Fewer than a hundred days into the Trump administration, there are two, actually three, competing narratives about how the government is being run. The first narrative is the Trump administration’s claim that things are running so, so smoothly. A brief glance at the poll numbers suggests that not many people are buying this, so we can discard it quickly.
The second narrative, made by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board among many others, is that America’s system of checks and balances turns out to be working pretty well. President Trump’s more egregious moves have been checked by federal courts and even by the court of public opinion at times. A historically unpopular and costly health-care bill did not pass the House of Representatives, which seems like the right outcome. Irresponsible foreign policy statements made by the president during the transition have been walked back. Efforts by the Trump White House to deny or scuttle investigations into foreign meddling into the election have resulted in congressional investigations, pushback by the intelligence community and recusals by Trump appointees. The administration successfully managed to pick a Supreme Court nominee who is not a laughingstock.
There’s a lot to this argument. But if I may, I’d like to proffer just a sampling of the news stories that have broken in the past 24 hours to suggest a third and more troubling narrative: the president and his acolytes are beclowning the American state.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the following:
1) Shane Harris, Carol Lee, and Julian Barnes, “Mike Flynn Offers to Testify in Exchange for Immunity,” Wall Street Journal.
Mike Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, has told the Federal Bureau of Investigation and congressional officials investigating the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia that he is willing to be interviewed in exchange for a grant of immunity from prosecution, according to officials with knowledge of the matter.
Let’s just stop to appreciate the fact that stories like these normally appear in year seven of an administration, not day 70.
The granting of immunity does not automatically mean that the person has committed a felony. But as a former high-ranking national security official once put it, “When you are given immunity, that means you probably committed a crime.” That former high-ranking national security official was Michael Flynn in the fall of 2016.
2) Shane Goldmacher, Matthew Nussbaum, Tara Palmeri, and Alex Isenstadt, “White House shuffles West Wing staff after health bill collapse,” Politico.
Less than a week after suffering a stinging defeat on health care legislation, President Donald Trump shook up his West Wing staff on Thursday, dispatching one of his top aides to shore up an outside political group that the White House believes failed to support Trump’s agenda at a critical juncture.
It’s worth noting that, less than a hundred days into the Trump administration, the White House has sent its first national security adviser packing, a few lower-level NSC staffers have been forced out, a key communications official, and now Packer — who is leaving to shore up a listing outside political group.
So who’s left to mind the store? I’m glad you asked.
3) Vanessa Williams, “Omarosa Manigault is in Trump’s White House because of her loyalty. But what is she doing there?” Washington Post.
If her devotion explains how Manigault wound up in Trump’s White House as the highest-ranking African American in the West Wing, it is far less easy to explain exactly what she’s doing there. Some African American political insiders already have concluded that she is ineffective, and she is routinely derided on social media as simply providing cover for a president deeply unpopular with African Americans. Some black Republicans were particularly critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the HBCU initiative, which included a White House meeting with the school officials that some viewed as little more than a photo op for the president …
Armstrong Williams, another longtime Republican strategist and close adviser to [Ben] Carson, said Manigault’s influence goes beyond “the so-called black agenda.” He said Manigault has input on press secretary Sean Spicer’s daily briefings and that “she carries a lot of weight” with candidates seeking ambassadorships.
Just so I’m clear on this: aspiring ambassadors need to develop good ties with Omarosa Manigault?
As Trump’s coterie of White House advisers has shrunk, others will be shouldering more responsibilities. Which leads us to …
4) Emma Loop, “White House Sends Jared Kushner To Meet With Top Senators On Improving The Criminal Justice System,” BuzzFeed.
Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump, has been dispatched by the White House to discuss criminal justice reform issues with key senators, BuzzFeed News has learned. Kushner met with Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin on Capitol Hill Thursday.
Again, let’s just stop for a second and consider the fact that the person described by himself as “first among equals” in the White House has been given the lead on U.S. relations with Canada, Mexico, China and the Middle East, has also been asked to run a White House Office of American Innovation, and will now also apparently be running point on improving the criminal justice system. This is a person whose prior background suggests no particular competence in any of these areas of government. His only qualification for White House service appears to be that he married well.
You would think that the foreign policy issues could be better handled by the secretary of state. You would think that, but …
5) Anne Gearan and Carol Morello, “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spends his first weeks isolated from an anxious bureaucracy,” Washington Post.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes a private elevator to his palatial office on the seventh floor of the State Department building, where sightings of him are rare on the floors below.
On many days, he blocks out several hours on his schedule as “reading time,” when he is cloistered in his office poring over the memos he prefers ahead of in-person meetings.
Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.
On his first three foreign trips, Tillerson skipped visits with State Department employees and their families, embassy stops that were standard morale-boosters under other secretaries of state.
Nothing to see here, just someone whose primary job in government is to talk to other people being averse to … talking to other people. Which is, to be fair, consistent with everything we have learned about Tillerson to date.
What’s breathtaking about this list is that I haven’t even gotten to the White House officials leaking information to Devin Nunes or Nunes lying about his sources to reporters or the president’s moronic tweets.
And, to repeat myself, all of this has happened in the last day. All new administrations make mistakes and have staff who don’t work out. The pace of errors in this administration, however, is unprecedented.
No wonder Michael Gerson’s assessment of this administration’s performance is, “a pretty bad combination: empty, easily distracted, vindictive, shallow, impatient, incompetent and morally small. This is not the profile of a governing party.” No wonder Peggy Noonan has concluded:
Looking at the administration 70 days in, things do not, in these areas, look promising. There’s too much gravitational pull to the president’s accumulated mistakes.
His stupid tweets have now resulted in the Russia probe. That will help opioid addicts in Ohio. This Thursday he may have launched a Republican civil war: The Freedom Caucus had better “get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & the Dems, in 2018!” That will help promote harmony. His staff has failed to absorb the obvious fact that Mr. Trump was so outsized, colorful, and freakish a character that their primary job, and an easy one it was, was to be the opposite — sober, low-key, reassuring. Instead they seemed to compete with him for outlandishness …
Crisis reveals the character, the essential nature of a White House. Seventy days in, that is my worry.
The American system of government has checked Trump’s worst impulses. He has so many bad instincts, however, that not all of them will get checked. The burn rate of his staff is extraordinarily high, and there is no evidence that his remaining acolytes really know how to govern. We are 70 days into an administration that has nearly 1,400 more days in office. Think of the screw-ups that await us.
Last month Trump’s chief political strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, told CPAC that he was engaged in a daily fight for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He might very well succeed in that fight — not through cunning, but through epic levels of incompetence.