Traditionally, the White House has been run on a “broken windows” theory of management. Small errors were not to be tolerated, with the idea that this would help ward off larger errors that might seriously degrade policymaking.
That was the Before Time. With the Trump White House, errors large and small are legion. Start with President Trump’s Twitter feed, with its misspellings and Strangely Capitalized and punctuated! tweets. A few months ago my Washington Post colleague David Nakamura chronicled the bevy of errors and typos contained in White House statements:
Amid all the chaos in the White House — including West Wing personnel drama, the Stormy Daniels scandal and Mueller’s Russia investigation — some wayward spellings and inaccurate honorifics might seem minor. But the constant small mistakes — which have dogged the Trump White House since the president’s official Inauguration Day poster boasted that “no challenge is to great” — have become, critics say, symbolic of the larger problems with Trump’s management style, in particular his lack of attention to detail and the carelessness with which he makes policy decisions. …
In Trump’s world, Air Force One became “Air Force Once” on the president’s public schedule. The White House sought “lasting peach” in a news release touting efforts to broker a deal between Israel and Palestinian territories. And another release announced the departure of an East Wing aide to work for Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), who was reincarnated as Rep. Hill in the next sentence.
Last week, in a tweet, the commander in chief lauded his visit to the “Marine Core Air Station Miramar” in San Diego, prompting “veterans everywhere to facepalm,” according to a headline in the Marine Times.
The New York Daily News chronicled more than 30 of these miscues in the first nine months of the Trump administration.
One could argue that most of these typos and misspellings are picayune. Trump defenders might update Salena Zito’s aphorism and suggest observers take the Trump White House seriously but not literally. But as I noted back in 2016, “Historically, foreign officials and the press parse every word that presidents and policy principals say to decipher any changes in policy. Even minute shifts in language can send important signals to the world.” In foreign affairs, White House statements are taken seriously and literally.
The sloppiness led to a pretty serious screw-up Monday. Benjamin Netanyahu’s
TED talk announcement of Israeli intelligence findings on Iran’s pre-JCPOA clandestine nuclear program caught a lot of headlines but did not reveal much that was new. The Trump White House, however, released a statement seeing it differently: “These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”
There was a lot of pushback to this. Andrea Mitchell noted, “With all due respect, then-DCIA Mike Pompeo testified at his confirmation hearing Iran is in compliance only weeks ago. How does the White House justify a statement that disagrees with the intelligence community’s assessment Iran is obeying the nuclear deal?” The New York Times’s Max Fisher tweeted, “This statement is a lie. Even Netanyahu’s own presentation repeatedly concedes the evidence that Iranian work on its nuclear weapons program ended years ago. I can’t be clearer: the Trump administration is lying.”
Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum blogged a rather prescient take on the initial statement:
My, that’s quite the spectacular lie. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did give a speech today about Iran’s nuclear program, but it was mostly just political theater. It was delivered in English and was little more than a rehash of the long-known fact that Iran had a nuclear bomb program back in the early 2000s. But it was shuttered 15 years ago — and Iran’s uranium enrichment program was shut down after they signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Obama.
I assume that either today or tomorrow some White House flak will “explain” that this whole thing was just a typo. The s key is right next to the d key! Or that an intern wrote it. Or that “nuclear weapons program” refers to filing cabinets full of old engineering papers. Or something. Who knows?
And lo, Drum’s vision soon came to pass.
The White House tweaked the key sentence to read: “These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” Changing “has” to “had” changed the meaning of the statement. For at least an hour or so, however, it appeared to the world as though the Trump White House was accusing Iran of possessing a clandestine nuclear program.
What explains this screw-up? NBC’s Peter Alexander said the White House attributed the mistake to a “clerical error.” The Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, who knows a few things about Iran, was less forgiving:
The correction to today’s White House statement on Iran is not a typo; it’s an error of unimaginable incompetence. It reflects lack of capacity at the highest levels of this administration to vet information, accurately identify real-time challenges, and devise serious responses.
The reason this matters is that it further erodes the trust between the White House, the country and the rest of the world. Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and about the most sober foreign policy analyst you will find. When he tweets that the mistake reveals “either evidence of lack of rigorous national security process or (and much worse) the politicization of intelligence,” it is quite the damning statement. It further signals to Iran that any potential renegotiation of the JCPOA is pointless.
There is little sign that this White House staff will get any better at the rudiments of the job. If anything, signs point toward a further devolution. An NBC News story on White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly reveals just how dysfunctional things are at the White House. On the one hand, it appears Kelly succeeded in preventing Trump from withdrawing all U.S. troops from South Korea. On the other hand:
Officials said Kelly’s public image as a retired four-star general instilling discipline on a chaotic White House and an impulsive president belies what they describe as the undisciplined and indiscreet approach he’s employed as chief of staff. …
Some current and former White House officials said they expect Kelly to leave by July, his one-year mark. But others say it’s anyone’s guess. What’s clear is both Trump and Kelly seem to have tired of each other.
“Kelly appears to be less engaged, which may be to the president’s detriment,” a second senior White House official said.
In theory, the president’s staff is supposed to act as a check against a president’s worst instincts and foibles. In actuality, most staffs wind up amplifying their president’s strengths and weaknesses. For once, this White House is just like prior White Houses. The problem is that, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias noted last summer, “There is a real pattern of Donald Trump’s sometimes sloppy work being exacerbated by shoddy staff work.” This president’s foibles contain multitudes.