The dawn of the Trump administration would be a time of extraordinary personal and professional torment for them; that they’d be asked to make ethically, and legally, dubious decisions while ignoring facts and evidence on basic issues to fit the president’s whims; that they would be vilified as “Obama holdovers” and treated like an enemy within, to the point where some of their lives were threatened; that they’d grow so paranoid they would seek “safe spaces” to speak to each other, use encrypted apps to talk to their mothers, and go on documentation sprees to protect themselves and inform history; that at least one career staffer would cry on the way home from work every night; and that another would call Trump a “dumpster fire” in a farewell message.
The story contains an abundance of spicy details, including the Platonic ideal of a paragraph about Sebastian Gorka.
For the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts, however, there was one particular anecdote worth highlighting (which was first reported by Mic’s Jake Horowitz in 2017). In essence, two friends of Donald Trump Jr. were granted access to NSC offices to present what Toosi characterizes as “a 10-point plan for how the United States could turn Venezuela’s strongman president, Nicolás Maduro, into a U.S. stooge.” Needless to say, the plan did not make a great deal of sense but would have enriched the two Trump associates had it been implemented. As Toosi further reports, their visit “so rattled the NSC staffers that they immediately reported it to the institution’s legal officers.”
The plan went nowhere, but this episode highlights something important about a solid foreign policymaking process. An underappreciated aspect of a good process staffed with experts, advisers and lawyers is that it can kill stupid foreign policy ideas. These are usually unsung victories, because stupid ideas like the one involving Maduro should never see the light of day. A good process should enable a president to execute their policy preferences, but it should also help them avoid shooting U.S. national security in the foot.
Some politicos who dislike the Blob are skeptical of such an argument. Doug Stafford, who works for Rand Paul, tweeted that, “the national security apparatus, the meetings, the layers of career folks who put in the bureaucracy — they are what largely ensures that little changes between Presidents. [Trump] wasn’t and isn’t willing to accept that. ... There is good and bad with this Presidents foreign policy. But the fact that the holdover deep state isn’t making it isn’t one of them.”
There are three responses to this argument. Wait, actually, there are four. The first and simplest argument is that the “deep state” moniker is a sign of poor conspiracy theorizing and would best be dropped. Just call it the “national security bureaucracy,” which is certainly not a term of affection but is a hell of a lot more accurate and less loaded than “deep state.”
The second response is that a good process does not stifle change; it makes sure that shifts in policy are not executed like a 200 mile-per-hour U-turn. It is not a coincidence that the administration’s best foreign policy move — the campaign against the Islamic State — did not come on a presidential whim. Furthermore, Trump boosters should be big fans of a quality process — otherwise, the next president will be able to erase almost all of Trump’s foreign policy legacy with a few executive orders.
The third point is that canny bureaucratic operators can exploit a bad process far more than a good one. According to Toosi, John Bolton has scuttled the mechanisms that H.R. McMaster put in place. The result is fewer Principals Committee meetings and little staff consultation. Or, as one former NSC staffer put it to Toosi, “The outcome now is an NSC of one: Bolton.” Any administration in which the savviest bureaucratic operator is John Bolton is an administration that will produce dangerous foreign policy outcomes.
This leads to the most important response: In the areas where Trump has executed the greatest foreign policy discretion, the results have been at best truthful hyperbole and at worst a foreign policy that rests on God-awful assumptions. Consider two examples. The first, reported by the New York Times’s Julian Barnes and Michael Schmidt, shows how the intelligence community has adapted to Trump. According to their story, “as Mr. Trump’s recent criticism of the intelligence chiefs on Twitter demonstrated, he is still frustrated. That is partially because many of his world views are strongly held. He has shown little willingness, over the long term, to alter those opinions.”
To be clear, intelligence agencies do not offer policy recommendations; they offer analyses of what is actually happening. If Trump resisted these factual assessments when they disagreed with his gut, that would be the human thing to do. Rejecting them entirely is the sign of someone way too secure in their own ignorance.
This leads to the last area where Trump has exercised his authority in foreign policy: the trade wars. The results to date have been worse than meager; they have been costly to the U.S. economy. According to a Center for Economic Policy Research paper, trade wars are neither good nor easy to win:
Economists have long argued that there are real income losses from import protection. Using the evidence to date from the 2018 trade war, we find empirical support for these arguments. We estimate the cumulative deadweight welfare cost (reduction in real income) from the U.S. tariffs to be around $6.9 billion during the first 11 months of 2018, with an additional cost of $12.3 billion to domestic consumers and importers in the form of tariff revenue transferred to the government. The deadweight welfare costs alone reached $1.4 billion per month by November of 2018.... We find that the U.S. tariffs were almost completely passed through into U.S. domestic prices, so that the entire incidence of the tariffs fell on domestic consumers and importers up to now, with no impact so far on the prices received by foreign exporters. We also find that U.S. producers responded to reduced import competition by raising their prices.
This doesn’t include the billions in federal handouts to farmers negatively affected by the trade wars, payments that exceed any tariff revenue. All of this for a proposed trade deal, that, if reports are accurate, would amount to little more than a return to the 2017 status quo.
The good thing about a policymaking process is that it can weed out God-awful foreign policy ideas. The bad is that it cannot correct for a president’s misbegotten assumptions. The ugly is that Americans are paying the price for a set of foreign policies that has accomplished next to nothing.