Over the weekend, President Trump said his White House was running “so smoothly.” To quote the incomparable foreign policy savant Inigo Montoya, I don’t think that word means what Trump thinks it means.
Let’s review the past week’s events at the National Security Council alone:
- The New York Times reported on “chaotic and anxious days” at the NSC in which “council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them.” Note that this story was reported before national security adviser Michel Flynn stepped down.
- Flynn resigned.
- Bob Harward, the guy Trump wanted to replace Flynn as national security adviser, said thanks but no thanks to the president of the United States. Naturally there are questions about exactly why he declined the position. I think CNN put it best, however: “Harward’s decision not to accept the job also raised eyebrows because of the unspoken military code that when a President calls, service personnel salute and accept the mission.”
- A senior NSC director for Western Hemispheric affairs was dismissed because he “harshly criticized the president and his chief strategist Steve Bannon and railed against the dysfunction paralyzing the Trump White House,” according to Politico’s Eliana Johnson. It’s particularly telling that this guy, who has a colorful history, thinks that the Trump NSC is badly managed.
- Politico’s Bryan Bender and Daniel Lippman have a story in Politico chock-full of depressing anecdotes and anonymous quotes about the mood among NSC staff. Apparently, only the Europe and Middle East directorates are bothering to write briefing memos. Then there’s this quote from a former NSC official describing the current mood: “Right now it is apocalyptic. These are people who have been doing this for years who are professionals and who know how the system works. And now there is this complete lack of competence and understanding of the system and complete lack of desire to learn it, if not outright hostility.”
- Despite provocative actions from North Korea, Russia and Iran while Trump has been president, the NSC has yet to convene a meeting.
Reasonable people can disagree over the meaning of “smoothly,” but anyone who thinks it fits the above description is on some serious medication.
Members of Congress from both parties are sounding somewhat less sanguine about the president’s handling of foreign policy matters. But The Post’s Sean Sullivan and Mike DeBonis got Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker to offer up the GOP mantra in the first month of the Trump administration:
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he takes comfort in a belief that Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hold more orthodox Republican views on Russia and can influence Trump on that front.
That has been the hope of many national security folks. The thing is, I’m increasingly concerned that Mattis and Tillerson will provide minimal checks on Trump. Consider Eli Stokols and Josh Dawsey’s Politico story on how Tillerson, Mattis et al are influencing Trump’s foreign policy:
Even though the administration is less than a month old, both Tillerson and Mattis have been in perpetual cleanup mode, making calls to leaders around the world with far less drama and unpredictability than Trump’s own calls and traveling to assuage the anxieties of key allies in Asia and Europe. Both have spent much of their first weeks in office in other countries, reassuring allies about Trump’s ad hoc approach to foreign policy that is being driven largely by the president’s son-in-law …
Mattis, Tillerson and Pompeo continue to butt heads with the White House over personnel decisions, fighting to pick their own staffs against an administration that has rewarded campaign staff with government positions and remains wary of establishment figures. According to a source close to the CIA director, Pompeo is not happy that Trump, frustrated by leaks from the intelligence community, floated the idea of appointing a hedge funder and political supporter, Stephen Feinberg, to investigate his agency.
There’s a vicious cycle at work here. The more that Trump goes off the reservation about some foreign policy issue, the more that Tillerson, Mattis et al have to talk down panicked allies. The more attention that these Cabinet officials devote to putting out Trump’s rhetorical fires abroad, the less time they have to firefight at home.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Trump has fallen way behind at appointing deputy secretaries and undersecretaries in most key Cabinet departments. According to The Post’s appointment tracker, Trump is particularly behind on the national security positions. The White House likes to blame Congress for this, but Congress can’t be blamed if the administration hasn’t named anyone yet — and they haven’t.
The result is a fair amount of confusion. NATO allies don’t know what to believe: what Vice President Pence tells them directly or what Trump tells his base in a Florida campaign event. Even countries like Russia appear to be genuinely flummoxed about U.S. policy going forward. As former director of policy planning Jon Finer concludes, this is, um, problematic:
Right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.
Trump promised to make America safe again. No one who reads all the links above feels safer than they did a month ago.