The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts was working hard in the federal government during the changeover between the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations. Observing that transition was a fascinating anthropological moment.
It would be safe to say that most of the Bush appointees came in thinking that the Clinton administration had screwed up 90 percent of policy and that the permanent bureaucracy was allied against them. Eventually, however, most of them learned two basic facts. First, on 90 percent of policy, the status quo was the status quo for a very good political or strategic reason. Second, the permanent bureaucracy was staffed with very smart people who would improve the implementation of any sensible policy shift if they were properly consulted. Different appointees took different lengths of time to reach these conclusions, but they usually got there.
And now we come to the mind-set of Trump administration appointees. Earlier this week we had Kellyanne Conway suggest that the Obama administration could have been monitoring Trump Tower via the microwave oven. Conway isn’t alone in this kind of conspiracy theorizing among Trump administration appointees. If this Politico story by Alex Isenstadt and Kenneth Vogel is any guide, they’ve actually become more, not less paranoid during their short time in power:
A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies — inside their own government.
In interviews, nearly a dozen White House aides and federal agency staffers described a litany of suspicions: that rival factions in the administration are trying to embarrass them, that civil servants opposed to President Donald Trump are trying to undermine him, and even that a “deep state” of career military and intelligence officials is out to destroy them …
It’s an environment of fear that has hamstrung the routine functioning of the executive branch. Senior advisers are spending much of their time trying to protect turf, key positions have remained vacant due to a reluctance to hire people deemed insufficiently loyal, and Trump’s ambitious agenda has been eclipsed by headlines surrounding his unproven claim that former President Barack Obama tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
One senior administration aide, who like most others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the degree of suspicion had created a toxicity that is unsustainable.
That last word is the key one. The effect of this degree of paranoia among political staffers is debilitating to any kind of successful policy implementation. To put it bluntly, they can’t rely on experts to check their work. The first attempt at an immigration ban highlighted the effects of such a narrow policy shop: badly drafted executive orders, confusing implementation, and eventually, rejection by the judicial branch. The Justice Department had to rely on a single lawyer to make the case for the revised immigration ban in court cases in Maryland and Hawaii.
The Trump White House could respond to this in one of a few ways. First, they could persist in their paranoia. This would lead to a narrow coterie of officials trying to run the government amid massive leaking and bureaucratic resistance. If this is their standard operating procedure, they’re going to screw up repeatedly. This will lead to more bad press, which will lad to more leaks trying to shift the blame to others, which will only increase the paranoia further. As feedback loops go, it’s a really bad one.Eventually, however, through attrition, learning, and staffing up, they will approach basic competency.
Second, they could try to outsource any significant policy plans to Congress and let them draft the legislation. Of course, if the American Health Care Act is any guide, it won’t be terribly popular either.
Third, they can learn that the bureaucracy isn’t necessarily their enemy and stop acting all paranoid. The dirty truth, however, is that power is so balkanized in the Trump administration that even the Trump appointees don’t trust each other. Given the personnel machinations going on right now, many Trump staffers have good reasons to be fearful.
My money is on paranoia winning the day. Which means we are in for at least a year of crazy policymaking, following by one of two things: mass resignations, or a truly America First bureaucracy.