Bert Lance, President Jimmy Carter’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, managed fewer than nine months in that post before resigning. Mack McLarty , President Bill Clinton’s first White House chief of staff, was twice as successful as Lance, if success is measured by tenure. McLarty lasted 14 months in the seat Reince Priebus occupies today.
President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, didn’t make it a month. Still, compared with failed nominees John Tower (George H.W. Bush’s first choice for defense secretary), Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood (Clinton’s first and second choices for attorney general), and now my friend and the latest victim of Beltway ritual sacrifice, Andrew Puzder, Flynn’s imprint on actual executive branch history seems monumental.
After all, Flynn helped Trump assemble an impressive national security team that includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the nominee for director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. Flynn left his mark, even if his quick exit was uncomfortable for all and mysterious to most. He is a highly respected warrior, and his battlefield gifts are unquestioned, but those skill sets don’t always transition well to the political world.
Is his departure a crisis for the Trump presidency? One greater or smaller than the enjoined executive order on immigration? Will either episode matter much when the histories of the Trump years pile up in a decade or so? Or will both — as I suspect — pale in comparison to the nomination and expected confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court?
Some are very worried. “We have allies that are just scared to death,” former secretary of state James Baker has noted, referring to some of Trump’s early rhetoric and unpredictable foreign policy moves. Baker is the wise old hand’s wise old hand. Only former White House counsel Fred Fielding booking a long-term vacation in New Zealand would be more disconcerting to the permanent class. But is the concern of serious people — much less the hysteria of the long-overlooked-but-eager-for-relevance, or the bayings of the defeated-looking-for-revenge — real or just nervousness at something completely new?
History isn’t much help in judging early episodes. Does anything George W. Bush did in his first nine months before 9/11 matter much compared with what followed that awful day?
Justice Robert Jackson, in his famous opinion in the case that rejected President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize control of the steel industry during the Korean War, warned that precedents and history just don’t tell us much sometimes.
“That comprehensive and undefined presidential powers hold both practical advantages and grave dangers for the country will impress anyone who has served as legal advisor to a President in time of transition and public anxiety,” Jackson wrote in 1952’s Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer.
“A judge, like an executive adviser” — and we should note pundits, too — “may be surprised at the poverty of really useful and unambiguous authority applicable to concrete problems of executive power as they actually present themselves,” Jackson almost muttered in his concurring opinion denying Truman the power he sought. “Just what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.”
Judgments about Trump’s presidency based on his first month in the Oval Office are by definition premature, and history gives us few useful precedents for an era that moves at the speed this one does. Recall the June 7, 1993, Time Magazine cover of a tiny Bill Clinton, a Clinton who would in fact loom large in many ways over the next quarter century, accompanied by the headline “The Incredible Shrinking President.” He had “shrunk,” in some eyes, in the first five months of what would become an eight-year presidency, but he would grow very large indeed, for good or ill, in the next 91.
So we have seen it all before, the early successes and stumbles, but what is new is the nearly ubiquitous, 24/7 breathlessness of many in the media. We are a bunch of alarmists generally, but the crying-wolf club has never been this numerous. Caught flat-footed by a surprise in November, many are still in the campaign mode they accuse Trump of never leaving. Perhaps nobody has, except some of the wisest heads in the administration.
It’s been a news-filled month, but other than the change coming to the Supreme Court — one that assures stability of precedents, not changes — nothing has occurred to justify hysteria or early proclamations of sweeping victories ahead. What a surprise that a divided country has produced a divided opinion of the victor in a divisive election.
The jury’s out, friends, and will be for a long time, except as to the steady hands at the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, Langley, DHS and Justice, the exceptional nominee to the highest court, and the promise of big changes in the most burdensome reaches of the vast administrative state. It’s a good start in the eyes of most of those who supported the president’s election, as hard as some in the Manhattan-Beltway media elite might find to believe.