President Trump thinks he knows better than anyone, but not because he actually knows very much. His 2016 campaign was run from the gut, under the explicit rationale that “experts are terrible” and that whatever someone with a degree and years of experience could do in any area of government, he could do better relying on instinct. His White House has conducted itself according to this philosophy, to devastating effect.
From debt to taxes to renewable energy to trade to jobs to infrastructure to defense, the president has declared himself the best informed in all the land. What need, then, for a science adviser — a post Mr. Trump left vacant for 19 months? Why worry if more than a third of senior positions in the Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security have no confirmed appointee? Why not drive out most of the workforce of the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, as the administration did, intentionally, by abruptly moving the agency to the Kansas City region?
The best sort of expert, in Mr. Trump’s view, is the kind with no independent judgment at all. “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition,” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro has said. He continued: “And his intuition is always right in these matters.” When a public servant can’t provide those comfortingly confirming analytics, he risks excoriation by tweet and in person, at best, and removal from his post at worst. The West Wing and the Cabinet are in a constant flux of professionals hired, discarded, hired and discarded again: four chiefs of staff, four national security advisers, five Homeland Security secretaries.
The so-called adults in the room in the early days of this term have left and written books about how unpleasant it was to be in that room. Often it didn’t matter anyway, because this president rarely listens and almost never reads. He has been called “unbriefable.” Only once or twice a week does he bother to listen to the intelligence briefings other presidents received daily, and even then he reportedly interrupts with kooky conspiracy theories, or spends his time marveling over a miniature weapon constructed as a visual aid to hold his wayward attention. He takes the advice not of the most qualified, or even most persuasive, person around him but of the person who manages to sneak in the last word.
The intelligence community has been a particular casualty, being responsible for issuing the verdict the president least wants to hear, or least wants others to know: that Russia helped him in the 2016 election and is working for him again this year. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats got the ax for refusing to obscure that assessment. His acting replacement, Joseph Maguire, was ousted after he had the nerve to defend his aide and election security unit leader Shelby Pierson, who herself had the nerve to tell the House Intelligence Committee that it was the community’s consensus that Russia was trying to help Mr. Trump win again.
Yet a similar contempt for competence and impartiality has seeped through the government these past four years. The Justice Department has suffered, and the State Department, as a former ambassador and former undersecretary said, has seen “the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in ages.” Almost half of the agency’s career ministers left or were forced to leave in the initial two years of Mr. Trump’s tenure. Those who stuck around have been treated with scorn. Marie Yovanovitch, pushed out of her ambassadorial post in Ukraine after a smear campaign by Rudy Giuliani and other presidential henchmen, is only the most prominent example.
The complete lack of interest in performing essential functions well has had immediate costs: When the administration agreed, under pressure, to reunite the children it was keeping in cages at the border with their parents, it couldn’t — because it hadn’t bothered to keep close enough track of the parents to find them. With diplomats who have spent years forging relationships and representing U.S. interests suddenly yanked away from their duties, enemies started to take advantage; China has stepped into the gap in global influence. Allies are ceasing to trust.
Today, Americans are feeling the effects of a government at an utter loss as a disease ravages the country. The problem is bigger than one missing directorate, or one rebuffed scientist: The response to this outbreak required coordination across agencies that have been systematically depleted, because they were full of experts.
While the pandemic represents the most immediately lethal consequence of the know-nothing president’s disdain for know-how, an even greater danger looms. Mr. Trump conducted his campaign crowing that climate change was a “hoax,” and he acted on this inanity by withdrawing the United States from the Paris accord. Meanwhile evidence of the threat to the planet becomes steadily more alarming, especially where the destructive impact of that extra 2 degrees Celsius has already become apparent — algae blooming, lobsters dying, century-old redwood trees burning, unfrozen lakes depriving ice fishermen of their income, homes washing out to sea. Greenhouse gas emissions shot up during Mr. Trump’s tenure after three consecutive years of decrease. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency blithely goes on deregulating; this administration has so far rolled back 100 supposedly burdensome strictures. The revised policies on mercury pollution, automobile emissions, methane leakage and more run counter to research, some of it produced by the EPA’s own advisory board. Four more such years would mean the loss of even more livelihoods and lives than the coronavirus is claiming today.
The contempt for good performance and for facts is devastating to the government. Talented professionals in all sectors, forced to play sycophants, instead are choosing to leave, while the next generation of talent is choosing not to apply. Nine former intelligence chiefs put it just right in The Post this spring after Mr. Trump gutted the National Counterterrorism Center’s leadership of seasoned professionals: This isn’t only about a few respected senior officers and the immediate risk to security posed by their unceremonious dismissal. It’s about the future — about the workers who will calculate that fealty is more important than honesty, and about the “countless more talented young Americans” who “will decide that federal service, indeed public service, is not a worthy calling.”
All these manifestations of deliberate ignorance come together in a disdain for gathering information at all. When his own government produced an assessment that global warming left unaddressed would ravage the U.S. economy, Mr. Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” Maybe to avoid a repeat of this inconvenient news, the EPA has written a rule giving itself permission to ignore good science by restricting the type of research it considers usable. When the Census Bureau was told to remove undocumented immigrants from the head count, then cut the time-intensive process short by a month, it prepared to paint a picture of the country the president wants rather than the country that actually exists. Emblematic is Mr. Trump’s insistence that more covid-19 testing creates more cases. This, of course, isn’t true. More testing would reveal cases where they already exist, making it possible to try to understand the disease’s course and arrest its spread.
But the degradation of data collection serves one obvious purpose: If we don’t gather information, we cannot see the depth of Mr. Trump’s failures. Another term could allow Mr. Trump to complete the demoralization, politicization and destruction of a workforce that was once the envy of the world: the American civil service, health service, Foreign Service and uniformed military. In everything from consumer safety to air quality to life expectancy, the results would be catastrophic. But there would be nobody left to measure them.