president to stay in Afghanistan. This was some dubious evidence, but McMaster was likely well aware of how Trump responds to visual stimuli.
My policy preferences are much closer to Cohn and Mnuchin than they are to Trump, but that’s not the point. My point is that the quality of policy debates in the White House are not going to be trending in a positive direction. The more that staffers figure out how to game Trump’s ill-informed ways of thinking, the more that policy debates in the White House will resemble the witch scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail:
John Kelly can tell himself that he is providing first-rate information to president Trump. Because of who he is, however, Donald Trump will always be vulnerable to third-rate arguments.