But in less visible corners, Trump is coming to understand how to use the bureaucracy to his ends. We might welcome such a learning curve in most presidents, because most presidents want government to serve the public good, as they see it.
Trump’s primary motivations are spite, self-aggrandizement and greed. The checks on his abuse are rapidly degrading. The lesson he learned from impeachment is that he can get away with anything — and across the government he is acting accordingly.
When Trump felt peeved at New York earlier this year, he knocked the state off the Trusted Travelers list, making life inconvenient for many New Yorkers. (It has since been restored.)
In earlier years, someone — a White House chief of staff, an official in the Department of Homeland Security — might have stalled or dissuaded him. Now he has a DHS chief willing to provide a false rationale (as the government admitted in court last month) to enable this misuse of authority.
When Twitter put a fact-checking label on one of Trump’s lies — in this case, about mail-in voting — the president retaliated by ordering the Justice Department to withhold advertising from platforms that don’t knuckle under and telling the Federal Communications Commission to rewrite the rules for platforms he doesn’t like.
This time, the president did get a brushback, albeit a polite one, from a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission. Michael O’Rielly obliquely called out the president’s orders for what they are: an attack on the First Amendment.
Trump, who had nominated O’Rielly to serve another term on the FCC, responded by withdrawing the renomination.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel irritated Trump — declining to sign on to Trump’s harebrained scheme to include Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Group of Seven meeting — Trump retaliated by ordering the withdrawal of half of America’s troops from Germany. If he were still defense secretary, Jim Mattis might have questioned the move, noting that it would only help Russia and hurt the West. But Trump no longer tolerates senior officials who will stand up for what is right.
After repeated, vile — and, it probably doesn’t need saying, false — attacks on the Voice of America, Trump finally managed to install a lackey to run its parent agency. The new director, Michael Pack, promptly fired the qualified heads of several U.S. broadcasting networks and refused to renew visas for qualified, professional journalists.
Is he laying the groundwork to turn VOA into a Kremlin-style propaganda outlet? That’s not yet clear. What is clear, as Trump reaches into the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. attorney offices and beyond, is that opposition is being swept away.
Young acolytes in the White House personnel office are purging officials throughout the government who aren’t sufficiently loyal. They are plenty loyal to the United States, that is, but insufficiently fervent about Trump.
Some of the departures, such as Alexander Vindman’s, have been well documented. Others are happening out of sight.
And because Trump has simultaneously been purging independent inspectors general, who are supposed to keep an eye on malfeasance like this, many of these purges will remain out of sight. So, most likely, will many instances of “burrowing”: installing hacks in jobs that are meant to be apolitical.
At every step of Trump’s education, Republican senators have been his enablers.
For a long time, they delayed Pack’s confirmation, though many knew he was not fit for the job. Eventually they gave in.
Recently, a few summoned the courage to join Democrats and deny confirmation to an anti-Muslim bigot whom Trump had nominated to a senior Pentagon position. Trump promptly installed him in an acting role performing the same duties — and we heard not a peep from the Article I branch.
Some of them murmur objections when an inspector general is fired, or troops are withdrawn, or Trump inserts a provision in the economic rescue bill to safeguard profits at the Trump International Hotel. But they never use their powers — whether of investigation or appropriation — to interfere.
Between now and January, Trump may not have time to rewrite the rules for Twitter, create his version of Russia Today or withdraw troops from every allied nation that annoys him.
But he is learning what he can do. He has cowed dissenters in Congress, swept aside aides of stature or independence, purged and demoralized career officials, and installed judges who will be less inclined to stop him. If he wins a second term, do not expect his incompetence to save us.