There are many individual reasons for these failures, but a common problem can be found in the old adage that “people are policy.” Trump, the worst-qualified president in history, has appointed the worst people and created the worst policy process. Is it any wonder the result is such an awful mess?
Look at who was front and center at the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, and then in South Korea. Here was first daughter Ivanka Trump giving a cringe-worthy readout of Trump’s meeting with the Indian prime minister. Here she was awkwardly trying to insert herself into a conversation among the British prime minister, Canadian prime minister and French president as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund looked on incredulously. And here she was walking onto a stage as if it were a catwalk in Milan so that Trump could introduce her to U.S. service members alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — “Beauty and the Beast,” as the president put it. First son-in-law Jared Kushner was also present in Seoul and Osaka although less visible. Perhaps he was tired from his trip to Bahrain the previous week to unveil a D.O.A. economic development plan for the Palestinians.
What president in his right mind would appoint a fashion designer and a real estate developer — neither with any relevant knowledge or experience — to meddle in foreign policy? In any other administration, Kushner or Ivanka Trump would be lucky to be appointed ambassador to the Seychelles. In this one, the crown prince and princess can do whatever they want.
In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson described how Kushner ran his own foreign policy with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico without informing the State Department. Tillerson once walked into a restaurant to find the Mexican foreign minister — who had not told him he was coming to Washington — deep in negotiations with Kushner. Of course, Tillerson is hardly blameless. In his brief tenure at Foggy Bottom, he left damage that will take years to undo. This was another one of Trump’s personnel failures: He appointed a secretary of state who looked the part, not one who could act the part.
You would think the chaos that gripped the administration in its early days would have abated by now, but it hasn’t. Look at the Defense Department, which hasn’t had a confirmed secretary in more than six months and is now onto its second acting secretary. Or the Department of Homeland Security, where 59 percent of the top jobs remain empty.
The fallout from Trump’s trip to Korea makes the same point. On Monday morning, national security adviser John Bolton bitterly complained about a New York Times article claiming that the administration was considering dropping denuclearization as a goal with North Korea in favor of a nuclear freeze. “Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK,’” he wrote. Rather than putting the kibosh on the idea, however, Bolton’s tweet suggested that he might have been out of the loop. If so, that would be a delicious irony, because Bolton’s specialty is freezing his rivals out of the policy process.
While the president was meeting Kim, Bolton had been banished to Mongolia. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who was at the demilitarized zone, appears to have become a more influential adviser to Trump than his own national security adviser. After Iran shot down a U.S. drone, Trump followed Carlson’s advice to deescalate rather than Bolton’s advice to strike back. Trump complained on “Meet the Press” that “John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time.”
So Trump thinks his own national security adviser is a warmonger who can’t be trusted to deal with Iran or North Korea. Whose fault is that? Yet appointing a fourth national security adviser in 2½ years would hardly rectify the problem. Only a change of president can fix American foreign policy.